The Limerick “pogrom”: Creating Jewish victimhood

A very curious article has appeared in the March 14th edition of the UK Daily Mail (“Goldman Sachs’ touch of darkness“), a comment on Greg Smith’s recent indictment of the Goldman Sachs’ culture of greed and client exploitation. The article in question was written by one Alex Brummer, a journalist who writes for both the Daily Mail and the London-based Jewish Chronicle. Brummer’s specialty, it seems, is economic matters and he has a number of strange points to make in relation to the recent revelations that Goldman Sachs has been referring to its clients as “muppets” for some time.  The article begins by stating that the bank has been “sapped of its confidence” following a series of scandals “during and after the great financial panic,” under the chairmanship of Lloyd Blankfein.

If that doesn’t pull at your heartstrings, Brummer goes on to state that “the most enduring image of Blankfein era is that of the great, vampire squid drawn in an excoriating article in Rolling Stone magazine in 2010. What Rolling Stone does not seem to have realised is that this was a rerun of a notoriously anti-Semitic campaign by the late 19th-century polemicist ‘Coin’ Harvey against the Rothschild family. Whatever mistakes Blankfein and Goldman may have made, it does not deserve that.” (Matt Taibbi’s actual words, from his article “The Great American Bubble Machine: From tech stocks to high gas prices, Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression“:  “The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

The crimes of Goldman Sachs include promoting mortgage-backed security investments created by people whom Goldman knew were betting against them, “seeking to assist the Greek government in masking its levels of borrowing in an effort to circumvent euroland deficit rules,” and dumping “billions of dollars of toxic sub-prime mortgage debt on the markets when it knew it to be worthless.” But Brummer frames these crimes as “mistakes”—more like adolescent indiscretions than real crimes, and is horrified that someone like Taibbi would link  Goldman Sachs’ behavior to classic anti-Jewish imagery. (The JTA reminds us how to think about Jews and financial crimes by citing Michael Kinsley’s exculpatory “How to think about: Jewish Bankers “; Kevin MacDonald replies:  “Does Jewish financial misbehavior have anything to do with being Jewish?“).

The overriding opinion expressed in Brummer’s article is that Goldman Sachs did a few naughty things, but is now “looking in on itself and for a new, more ethical model,” and has since become the victim of anti-Semitic propaganda. The article is a classic example of Jewish strategies which employ the adoption of Jewish victimhood in order to mask Jewish crime or misbehavior. It recalls to my memory an obscure and little known incident – the so-called “Limerick Pogrom.”

Although Jewish settlements had developed in the provinces of Britain and Ireland since the readmission of the Jews in 1656, by the middle of the nineteenth century most of these communities remained small, tightly organised, and inconspicuous. They were rarely, if ever, troubled by their non-Jewish neighbours. The membership of these communities outside London tended to consist of moderately wealthy traders in items such as furs, jewelry, and other imported luxury goods. However, at the dawn of the twentieth-century, many of these communities were transformed by the immigration of large numbers of Jews from Eastern Europe who in varying degrees claimed to be fleeing persecution in Russia, or seeking new economic opportunities. While the majority of these new immigrants settled in London or migrated onwards to the United States, a significant number also fanned out across Britain, or made their way to Ireland.

The draw of new economic opportunities led to the establishment of small communities of Jews in areas that had never previously had Jewish inhabitants. The scale of Jewish immigration, and the entirely alien appearance, language and culture of the newcomers led to calls from some non-Jewish quarters to limit the number of those permitted entry to the country, and the agitation of these ‘restrictionists’ for an ‘Aliens Act’ was a major source of political tension, and strained inter-communal relations throughout the first decade of the twentieth century.

Curiously, despite the heavy concentration of Jewish settlement in London, and the focus of restrictionist propagandists on that city, the only incidents of populist action in the British Isles directed against Jews during the peak immigration period (1880–1911) occurred outside England, in precisely those areas which had hitherto been free of Jews — Limerick, Ireland (1904), and South Wales (1911). Both have gone down in ‘history’ as unprovoked atrocities committed against small communities of blameless and defenceless Jews. This essay seeks to examine the first of these events, in an effort to better understand its true origins and the process by which it was transformed and then utilized to suit Jewish communal interests. The context of anti-Jewish action in Limerick, and the absence of any form of ‘irrational’ religious and racial anti-Semitism in fostering these incidents will also be examined, in an effort to challenge the received wisdom that Jews have historically played little or no role in provoking anti-Semitism.

We should begin with a careful and dispassionate analysis of the incidents which comprised what became known as the “Limerick Pogrom.’ On January 11 1904 Father John Creagh, a Redemptorist priest and Director of the Arch-Confraternity of Limerick, addressed his congregation on what he viewed as a new and pressing problem. The new Jewish merchants who had come to inhabit the city, argued Creagh, had by their business dealings shown themselves to be “leeches,” who were sucking the blood of the Irish by overcharging the poor. His attention to the matter, stated Creagh, had been drawn by a large number of his parishioners, and the problem had reached disastrous proportions. Shortly thereafter, a large crowd had gathered in the Jewish Quarter of the city, known popularly as ‘Little Jerusalem,’ before being quickly dispersed by the Royal Irish Constabulary. No damage or violence was reported.

During his sermon the following week, on January 18, Creagh reasserted his belief that the Jews of Limerick were proving to be a destructive and alien force in the life of the community. He told those present that “the Jews have proven themselves to be the enemies of every country in Europe, and every country has to defend themselves against them.” Following this second sermon, Creagh resolved to organize an economic boycott of Limerick’s Jews. The boycott would last four months, and would result in the departure from the city of the vast majority of its Jews, including its Rabbi. The only incidence of violence during these four months occurred on the morning of April 4th. Three Jews were walking down a side street when a fifteen-year-old youth named John Raleigh threw a small stone, hitting one of them, Elias Bere Levin, the city’s Rabbi. Levin pressed charges against the boy, resulting in Raleigh serving one month in Mountjoy Jail. One may consider these facts: a sermon, a non-violent demonstration, an economic boycott against traders considered to be immoral, and a small stone thrown by a youth, and query their significance. Yet these incidents were embellished then, and have continued to be embellished, to such an extent that the incident has become known as the ‘Limerick Pogrom.’ This essay will now consider how and why.

It is perhaps worth beginning by stressing the minimal role played by religious anti-Semitism in fostering any of the incidents under examination. Admittedly, the Limerick action was precipitated by the sermons of Father Creagh. However, while Creagh occasionally made allusions to the Blood Libel, religious motifs are absent from his arguments. In fact, economic and social grievances were consistently at the core of his addresses. In his first sermon on the issue Creagh stated that

The Jews came to Limerick apparently the most miserable tribe imaginable…but now they had enriched themselves, and could boast of considerable property in the city. Their rags have been exchanged for silk. They have wormed themselves into every form of business. They are in the furniture trade, the mineral water trade, the milk trade, the drapery trade… and traded even under Irish names.

When Michael Davitt, a leading Irish Nationalist and labor leader, publicly expressed his opposition to events in Limerick, Creagh responded with an economic defence of actions against Jews in the city. Creagh argued that if Davitt

were here to see the curse brought upon the poor by the Jewish trade, if he were to see the robbery that is going on by the weekly installment system of the Jews, and the exorbitant prices demanded for wretched goods, if he were here to see the misery and strife caused in the households by the dealings of the woman of the home with the Jews…he might think that they were as bad an evil to Ireland as English landlordism and over-taxation.

Prominent Irish economist Cormac Ó Gráda argues in his Princeton-published socio-economic history of Irish Jewry that the Limerick outbreak was “heavily economic in content,” and did not involve “the destruction of Jewish religious or communal property.” Other contemporary supporters of the boycott stressed that their actions were not driven by religious antipathy, and invoked a range of other motives for supporting measures against Limerick’s Jews. The Nationalist organ The United Irishman, placed Jewish immigration in the context of Irish emigration, asking: “Has Ireland gained or lost by the exchange?” Alarm at the level of difference between Irishman and Jew, devoid of specific prejudice is in evidence in the United Irishman’s assertion that, in the place of the “stalwart men and bright-eyed women of our race…we are getting strange people, alien to us in thought, alien to us in sympathy, from Russia, Poland, Germany and Austria — people who came to live amongst us, but who never became of us.”

By far the most prominent explanation employed by supporters of the boycott was the assertion that it was retaliation against harmful, usurious trading methods which were alleged to be widespread among the Jewish merchants of Limerick. In particular, Jewish traders were accused of preying on housewives, abandoned by husbands who had left to take part in the Boer War — a conflict in which Jewish interests played a prominent role. These women were offered the immediate necessities of life — quick cash, clothing for children etc., but at appalling rates of interest. The hardship of the community and the rapid rise of the town’s Jews, which was built on this hardship, was the central cause of friction. Citizens recalled feeling jealous as they looked on at increasingly ostentatious Jewish weddings (The Spectator, Oct. 11th 1997).

Tensions reached boiling point in late January 1904, when Father Creagh urged his parishioners to cease making payments to Jewish traders. Unable to make a living without these payments, and reluctant to take on other means of employment, the Jewish Chronicle reported that Limerick’s Jews were “waiting, terrified in their homes, almost starving.” Reference was made to the fact that these Jews had not long “escaped the Cossacks.” There was little reference to the Jewish financial abuse of the local Irish, that the Irish too were starving, or that they had often sat terrified in their homes, awaiting the court notice which would enforce the payment of crippling levels of interest.

The story quickly became a piece of fiction, with Jews in the victim role and the citizens of Limerick in the role of rampaging beasts. Unsubstantiated claims were made that the mob was “drunken”, and that “if they walked down the streets they were beaten.” Organised Jewry in Britain ensured that the boycott issue was raised in Parliament. The Board of Deputies of British Jews even put pressure on the lay leader of British Catholics, the Duke of Norfolk to intervene to prevent a “massacre.”

Irish journalists who could see with their own eyes the situation as it truly existed were quick to jump to Creagh’s defense. Dublin journalist and leading Irish Nationalist, Arthur Griffith was blunt in his assertions that the boycott was only directed against the trading methods of the Jews, that the reference to ritual murder was taken out of context and that Creagh’s object was noble. The financial motivation for the boycott and its non-violent nature was such that even the London Times lent its support to the movement by publishing a letter supporting the anti-Jewish drive on April 4th. A number of English people sent moral support to the activists through the correspondence columns of the Limerick Leader.

The Jewish campaign to be acknowledged as the “real” victims carried on unashamedly, irrespective of the fact that no synagogue was destroyed, that there was no destruction of Jewish religious or communal property, or that there were no fatalities.

The boycott quickly took its toll on the Jews. One by one they began to leave Limerick, heading mostly for England. Max Bland, a grocer, one of their leaders, and the rabbi Elias Levin put out feelers to re-establish harmonious relations but were impolitely rebuffed. The boycott continued until October, by which time only half a dozen Jewish families remained in Limerick.

The incident quickly became known as the “Limerick Pogrom,” and false accusations about the nature of the incident were perpetuated in subsequent years by Jewish journalists and historians, who repeated the unsubstantiated accounts of the Jewish Chronicle, smearing Limerick’s citizens with an unwarranted label, and ignoring the circumstances which led to the boycott. It therefore came to be remembered as an example of Jewish victimhood. Only with the recent scholarship of highly respected non-Jewish economic historians and journalists such as Cormac Ó Gráda  has some revision of the incident taken place, and some balance been restored to representations of the actions of the folk of Limerick. This process reached something of a climax when the Israeli ambassador to Ireland, Boaz Modai, admitted to an Irish audience in 2010 that “I think it is a bit over-portrayed, meaning that, usually if you look up the word pogrom it is used in relation to slaughter and being killed. This is what happened in many other places in Europe, but this is not what happened here. There was a kind of a boycott against Jewish merchandise for a while, but that’s not a pogrom.”

Bear this tale in mind the next time you are urged to feel sorry for Goldman Sachs, now “sapped of its confidence,” and the victim of anti-Semitic propaganda, and God help any young boys caught throwing stones at a Goldman Sachs office.

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