Black and White and Dominant

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The “Lower” Jews, Out of England – February 21, 1891 (Page 80)

In its descriptions of Jewry, a group Black and White turns its eye towards three times in its first five months, the journal speaks with pitying condescension and endless nationalistic fervor. This three-page story on Russian Jews defines its subject as the “lower Jewish classes.” The language here suggests not just a focus on Jews who happen to be poor, but also suggests that all the “Jewish classes” as inferior (after all, these Jews are engaged in business transactions, so they belong to a middle or lower-middle class). The article’s illustrations quietly pander to stereotype: men are shown arguing within “A Business Proposition” and “A Question of Quality,” implying miserliness and commercial deceit. Strangely, an image that simply shows a Jewish elder is gratuitously labeled “The Head of a Russian Jew,” as if the old man were a zoological or ethnographic specimen (italics mine). As John McBratney suggests, the focus on heads in late-Victorian phrenology and criminology was used to demonize non-British (and non-middle class) subjects (McBratney 155). 

The text here is written by a Reverend (“The Rev. S. Singer”), a further reminder that the story’s subject exists beyond the boundaries of traditional Christian England. His article shows “infinite pity and indignation” for the Russian Jew, regretting that he is inherently “taint(ed),” and treated as a “foreigner” in Russia. Just as the story on Corfu equates British influence with tolerance, Singer here compares contemporary Russia to “England of the twelfth (century),” implying that Britain had since evolved towards equality.

Yet without relying on explicit xenophobia or anti-Semitism, the article manages to be condescending to both Jews and Russians while feigning to defend the former against the latter. Here and elsewhere, couched bigotry stirs a sense of dispassionate reasonableness that inflates the journal’s mainstream British identity without jeopardizing its integrity. Thus Black and White maintains its distance from these “lower” Jews in spite of claiming pity for Jewish isolation: only a month later the journal critiques a chronicle of Jewry as “distinctly a book written by a Jew for Jews” (4 April).

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