Victorian Jews through British Eyes, by Anne and Roger Cowen. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press/The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. 196 pp. Illustrated. $45. For Britain's Jews, the Victorian age was a period of gradual progress, increasing acceptance, and - in some cases - assimilation. After years of obstruction, Parliament finally passed the Oaths Bill, relieving duly elected Jewish members of the obligation to swear their oaths ``on the true faith of a Christian.'' Benjamin Disraeli, baptized a Christian but romantically proud of his Hebraic roots, became the first (ethnic) Jew to serve as prime minister. But prejudice, ridicule, and xenophobia were also widespread, often so deeply woven into the social fabric as to be taken for granted.
This collection of 150 pictures (engravings, sketches, cartoons), along with captions, verses, and full-length articles, has been culled from the illustrated magazines that flourished throughout Victoria's reign. These included Punch, The Graphic, The Illustrated London News, and the Illustrated Times. The material is arranged by topic: early attitudes toward Jews; coverage of prominent Jews, like the Rothschilds, Sassoons, and Montefiores; portraits of the (British) Jewish way of life; stories connected with Jewish immigration; reports on Jews in foreign lands; a final section devoted to the Jews as a subject in art.
The editors present a broad range of perspectives and responses, from early stereotypes of Jews as shifty clothes peddlers to accurate reports on Jewish religious services and respectful accounts of Jewish charities and of philanthropists like Sir Moses Montefiore. There are satiric cuts at Jewish ``extravagance'' and breathless accounts of the glamour of a Rothschild wedding. There are shocked reports of the cruel persecution of Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe, sympathetic stories of the poor Jews and Arabs of North Africa and the Levant, and intriguing tales of Jews in such exotic locales as India, China, Samarkand, and New Zealand.
The British sense of fair play is outraged by the Dreyfus case in France, while a sense of racial loathing informs American-born reporter/artist Joseph Pennell's multipart report on the various Jewish communities of Europe. A pattern, of sorts, emerges over the decades: The level of hostility tends to increase with the threat - or fact - of more immigration. Yet anxiety about being overwhelmed by foreigners does not always preclude sympathy with the refugees' plight.
Nor is the attitude of any given magazine always easy to predict. Punch, apt to poke fun at Jewish clothes peddlers, regularly condemned czarist oppression. The Illustrated London News, which featured any number of respectful pieces on Jewish life, also ran Pennell's anti-Semitic series.
The editors of this highly interesting collection provide the background necessary to place all the material in its historical context, but they refrain from theorizing and extensive interpretation. The privilege of drawing conclusions is left to the individual reader, who may or may not choose to do so, for the wealth of data - in words and in pictures - tends to resist pat conclusions.
Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.