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Aviva Ben-Ur, ‘Identity Imperative: Ottoman Jews in Wartime and Interwar Britain’

‘Identity Imperative: Ottoman Jews in Wartime and Interwar Britain’ by Aviva Ben-Ur analyses Sephardic Jewish groups of immigrants that came from places from the Ottoman Empire such as Baghdad, Damascus, Istanbul, and Jerusalem. He does this by analysing their personal experiences throughout the 20th century. This is because the author believes that these groups are widely ignored due to the mass Jewish immigration from Europe. It also focuses on how local British governments moulded and assessed their complicated national status. The articles focus is on how these Jewish groups attempted to gain naturalisation in Britain despite being considered as enemy aliens when WW1 had broken out.

Some of these groups regarded as enemy aliens included Syrian, Jews and Greeks and were typically deported, interned, stripped of their freedom of movement, and barred from becoming naturalised British citizens. This was laid out further in the British Nationality and Status of Alien Act at the end of WW1 which prevented naturalisation for a 10-year period unless they met specific requirements like serving in the armed forces. This article focuses on the group of immigrants that came from the Ottoman Empire, who began arriving in Britain in the early 1900s. The author notes that these immigrants had helped repopulate dwindling Jewish communities which were already established in Britain decades before.

The immigrants were predominately male with 36% being born in Istanbul. Their occupations were mainly merchants or shippers of ‘oriental’ carpets, antiques, and fancy goods. Many of these Ottoman natives were reluctant to claim that is where they came from, however. This resulted in many to claim to be ‘Spanish Jews’. This was so the legislation after the war would not apply to them and make naturalisation easier as they were unlikely to get it if they were of Ottoman descent. However, this was not always the case as a Chief Rabbi would be expected to attest for the person claiming to be a member of the Sephardic Jews. Max Solomon Haim was the first to set the precedent to these applications during WW1 and helped dozens more Ottomans become British citizens. This was because Ottomans could legally be classified as ‘Spanish Jews’.

The article then mentions the xenophobia many of the Ottomans faced and how despite this they were still eager to remain in Britain. The author gives several examples of why attaining a British citizenship was important for reasons such as it made getting a job easier, renting easier, and traveling around Europe easier. It is stated however, that German-Jews had the highest number of enemy aliens by a 5 to 1 ratio. 10% of Ottomans were put in internment camps. The author notes that the governments anti-Jewish and anti-foreigner rhetoric may have been the main motivation in either postponing or rejecting the Ottomans naturalisation cases. Many of these Ottomans who were discriminated against claimed adoration of Britain with many showing British patriotism and as well as appreciation for its education system and laws.

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