Leeds Jewish History
Jewish people have been living in Leeds since at least the middle of the eighteenth century. Like communities throughout the UK, the migrant population in Leeds increased throughout the nineteenth century as Jews fled pogroms in Eastern Europe.
Their initial arrival caused considerable resentment amongst locals and many firms in Leeds wouldn’t employ Jewish people. This led to the formation of a communal council in 1907 to protect Jewish interests and cultivate mutual good feeling between Jew and gentile.
However as matters worsened in Europe and the First World War broke out existing tensions were exacerbated. Conscription begin in 1916 and despite the fact that over 3,000 members of the Leeds Jewish community were serving in the war, the attitude persisted that Jews were not doing their bit for the war effort. Those classified as ‘friendly aliens’ ie those of foreign birth who had come to Britain in search of asylum, were ineligible for service and viewed with hostility.
The war dragged on for far longer than anyone had anticipated and the desire for a scapegoat might have been the catalyst that finally brought tensions to a head during 1917, with the outbreak of serious anti-Jewish riots in Leeds. After weeks of isolated incidents, on June 3rd a mob of approximately 1,500 people surged into the Leylands, smashing and looting shops and carrying out physical attacks on Jews. It took police several hours to disperse the rioters that night and violence erupted again the following day, with some 3,000 rioters storming the area, destroying property and stoning both Jews and later, the police.
As a result of the unrest the Leeds Jewish Representative Council was established that same year. Its purpose was to promote and protect the interests of the Leeds Jewish community, as well as create a bridge between Jewish and non-Jewish communities; values that are still fundamental to our organisation today.
With the end of the war the Great Depression spread further misery but gradually there was a return to limited prosperity and inter-communal relations improved. The pressing need for the LJRC eased and over the next decade the organisation gradually lapsed into abeyance. In the late 1930’s however, things began to change.
With the rise of Fascism in Germany and Italy, anti-Jewish sentiment spread and the British Union of Fascists was founded by Oswald Mosely in 1932. At it’s height, the BUF claimed 50,000 members and with Mosely’s aristocratic background and press support from the likes of news baron, Lord Rothermere, prospects looked bleak.
BUF marches took place around the country and Leeds was no exception. A 1936 march was successfully re-routed by authorities to avoid predominantly Jewish areas but allowed to take place. The march was to culminate with an address by Mosely at Holbeck Moor but the blackshirts were massively outnumbered by a combination of Jewish and Communist protesters and violent clashes took place, with the Fascists firmly routed.
In London, the Jewish People’s Council against Fascism and antisemitism (JPC), preparing for what was to become the most famous British anti-Fascist rally, the Battle of Cable Street in London, proclaimed in relation to Holbeck Moor: ‘What has been done in Leeds, must be done in East London!’.
In 1937, the Leeds Jewish Representative Council was re-formed and has remained active ever since.
Our goals remain the same: to ensure that the Leeds Jewish community is secure; to strengthen cross-communal bonds; and to foster good relationships with the wider Leeds community.
This year we are proud to be celebrating our centenary.