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Yad Vashem

Jewish emigration and sociology, 1845-1950


The Jewish community in Belfast differed immensely in size and sociology from its counterparts in Dublin and Great Britain. Whilst England can date Jewish residency to the early medieval period and Dublin to 1079, the earliest record of a Jewish resident in what is now Northern Ireland is the solitary figure of a tailor – Manuel Lightfoot – living in Belfast in 1652.1 There are virtually no records of any other Jews in Belfast until 1814. Almost all of the 282 Jews resident in the province by 1891 were Ashkenazi Jews from central or Eastern Europe. Ireland was to home to some Sephardim Jews who emigrated after the expulsion of Jews from Portugal in 1496, but very few ever took residence in the north of the island.


There was a distinct immigration of German Jews into Northern Ireland that predates the larger eastern European immigration by about 20-30 years. The onset of the American civil war cit off cotton supplies to textile merchants and for a time Ulster linen filled the gap. Indeed Belfast most famous Jewish family – the Jaffe – visited Belfast in 1845, just before the worst of the American cotton shortage was felt. Daniel Joseph Jaffe, a Hamburg merchant, came to Belfast with the intention of establishing contacts for the purchase of linen goods.2 By 1852 the family had moved to Belfast and opened a linen house in the city, shipping linen back to the family firms in Dundee, Paris, Hamburg, Leipzig, Russia and South America.3 Along with (amongst others) the Weinberg, Boas and Betzold families, the Jaffe family helped establish a wealthy and respectable base, which would financially support the Russian Jews who came to Northern Ireland, fleeing from Russia following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in March 1881. Some two million Russian Jews fled from the anti Semitic Russian regime which introduced the oppressive May Laws in 1882. Of the 150,000 eastern European Jews who arrived in Britain in less than 25 years, a few hundred made their way to the north of Ireland, mainly Belfast. Fifty-five Jews were resident in Belfast by 1871 and that this grew to 205 by 1891.4 It is worth remembering that by this stage 77 Jews also lived outside of Belfast. By the turn of the twentieth century approximately 700 Jews lived in Belfast and two synagogues had been established, one in Great Victoria Street, the other in Regency Street.


Yet the anti-German suspicion that accompanied the First World War cost Belfast some of its greatest commercial and entrepreneurial assets Most of the prominent German Jewish textile merchants left due to xenophobic hostility and an illogical undercurrent of suspicion of German-Jewish loyalty. Although small in number and present for just over half a century, the German Jews who came to Belfast from the 1850s to the 1870s were the foundation of a permanent Jewish community in Northern Ireland. As we study the Jaffes, Weiners and Betzolds we can see the figures that provided lay-leadership and tangible financial and charitable support to their eastern European co-religionists.


The number of Jews in Northern Ireland increased to approximately 1,400 after WW2.5 By studying the gravestones, wills and census records it is unmistakable that the vast majority of Jews in Northern Ireland were Ashkenazi immigrants. The headstones in both cemeteries testify that most were Russian and Polish, although some were from Austria and during World War II a significant number of Gibraltar Jews came to the province, and indeed ended their days here. Yet by the late 1880s and 1890s the majority of Northern Ireland’s Jewish community was made up of eastern European, Yiddish-speaking predominantly Orthodox immigrants. Many of these Jews worked in a concentrated number of trades, working as tailors, shoemakers and cabinetmakers. It is from this group that we will study some figures that represent microcosms of this working-class group.


The outbreak of world war in 1914 signalled the end of the great eastern European immigration. As mentioned a xenophobic suspicion filtered into the north of Ireland, which was somewhat illogical given the overrepresentation of Jews in the British armed forces (as the grave of soldiers in Carnmoney such as Louis Sergai reveals). This mistrust contrasted to the token of protection to refugees demonstrated in the Millisle farm, which gave sanctuary to a number of Jewish children.

By the end of our period the children and grandchildren of Jewish immigrants were members of a Jewish community that was fully integrated into society. The British state had by 1858 granted Jews equal constitutional status at law, and as a result Jewish citizens received the right to vote and hold office in Local Government and in Parliament. Through studying the headstones of Jewish men and women from a variety of backgrounds and classes we can see the diversity of this small community over a century of change and in doing so chart the changes and developments of society collectively and the Jewish community in particular.

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