Tuesday, April 05, 2016

A tale, that is, of two ethnic minority citizens, one a nineteenth-century Jew, the other a twenty-first century Muslim.  What links these two individuals across the centuries is the fact that each was the first member of their respective creeds elected to metropolitan office in Portsmouth, England, a town in the nineteenth century and a city since the early twentieth century.  Their attitudes, it will be seen, are apparently a study in contrasts.

Portsmouth, for anyone unfamiliar with the Hampshire city, is Britain’s premier naval port, and has been for many centuries inextricably associated with the Royal Navy.  It was from Portsmouth that Admiral Lord Nelson disembarked to fight at Trafalgar, and his flagship, the Victory, can be visited today in dry dock at Portsmouth’s great historic Dockyard.  There are, indeed, numerous sites of historic and nautical interest in the city, including the house where, in 1812, Charles Dickens was born. (Other famous literary men associated with the Portsmouth include Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells.)  

Being a naval history buff I know Portsmouth very well indeed, and I say without hesitation that, all in all, Portsmouth, along with the popular seaside resort of Southsea (that lies within the municipal boundaries) can be considered a very pleasant place in which to live.  From the Guildhall Square a brisk walker, setting off in any direction, can cover a great deal of the sights in less than an hour; there’s a great deal to see and do; it’s well-supplied with public parks and green spaces, and, with the Isle of Wight on the horizon, and a fascinating harbour vista, it has coastal scenery that makes Brighton and Bognor seem boring in comparison.

And to whom does Portsmouth owe so many of the amenities and civic improvements that make it, along with Southsea, such a pleasant venue today?  To one of the most beloved citizens in its history, the first Jew elected to its Council, the London-born son of a Bavarian immigrant, that’s who.  His name was Emanuel Emanuel (d. 29 December 1888), and this, briefly told, is his tale.

He arrived in Portsmouth at the age of eleven and was in business with his father before he became, with his brother Ezekiel, a prominent jeweller and goldsmith in town.  Among the items the brothers manufactured was the Portsmouth Corporation’s regalia.  Emanuel was first elected to the town council in 1841.  At that time (and until 1845) English town councillors were required to swear an oath “on the true faith of a Christian” in order to take their seats, but Emanuel sat despite refusing so to swear.  He was thus liable for a hefty fine for every vote he cast as a councillor – but there was nobody in Portsmouth mean enough to tell on him.  In 1843 he unexpectedly lost his seat, but to popular acclaim was re-elected in 1844, the bells of St Thomas’s Church (now Portsmouth Cathedral) ringing out in joy.  In 1862 he became an alderman and in 1867 was elected Mayor.  It was owing to his vision and activity that Southsea, then a polluted swampy wasteland, was developed into a residential watering-place with an esplanade and piers.  He raised three-quarters of the requisite funds himself, and liaised tirelessly with Whitehall regarding this and other schemes benefitting Portsmouth, and almost always succeeded in those negotiations. 

A faithful Jew, known for his “cheery, good nature,” as a fellow alderman paying tribute recalled (Portsmouth Evening News, 1 January 1889), he was involved in both Jewish and general charities, and as a member of the Portsmouth School Board was a doughty champion of non-sectarian education.  He was responsible for the acquisition of two parks for Portsmouth, one in east Southsea that consisted of leasehold land and one that exists to this day as a large handsome public space in the city centre, Victoria Park (remember that name: it will be met with later in this post!), originally called the People’s Park.  In 1885 he was presented by his fellow magistrates with a portrait of himself, which depicted him seated in an easy chair, holding a copy of The Times in one hand and a cigar in the other, and with his habitual happy expression (Portsmouth Evening News, 8 May 1885).  He died rich in years and in reputation, a large crowd of Jews and non-Jews attending his funeral at Portsmouth’s Jewish burial ground in Fawcett Road.  A local road is named after him.
Present-day Portsmouth’s a medium-sized city that during the 1960s became twinned with Haifa, a linkage that I’m glad to note continues, despite the growth of an anti-Israel movement composed of the usual suspects that appears to be centred in elements at the local university, an institution of fairly recent foundation that was formerly the local municipal college.

During the 1960s the Sultan of Zanzibar and his family made their home in the city.  People in Portsmouth were flattered that the Sultan had chosen to settle amongst them; a friend of mine proudly recalled being served at the Portsmouth General Post Office on a general basis by no less a personage than one of the Sultan’s sons.  It must be remembered that many sailors were living in Portsmouth, perhaps more than today, when the Royal Navy is smaller than it was then: these were people who had sailed the seven seas and for whom non-white people were hardly a novelty. Small numbers of Indian and Chinese people opened shops and restaurants in the city, though it remains predominantly white.

Now, it seems, there are some 4000 people of Bangladeshi background in Portsmouth.  Shockingly, no less than five Jihadists from that community flew together to Syria in 2013 with the intention of fighting for Islamic State.  They were Mashudur Choudhury (who’s now serving a four-year prison term back in Britain), Muhammad Mehdi Hassan, Mamunur Mohammed Roshid, Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, and Assad Uzzaman (all of whom are now dead, as is a sixth Portsmouth man, Uzzaman’s cousin Ifthekar Jaman, one of the earliest British recruits to Islamic State.)

Some weeks ago I read in the Portsmouth paper online something that had me wondering whether April Fool’s Day had come early this year.  But, alas, it had not.  The item in question concerned complaints voiced by the first Muslim elected to the Portsmouth City Council, Mr Yahiya Chowdhury, Labour councillor for Charles Dickens ward.  He’s resided in the city since 1995.
“Muslim Labour councillor Yahiya Chowdhury said people have come to him with concerns over how they don’t feel included. And he blamed the council for not doing enough to help,” the item informed us. [http://www.portsmouth.co.uk/news/politics/portsmouth-muslims-are-suffering-with-depression-warns-labour-councillor-1-7159752#ixzz44jL0oNSR]

‘Cllr Chowdhury said: “People need support. A lot of the Muslim community do not tend to understand what is going on in the city. They are just suffering. There are a lot of people in the Muslim community suffering with depression.  Women feel they have no place to go and socialise and simply have coffee with their friends. They can’t express their feelings. They know they can’t take their hijabs off around non-Muslim people.”  Cllr Chowdhury said he has appealed for a weekend Bangladeshi school to be set up, but the council has only committed to include teachings on the culture in the existing school curriculum.  Cllr Chowdhury also said negotiations had stalled over plans to put up a memorial to those who died in the Bangladesh Liberation War – though Muslim officials say they are moving forward.’

The report added that ‘Muslim leaders – including the head of the Jami Mosque [the largest mosque in the city] – agree more could be done. But they have played down talk of any major problems … Syed Aminul Haque, chair of Bangladesh Welfare Association Portsmouth, said: “The city council is doing its best, but it can do more for the whole community, as well as the Bangladeshi community. We have had Bangladeshi classes for the past 35 years in Portsmouth, for our youngsters, in a private school, as well as at Mayfield School [a local state school] for the past few years. For whatever reason, that has been taken off now, although we have been fighting with the council over that…We have asked the council, for the past 10 years or so, for a Bangladesh Liberation War monument. The former leader, Gerald Vernon-Jackson, and the former MP, Mike Hancock, verbally agreed to provide us a place in Victoria Park.  But because of the change in administration, it has been delayed for whatever reason.  But we are still negotiating with the council over how it can help us….”

The brazen, unacceptable, divisive conviction that Portsmouth City Council is obliged to provide local Muslims with their own amenities – let alone a war memorial to Bangladesh’s war with Pakistan (the West Pakistan/East Pakistan conflict of 1971) – has not surprisingly angered many Portsmouth residents, as a number of intemperate comments regarding the report at site attest.

Councillor Chowdhury and anyone supporting his nonsense should heed the tale of the first Jew elected to what was at the time the Portsmouth Town Council.  Emanuel Emanuel was a proud and professing Jew.  But in common with the usual integrationist Jewish outlook and practice he did not demand any special treatment for Jews in the city.  If the Jewish community required facilities for its members it raised the revenue itself – it did not expect the metropolitan authorities to provide it out of civic funds.  Neither has any other religious group made such demands.  Nor do Jews, Sikhs and the rest attempt to proseytise, as members of the local Muslim community do regularly at public venues. 

 Is it any wonder that “Islamophobia” flourishes when Councillor Chowdhury, as reported, voices outrageous demands and depicts his community as victims of the Council’s neglect? 

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