Anthony Clavane: Why immigration has been a success story for more than two centuries

The Jews of Leeds, which follows Simon's fascinating quest to discover his family history, is being shown on the BBC on Monday.
The Jews of Leeds, which follows Simon's fascinating quest to discover his family history, is being shown on the BBC on Monday.
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Ten years ago, in a glossy guide to the city’s revamped centre, readers were asked to put themselves “in the place of the Leeds virgin. You arrive at the station and walk out into City Square to see what Leeds has to offer. The answer is not obvious. Signage is inadequate.”

This was not always the case. I can remember one sign in particular that used to tell visitors, in no uncertain terms, what the city had to offer. It hung outside the railway station and bore the legend: “Leeds, the Promised Land delivered.”

I’ve no idea when, or why, the sign went up. Nor, indeed, when or why it came down. Like most signs it could be read in different ways. Some “virgins” must have thought it typical of the Yorkshire superiority complex they had heard so much about. Those more intimately acquainted with the self-appointed capital of God’s Own County will have knowingly chuckled at its irony, taking a quiet pride in yet another example of the city’s endless capacity for self-mockery. To me, it was a sign which celebrated immigration.

Leeds has always been a city of immigrants. It has opened its arms to a succession of Jewish, Irish, Afro-Caribbean, Asian, Eastern European and, in very recent times, Syrian families.

As filmmaker Simon Glass’ superb new documentary illustrates, immigration has been a success story for more than two centuries.

On Monday, the BBC airs The Jews of Leeds, which follows Simon’s fascinating quest to discover his family history. Like mine, his great-grandparents left the impoverished shtetls of Lithuania for a better life in Britain at the turn of the 20th century.

“The dream,” explains one of his interviewees, “was that the immigrant would come to the promised land, he would see the promised land – but the children would enjoy it.”

This idea of second-generation immigrants benefitting from their parents’ sacrifices was a theme which also, believe it or not, inspired the legendary comic-book writer Stan Lee. When the Marvel Comics publisher died, aged 95, last month, many obituarists pointed out that he was the son of Romanian-born Jewish parents. So what? So everything.

As one of the obituarists argued: “For nearly 80 years, Lee created characters who reflected the hopes, ideas and foibles of modern American Jewry.” The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man and the X-Men were complex, often tormented, super-heroes. Several other iconic characters – such as Superman, Batman and Captain America – were created by the children of Jewish immigrants.

Now, I’m not claiming that my grandparents possessed superhuman powers. Nor were they dedicated to fighting evil or protecting the public from the dark forces of the universe.

But, as Simon’s film shows, they helped shape their parents’ promised land. They were indebted to the city that had taken them in. Through their drive, ambition and vision, they revitalised the textile industry and produced such notable figures as Fanny Waterman, founder of The Leeds International Piano Competition, Michael Marks, Montague Burton and Arnold Ziff. They also helped transform the fortunes of Leeds United. Directors such as Manny Cussins, Sydney Simon and Leslie Silver were partly responsible for the club’s glory years. In his novel The Damned Utd, David Peace calls them “a last, lost tribe of self-made Yorkshiremen and Israelites. In search of the Promised Land; of public recognition, of acceptance, of gratitude.”

With some members of her Cabinet challenging the Prime Minister’s new plans to curb immigration – possibly with a general election campaign in mind – Mrs May could do worse than to tune in to the Beeb on Monday night. I know she has a lot on at present – what with the impasse on Brexit, a possible backbench rebellion, the impending collapse of her government and everything – but before she makes any misguided populist move to clamp down on immigrants, she should take a look at Simon’s film.

“It was through what these immigrants did in the early days,” he says, “that they paved the way for future generations to have a comfortable life. They really helped build Leeds and, without them, the city may not have become as successful as it is today.”