14 February: Tony Kushner, ‘Not quite a nice Jewish boy: Jacob Harris, triple murderer, Sussex: 1734’

We tend to think of Jews as victims rather than perpetrators in early British Jewish history. Whilst not denying the deep-rooted nature of antisemitism in culture and in violent manifestations, this talk will also reference what might be called the ‘tough Jew’ tendency in the world outside the law and where integration in the criminal underworld was perhaps the norm. In the spring of 1734, Jacob Harris (or Hirsch) murdered in the most bloodthirsty way imaginable a publican, his wife and his servant. He was caught a little later some distance from the crime scene, found guilty and hanged in Horsham and then his body sent to Ditchling Common to be gibbeted. Surprisingly, there seems to have been no antisemitism associated with the murders at the time and subsequently Jacob Harris became a folk hero in this area of mid-Sussex. This talk will explore how Jacob Harris came to be in Ditchling Common – was he, as memory of him insisted, a pedlar, or was he a smuggler or a highwayman (or, indeed, all three)? It will ask how he has been imagined and remembered subsequently in ballad, fiction and local history and how we can try to make sense of his Jewish identity.

Tony Kushner is Professor in the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations and History Department at the University of Southampton. He has written widely on the British Jewish experience, especially social history and comparative migration. His most recent books are The Battle of Britishness: Migrant Journeys since 1685 (Manchester University Press, 2012) and Journeys from the Abyss: The Holocaust and Forced Migration from the 1880s to the Present (Liverpool University Press, 2017). He is currently working on a study of Jacob Harris, a Jewish triple murderer and, with Dr Aimee Bunting, Co-Presents to the Holocaust. He is co-editor of the journal Patterns of Prejudice and deputy editor of Jewish Culture and History.

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Filed under 5781 / 2020-21 Programme

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