Samuel Alexander and Zionism

Born in Australia in 1859, Samuel Alexander came to the Philosophy Department of Manchester University in 1893. He was one of the leading intellects in the English School of Realists, his most famous works being Moral Order and Progress (1889) and Space, Time and Deity (1920).

Although Alexander did not concern himself with matters of communal leadership, he was proud to be a Jew and the Community held him in high regard and were proud to count him as one of their own. For example, Nathan Laski wrote him in 1924 of the desire of the Council of Manchester and Salford Jews to recognise his achievements.

"The Jewish Community are very anxious to associate themselves in founding a Prize on behalf of the Jewish Community to mark the pride which they feel in the holding of your Professorial Chair by yourself at the Manchester University for so many years."

(Nathan Laski to Alexander, 17 Nov 1924)

And, of course, upon his award of the Order of Merit in 1930, he was inundated by letters of congratulation for the honour that he had brought to Manchester Jewry.

As a Zionist sympathiser, Alexander did attend occasional public meetings and was a regular contributor to the Jewish Palestine Fund. But his sympathies did not extend to taking an active role within the movement - he was not a committee-member of the University Zionist Society, nor was he involved in any of the town societies. In a letter from Weizmann, who at the time was concerned to confront what he saw as "a growing tendency to stimulate opposition to Zionism as an element in the general anti-Semitic campaign", Weizmann wrote,

"I know that you are not actively interested in Zionist, or indeed, any other politics, but I know too, that the movement in its larger aspects cannot fail to make its appeal to you and to command your sympathy… I do not, I need hardly say, ask you to take an active part in Zionist propaganda, and do not for a moment expect you to do so. What I ask is that you should, if you feel able to do so, write at least one article in support of Zionism for a periodical of the undoubted standing of those to which you have ready access."

(Weizmann to Alexander, 3 Feb 1922)

Alexander was more comfortable in supporting Jewish efforts to build an educational base in Palestine, however, and in this context he was prepared to act publicly. He was an Honorary Vice-President of the Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from its establishment in 1937, which he represented on several public occasions and to which he left £1000 in his will. He was also Chairman of the Jerusalem University Library Committee of the Inter-University Jewish Federation.

In the past, Alexander’s Zionism has been over-stated, as in Chaim Weizmann’s reminisces of the great philosophy professor, following his death in 1938.

"You ask me, What sort of a Jew was this man? He was from his youth deeply attached to Jewish tradition. The first boiled egg I ate in his house was placed in front of me in a small silver egg-cup. He looked at it for a moment with his usual air of intent innocence, and then said, "I was given that cup when I was thirteen, at my barmitzvah."… He himself often told me that in his youth he had known some famous German Jews, including Lazarus and Steinthal and others. When he became famous he lost no opportunity of appearing among his co-religionists. To the end of his life, he was a member of the Kehillah [Community]… It was he who introduced me to Lord Balfour on one of the latter’s visits to Manchester. He said of himself that he was "a total assimilationist who had ceased to believe in the possibility of assimilation" and he whole-heartedly supported Zionism long before it became fashionable."


Memoir in Philosophical and Literary Pieces (London: Macmillan, 1939), edited by John Laird.

Letters in the John Rylands Library, Manchester.


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IMAGE AND DOCUMENT CREDITS: Samuel Alexander (J Laird, ed, Samuel Alexander; Philosophical and Literary Pieces) Full reference: Sources.