Arunansh B Goswami
An Indo-Israeli friendship ambassador.

Marks & Spencer For The Glory of Zion

Marks & Spencer’s Penny Bazaar. Image Credits: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Jews in spite of the fact that they have been persecuted in European society for ages, because of being Jewish excelled Bharuch Hashem by their hard work in different occupations. In fact Jews have played an important role in the development of British fashion, some say because of their religious predisposition to the occupation of tailoring. In fact by 1901, around 60% of London Jews were working in tailoring. Cojana, Frank Usher, Gor-Ray, Mansfield, Polly Peck and Windsmoor were all founded by Jews and Jewish designers like Hans Schleger, Sir Misha Black, Jacqueline Groag, Frederick Henri Kay Henrion, Berthold Wolpe, Hans Unger so on and so forth, have played an important role in development of British fashion. The founder of the biggest bespoke tailoring business the world has ever seen, was born Meshe David Osinky a Jew who changed his name to Sir Montagu Maurice Burton in Britain like many other Jews did for the sake of better assimilation. During the Second World War, Burton produced a quarter of the British Military uniforms.

Marks & Spencer’s St. Michael Brand. Image Credits: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

But one company that has so to say substantially made itself a representative of British clothing and excellence in fashion around the world is Marks & Spencer. For Zionism too Marks & Spencer holds an important place not just because it was founded by a Jew Michael Marks but because many of those who have helmed it’s business affairs were staunch Zionists dedicated to the cause of strong and developed state of Israel.

The Jew From Slonim

Michael Marks. Image Credits: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

In 1881 Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, which provoked a rise in anti-Semitism across Russia. Michael Marks a Jew arrived in the north of England in the early 1880s from Slonim. He was poor and spoke very little English. Beginning as a pedlar, he worked hard and soon had enough money to open a market stall in Kirkgate Market in Leeds. Born in 1859 in Slonim, Belarus (then part of Russian Poland), Marks’s family emigrated to Leeds around 1882 when Marks was 23. Slonim had a very large Jewish population. The first textile factory in Slonim was founded in 1826 by a Jew, employing 35 workers, of whom 20 were Jewish. The Great Synagogue of Slonim was built in 1642 and survived the destruction and Nazi liquidation of the Slonim Ghetto (where 10,000 Jews were murdered in 1942 alone). 

It was in the year 1884, Marks met Isaac Dewhirst, the owner of a Leeds warehouse. Marks bought goods from Dewhirst that Marks would sell in nearby villages. The business went on to be so successful that Marks raised enough capital to open a market stall in Leeds’s open market. Business continued to boom, and Marks opened several more permanent stalls throughout Lancashire and Yorkshire in the following years. In 1894, Marks was looking for someone to help him run his Penny Bazaar business, When Michael sought a partner in 1894, he asked Isaac first. Isaac declined, but introduced Michael to Tom Spencer, his cashier. Spencer gathered his life savings and invested £300 to become an equal partner in the Company.

Marks &Spencer. Image Credits: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Michael Marks married a Jew Hannah Cohen in 1886 in Leeds. Who as per her future son-in-law, Israel Sieff a staunch Zionist as we shall see later, as immensely energetic, a dominating little lady who ruled her husband and family. Hannah regularly helped Michael in the early years, preparing for the next day’s trading. Hannah was also the motivation for Simon Marks’ (their eldest son) success – after Michael’s death, he was determined to work to earn a nest egg for her and his sister Mathilda, who had epilepsy. Hannah continued to be involved in the business. Michael Marks and Hannah Cohen’s eldest son Simon turned out to be a staunch Zionist so did their daughter Rebecca she played an active role in two central social-historical movements: the struggle for women’s rights and the Zionist movement that eventually led to the establishment of the State of Israel. Michael Marks died on New Year’s Eve 1907. He was buried on 2 January 1908; it was one of the largest funerals ever to take place at Manchester Jewish Cemetery – up to 40 carriages reportedly followed the cortège! 

For The Glory of Zion: Zionists of Marks & Spencer

Simon Marks and Israel Sieff. Image Credits: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Simon Marks who we find in history served as vice-president of the Zionist Federation began his tenure at the helm of Marks & Spencer by inviting his brother-in-law, Israel Sieff to be his business partner. It was the start of a partnership lasting for life and ensured M&S continued as a family business. In fact, Simon and Israel each married the other’s sister! They grew the business exponentially despite the Great Depression. Consistent with its founding principles, M&S became known for its excellent treatment of staff. They also recognised changing times: customers were now being able to buy ready-made clothing in fashionable patterns as opposed to only fabric.

Marks and his brother-in-law Sieff along with several family members were strong supporters of Zionism. In fact, they became known in pro-Zionist circles as ‘The Family’. They gave generously to the Zionist cause, believing in the importance of a Jewish national home in what was at the time called Palestine. Israel Sieff was a Zionist since his childhood,  he was once quoted as saying that business was his hobby and the Jewish people his business. He was Vice-President of the World Jewish Congress, and Honorary President of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. In the course of his lifetime he contributed greatly to the agricultural and industrial development of Israel. It was for the distinguished service he rendered to so many worthy causes that he was created a Life Peer in 1966. By 1997 Marks and Spencer was rated the fourth most profitable retailer in the world.

Michael Mark’s daughter Rebecca Seiff on Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, founded the Women’s Appeal Committee of the Central British Fund for German Jewry under the auspices of the FWZ ( Federation of Women Zionists ) . Uniting the efforts of all Jewish women’s organizations throughout Great Britain, this committee was responsible for the rescue of thousands of women and children from Nazi-dominated Europe. In addition, the committee was the first body to work with Recha Freier in sponsoring Youth Aliyah, which assisted young Jews in immigrating to Palestine, whether directly or by way of training centers in England. During the war Sieff collected funds for the Charity Fund for Polish Jewry and was among the founders of the Rehabilitation and Preparation Fund, a precursor of Keren Hayesod (founded in London in 1920).

Flora Solomon. Image Credits: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Flora Solomon was the was the first woman hired to improve working conditions at Marks & Spencer in London, she mentioned in her memoirs, Baku to Baker Street (1984) that she had been fortified against life’s hazards by “my personal trinity – Russian soil, Jewish heart, British passport.”. In 1933 Flora Solomon met Zionist Simon Marks. The couple became close friends and in 1934 Flora was appointed as head of a new Marks & Spencer Staff Welfare Service.  It has been argued in John Castello’s book, Mask of Treachery (1988) on page 387 “her love for Israel proved greater than her old socialist loyalties.” During World War II she organized food distribution for the British government and won an Order of the British Empire ( OBE ) for her work.

Joseph Edward Sieff was erstwhile chairman of Marks and Spencer and was succeeded by his nephew, Sir Marcus Sieff. He was appointed honorary vice president of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland in 1956. Joseph also known as Teddy Sieff, Israel Sieff’s brother, was the victim of a PLO assassination attempt at his London home. He survived a bullet to his face after his would-be assassin fled when the second shot jammed.

Younger son of Israel Sieff, Marcus Joseph Sieff, joined the family firm in 1945, became a director in 1954, and, after 1967, managing director and chairman. Marcus Sieff was knighted in 1971, and received a life peerage in 1980 as Baron Sieff of Brimpton, his late father’s title. Like other members of his family he was a notable contributor to Jewish and Zionist causes. He served on the Daniel Sieff Research Institute of Israel’s Board of Governors for many years, acting as its Chairman (1976-1985), and later (1985-2001) as the Institute’s Chancellor. Marcus Sieff, first visited the Mandate of Palestine in 1939 at the age of 16. After serving as a British Army colonel in the War, Marcus was asked by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, to help defend the new state. Sieff accepted the offer to join the Israel Defense Forces in which he advised on transportation and supplies to the Israeli defence ministry. He even helped coordinate Marks & Spencer goods and finances to support the new state. In fact, in his 1990 book, Management: The Marks and Spencer Way, Sieff suggested one of the fundamental objectives of M&S was to “aid the economic development of Israel.”

Work For the Development of Israel

Buchenwald survivors arrive in Haifa to be arrested by the British. Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.’ For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’ For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your prosperity.” this is what finds mention in Psalm 122:6-9 NIV. It doesn’t matter which country we are in or what faith we follow, we should pray and work for the peace of Jerusalem the undivided capital of Israel and development of Israel for the betterment of the world, Marks & Spencer has indeed manifested this in prayer and also by their actions. Let’s pray for world peace.

About the Author
Mr. Arunansh B. Goswami is a lawyer by profession in New Delhi India, also a historian by training. He has studied history at the historical and prestigious St. Stephen’s College in Delhi India, he has also read law at prestigious, Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi ( India ) which has given one of the highest number of Judges to Indian Supreme Court. He has worked as a research consultant with Union Minister of Steel and Civil Aviation of India, Mr. J. M. Scindia and Mrs. Priyadarshini Raje. Scindia titular Queen of the erstwhile princely state of Gwalior in India. Mr. Goswami has studied Israeli and Jewish History deeply and travelled extensively in Israel, and Uzbekistan to explore and research about sites associated with Jewish Prophets.
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