Notes from Limmud 2005
350 years of the Anglo-Jewish community
Rabbi Jonathan Romain
Before 1656, Jews were barred by royal decree from living in England.
We don't know who was the first Jew to set foot in England. It wasn't until 1066 that a fully-fledged Jewish community started up—late compared to other countries—brought over by William the Conqueror. In his eyes, it seems, they were seen as hard-working and loyal.
For the next hundred years, Jewish life in Britain was relatively peaceful. Most Jews were engaged in moneylending; because Christians were forbidden from it by canon law. Jews by contrast were forbidden from owning land or joining guilds; this forced them into this niche. Not all Jews were moneylenders, but virtually all moneylenders were Jews, which created a bad stereotype.
Jews were forbidden from owning arms, because it would be taking it out of the King's service. This saved them from getting killed in wars, but meant they could not defend themselves when attacked.
In the Middle Ages there were examples of non-Jews becoming Jews, e.g. Robert of Reading; we largely know this because they were burned at the stake immediately afterwards.
What irrevocably soured relations between Jews and Christians was the increasing militancy towards heretics and non-believers of the Church, of which the Jews were the most visible. Antisemitic feelings were particularly stoked by the new orders, Franciscan and Dominican. Then the Jew-badge adopted by the Pope at the Lateran Council of 1215—which implies that without that it was not possible to easily distinguish a Jew! There were also blood libels, desecration of the Host and other persecution.
Then on top of that came the Third Crusade. There were anti-Jewish riots in Norwich, Lincoln and York.
The Jews were not part of the old mediaeval system. They were the servi camerae, property of the king. Henry III to raise money mortgaged the Jewish community! They did not live in ghettos, but in Jewish quarters by choice.
By 1290 they faced constant opposition by the Church. The Jews were milked dry and no use for revenue.
In the Middle Ages Jews on the Continent recited קינות [kinot, prayers of lamentation] for the Jews of England.
Edward I issued an edict giving the Jews three months to leave the country. The expulsion was at least an orderly one: they were guaranteed safe passage, and could sell their property. Before then the Jews had been expelled from various towns, but never before had the Jews been expelled from an entire country. (As they were not expelled by an Act of Parliament, that did not need to be rescinded.)
It is thought there were two to three thousand of them at the time.
For the next four hundred years there were no Jews in England apart from those given special permits for special reasons. E.g. Dick Whittington brought across a Jewish doctor from Italy for his wife (who, strangely enough, insisted on bringing across another nine with him :o)).
Other exceptions include Edward Brampton under Edward IV, the rabbis Henry VIII invited to deal with his divorce [and see my notes on the Crypto-Jewish community present under Elizabeth I].
Cromwell was not noted for his love of theatre, but as a Puritan he paid as much attention to the OT as the NT. He also knew what it was like to be a minority fighting for his rights.
He sought to strengthen ties with a fellow Protestant country, the Netherlands. There was a feeling of millenarianism at the time, and the belief the Jews should be scattered to the far ends of the earth for the Messiah to come. The French name for England, Angleterre, was reinterpreted to mean "a corner of the earth", hence the Second Coming would not take place until the Jews had repopulated England.
Hence, religious, economic and political considerations all pointed in the same direction, and the Jews were readmitted. (See the last section of this talk transcript for a little more on the circumstances.)
Not everyone was pleased with the Jews' readmission. The church feared they would lure people from the true faith, and traders feared competition.
Charles II came to the throne four years later, in 1660, and systematically set about undoing everything Cromwell had done—with two exceptions only: the Navigation Act and the readmission of the Jews. This was a recognition of the successful role they were already playing.
The time since then can be summarised as steady progress. Jews on the Continent at this time were still fored to live in ghettos; Jews here had rights and could live anywhere, though there were still some prohibitions, e.g. as serving as MP.
From the moment Jews came back, there was intermarriage. 1930s was the largest upsurge in intermarriage: the figures doubled then because of the War and the dislocation of Jewish life and the breakdown of communal structures.
There were sixty thousand Jews in the UK by the time of the first Jewish MP, in the mid nineteenth century. Jews from the merchant class largely assimilated into British life.
The first Jews to come into Britain were Sephardim; in 1750s, the first Ashkenazis came. (More push than pull?)
The 1880s and 90s saw an influx of one hundred thousand Ashkenazi Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. They were poor, working class and highly observant. The British Jews were aghast, and feared it would jeopardise their own acceptace. There were tensions between the immigrants and the non-Jews they settled amongst. The Jews settled in enclaves, characterised by dire poverty and overcrowding, supported by soup kitchens set up by the UK Jewish community.
The United Synagogue was not frum enough for them, so they founded their own movements, the Federation and Adass.
They worked in tailoring trade, and sweatshhops, but their offspring became anglicised to form an integral part of the UK community. Later examples in this tradition include the Barrow boy, Jack Cohen, who founded Tesco (the name of which derives from the initials of T.E. Stockwell / Cohen). Also the market trader Michael Marks.
Some went on to help shape the society they lived in: Harold Pinter, Isaiah Berlin. Others even went on to represent it.
By the second half of the twentieth century Jews' political allegiance shifted from the Liberals and Labour to the Conservatives. Margaret Thatcher at one stage had no fewer than five Jewish cabinet ministers.
There were accusations of dual loyalty in the run-up to the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948. Most British Jews regarded Britain as their home, but felt the need to support their brethren in Palestine.
In the 1930s the Chief Rabbi's court became much more right wing in its attitude towards conversion and adoption, as the result of the advent of an ultrafrum rabbi from eastern Europe. This was the beginning of the gulf between the religious and lay leaderships of the community.
There are a disproportionately large number of Jews who marry Catholics. Statistically, it should be 1 in 30, but in fact 1 in 4 Jews who marry a non-Jew marry a Catholic! When Jews and Catholics meet, they often click. Both are cultural identities as much as faith, and ritual-based, and have a minority worldview.
An estimated 250 people convert to Judaism each year, the majority because they have a Jewish partner.
The majority of Jews who convert, convert to Buddhism, where they can find spritiuality with no political problems (Islam) or historical baggage (Christianity). In the States this is more pronounced: the majority of the leaders of the American-born Buddhist community are Jewish!