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Jews in England

What were the circumstances behind the return of the Jews to England?

A hundred years later the situation had reached the point of no return, particularly as the Italians had been lined up to take over the financial affairs of the Kingdom. There was now no more need for Jewish expertise and the King's protection was removed, resulting in full blown persecution of the Jews, who were blamed for every calamity going. In 1287, Edward I imprisoned and ransomed 3,000 of them on a charge of doctoring the coinage. The ransom was paid, but it was decided, in 1290, to expel all Jews from England. By November 1st thousands had fled, mostly to France. They had to pay their own passage and were only allowed to take what they could carry. Some of them were robbed and cast overboard during the voyage by the ships' captains. England was the first country to kick out the Jews and it was to be an exile that lasted 366 years.

Oliver Cromwell was growing old and well established as the Lord Protector of England, when he felt empowered to invite the Jews back. Although he was deeply religious and positively inclined towards the Jews on account of the Puritan partiality for the Old Testament, it was the politician in him that was the key factor. It was a time of alliances among the European nations, and it was important to know what your enemy was up to. Who better to have on your side than the Jews, true internationalists, with their interests in Spanish and Portuguese trade and influences stretching from Germany to the Dutch East Indies? Who better to bring trade to the country and also to act as spies on his behalf?

In 1655 he summoned the Dutch Rabbi, Manasseh ben Israel, to plead the case for the re-admission of Jews to England. He did so in a document called the Humble Address. In this he felt it was necessary to address the three major accusations made by Christians against the Jews, back in the days when they were living in England. Firstly, the question of usury, the charging of excessive interest on loans. He insisted that the rate of interest charged was the same as that charged by Christian moneylenders and that their religion had always forbidden them to do otherwise. Secondly, he insisted, in the strongest terms, that Jews did not kill Christian children to make Matzoh bread for Passover. Thirdly, that Jews did not actively proselytise and were not in the business of enticing innocent Christians into Judaism.

This was OK for Cromwell, but not for many of his advisors, who were still holding onto the old prejudices. A committee met in the Council Chamber at Whitehall that December. It consisted of representatives of the army, the law, the trading interests, and sixteen Christian leaders, the majority of whom Cromwell had carefully selected on account of their supposed approval of religious tolerance. The only thing they really agreed on was that the 1290 expulsion of the Jews had been illegal, but they were unwilling to act on this realisation. So Cromwell convened another meeting with an extra few delegates whom he thought would be more favourable towards the Jews. But the outcome was the same and an air of hostility had soured the proceedings.

So Cromwell played the religious card, saying that as the Bible speaks of their conversion, they need to be in a place where the Gospel is being preached, i.e. England! He then mocked this assembly, accusing them of cowardice, being afraid that the Jewish merchants would take away their livelihood.

But it was for nothing, so he vacated the chair and closed the conference. Now it was up to the God of history to intervene.

It was an open secret that there were some Jews already in England. These were the secret Jews, the Marranos (literally 'pigs'). These were Spanish and Portuguese Jews who, as a result of the Inquisition, had 'converted' to Christianity but continue to practise their Judaism in secret. Forty Marrano families had settled in England and one, Roderigo Lopez, had even become a medical attendant to Elizabeth 1st in 1586.

After the conference had broken down, war broke out with Spain and the Spanish Marranos were now unable to live in England as Spanish citizens, and in 1656, relying upon the decision that the expulsion of 1290 was no longer valid, they openly threw off their disguise and assumed the position of Jews. Cromwell agreed to this, particularly after a petition was made to him by Manasseh ben Israel and six other prominent Jews, asking whether they can meet openly without fear of molestation and bury their dead in peace.

Interestingly, there is no recorded answer to this petition, as the relevant Council minutes have never been found. What is certain, though, was that they were subsequently confident enough to rent a house to be used as a Synagogue and Jews began to trickle back into England for the first time in nearly 400 years.

Steve Maltz

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book Outcast Nation )

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