Hebrew without tears

Blair Worden

  • Philo-Semitism and the Readmission of the Jews to England 1603-1655 by David Katz
    Oxford, 312 pp, £17.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 19 821885 0

On 4 December 1655, Oliver Cromwell opened a conference summoned ‘to consider of proposals in behalf of the JEWS, by Menasseh ben Israel, an agent come to London in behalf of many of them, to live and trade here, and desiring to have free use of their synagogues’. This gathering of politicians, clergymen, lawyers and merchants, which is known to history as the Whitehall Conference, was invited to rescind the expulsion of the Jews by Edward I in 1290. During the next fortnight five meetings were held, the last of them open to the public, before the convention was adjourned. It did not meet again. Menasseh ben Israel, who from his base in Amsterdam had for eight years been mobilising support for the readmission of the Jews to England, was broken by the apparent failure of his mission. Cromwell, too, must have been disappointed. He included the Jews among the ‘godly people’ for whose ‘union and right understanding’ he had long prayed, and he told the Whitehall Conference that since the Bible contained ‘a promise of their conversion, means must be used to that end, which was the preaching of the Gospel, and that could not be had unless they were permitted to reside where the Gospel was preached.’

Yet if the opposition which surfaced at the conference dissuaded the government from legislating for Jewish readmission, it did not prevent Cromwell from conniving at the open presence of Jews in England. That policy was to be continued by Charles II. In 1664 the Jews were promised ‘the same favour as formerly they have had, so long as they demean themselves peaceably and quietly with due obedience to His Majesty’s laws and without scandal to his government’, a condition which they had no difficulty in meeting. Similar orders were issued in 1674 and 1685, and in 1700 Solomon de Medina became the first Jew to receive an English knighthood. In David Katz’s words, ‘once Cromwell and Charles II realised that the Jews as a nation could never be admitted through the front door, they were anxious to go round the back themselves and let them in through the door reserved for tradesmen.’

How do we explain the government’s support for Jewish readmission, and the nation’s acceptance of it? For what is surprising about the Whitehall Conference of 1655 is not its failure to ratify Cromwell’s proposals, but the decision to hold it in the first place, and the absence of fierce popular resistance to it. An outbreak of English anti-semitism in the 1650s, when Jews were being slaughtered by the thousand in Eastern Europe, is not hard to envisage. The traditional association of Jewry with Antichrist and diabolism, and the belief that the Jews had stubbornly and wickedly refused the mercies of the Gospel, do not appear to have lost their imaginative hold. Possibly Jews, like Roman Catholics, benefited during the Interregnum from the proliferation of Puritan sects, whose quarrels disposed some of them to locate Antichrist within the Protestant camp. Yet Anti-Popery remained near the surface of English politics, and one might have expected to find anti-semitism there too. Certainly Jews and Catholics faced a common threat, for if Jews were believed to have any Christian credentials, those credentials were Catholic ones. The small and secret Jewish community, whose existence was revealed to the public by Menasseh ben Israel’s campaign, worshipped at the Spanish Embassy – and in 1655 England and Spain were at war.

Equally, the philo-semitic cause cannot have derived unqualified advantage from the support given it by Levellers and sectaries. The Parliamentary gentry of the 1650s took a savage view of the Quakers, one of the groups which favoured Jewish readmission. MPs are unlikely to have been reassured by the activities of Thomas Tany, ‘Theaureau John’. Informed by nocturnal revelations that God had commissioned him to gather the dispersed Jews and lead them to the Holy Land, Tany proceeded to establish assembly camps at Greenwich and Lambeth, ‘tents for every tribe, and the figures of every tribe upon the tent, that every tribe might know their own tent’. Tany disclosed to the committee of the House of Commons which examined him in 1654 that ‘he came inspired by the holy spirit, to kill every man that sat in the House, and was resolved thereupon.’

The Cromwellians’ decision to risk the readmission of the Jews is the problem addressed by David Katz’s remarkable study. Some historians would seek its solution in economic motives; others might turn to sociologists or anthropologists for guidance. Mr Katz turns instead to the history of ideas, and in particular to a series of intellectual developments which aroused interest in and sympathy for the Jewish predicament. The extraordinary story which emerges is reconstructed with wide-ranging scholarship, and told with elegance and wit. Published within the sober covers of the Oxford Historical Monographs series, this book proves to be a feast.

It is a book about English history, but Mr Katz never forgets the European dimension of his subject. In general, European philo-semitism was a Protestant phenomenon – even if some Catholic rulers, especially in Italy, seem to have granted de facto toleration to Jews without fuss. If the growing concern with Jewish history and Jewish language in the early modern period has one obvious source, it is the Protestant emphasis on Scripture. The Reformation, while it found its saving truths in the New Testament, also restored the honour of the Old. In England the foundation of Regius Chairs of Hebrew at Oxford and Cambridge by Henry VIII, and later the influence of Rabbinical studies on James I’s Authorised Version, demonstrated the enhanced academic status of Hebraic studies, which were distinguished by the findings of Edward Pococke and John Lightfoot, and popularised through Baptists and Saturday-Sabbatarian ‘Judaisers’ such as John Thraske.

The strand of Biblical inquiry which had clearest implications for the position of the Jews was millenarianism. Most 17th-century Puritans believed that they lived in the latter days of the world; many of them thought that the end was imminent; some of them tried to calculate the date. Jews were expected to play a crucial role in the final cosmic drama. St Paul’s promise that ‘all Israel shall be saved’ once ‘the fullness of the Gentiles be come in’ was taken up by English millenarians, who believed with Thomas Brightman that ‘many large and pleasant prophecies do aim at the calling of the Jews.’ England, the elect nation, destined to launch the spiritual reconquest of the world, must tolerate Jews in order that they might be converted there, and that the barrier between Jew and Gentile might be removed.

Poets delighted in this notion. Abraham Cowley wrote that ‘there wants, methinks, but the conversion of ... the Jews, for the accomplishing of the Kingdom of Christ.’ Marvell’s overtures To his Coy Mistress –

                             I would
Love you ten years before the Flood:
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews

– play on his contemporaries’ understanding of the chronological connection between the Flood and the Apocalypse: if the former had occurred in 1656 BC, might not the latter be expected in 1656 AD? 1656 was widely tipped, not least by the mathematician William Oughtred. Not all Puritans presumed to subject God’s inscrutable purposes to confident arithmetical computation, but it was hard to avoid the excitement which the various numerical hypotheses aroused. It was no coincidence that the campaign for Jewish readmission, which began in earnest in 1649, reached its peak in the last month of 1655.

Recent research has succeeded in setting millenarianism, even if somewhat disturbingly, within the familiar landscape of Puritan politics. Elsewhere Mr Katz leads us into still more exotic territory. First, there are the investigations of Jewry occasioned by the 17th century’s fascination with linguistics. Adam’s transgression had brought a curse of language as well as a curse of labour. At Babel, imperfection had become confusion. Scholars agreed that Adam, like his Maker, must have commanded the perfect language, in which words were the exact images of things. ‘Names are to instruct us,’ wrote Donne, ‘and express natures and essences. This Adam was able to do.’ Bacon recalled ‘that pure and uncorrupted natural knowledge whereby Adam gave names to the creatures according to their propriety’. Milton’s Adam

  named them, as they passed, and understood Their nature, with such knowledge God endued My sudden apprehension.

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ But what language had He spoken? The language of Paradise was a subject of learned debate. It was also, like so much 17th-century scholarly inquiry, a matter of spiritual urgency: no subject more vividly illustrated Milton’s claim that the end of learning was ‘to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, and be like him’. Some scholars concluded that God spoke Dutch, a bizarre thesis which attained respectability when it convinced the distinguished Flemish geographer Abraham Ortelius. Latin and Chinese were rival candidates. By the mid-17th century, however, most Englishmen agreed that God spoke Hebrew. This conclusion, reached after much discussion, had significant implications for contemporary attitudes to Jewry.

Not everyone, admittedly, thought this line of inquiry profitable. Hobbes suggested that the Fall had extinguished man’s memory of the perfect tongue. There was nevertheless more support for Sir Thomas Browne’s view that ‘at the confusion of tongues, there was no constitution of a new speech in every family: but a variation and permutation of the old; out of one common language raising several dialects: the primitive tongue remaining still entire.’ In that ‘primitive tongue’, the language of Utopian Adamic innocence, there might lie the key to the universal or philosophical language which Bacon, Comenius and Wilkins aimed to construct, and which Comenius believed would be a ‘universal antidote to confusion of thought’. Linguistic studies, cryptography, memory systems – all became caught up in the study of kabbala, which presented the letters of the Pentateuch as configurations of divine light. As Mr Katz observes, ‘the Hebraic factor runs through the entire history of artificial languages’ – from Bacon to Esperanto.

While 17th-century linguistics promoted a sympathetic interest in Jewish characteristics, another intellectual preoccupation was arousing a more pressing concern with the subject. This was the search for the lost Ten Tribes of Israel, whom Salmanasser had led into captivity. It was agreed that the conversion of all the Hebrews, not merely of European Jews, was an essential precondition of the Second Coming. In the debate over the whereabouts of the Ten Tribes, a new and important possibility was opened up by the discovery of the New World. The American Indians, remarked the Protestant reformer Peter Martyr, seemed ‘to live in the golden world of which old writers speak so much: wherein men lived simply and innocently without enforcement of laws, without quarrelling, judges and libels, content only to satisfy nature, without further vexation for knowledge of times to come’.

That the Indians were descendants of Adam, and probably of Noah, was generally accepted: but were the Indians Jews? The European disposition to suppose so is indicated by Columbus’s inclusion of a Hebrew-speaking interpreter in a reconaissance party which he sent inland. Yet the identification was hard to prove, despite the acknowledged similarities of custom and religion between the two peoples, and despite the propaganda of the New England Company, which promoted the idea in order to attract Puritan investment. In 1644, however, there came a vital breakthrough. Antonio de Montezinos, a marrano who had recently returned from Quito, testified under oath before Menasseh ben Israel that he had met Israelites of the tribe of Reuben, living secretly in the heart of the interior. Menasseh was convinced; and the tidings were soon gladdening the Puritan missionaries of North America. The public discussion which ensued gained Menasseh ben Israel his introduction into England.

Perhaps Mr Katz’s approach to the read-mission of the Jews will strike some readers as suspiciously arcane. Certainly there are aspects of the subject which he touches briefly or leaves aside; and he is least sure-footed when he discusses those arguments for toleration which did not spring from the Hebraic interests which he so brilliantly and so enjoyably illuminates. He might have said more about the example of tolerant Amsterdam, although he is clearly right to argue that there was strong mercantile resistance to Jewish immigration to England, and that the commercial arguments which Englishmen used on behalf of the Jews were often subsidiary to theological ones. Ideally, the book would have covered the Restoration period, for read-mission owed as much to Charles II as to Oliver Cromwell; and Charles, while willing in the 1650s to make promises to Jews (as to almost anyone) to buy support, shared none of Cromwell’s millenarian expectations. Indeed, it might be argued that England became safe for Jews when the millenarian bubble burst, and that the Jewish population grew as intellectual philo-semitism declined. Toleration may have been the fruit of indifference rather than of enthusiasm – although in the case of Charles II, who liked variety and eccentricity, one might allow something for curiosity as well. In many ways the England of 1700 was, in modern parlance, a more pluralist society than that of 1650, and Jews were among the beneficiaries of that pluralism.

These points are not incompatible with the findings of Mr Katz’s book, which does not pretend to answer all the questions it raises. What it does is to re-create the intellectual climate which made possible the remarkable (and sadly ill-documented) episode of the Whitehall Conference, and to establish the links, both of argument and of personnel, between the long-term development of Hebraic studies and the political campaign for read-mission. The result is an eloquent testimony, not necessarily to the primacy of ideas, but at any rate to their neglected importance. No book has provided stronger evidence of the central place occupied by eschatology in Interregnum politics. That evidence has wide implications, not least in the reminder it provides of the millenarian dimension of Cromwell’s foreign policy.

We, who are surprised to find visions of the Second Coming at the heart of political and diplomatic decision-making, may be equally disconcerted by the priority which was accorded them by scholars. Yet the scholars, like the statesmen, were behaving rationally enough. Once the Biblical premises on which Protestants agreed were granted, the arguments which were advanced about Scriptural chronology, about the history of languages and about the lost Ten Tribes, were often perfectly logical. The Book of Revelation was not only the toughest but the most reputable intellectual challenge of the age. Indeed, the difficulty is to understand the grounds on which those Puritan intellectuals who opposed Cromwell at the Whitehall Conference could have resisted the millenarian arguments for readmission.

Royalists, who for the most part shunned millenarianism, had no such problems. They might admit Jews to England from expediency, never from principle. Here Mr Katz’s tale, in the telling of which the reader may discern an occasional twinkle in its author’s eye, has a somewhat sobering implication for bienpensant intellectuals of any age. The liberal, rational, benevolent, scholarly philo-semites had met very few Jews. Indeed, their arguments may have made headway in England precisely because there were so few Jews there for them to meet. The secret Jews of London, exposed by the readmission campaign, had no gratitude for their would-be champions. It seems likely that the Whitehall Conference failed, not because the opposition’s arguments carried conviction, but because long-standing advocates of readmission drew back when faced by the prospect which their investigations had made possible: the prospect, not of the invisible Jewish stereotype of their own amicable creation, but of real Jews, who bled when pricked. The English philo-semites, Mr Katz concludes, ‘wanted Hebrew without tears, philo-semitism without Jews’. The irony of his story is that, had they returned later in the century, they would have found Jews without philo-semitism.