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.

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