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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 September 2006, 10:16 GMT 11:16 UK
1656 - a good year for Jews
Jewish communities throughout Britain have been commemorating a key anniversary in their history. The curator of London's Jewish Museum, Jennifer Marin, explains its significance.
Jewish boy lights a candle for Hanukah

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the resettlement or readmission of the Jewish Community to Britain, or does it?

Something happened in 1656 that was "good news" for Jews - but what was it? To understand, we must look back before Oliver Cromwell and the "Whitehall conference" of that year, the event popularly considered the turning point.

In the late 13th century, the small Jewish community that existed in England became less useful to the monarch after it was hammered by successive rounds of swingeing taxation.

Edward I decreed in July 1290 that all Jews should leave England by 1 November. Apart from a small number in the Domus Conversorum (House of Converts) in Chancery Lane, that is exactly what happened.

Henry VIII
Henry VIII invited Italian Jewish musicians to play for him
A few centuries later, Jews in Europe faced a new threat from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions.

Jewish refugees fled the Iberian Peninsula during the 15th and 16th centuries, seeking safer realms away from religious persecution.

By coincidence, in England, there was a king who found a different point of view useful. Henry VIII imported Jewish rabbinical advisors to help find a Biblical way out of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, the first of his six wives. He also welcomed Italian Jewish musicians to his court.

And from the mid 16th century onwards, Jews entered England as Spanish and Portuguese merchants. They lived a double life: practising their true faith in secret while in public attending Lutheran churches.

Somehow they managed to observe feasts, fast-days and some dietary laws.

Even though their Jewishness was tacit knowledge in London and Bristol, a blind eye was turned to their private religious activities.

There was no Inquisition in England.

In fact, Jews became a useful political tool for an English court at odds with Spain and Portugal. The throne found it was able to make good use of these exotic merchants with their overseas contacts.

Rembrandt's sketch of Menasseh Ben Israel
Menasseh Ben Israel campaigned to allow Jews back to Britain

It is impossible to say how many such "conversos" lived in England - perhaps they numbered no more than 100 at any one time - but without a synagogue or official recognition, they did not constitute a community.

In Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, a scholar, publisher and ambassador for Jews, petitioned Oliver Cromwell in 1656, asking for his community to have the right to settle. That petition was a catalyst for change.

By the time of the Whitehall conference called to decide the issue, those in favour of the Jews may have had millenarian or mercantile aspirations, while those against, cited theology and the fear of competition.

The result was inconclusive - but perhaps the fact that the debate took place at all effected a change in the climate of tolerance.

Crucially, the conference accepted that the1290 Edict of Expulsion applied only to Jews resident in England at that date; technically there was no barrier to resettlement.

Furthermore, the renewed hostilities with Spain meant that it was safer to come out as a Jew than be taken for a Spaniard in London.

And so, in December 1656 Antonio Fernandes Carvajal, the leader of a small group of settlers, acquired land for a Jewish cemetery, a public statement of existence.

In 1657 his hitherto private synagogue in Creechurch Lane was extended to accommodate an influx of worshippers - and in 1659, his memorial service was attended by Samuel Pepys.

Man and children seek refuge at the Jews Temporary Shelter. Photo: Jewish Museum

Ashkenazi Jews from Germany and Poland founded their first synagogue in1692 in Broad Street, Mitre Square.

The magnificent Spanish and Portuguese Jews' synagogue in Bevis Marks, a road in the City of London, followed in 1701.

Despite intermittent attempts by some clerics and city merchants to have Jews banished once more, the presence of the small community appeared secure. The small group had become a community.

In the 350 years since the Whitehall conference, the relationship between the Jews and the host community has not always run smoothly.

The Jew Bill of 1753, drafted to enable foreign Jews to naturalise, met with violent opposition and had to be axed.

Civil rights came at a snail's pace in the 19th century - although that it is true for Catholics and dissenters too.

Today, most Jews in Britain regard themselves both as integrated citizens with a rich historical and cultural background.

But the fact that anti-Semitism remains alive - while more recent immigrants find themselves demonised by a bigoted minority - demonstrates that although Britain has become an increasingly multicultural society, there remains, in some quarters, an innate suspicion of difference.

Nevertheless, 2006 marks 350 years during which Jews have found somewhere they could come and find their feet, whether they were fleeing Russian pogroms in the 19th century, or the Nazis in the 20th. And that is something worth celebrating.

The Identities 2006 exhibition, exploring minority identities in Britain, runs at the Jewish Museum in London's Camden until 12 November 2006.


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