Did Cromwell Readmit Jews To England? Seems Not

Eliane Glaser writes in the Financial Times:

Over the next few months, a lunch, a dinner, a garden party and two thanksgiving services will be held in honour of Queen Elizabeth turning 80 this year. Next month, the citizens of York will mark the moment 1,700 years ago when Constantine the Great was proclaimed emperor of Rome in their city, and heroic celebrations continue in Europe for the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart.

Imagine how odd it would be to discover that these anniversaries were based on nothing more than an enduring, but utterly inaccurate, myth. Yet that is precisely what is happening in Britain this year where events are about to get under way to mark the 350th anniversary of the “readmission” of Jews under Oliver Cromwell. Britain’s oldest synagogue will hold a commemorative service in June; [London mayor] Ken Livingstone’s office hopes to erect a huge menorah in Trafalgar Square; the Arts Council has funded a new play; and there are plans for events at Tate Modern and the Royal Society.

The only trouble is, Cromwell didn’t allow the Jews to return in 1656.

In fact, as I discovered when researching a doctorate in 17th-century religious history, the supposedly historic event of readmission and resettlement was nothing of the kind.

What is true is this: in the Middle Ages, a deeply anti-Semitic England became the first country in the world to expel Jews. In 1655, a Jewish leader from Amsterdam, Menasseh ben Israel, came to England to try to persuade Cromwell to let the Jews return. In December that year, Cromwell held a conference of merchants, lawyers and theologians in Whitehall to discuss the proposal. Some were in favour – many Jews were well connected merchants, after all. Furthermore, according to an eccentric millenarian prophecy then circulating, conversion of the Jews might hasten Christ’s second coming.

In the end, though, the Whitehall conference failed to reach a verdict. There was no great desire to welcome the Jewish people back from Europe.

A few hundred Jews did arrive in the second half of the 17th century, but their numbers paled in comparison with the more than 50,000 Huguenot immigrants who moved here in the same period, and the order of expulsion was never revoked.…

If you had been listening to Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day” last December however, you would have heard Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks give a different version of events: “In the Middle Ages, Britain led the world in its hostility to Jews, and in 1290 became the first country to expel them,” he said. “But in one of the great reversals of all time, in the 17th century it led the world in tolerance. Jews came back to Britain in 1656, and in a few weeks time will begin celebrating the 350th anniversary of that event.”

When I first attempted to interview the Chief Rabbi for this article, the executive director of his office, Syma Weinberg, told me that I should first read some books on the subject. I told her that I had actually read them all, and had written one myself.

Finally, after several days and many phone calls, I received a call from the Chief Rabbi. I put it to him that the readmission story was not what it was cracked up to be.

“You’re right – there were people for, people against; the whole thing is wrapped in obscurity,” he said. “Technically there was no moment at which you could say Jews were readmitted.”…

But what of Sacks’s earlier claim that the readmission was “one of the great reversals of all time”? Either something happened, or it didn’t.…

Unlike Sacks, I regard the informal nature of British tolerance as a sign of reluctance rather than affable accommodation. The Jews were not readmitted to England in 1656; a bill to give them equal rights was repealed in 1754, and they were only permitted to sit in parliament without taking an Anglican oath in 1858, after 11 years of debate.

Challenging the traditional faith in British tolerance is a better way of acknowledging true religious diversity than celebrating an event that didn’t happen.



Filed under History

4 responses to “Did Cromwell Readmit Jews To England? Seems Not

  1. DK

    “Challenging the traditional faith in British tolerance is a better way of acknowledging true religious diversity than celebrating an event that didn’t happen.”

    Excellent point! What book did you write on the subject?

  2. Nachum Lamm

    Of course they were never formally readmitted- and a good thing too. The first thing Charles II did upon his Restoration was revoke every law of Cromwell’s. As Cromwell had never formally readmitted the Jews, those that had returned (and some had, as it sort of became known they could, even if with nothing official) weren’t immediately kicked out.

    I think the “bill to give them equal rights” was rejected, not repealed. That implies it was passed.

  3. Paul Shaviv

    Shaviv’s take (from a forthcoming article):

    Like many historical traditions, the facts are a little different. This romantic view of the ‘Readmission’, perhaps more correctly called the ‘Resettlement’, seems to have had its birth in 1906, when the 250th anniversary was celebrated by a sumptuous London banquet, attended by the ‘great and the good’ of Victorian Anglo-Jewry. As a perceptive contemporary historian writes, there was a “search for founding fathers” – and what better contrasting pair could the Victorian romantics suggest than the dashing, mysterious, mystic Amsterdam rabbi, patron and friend of Rembrandt, and the Puritan, upright, Biblically-inspired Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell?

    But Cromwell never took any decision to readmit Jews to England. In the face of opposition from his clerics, he seems to have been reluctant to take a stand on the matter. On the other hand, he raised no objections to the increasingly public profile of Jews in London’s busy commercial life, who lived under a number of thin subterfuges as ‘Portuguese’ or other merchants.

    By the middle of 1656, their identity as Jews was public, not least because of Menasseh ben Israel’s activities. The London Jewish community was led by Antonio Fernando Carvajal, an established merchant with close Government ties in the bullion market. Signing himself as ‘Abraham Israel Carvajal’, he and others petitioned Cromwell as “Hebrews at present residing in this citty [sic] of London” for official permission to conduct public worship, to acquire a burial ground, and for ‘protection’. On March 24, 1656, Cromwell endorsed their petition with his signature. By this, their status became unchallengeable. Caravajal thus has a much more persuasive claim than Menasseh ben Israel to the title of ‘founder of the modern Anglo-Jewish community’. The rabbi, isolated and suffering the tragedy of the death of his son in London, returned to Holland where he died in poverty

  4. Paul,

    Please leave a link to your full article after it is published.

    As always, clear and insightful.


    [What’s with Miriam? She seems to have stopped posting.]

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