Mary Baldwin College, Staunton VA 24401
by Prof. Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
This webpage, in timeline form, casts light on the issue of minority rights in the UK, and the process through which rights were extended in order for the full emancipation of the Jews in Britain to be achieved.
before 1290: Guild restrictions were imposed against Jews in many trades
1290: Expulsion of Jews from England
1290 to c.1656: Jews formally were barred from England. In practice, a small number remained.
After the 1680s, substantial numbers of European Jews again became active in trade and commerce in England.
After 1789 French Revolution, many Ashkenazi Jews (i.e., Jews from Central and Eastern Europe) were found in the various secular movements which advocated expanding civil, economic and political rights to all subjects of all states.
In the 18th century twelve Jewish financiers were permitted to join the Royal Exchange, a prototype of the stock market.
1753: Rights of naturalization (i.e., citizenship) extended to Jews who had migrated to England, thus making their legal rights equal to those of their England-born children; This Act of Parliament was rescinded the next year after public outcry.
To mid 1800s: Test Acts require all who held public office to take Holy Communion in the prescribed Church of England ritual.
1847, Lionel Rothschild became the first Jew to be elected to the Parliament, nominated by the Liberal Party from London; refuses oath; he is denied his seat for refusing to take his oath of office "upon the true faith of a Christian." City voters continued to support him: in the coming years, Lionel was re-elected seven times. His opponents were diverse. The Church of England officially opposed Lionel's quest. The Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce stated in regard to the controversy: "If you destroy the groundwork of Christianity upon which this legislature is based in order to gratify a handful of ambitious men, you will destroy Christian England" (Weintraub: 112). (Ironically, Wilberforce was the son of William Wilberforce, a leader of the 1820s-1830s movement to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire.)
1858: Rothschild allowed to take his oath on the sacred Jewish books known to Christians as the Old Testament and the issue was overcome. Rothschild became first MP of Jewish faith.
1868: Ten years later, Conservative Party leader Benjamin Disraeli was named Prime Minister. Disraeli was himself the son of an Italian Jewish immigrant, had converted to Christianity, but was widely regarded as a Jew by his peers.
1916: an openly practicing Jew, Herbert Samuel, became the first Jew to hold a Cabinet seat, the important domestic policy post of Home Secretary, in the wartime Lloyd George Government.
Balfour Declaration. In 1917, George's Foreign Minister, Arthur James Balfour, a non-Jew, at the urging of British Jews and the world Zionist movement, issued the famous Balfour Declaration of British Government policy. It stated that "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object..." The same Declaration reiterated that the Zionist project did not undermine "rights and political status enjoyed by Jews" in Britain or any other country.
1920: After World War I when Britain was awarded Mandate over Palestine by the League of Nations, Samuel was appointed first British High Commissioner for Palestine in 1920, the chief executive officer there. Rufus Issacs followed, becoming Foreign Secretary, Lord Chief Justice and Viceroy of India.
Modern Britain. By the early 1980s, about 390,000 Jews lived in peace in Britain, a period in which Sir Keith Joseph, a Jew, served as one of the principal advisors to and Cabinet Minister in the Governments of Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher herself represented the North London constituency (i.e., electoral district) of Finchley, which contained the greatest number of Jewish voters in any British district. In her memoirs she reflected the completeness of the emancipation of the British Jews, saying: "I have enormous admiration for the Jewish people, inside or outside Israel. There have always been Jewish members of my staff and indeed my cabinet. In fact, I just wanted a Cabinet of clever, energetic people --and frequently that turned out to be the same thing."
The contemporary situation. Since the start of the Global War on Terrorism, in which the U.K. has been a key ally of the U.S., social hostility toward Britain's long resident Jewish community has increased sharply.
- Elites: While this new anti-Semitism most nakedly has been on display in the public statements of Islamic clerics in Britain, a more insidious form seems to have be spreading:
- High society. The journalistic works of journalist Barbara Amiel documented the spread of anti-Semitism in British high society when she recounted the responses of the guests at a polite London dinner party to anti-Semitic remarks by Daniel Bernard, the French Ambassador to the U.K. in December 2001. News items on this matter are linked here.
- Elected bigots. Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, repeatedly has embraced a version of anti-Zionism in his public speeches that so demonizes Israelis as to border on anti-Semitism. An exchange with a Jewish reporter in February 2005 dropped any veneer of civility. Livingstone referred to the reporter as being like a "concentration camp guard" simply for working for a news organization that Livingstone regarded as Jewish controlled. Livingstone's ready embrace of stereotypes in his dealings with individual Jews is consistent with the behavior of anti-Semites throughout European history, and he was entirely unapologetic about the matter when confronted by more moderate voices in British life. Livingstone is who he is. What is more revealing about this is that he wins re-election regularly, showing that his views have broad appeal, or at least do not repel, millions of London residents.
- Mass opinion: As I discussed in my public lecture of November 2004, anti-Semitic opinion remains a persistent problem throughout Europe. Polls showed that by 2004 in Britain anti-Semitism was rising. While fewer than one in five British citizens were found by the Anti-Defamation League to hold a consistent pattern of anti-Semitic views in 2002 (i.e., 18 percent), more expressed such views in 2004: 24 percent. Though greater percentages hold such views in France (25 percent), Belgium (35 percent) and Germany (36 percent), those numbers have been declining in recent years. In Britain, on the other hand, anti-Jewish views are on the rise. The ADL survey asked for levels of agreement with a series of prejudiced statements such as
- "Jews don't care what happens to anyone but their own kind." In Britain in 2004, 18 percent agreed.
- "Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country". In Britain in 2004, 40 percent agreed.
Gordon L. Bowen, "Rothschild elected first Jewish member of British Parliament," Great Events from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900 (Pasadena CA: Salem Press, forthcoming 2006).
Richard Davis, The English Rothschilds (Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1983).
Abba Eban, Heritage: Civilization and the Jews (NY: Summit Books, 1984).
Cecil Roth, History of the Jews (NY: Schocken Books, 1954)
Abram Leon Sachar, A History of the Jews (NY: Knopf, 1960).
Stanley Weintraub, Charlotte and Lionel: A Rothschild Love Story (NY: Free Press, 2003).
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