History shows us that the Jews who were taken in by England in the 17th Century, protecting them from the hatreds shown towards them in Europe, were to flourish in their new country, becoming bankers, statesmen, even producing a prime minister and confidants to royalty, thus playing a major part in the growth of the British Empire, at the expense of those countries they had left behind.
These Jews who first trickled into England from 1656 onwards were Spanish and Portuguese Jews, Sephardi Jews, who had fled their native lands because of the persecutions initiated by the Inquisition. They had found temporary refuge in Holland, where they made massive contributions to what was the golden age of Dutch commercial enterprise and helped make Amsterdam the richest city in the World at that time.
The site of the first synagogue in England for these Sephardi Jews is commemorated by a blue plaque, in Creechurch lane, on the eastern fringes of the City of London. One day in 1663 Samuel Pepys, the great diaryist, paid them a visit and was greatly perturbed by their exuberance.
“… But, Lord! To see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God … I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.”
In fact he had stumbled on a celebration of Simchat Torah, a festival known for its exuberance and one would expect a similar reaction if a modern orthodox Jew had witnessed a modern charismatic Christian worship service!
Very soon the congregation had grown too large for the synagogue and a new one was built in 1701. This was Bevis Marks synagogue, built within the City walls and still functioning today as the oldest synagogue in England. In fact, some of the benches there in current use actually pre-date the original synagogue and are said to be the largest collection of Cromwellian benches in the world. Ladino, the form of Spanish spoken by 15th Century Jews, is also still used in the services! The architect, Joseph Avis, was a Quaker and it is said that he refused to make a profit from building a house of God and returned all profits to the congregation.
This was not the whole story because as well as the Sephardis – the Spanish and Portugese Jews – there were other Jews making their way over from Holland. These were the Ashkenazi Jews – of Dutch, Polish and German descent. They intended to build a synagogue and there was even talk of the possibility that St Paul’s Cathedral, recently rebuilt after the Great Fire of London, was to be offered to the Jews, but that sufficient funds couldn’t be raised! So they built their own synagogue, the Great Synagogue at Duke’s Place, just further along the old wall from Bevis Marks. This place remained until the Second World War when it became another victim of the Nazi war effort.
So the Jews settled and prospered, building their synagogues and mainly living close to these synagogues. More synagogues were built in the following years and the Jewish community began to spread out through the region as a whole. In 1795 it was estimated that there were around 25,000 Jews in England, with around 75% of these in London.
This was the third and largest wave of Jewish immigration to these shores. The first, numbered in the hundreds, were the financiers accompanying the Norman conquest. The second, in their thousands, following the initiative of Oliver Cromwell, were from Holland and Germany, a people forever on the move around Europe. The third numbered in the tens of thousands, came between 1880 and 1905, fleeing from persecution in the lands to the East, mainly Russia and Poland.
Jewish immigration to the area came to a full stop when, after much pressure from the indigenous population (namely the British Brothers League, an early version of the BNP), parliament passed the Aliens Act in 1905, refusing entry of undesirable aliens to Britain. This of course meant Jews from the east and reduced immigration by 40%. Nevertheless, in the period since 1881, over 100,000 Jews had found refuge in Whitechapel and Spitalfields and a grateful Jewish population commemorated this fact by tossing their pennies into a large coffer and had a monument built to King Edward VII in 1911. This still stands opposite London Hospital, outside the McDonalds and between the Bangladeshi market stalls.
Now there are under 300,000 Jews in the UK, a number dwindling by the year, mainly due to assimilation. Despite the subtle growth of anti-Semitism, Jews in the UK feel fairly settled. But, then again, so did Jews in Germany in the 1930s, just before the Nazi holocaust. In July 2004, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, called on French Jews to move to Israel “immediately”, because of the worrying rise of anti-Jewish feeling in France. Only time will tell if the Galut will end with a whimper or a bang.
(This is an abridged extract from Steve’s book Outcast Nation )
Where do Jews in Britain come from?
Written by: Miriam Emenike
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