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The history of Jews in Britain

The history of Jews in Britain

Jews have lived in the UK, on and off, for a thousand years, but the spectre of anti-Semitism never seems to disappear

When did Jews arrive in the UK?

There's no firm evidence of their presence in Britain before the Norman conquest of 1066. Soon after, most likely at the invitation of William the Conqueror, Jewish financiers and merchants from Rouen, the capital of Normandy, began to arrive in London. In medieval Europe, lending money with interest (usury) – a critical function in any economy, and much needed by kings – was forbidden for Christians. Jews were willing to do the "dirty" work of banking and lending, largely because they were often banned from owning land or joining notionally "Christian" professions. Immigration of Jews from Rouen was accelerated by the sacking of the town by Duke Robert, William's rebellious eldest son, in 1090. Within a century, there were 24 Jewish communities, or "Jewrys", in towns across England.

How were they received?

Unlike much of Europe, where anti-Semitic violence accompanied the assembling of the First Crusade in 1096, Jews in England had royal protection. William II staged debates between Jewish and Christian scholars, threatening to convert to Judaism if the Jewish arguments carried the day. In the 12th century, Jews were official wards of the state. Known as "the King's Jews", they served as a handy tax base for the crown. (Between 1210 and 1250, the Jews of York paid more tax than the whole of London.) In return they didn't have to pay road tolls and were entitled to sanctuary in local castles. Under Henry II, a Jewish banker, Aaron of Lincoln, became the nation's most important lender, financing monasteries, churches and wars against the value of houses, land and corn. But while individual Jews attracted respect – "Whether he taught by mouth or book, he was not among those who err," it was said of businessman Josce of York – as a community, they were resented.

What kind of resentment did they suffer?

When raided by the king, Jewish moneylenders had to raise their interest rates for the rest of the population, making them highly unpopular. As exotic outsiders, they were also the subject of myth. In 1144, the first accusation of a ritual murder – later morphing into the "blood libel" that Jews murdered Christian children so as to drink their blood on Passover – was levelled in Norwich. After Richard the Lionheart left for the Crusades in 1189, there was an outburst of violence against Jews, often by those who owed them money. In a notorious attack in 1190, 150 Jews sought refuge from a mob in the wooden tower of York Castle: it was locked and burned. In 1218, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton made all Jews wear a patch of white cloth to identify them as outsiders. In 1290, the country's entire population of Jews, estimated at 16,000, were expelled and their property was seized by the king.

When did they return to England?

There are records of Jews in Tudor England (many being European conversos – converts to Christianity who still practised as Jews at home). Only when Oliver Cromwell came to power were Jews legally re-admitted. Cromwell needed financiers to rescue the economy; he also shared a Puritan belief that Christ's Second Coming could only occur when Jews lived in every country on Earth. Many judges, businessmen and clerics were opposed, but Cromwell dissolved a conference called to debate the issue. Nor did he object when 300 Marano merchants (Portuguese and Spanish Jews) came to London. In 1701, they built Britain's first purpose-built synagogue, Bevis Marks, near Aldgate.

Was the 18th century more tolerant?

There were still outbreaks of violence and occasional campaigns to drive out the Jews, but their international trading expertise soon made them essential to the nation. By 1734, there were some 6,000 Jews, who brought with them some £5m in capital and who financed the wars against Spain. In 1753, "The Jew Bill" was passed – over the outcry of the Conservatives – to let Jews become British citizens. In the 19th century, Jewish industrialists, politicians and philanthropists became key figures in British public life. Moses Montefiore, whose loans to government helped end the British slave trade, was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1837. Lionel de Rothschild, the first Jewish MP, took his seat in 1858 after the parliamentary oath was changed to include non-Christians. In 1868, Benjamin Disraeli – baptised a Christian but proud of his Jewish heritage – became PM.

How many Jews live in Britain today?

It is a vexed question, given Judaism's dual status as religion and ethnic identity (see box). A common estimate is about 270,000, a community ranging from London's fast-growing ultra-orthodox Haredi population, to completely secular Jews. The population has been more or less stable since the mid-20th century, after the last big wave of refugees – fleeing the pogroms of Tsarist Russia and then the Holocaust – came to the UK from Eastern Europe. The turmoil of the 20th century produced the second great lie against the Jews (after the blood libel of the Middle Ages) – the myth of "a global conspiracy". It was first elaborated in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a piece of early 20th century propaganda written by a Russian agent to discredit the Jews.

What of anti-Semitism today?

According to the Community Security Trust, there were 1,168 anti-Semitic incidents here in 2014 (including 80 violent assaults, and 81 attacks on Jewish property), the highest number since records began in the 1980s. The numbers peaked last July, during Israel's assault on Gaza, which underlines what many British Jews feel is the reason why intolerance is once again on the rise in Europe: the conflation of the politics and conflicts of the Middle East with a personal religious and ethnic identity. A recent YouGov poll found that 20% of people in Britain believe that "Jews' loyalty to Israel makes them less loyal to Britain than other British people".

A race? Or a religion?

The particular character of Judaism – it is difficult to convert into; one's Jewish identity, strictly speaking, passes through the mother's line – has made it hard to define. British officialese is confused about whether it's a racial or religious category. In 1991, the census carried an ethnic identity question for the first time but Jewish wasn't listed as an option. In 2001, an optional religious question surfaced, allowing for Jewish as an answer. The official 2011 census number of 263,346 people describing themselves as of the Jewish faith is estimated to include 80%-90% of Britain's Jews.

The law, however, says something else. The Race Relations Act of 1976 recognises Jews and Sikhs as having a racial identity as well as a religious one. In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that JFS, formerly known as the Jews' Free School, in north London, had practised racial discrimination for excluding pupils whose mothers it did not consider "properly" Jewish. In the majority opinion, Lord Phillips, president of the court, argued that discrimination based on the test of matrilineality must by definition be "discrimination on racial grounds". So there's now a body of case law which defines Jewishness as a racial attribute, even though many Jews and scholars would argue it is not.

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