Once again, many thanks to Jack Cohen for sharing his summary of a program from the AACI Netanya branch. His article is posted here as well, on his blog.
It is almost impossible for me to reproduce the talk given by Elkan Levy at AACI Netanya on the return of the Jews to England, entitled “Cromwell and the Rabbi.” His lecture was so rich in detail, so full of anecdote and yet so coherent, that one is left amazed by its fulness and scope. Nevertheless, being foolhardy, I will try to at least summarize its main points. Let me add that Elkan Levy was a former President of the United Synagogue of Great Britain and then the Head of the Department of Small Communities. His knowledge of the history of the Jews of Great Britain is encyclopedic.
He sketched the background, reminding us that although the Jews were expelled from England in 1290 by King Edward I, some still remained there throughout the subsequent period. It was the English Civil War (1642-1651) and the victory of the Parlimentarians (Roundheads) and the beheading of Charles I in 1649 that prepared the way for the Jews to openly return to England.
There were several reasons for the British and particularly the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), who was a very pragmatic leader, to want the Jews returned to England. First, there was the general sense that wherever the Jews went they brought economic benefit because of their mercantile activities, just what England needed after a punishing and costly Civil War. Second, Britain was engaged in a war with Holland, which at that time was the richest country in Europe, a condition that was largely attributed to the active Jewish community there. Third, there was the theological argument, that until the Jews were spread all over the earth, according to the Biblical prophecies, the coming of the messiah (or for the Christians, the second coming of Christ) could not occur. Fourth, there was a general sense in which religious tolerance was growing, mainly because the various Christian sects, especially the Protestant sects and Catholicism, needed to find a way to tolerate each other.
At that time it was more dangerous for the descendents of conversos (or Marranos) to try to pass as Catholics than as Jews. He gave the example of a certain Senor Robles whose two ships at dock on the Thames and their contents were seized by the British customs because he was a Spanish Catholic. When he submitted an affidavit claiming that he was really a Portuguese Jew, whose family had been persecuted by the Inquisition, his ships and goods were returned to him.
Manasseh Ben Israel (Soeiro) (1604-1657) was the respected Rabbi of the Amsterdam Sephardic congregation, appointed when he was only 19. He was a very opinionated, egotistical and strong-willed individual, who in 1650 published a book “The Hope of Israel” (in Latin, Spanish, Hebrew and English) calling for religious tolerance and that the Jews should be allowed to return legally to England in order to fulfil Biblical prohecy. He took it upon himself to be the leader of this movement, something that was frowned upon by the lay leaders of his Synagogue. Nevertheless in 1655 he resigned form his position and travelled to London and published a direct appeal to Cromwell regarding the readmission of the Jews.
There were also strong opponents to this move, and so in 1655 Cromwell summoned leading lawyers, scholars and clerics to a Conference at Whitehall in London to decide the matter. Tasked with determining the legal basis of the expulsion of the Jews, two Judges came to the notable conclusion that there were no laws actually preventing Jews from living in England, since the expulsion had been an edict of the Crown and only referred to the Jews then resident in England who were actually property of the King. In his diary on Dec 14, 1655, John Evelyn wrote in his diary “Now were the Jews admitted.”
But, to actually achieve the practical outcome was not so easy. Cromwell dismissed the Conference without any official declaration. In answer to the critics, Manasseh published another work in 1656 entitled “Vindiciae Judiorum.” Meanwhile Manasseh had no income from Amsterdam, failed to receive a promised payment from Cromwell and was not appointed the Rabbi of the first Synagogue that was allowed to open in London in 1656 at Creechurch Lane, where for the first time Jews were able to openly practise their religion. Manasseh’s son died in London in 1657 and Manasseh took his body back to Holland for burial and he died there the same year. Cromwell died in 1658.
The Restoration of the Monarchy occured in 1660. When the Jews were challenged as to their right to practise their religion, since the laws were interpreted to apply only to Christian practise, Charles II supported the Jews and the general right of toleration to practise religion in Britain with the Royal Declaration of Indulgence in 1672. Even then the fight continued for many years.