An­glo-Jewry’s 350-year start

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT - Zaki Cooper

WHAT DOES 1664 make you think of? Al­co­hol con­nois­seurs may think of the 1664 Kro­nen­burg beer, and who could blame them? It is ap­par­ently the most pop­u­lar French beer in the world. But more sober-minded his­tor­i­cal types will ap­pre­ci­ate that 1664 was a sig­nif­i­cant year for Bri­tish Jewry. Ex­actly 350 years ago this week, a land­mark let­ter was is­sued by the new King’s Privy Coun­cil ad­dressed at the fledg­ling Jewish com­mu­nity. The let­ter, dated Au­gust 22 1664, said that the Jews could “prom­ise them­selves the ef­fects of the same favour as for­merly they have had, so long as they de­mean them­selves peace­ably and qui­etly, with due obe­di­ence to His Majesty’s laws and with­out scan­dal to his gov­ern­ment.”

This ef­fec­tively set the terms for the newly es­tab­lished com­mu­nity, a sort of “so­cial con­tract”, af­ter an ab­sence of al­most 400 years in the Mid­dle Ages. You be­have your­selves, and the UK will treat you well. As the doyen of An­glosJewish his­to­ri­ans, Ce­cil Roth, has writ­ten: “The res­i­dence of the Jews of Eng­land was au­tho­rised for the first time in writ­ing.”

The back­ground to the let­ter is that the Jewish com­mu­nity had re­cently re­set­tled in the UK only eight years ear­lier un­der Oliver Cromwell, af­ter ex­pul­sion in 1290. With King Charles II’s restora­tion to the throne in 1760, the Jews felt in­se­cure. They did not know how the new monarch would re­act to them. It was, af­ter all, dur­ing the short in­ter­reg­num, when the UK was ef­fec­tively a repub­lic, that Jews had been given the nod to re­turn to liv­ing in the coun­try.

The com­mu­nity re-es­tab­lished it­self in and around the City of Lon­don. In 1656, a house (in Creechurch Lane) was rented for use as a sy­n­a­gogue, and the fol­low­ing year a plot of land was se­cured in Mile End for a ceme­tery. In 1665, an as­so­ci­a­tion for vis­it­ing the sick was es­tab­lished, a fore­run­ner to the wel­fare pro­vi­sion for which our com­mu­nity has be­come so famed. The build­ings blocs of the com­mu­nity – re­li­gious, so­cial and ed­u­ca­tional — were slowly and surely be­ing put in place.

In this pre-en­light­en­ment era, the con­cept of re­li­gious tol­er­a­tion was not yet wide­spread. Hos­til­ity to Catholics in par­tic­u­lar was rife and led to the pas­sage of the Conventicle Act (1664), which pro­hib­ited re­li­gious ser­vices out­side the Church of Eng­land.

When some at­tempted to use this as an op­por­tu­nity to black­mail the Jewish com­mu­nity to avoid per­se­cu­tion, com­mu­nity lead­ers pe­ti­tioned King Charles. It was this ges­ture that the Privy Coun­cil re­sponded to with their land­mark let­ter.

For some the so­cial con­tract of 1664 is a source of pride. Jews have been good cit­i­zens over the en­su­ing 350 years. By and large, we have kept the law and, more than that, made a fan­tas­tic con­tri­bu­tion to the com­mer­cial and so­cial fab­ric of the UK. In re­turn, we have been given right to pray and prac­tise our reli­gion (though ar­guably this is fray­ing with she­chita and brit mi­lah un­der at­tack).

For oth­ers, though, this tacit agree­ment between state and mi­nori­ties is a source of frus­tra­tion. They con­tend that at times the Jewish com­mu­nity has been overly ob­se­quious

We have kept the law and made a con­tri­bu­tion

and too sotto voce in the as­ser­tion of our Jewish iden­tity. They would like to see a more “out and proud” dis­play of Jewish iden­tity, Amer­i­canstyle, that does not di­lute our Jewish voice. The tus­sle between the two ar­gu­ments is an on­go­ing one about Jewish iden­tity in mod­ern Bri­tain.

What­ever the ar­gu­ments nowa­days, King Charles left a pos­i­tive mark on Bri­tish Jewish his­tory.

The 1660s were not an easy decade for the in­com­ing king. The Great Plague of 1665 caused 70,000 deaths in Lon­don alone (in­clud­ing some ca­su­al­ties in the Jewish com­mu­nity) and the fol­low­ing year, the Great Fire of Lon­don led to wide­spread dam­age in­clud­ing to St Paul’s Cathe­dral.

De­spite such tra­vails, in­clud­ing a war against the Dutch in 1665, Charles main­tained a pos­i­tive dis­po­si­tion to the Jews. Be­fore the restora­tion, while in ex­ile, he had tried to se­cure funds from the Am­s­ter­dam Jewish com­mu­nity and in 1674 the king again de­fended Jewish rights, stop­ping le­gal pro­ceed­ings to re­strict free­dom of wor­ship.

The pos­i­tive sen­ti­ment was re­cip­ro­cated. When the di­arist Sa­muel Pepys vis­ited Creechurch Lane shul on Sim­chat To­rah in 1663, he was a lit­tle be­mused by what he saw. But one thing he picked up in his diary is that “and in the end they had a prayer for the king, which they pro­nounced his name in Por­tu­gall [sic]; but the prayer, like the rest, in He­brew.” This was an early ver­sion of the Prayer for the Royal Fam­ily, still part of our Shab­bat morn­ing liturgy.

The king died in 1685, con­vert­ing to Catholi­cism on his deathbed.

We may have moved on from then, but when the next King Charles as­cends the throne, he will hope to repli­cate the friendly re­la­tions his name­sake en­joyed with the Jewish com­mu­nity. Zaki Cooper is a trus­tee of the Coun­cil of Christians and Jews. @za­ki­cooper

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