Menasseh ben Israel

Jewish culture By Rabbi Jeremy Gordon 11th Feb 2019

Jews were expelled from England in 1290. By the mid-1600s, they were back. There is no Act of Parliament officially welcoming them back. But a range of pamphlets from the period, often published under pseudonyms, shed light on the factors that led to the Jews’ return.

Before their expulsion, Jews were widely disliked, but they were popular with Monarchs, who saw them as a cheap source of finance, through fines and loans. Eventually, however, a friendly Monarch proved insufficient. The ‘Commons of England’ offered Edward I a bribe to expel the Jews and they were ‘banish’d hence, ever to return again under pain of being hanged.

In truth, however, Jews had never entirely left. In the aftermath of expulsions from Spain and Portugal several hundred conversos (New Christians) came to trade in London. Most had links to flourishing Jewish trading communities in Holland. As one pamphleteer wrote in 1653 to a friend in Amsterdam, ‘Touching Judaism, some corners of our city [London] smell as rank of it as yours doth there.’

The leader of the campaign to formally readmit Jews was Menasseh Ben Israel, described as ‘A Divine and Doctor of PHYSICK.’ He arrived from Amsterdam to plead his case before Cromwell in September 1653, while England was in the grip of messianic excitement. Cromwell had opened Parliament that July with the announcement that ‘this may be the door to usher in the things that God has promised ‘¦ You are at the edge of the promises and prophecies.’

Menasseh lost no time stoking the Messianic fervour for his own purposes. In ‘A Humble Addresse to the Lord Protector’ he noted: ‘The opinion of many Christians and mine doe concurre ‘¦ we both believe the restoring time of our Nation into their Native Country is very near at hand ‘¦ the People of God must be first dispersed into all places of the World ‘¦ therefore this remains only in my judgements before the MESSIA come.’

It’s fascinating to see Menasseh’s theological partnering with the Puritans. He is tempting Christians to let Jews into Britain in order to bring the second coming of Jesus! The ‘Addresse’ is a masterful work of flattery, requesting a ‘free and publick Synagogue’ in order that Jews may, ‘sue also for a blessing upon this [British] Nation and People of England for receiving us into their bosoms and comforting Sion in her distresse.’

Menasseh also marshals less spiritual arguments, devoting several pages to a survey of the profitability of ‘The Nation of Jewes’ in a range of states that have let Jews in. This might have been particularly interesting to Cromwell, seeking ways to keep Britain ahead of the Dutch economy.

Suitably inspired, Cromwell called a conference of merchants and clergymen,  but he didn’t get the support he expected. Some claimed readmitting Jews was blasphemous. Others spread rumours of child-murder, the recurring blood libel accusations. There were also fears that, if readmitted, ‘every Vagabond Jew may purchase the Liberties and Immunities of free-born Englishmen.’ The Guilds, in particular, feared a Jews’ economic presence competing with the existing British mercantile classes. Cromwell disbanded the conference before it could report.

And then, in 1656 a merchant named Antonio Rodrigues Robles was arrested on the charge of being a Papist. Robles was threatened with sequestration of his considerable assets and only escaped punishment when he claimed that, rather than being a papist, he was actually Jewish. Cromwell intervened and Robles escaped punishment. Jews were quick to recognise the significance of this ruling. Effectively, in Cromwell’s England, it was far safer to be an avowed Jew than a closeted Papist.

And so, without constitutional upheaval, legislation or fanfare, the Jews got on with the business of establishing a community on this ‘considerable and mighty Island’. How terribly English.

Jeremy Gordon is Rabbi of New London Synagogue.

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