Merging Identities: England  1800-1905


The nineteenth century was filled with debates excited by the 1789 French Revolution. A ripple promoted religous freedom and individual rights for men but not for women. The Revolution was embraced by English poets and writers and its effects are still being discussed. Jews in England were, of course, affected by these political movements. The Sephardi community had long lost its demographic dominance as a result of Ashkenazi immigration, intermarriage and conversion. 

In 1828, University College London opened its doors to Catholics and Jews, but this was unusual. Jews could not legally engage in the City’s retail trade until 1830. A Jew could not be called to the Bar until 1833. Jews could not be municipal officers. A special Act was passed in 1835 to allow David Salomons to serve as Sheriff in the City without the obligation to swear a Christian oath. During the century, Jewish emancipation was extended, thanks to a broader respect for individual freedom, but there were still pockets of xenophobia and populism. 

Notorious and powerful antisemites
MP for Oldham, farmer and pamphleteer William Cobbett (1763-1835) was both a radical and an antisemite. In a court case he called a man a ‘Jew Dog’. He regretted that the Jews were not still banished, as they were by Edward I, or forced once more to wear a yellow badge. Cobbett proclaimed that Jews should have no burial ground but that ‘their carcasses should be flung into the sea’. William Cobbett has been championed for fighting on behalf of the ‘common man’; his support of slavery and his hatred of Jews is hardly documented in his biographies. 

Prominent Tory reformer Lord Shaftesbury saw Jewish entry into Parliament as a danger to English society. The Duke of Cambridge, Queen Victoria’s uncle, stated, ‘We cannot admit the Jews to a share in the counsels of the state […] as long as this country is a Christian country.’ Dr Thomas Arnold, famous headmaster of Rugby School and Professor of Modern History at Oxford, believed that Jews could not be regarded as Englishmen because they were not Christians.

Champions of emancipation and inclusion
Conversely, essayist William Hazlitt wrote that ‘the emancipation of the Jews is but a natural step in the progress of civilisation’. Sephardi novelist Grace Aguilar, in her 1847 History of the Jews of England, made the point that Jewish and English society were parallel and that the only difference was religious belief.  Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) campaigned for Jewish emancipation with his 1847 Bill. In 1845, Sir Robert Peel’s Conservative Parliament legislated to allow Jews into municipal office. 

Two Jewish newspapers were founded in 1841, The Jewish Chronicle and the Voice of Jacob. Legal emancipation occurred  on 23 July 1858 with the Jewish Disabilities Act. Jews were allowed to bypass the swearing of a Christian oath and become members of parliament. Lionel de Rothschild (1808-1879), banker, politician and philanthropist, became the first open Jew to be a Member of Parliament. Jewish entry to the Lords was permitted in 1866. Full Jewish inclusion in all areas of public life was on its way.  

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) is one of the most celebrated Sephardim in English politics. Although he is believed to be England’s first Jewish Prime Minister, this is inaccurate – his family converted to Christianity. Disraeli’s family were Italian Sephardim, and he was a member of Bevis Marks until 1817, when his father Isaac relinquished his synagogue membership and had his children baptised. Benjamin Disraeli was buried in St Michael and All Angels Churchyard in Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. His grandfather, though, also Benjamin Disraeli, is buried in the Novo Cemetery.

A refuge from the pogroms
By 1880, the Jewish population in Britain was around 46,000. This number increased hugely after then, as a result of pogroms, which sent waves of Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim to these shores. By the end of the nineteenth century, Jewish refugees were entering the country without limitation, and Sephardim were no more than a very small minority. Of these Ashkenazim, scholars note that the newest arrivals from Eastern Europe were seen by Anglicised Sephardim as essentially foreign. Indeed, some establishment Sephardim saw their Ashkenazi cousins as a threat to their own position as assimilated Jews in England. Many of these Eastern European Jews came from a different culture and were poor. They arrived as tailors, pedlars and cabinet makers who had lived on their wits under Tsarist domination.

Poverty in English cities was a huge and growing problem that affected Jews and non-Jews alike. Sephardi philanthropist Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) wrote in his diary that ‘of the 2,500 Sephardim, 1,200 were in receipt of relief from the Sephardi Synagogue’. Ashkenazim reflect the same ratios according to their synagogue documents, and the newly arrived foreign Jews were essentially poor. There was a large working class that was influenced by a proletarian consciousness.

Jews in British culture
The appearance of the Jew in literature testifies to the absorption of Jewish characters into the English novel – most famously portrayed in the figure of the villainous Fagin in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and more sympathetically by George Eliot in Daniel Deronda. On stage, Henry Irving’s 1878 portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice was a huge success.

Was the Jew moving from ‘toleration’ to acceptance? It might have been thought so – until the 1905 Aliens Act once more raised the issue of Jews in England. This Act was the first to impose immigration restrictions on those considered by officials to be ‘undesirable’. Restrictions against foreign-born Jews and limitations on their acceptance as equal citizens continued into the twentieth century. Many only had their status finally legalised by the Nationality Act of 1948. This is a surprisingly late recognition for the Eastern European Jews seeking citizenship on British soil.