Return of the Jews to England


Jews were expelled from England in 1290 by King Edward I. The traditional narrative is that Jews were re-admitted by Oliver Cromwell in 1656.  This is not quite true. Cromwell was keen for Jewish resettlement. And he met with Portuguese-Dutch rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, who petitioned England’s Lord Protector  for Jewish return. But there was opposition.

Jews fleeing the Catholic Inquisition in the Iberian Peninsula were looking for new areas to live. Many had fled to Holland. Among them were Crypto-Jews, Jews who had converted to Christianity but continued to practise their Judaism in secret. A trickle of these Jews, often traders, settled in England during the sixteenth and the early seventeenth century.

Support for Jewish return
Following the translation of the Bible into English, the smashing of the monarchical power system and the rise of the Protestant Republic, ordinary Christians were at last able to read the Bible for themselves. They became aware of the Jews as Hebrews in their scriptures. In particular, Christian Messianism required Jewish return to the four corners of the Earth: Jewish return was seen as necessary to hasten the Second Coming of Jesus.

In 1650, Menasseh ben Israel published Spes Israelis, The Hope of Israel, which he dedicated to Cromwell. Five years later, ben Israel formally presented his petition to the Council of State. This document asked for Jews to return as ordinary citizens and to be granted the privilege of trading freely. He pled for a public synagogue, the right to Jewish education, religious toleration and a cemetery.

There were also requests for the right to try legal cases according to Mosaic law and to take appeals to the English civil courts. Ben Israel also asked for all anti-Jewish laws to be repealed. In return for these concessions, Jews promised to swear fidelity to England.

No warm welcome
Cromwell was favourably disposed towards Jewish readmission. He convened the Whitehall Conference in December 1655 with a view to addressing the question. The Conference was made up of lawyers, clerics and merchants. It rapidly concluded that there was no legal impediment to the return of Jews. However, it did not reach a view about the desirability of readmission. Some feared mercantile competition; others proclaimed that Jews were Christ-killers and that they would want to convert Christians to Judaism. In the face of this lack of agreement, the Conference was dismissed. 

The following year, a legal case involving a Crypto-Jewish merchant, Antonio Rodrigues Robles, led to a ruling that implicitly recognised the presence of Jews in England. And, during the course of the year, it became apparent that Jews would be tacitly accepted, as long as they made themselves discreet. This fudge allowed for the opening of a small synagogue in Creechurch Lane in 1656, followed the next year by the acquisition of the original burial ground in Mile End. At that point, there were perhaps around 100 Sephardim in London and over the following years periodic opposition was voiced against  Jewish presence.

Ashkenazi arrivals
In 1664, after the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II granted Jews religious toleration. By the end of the century, there were around 600-700 Jews living in London, mostly Sephardi. They were soon joined by an embryonic Ashkenazi community.

The Jews had returned to England through the back door.