Jews and Englishmen

Lucien Gubbay

Strong and enduring bonds of sympathy and enlightened self-interest once linked certain Englishmen and Jews: but
in today's secular world, those sentiments have dwindled to become no more than a distant memory.

That is not to say that Jews were once universally popular in England. Feelings against them were often aroused by
religious bigotry, by political controversy and even armed struggle. But underlying sympathy was of such strength
that it always managed to re-assert itself as soon as conditions improved.

It all started many hundred of years ago when the Hebrew Bible was first translated into English and King Henry
VIII ordered a copy of it to be placed in a prominent position in every church in the land - before then, possession of
a translation of any part of the Bible was a criminal offence in England. For the very first time, the People of Great
Britain were able to read the word of God for themselves in their own language and of their efforts to establish on
earth the rule of freedom and justice for all..

Inspired by the Hebrew prophets, the people of seventeenth-century England increasingly identified with ancient
Israel. Indeed, they saw themselves as the New Israel, striving to build a New Jerusalem in England's green and
pleasant land. The English Bible became their own book, one of the greatest ever written in their language. To
Englishmen of the time, the names and the exploits of the kings of ancient Israel became more familiar than those of
many of their own kings and queens. They called their children after the heroes of the Bible; and the geography of
the Holy Land was their own geography.

Those great changes of religious perception formed the background to the first fruitful encounter since the Middle
Ages between Englishmen and Jews. It was in 1656 that Sephardi Jews were again permitted to settle in England - a
country barred to them since the year 1290. In the following year they opened their first synagogue in the City of
London, bought a plot of land in which to bury their dead with dignity and began to trade openly as Jews on the
London Exchange. London then joined Amsterdam, and Livorno as almost the only places in Western Europe where
the presence of Jews was welcome and where they could enjoy what we now consider to be basic human rights. That
remarkable act of tolerance in an otherwise intolerant age was perhaps the first example of the British attitude to
minorities that so enriched its own society.

There can be no doubt that self-interest was a contributing factor to the establishment of the relationship. It suited
England's commercial interest to host a community of wealthy international merchants with close contacts with their
brethren all over the world. And those same close contacts were also very useful to the government in the matter of
foreign intelligence at a time of serious conflict with other European powers. But without their shared background of
Biblical prophecy, it is doubtful whether that first encounter would so easily have occurred.

As Jews soon learned, England and the City of London were places in which freedom really did mean freedom. It
proved a good home to them; and in their turn, Jews repaid their debt to their adopted land by contributing to many
aspects of British life.

In time, English Jews too were also able to play a part in the establishment of a National Home for their people in
Palestine, then a poor and neglected province of declining Ottoman Empire.

Years before the birth of political Zionism, Sir Moses Montefiore paid no fewer than even visits to Jerusalem - and
that at a time when travel from London to the Holy land was rather more difficult than simply boarding a plane at
Heathrow airport. He cared deeply for the community of Jews then living in squalor and deprivation within the walls
of the Old City. He built houses for them, and synagogues and schools. He built a hospital; and he even built them a
windmill - which even now though no longer in use, is one of the city's landmarks.

Only two years after the death of Sir Moses, another Moses, and this time Moses Gaster, took over, as Haham of his
old synagogue, the Sephardi synagogue in Bevis Marks is the City of London. To Gaster it was not enough just to
pray for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It was him who first introduced Theodore Herzl to prominent members of
the British government and people; and it was in his house in Maida Vale that the first draft of the Balfour
Declaration was actually written. The fact of Theodore Herzl's total failure to persuade the Ottoman Sultan to permit
the Jewish colonisation of Palestine let slowly by surely to his directing his efforts towards England.

Joseph Chamberlain, the most powerful man in the British government of the day, negotiated with Herzl for the
establishment of a Jewish colony somewhere on British territory. And it was from him that Herzl obtained the offer
of the Sinai Peninsula for Jewish settlement and, when that was refused, a part of east Africa. No doubt Chamberlain
was motivated primarily by the opportunity of extending British influence in the world. But nevertheless, his
recognition of the Jews as a people entitled to a homeland of some kind was the first step in modern times towards
the regaining of their nationhood so proudly exemplified by the State of Israel today.

To Arthur James Balfour, on the other hand, self-interest was secondary to his sympathy for the Jewish predicament
that sprang directly from the heritage of the Hebrew Bible, and integral part of his own birthright. He would be
unfair to himself, he once said in a speech to the House of Lords, if he sat down:

"… Without insisting to the utmost of my ability… that the ideal which chiefly moves me is that Christendom is
not oblivious to their faith, is not unmindful to the service they have rendered to the great religions of the world; and
that we desire to the best of our ability to give them the opportunity o f developing in peace and quietness under
British rule, those gifts which hither to they have been compelled to bring to fruition in countries which know not
their language and belong not to their race.

Lloyd George, later to become the Prime Minister under whose authority the Balfour Declaration was issued, said at
the time:

"… when Dr Weizmann was talking of Palestine, he kept bringing up place names which were more familiar to
me than those of the Western Front".

Of course, Great Britain was then engaged in the life and death struggle of the First World War; and the
encouragement of the Jewish National Home under British auspices in Palestine was a step towards the advancement
of its strategic interest in the region. But would nay of this really have been possible without that sympathy derived
directly from ideals and aspirations first expressed in the Hebrew Bible and taken up with such alacrity by noble
minds in England?

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- Copyright © 1999: Moïse Rahmani -