History of the
Jews and Judaism in Britain

In Norman French feudal society the Jews in England were useful to the King for dealing in matters of money because Christians were prevented from carrying out usary (lending money for a rate of interest). However, Jews were classsed as Serfs of the Royal Chamber which meant that their property actaully belonged to the king. He could take this back at any time. They were heavily charged on an irregular basis by what were called tallages, which provided up to one seventh of the Crown's taxation income - from between three and ten thousand people.
Because the Jews leant money, the Barons owed them it. When there was a crusade, or a child murder that was unexplained, the Jews were subjected to massacres. This meant that the Barons no longer owed anything because they were dead.
The continuous extraction of money meant they became financially weak, and of no use to the Crown, so Richard I expelled them in 1190 from England and then from his Norman possessions. From then on entry of Jews into England was illegal.
Some did come in, especially after 1500 when Jews suffered under the Inquisition. They had been expelled from Spain in 1492, went to Portugal where they had to be baptised in 1497 but had kept to their own religion behind closed doors. These few were still illegal entrants.
Then a Jewish community travelled to England behind William the Conqueror, and they were categorised and organised.
Cromwell was impressed at what the Jews had done in the Netherlands to add to the wealth of the country. He wanted them to enter the country (above the 140 here secretly) but the Church of England and the City authorities were opposed. Two High Court judges said in 1655 that there was no law against entry, and so they started to come in. These Jews were wealthy Sephardim of the Mediterranean, who were wholesalers, importers and exporters, and shipowners. By 1680 there were 2000 in London. They kept their records in Portugese within their London synagogue from 1663. At first only a tenth who came in were Ashkenazim, who were poor Yiddish spaking Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe, but they grew to outnumber the Mediterranean types.
More Jews came into England because of Inquisions in 1722 and 1735.
In 1760 The Board of Deputies of British Jews was set up. It looked after political, social and administrative tasks for their people. The Anglo-Jewish Association did the same tasks but for prominent Jews invited into its ranks.
From this time British radicals fought for the toleration of the Jews alongside other excluded groups. The Jews' position in Britain became ever more secure. They were not discriminated against because they were Jews but because they were not Anglicans, like many others. Unlike on the continent, they were not as Jews restricted in occupations (though earlier they kept to certain types of enterprise through custom - but those from Eastern Europe included many labourers and there was a strong working class), nor had to dress in a certain way, nor had to live in segregated areas. On top of this, fear and opposition was far more readily directed at Roman Catholics.
The two groups of Jews did not stay separate, but intermingled and intermarried. Many Orthodox Jews were shopkeepers and small business people, whilst there was some aloofness regarding religion higher up the social scale and indifference lower down. That indifference was encouraged by the financial and social snobbery within the synagogue, via named donations and pew rents.
The social character of Judaism was not dissimilar from Christianity. Many Jews in Victorian times assimilated into the culture and showed little in the way of their subculture because of the absence of specific restrictions. This was reciprocated so that Yiddish spoken by immigrants was gradually dropped in favour of English and there was adopted patriotism. People also were expected to physically move to the suburbs. Schooling was also a process of wider inculturation. Conversely, however, but in keeping, they could keep their religious practices intact because these were not an issue, whereas on the continent elite Jews saw a need to modernise and change practices for acceptability whereas the poor supported Orthodoxy. Here it was the other way round, and here both Orthodox and the Reformed were quite conservative liturgically and in practices. Orthodox/ Reformed did not equate with traditionalist/ progressive.
So the formation of the West London Reformed Synagogue in 1842 was by an elite and not primarily a theological dispute, although later the public face was a difference of theological emphasis and maintenance of practices. The Sephardi synagogue was just inconvenient in its location and operations for the upper elite (Englander in Parsons, 1991, 246) and they were joined by some Ashkenazis. It also provided an alternative political voice for the Jewish people.
Once set up, the Reformed produced a more ordered and intended dignified service from the existing prayer book and scripture to bring it within two and a half hours length (except Yom Kippur), and had a discriminatory approach to the demands of the Oral Law, and said that they were bearers rather than the only receivers of God's grace and opposed the nationalistic story emphasis in the Judaism they had left. These changes were regarded as evil by the Chief Rabbi who emphasised the totality of the Oral Law. The Reformed also emphasised the unitary identity of all British Jewry rather than its split origins. Meanwhile, one distinction made between Orthodox and Reformed was that of church and chapel, so that social acceptance would mean being in the mainstream of Jewish association (Englander in Parsons, 1991, 260), as if there was Jewish church and Jewish chapel! This meant that the social elite should stay in the main branch and not the Reformed!
In 1858 the House of Lords debated the admission of Jews to Parliament. Just as the Church of England resisted the readmission of Jews to England, so it resisted, in the shocking words of the Bishop of Cashel, the entry of Jews into Parliament. The argument used shows the antisemitism of this reading of Christianity, that all Jews are the crucifiers of Christ ('the Jews of the present day show themselves the true children of their fallen fathers'), that they are 'degenerate', and that a good Jews would not enter a Parliament but the stereotypical money-lending Jew would not warrant a change of oath. Fortunately, other people were more interested in the exercise of civil liberties by all people of the country. Yet this shows how the claimed superiority of Christianity and its salvation turns into antisemitic racism.
The general toleration (!) however did not mean that British Judaism operated in a vacuum regarding its belief. Just as Jewish organisations had a setting that can be analysed by sociology of religion, so its theology can be analysed using sociology of religion.
Much of the wider British social elite was evangelical in persuasion. Their view was pretty much scripturally conservative or fundamentalist, including the Old Testament. So their criticism of Jews was not against the culture of the people (as on the continent), or against their use of the Old Testament (though, of course, it stopped short of the New!), but against the place of the Talmud as extra-scriptural.
One progressive British Jewish response in emphasis was neo-Karaite Judaism (Englander in Parsons, 1991, 258-260) which placed God sourced eternal Mosaic Law higher than human argued Talmudic Law, the latter relegated to opinion.
It was a problem for them, however, when Christian liberals were unpicking the historical basis of the Mosaic texts. They found that is the prophets who come first before the law, and then their work (and of other story tellers and religious functionaries) becomes the basis of Jewish Law after the exile of 587-538 BC. The law books had been put first because of their significance, but this was turned into an historical narrative using a delivery in one go by a supernatural God to a figure called Moses. The evidence is that the law in Deuteronomy is not as it is in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. The law of Moses is not the basis for living from the first Israelite settlement in Canaan to the Babylonian exile in Judges, Samuel and Kings. Some editing had happened in these books in the style of Deuteronomy. So it is the end of the Monarchy period that projects itself backwards. What are presented as prophesies in fact come late, as do certain psalms. Yet Moses is regarded as the person who led the Jews from Egypt and made the Covenant, and so he became the one who received the Law. If this was the basis of the Jewish faith, what then? On top of this scholars tracked two narratives in Genesis identified by the use of the Lord (Yahweh) or God (Elohim).
One answer was something like the Christian view of Church as interpreter, and the imposing of tradition. Solomon Schechter wrote about Catholic Judaism (Englander in Parsons, 1991, 261) which, unlike in neo-Karaite Britain meant a shift towards the importance of the Oral Law as in the Talmud. The synagogue comes a place of the embodiment of the story of the Jewish people. This had very little impact, however, on the views of ordinary Jews in the synagogue, just as biblical criticism has had little impact on Christians (though of course they may admit Genesis is "not true" as a one off or even try to match the Genesis accounts with scientific accounts).
Unlike the Reformed division, and as a result of biblical criticism and other rational and scientific developments, the Jewish Religious Union was clearly a liberal breakaway (1901) which seemed to others seemed heretical, alien and somewhat Christian (it incorporated some trinitarian hymns). The important point is that liberalism became an American phenomenon, and only really had a later feedback effect here. This is one reason why American liberal Jews and Unitarian Universalists often work together, whereas this has not happened in Britain (also an impact of the unestablished congregational nature of all American religious life).
The conservatism of the Anglicised synagogue and ministry in this country had another effect. Like Methodist holiness, but linked to a known past, the chevroth (might say chevras) with teaching attachments spread about. This happened with the continuing influx of Eastern European Jews who wanted an active spirituality as where they had come from. The formation of the Federation of Synagogues in 1887 was one successful attempt to incorporate these groups into British Jewry, although in 1891-1892 the Machzigei HaDath was formed as purist non-Karaite synagogues. Although this came to conditionally recognise the Chief Rabbi, the plurality of Judaism continued throughout the country.
1880 and 1905 had seen an influx of Ashkenazim Jews from the Russian pogroms, and then, of course, came the 1930's with the persecution that began the Nazis' programme of their destruction. There was some political racism in Britain that reflected what was happening on the continent, but not from the government and it met popular resistance in London. A strong working class Jewish element received support from other working class people, as well as in particular the support of Irish immigrants whom Jews had helped in their settlement.
Jews in Britain number well under half a million, with half of their number in London and a strong concentration in Manchester (and in other conurbations). A majority of Jews in Britain today do not go back in line in Britain after 1880. There are under 400 synagogues (with Orthodox and Reformed varieties) but around 40% are not members.
The Reformed group roughly to the theological left have around 50 synagogues. Around 80 synagogues form the central Orthodox United Synagogue. About 40 synagogues from the Federation of Synagogues which is to the theological right. Further to the right still is the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations with around 40 synagogues.
Toleration and assimilation, and multicultural Britain, has led to Westernising and increasing secularisation of Jewish people, who sometimes marry out. There is not the input of new people who maintained orthdoxy and vitality in Victorian times, but rather a number who go to Israel. Obviously there are very few Jews to come from Eastern Europe now, but Russian Jews have gone to Israel or America anyway. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute is dividing Jews in Britain (not in America where they and fundamentalist Christians are pro-Israel) and questions are asked about loyalty to Israel, to human rights, plurality and identity. There has been a greater acceptance of the Chief Rabbi as a kind of British moral guardian, sometimes compared with the Archbishop of Canterbury (because of the implied "lack of leadership" of the Church of England, and the debate over its Establishment) and the tainting of Roman Catholicism through paedophile scandals. However, many Jews become keen to point out that he is not their Chief Rabbi, just as the Archbishop of Canterbury is not the leader of all Christians. The idea of having a moral guardian is linked to the vestiges of feudalism and monarchy in Britain and its attachment to cicil religion. However, the very fact that the Chief Rabbi became invited almost as of right to sit in the House of Lords (itself subject to reform - but his place may stay) shows that British Jewry has an important role in the life of Britain.



FitzHugh T. V. H. (1988), The Dictionary of Geneaology, Alphabooks, 150-152.

Parsons, G. (Ed.) (1988), Religion in Victorian Britain: I Traditions, Manchester University Press in association with the Open University, 235-273.

Moore, J. R. (Ed.) (1988), Religion in Victorian Britain: III Sources, Manchester University Press in association with the Open University, 481-500.


in the House of Lords
on the
admission of
Jews into Parliament


...Is there any reasonable ground for supposing that if they were admitted into Parliament they would interfere with our Church? Not in the slightest degree. Do they look up to a foreign Power as their head? In no respect whatever can this be said of them. So far from being enemies of the Church you allow them to present to benefices, which you do not permit Roman Catholics to do, and in no instance has any complaint ever been made as to the exercise of their patronage. My Lords, most earnestly, most sincerely, and most zealously do 1 hope that your Lordships will so decide that this may be the last time that I shall have the opportunity of addressing you on this subject. ...

The Marquess of LONDONDERRY said, it was remarkable that of all those right rev. Prelates to whom their Lordships were wont to look for lessons of improvement, instruction, and guidance, not one of them had addressed a word to their Lordships about the morality or the immorality, the propriety or the impropriety, of admitting Jews to Parliament. Let it not be said that this measure would unchristianize the Legislature, or that their prayers would become a Farce ifaJew were admitted to the House, with some Member of the right rev. Bench rising to give his opinion on the question. For his part he would not allow his religion to be guided by statesmanship, neither would he receive lessons on this subject from any Peer till he had heard from those who ought to instruct him and this House what was their opinion on the matter. For his own part... he was sure that the Jews had been, and that they would be again, God´s chosen people. Their Lordships might do as they would - they would act according to their own judgment - it was sufficient for him to have the honour of standing up and recording his protest against this attempt to exclude the Jew from his political privileges.

The Bishop of CASHEL:

My Lords, I rise to answer the appeal which has just been addressed to this Bench by the noble Lord. I wish to say that, in voting against the clause for admitting the Jews, I am actuated by no unkind feeling towards them. I love them, and have perhaps a greater regard for them than many of those who vote for their admission to seats in the Legislature. I feel, I hope, towards them in the same spirit as the Apostle, who said they were enemies for the Gospel´s sake, but beloved for their father´s sake. They are the children of Abraham, but they are degenerate children who walk not in the steps of their father. It was said by our Lord himself that Abraham 'rejoiced to see his day, and he saw it and was glad;' but the degenerate children of Abraham, in the day of the Saviour´s humiliation, cried out, 'Crucify him, crucify him!' and the Jews of the present day show themselves the true children of their fallen fathers, by blaspheming that holy name and speaking evil of Him whom Christians love. I cannot, therefore, agree that they ought to be admitted to the Houses of Parliament. We have the authority of the beloved Apostle of the Lord, - 'If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed.' There is another reason why I cannot do so. It was declared from the earliest times, as the distinguishing character of the Jews, - 'The people shall dwell alone, and they shall not be reckoned among the nations.' They well stand among the nations of the earth as a separate people. I agree with the noble Lord that the Jews will again become the people of God; but that will not be till they, being converted to the faith of Christ, are brought to say, - 'Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.'... There is yet another reason for not consenting to that clause which shall admit them into Parliament. I believe that a good Jew would not come into this House. I believe so because, on that memorable occasion when their fathers cried out, 'Crucify him, crucify him,' it is written that they went not into The Roman Judgment Hall lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the passover; but Pilate went out unto them. So I believe that a good, honest, conscientious Jew would not enter into your Lordships' House or the other House of Parliament. I have no doubt that the mere money-changing, money-brokering Jew would come in; but, to admit such, I am not willing to be a party to withdrawing the profession of the Christian faith. It is a remarkable fact that not a single petition has come from the Jews themselves, asking for admission to seats in Parliament. As the noble Marquess has called upon the right reverend Bench for an opinion on this question, I have thought it my duty to say these few words, and I thank the House for the patience with which it has heard me...

(from Hansard (Lords), Oaths Bill, 27 April 1858, reproduced in Moore, 1988, 497-498)


June 2002


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful