A History of British Jewry
By Dr David Mendelsson
Records of the presence of a Jewish community in Britain date back to the Norman Conquest. Expansion was slow during the 11th and 12th centuries, but the community grew to a few thousand members. They were granted permission to enter the country because they were considered of value to the regime – they were an educated and literate urbanised group, with experience in trade and banking, capable of fulfilling positions in the new administration of the Norman monarchy.
The community's existence grew from its members' status as money-lenders and wealthy traders. Their contribution to the monarchy led to the decision by William the Conqueror's son, King Henry I, to grant the community a Charter of Protection in the twelfth century. In return, the rulers demanded and received large sums of money (taxes) from the Jews in order to be allowed to reside and work in the country, and this financial contribution implicated them deeply in its economic life. Jewish bankers were heavily involved in providing the outlay for the treasury-financed projects, from building churches and castles to equipping the army. Within the space of one generation, they accounted for a few of the wealthiest people in the country.
We know that these communities owed their existence to their wealthy members, who led the community and had great influence in the country, both economically and socially. Almost nothing is known, hwoever, about outstanding educational institutions in this community. Nonetheless, we do know that this community was a bridgehead for Ashkenazi Jewry from the French and Germanic lands, where there existed a number of central Jewish academies of learning and Yeshivot. One well-known French Jewish scholar, Yom Tov Maggiuni, lived in the city of York in his last years, but his fame was earned in his country of birth – France. Ibn Ezra also visited London.
The accumulation of Jewish wealth led to both jealousy and manipulation. Despite the fact that the Church took loans from Jews, it was openly hostile and fostered hatred of Jews. This hostility percolated into the local population and violence against Jewish occurred frequently. In 1144, there was the first ever allegations of "ritual murder" blood libel against a Jew, for allegedly killing a Christian child in order to use his blood, without any evidence to support such allegations. The blood libel was first brought against a William of Norwich; it subsequently spread far and wide and caused terrible suffering to many Jewish communities, in many countries, over the centuries. In England alone, during this period, there were four such libels in the eleventh century.
From this point onwards, the situation of the Jews in England deteriorated and the community went into a decline marked by humiliation, persecution, mob riots, and violence, eventually culminating in their expulsion in 1290. The first major official incident in this decline was the major outbreak of mob violence following the coronation in 1189 of Richard I, Richard the Lionheart. Many of London's Jews were massacred and in the months that followed the violence spread to provincial cities with Jewish populations, where violent mobs rampaged against the Jews. The most horrific occurrence was the total massacre of the Jewish community in the northern city of York, an important centre of Jewish life, in 1190.
A century later, after countless further persecutions, precarious conditions, and having survived both exorbitant commercial taxation and the taunts of the Church and the local population, the Jews' existence in England came to a tragic end, when they were expelled by Edward 1. While some "useful" persons may have remained, this was the end of the community's life in England and first of a series of such expulsions from that country or any on the European continent.
Although Marranos (crypto-Jews or Anusim) are said to have established a presence in London, following the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the formal readmission of Jews to England occurred only during the period of Oliver Cromwell. The background to this is the abolition of the monarchy and the Puritan Christian regime established by Cromwell. The Puritans were advocates of the Old Testament and more sympathetic to the Jews, and some notable English figures promoted the acceptance of Jews into this country on a legal basis, formally recognizing the Jewish religion. During this period many local or immigrant crypto-Jews returned to Judaism. The first Jewish cemetery was actually purchased by crypto-Jews in London in 1656 and received de facto recognition.
Cromwell's permission to return to England was finally granted to Jews in 1655. Ashkenazim from Western and Central Europe later joined the Sephardi community, gradually outnumbering it. By the mid-nineteenth century, Anglo-Jewry is said to have totalled 25,000.
The community was transformed by the arrival of Jews from Eastern Europe, between 1881-1914. This immigration was part of the mass movement of Jews to the New World, motivated by the promise of economic opportunity and religious freedom. In Britain, however, the passage by Parliament of The Aliens Act in 1905 severely restricted Jewish immigration and the First World War brought it to a halt.
The meeting between the Anglo-Jewish establishment - which was well integrated into British society - and the newcomers - who were Yiddish-speaking, traditional or socialist in orientation - was tense. The former made a determined effort to Anglicize the immigrants: their efforts were particularly successful in the field of Jewish day school education.
In time, the Eastern European immigrants and their descendants overturned the leadership of the community. Struggles ensued, especially concerning the democratization of the community and its attitude towards Zionism. The old-timers were, for the most, part critical of the Jewish national movement - whilst the newcomers and their descendants were supporters. In 1938 the Zionists captured the Board of Deputies, the major Anglo-Jewish representative organization, when they succeeded in securing the election of Selig Brodetsky, himself an immigrant, as president.
By this time, a further wave of immigration to Britain was well underway. This was to comprise some 60,000 refugees who fled Nazi Germany and other central European countries. Amongst them were 10,000 children, unaccompanied by their parents on a program called the Kindertransport. For the most part these children would not see their parents again. At the same time, the mobilization of British Jews into the war effort was extensive and many died on military service fighting Nazi Germany. Young Jewish children were evacuated, often to non-Jewish families, together with 1.5 million unaccompanied children and other people of the general population from major UK cities, during the Blitz. Jews were also evacuated to Canada.
With the end of the war, a small number of Holocaust survivors arrived in Britain, and since 1956 other refugees have found haven from Hungary, Egypt, Iran and Iraq. There is also a sizeable Israeli community in the United Kingdom.
At its largest, the Jewish community probably numbered no more than 450,000 - but since that high point in the 1950s, it has been in numerical decline. Today, the community is estimated at 285,000: less than 0.5 per cent of the total population. Britain is fashionably described as a multi-cultural society, with 6 per cent of its population comprised of ethnic minorities. Moslems are now greater in number than Jews, but for the most part they are not from Arab countries but, rather, from the New Commonwealth.
Anglo-Jewry is geographically concentrated in Greater London, where approximately two-thirds or 196,000 members of the Jewish population reside. In the London Borough of Barnet, Jews comprise 16% of the population, while in the London Borough of Hackney, a smaller proportion - in this case of strictly Orthodox haredi Jews - can be found. Outside the metropolis, the largest Jewish community is in Greater Manchester (30,000), with smaller communities in Leeds (9,000), Glasgow (6,700), Birmingham (3,000) and Liverpool (3,000). The seaside towns of Brighton (8,000), Southend and Westcliff (4,500) and Bournemouth (3,000) are especially popular with the retirement age population. There are also smaller communities of 400 Jews in: Cardiff, Edinburgh, Sheffield.
Significant historical factors that impacted on the inflow or outflow of Jews to and from the
The first combination of major factors to have affected the different waves of immigration was the desire of the Anusim to find a place of refuge where they could live their Judaism openly, and the openness and tolerance towards things Jewish on the part of the Puritan movement, in the mid 17th century.
The great emigrations from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century and the early 20th century provided a major turning point in the life of the community. Tens of thousands of immigrants arrived in the 1930's and the immediate post war years, as a result of fascism and Nazism. In the 1950's, the failure of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 brought a number of Jews into the country, as did events in Arab lands in the same period.
Zionism has caused thousands of Jews to leave the community, but events in Israel have also led to a considerable influx of Israeli Jews into the United Kingdom. Many of the latter keep their distance from the Jewish community and create their own social and cultural frameworks.
Main Occupations and Professions
At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Jews were predominantly working class and lived in the poorer neighbourhoods, particularly in the East End of London. Many were employed in the clothing, furniture and fur industries, but with time most succeeded in climbing the economic ladder, often following a grammar school and even university education. With economic stability, Jews moved out of the old neighborhoods, into the suburbs, as well as to the provinces and their suburbs.
Today, Anglo-Jewry is for the most part affluent and shares English middle class values and its lifestyle. Over half of Anglo-Jewish men and women are in the professions, whilst only 6% and 2% respectively are in manual labour. Jews are over- represented as taxi drivers: some one third of London taxi drivers are Jewish. Jews are also well represented in the arts, academia, media, entertainment, politics and the judiciary. Business remains a very popular occupation. According to the listings of Britain’s five hundred most wealthy people, fifty are said to be Jews.
Jews have succeeded in gaining high office. As early as 1855, Sir David Salomons became the first Jew to become Lord Mayor of London. In the same year, Sir Lionel de Rothschild was finally admitted to Parliament, having been elected four times yet refusing to swear an oath, which was also on the New Testament. The stockbroker and Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, also grew up and lived in England. In 1871, Sir George Jessel was the first Jew to be a member of the government, while the first Jewish Cabinet Minister was Herbert Samuel, appointed Home Secretary in 1905. During Margaret Thatcher’s long period in office as Prime Minister, a record of five Jewish Cabinet Ministers was established. Although Jews had a closer affiliation for many years with the Labour Party rather than the Conservatives, it is the latter who recently elected a Jew as their leader.
Streams and Movements of Judaism
Unlike the Jews of America, most British Jews are affiliated to synagogues, where membership dues have historically also offset the provisions for Jewish burial.
Surveys report that 70% of Jews are members of one of the community’s four religious groupings; 61% are affiliated to central orthodoxy, (the United Synagogue, the Federation and Sephardi synagogues); 27% to the Reform and Liberal movements, 10% to the strictly orthodox or haredi and 2% to the Masorti (similar to the American Conservative movement). Of course, membership does not necessarily reflect theology or practice. A more accurate way of understanding the nature of Jewish identity is by polling Jews and asking them for a self-definition. According to community polls which have adopted this method, 31% described themselves as traditional, 26% as secular, 18% ‘just Jewish,’ 15% as progressive and 9% as strictly orthodox.
Despite the Jewish community’s reticence to define itself as ‘ethnic,’ particularly in the public arena, this may be the more accurate description of the Jewish population. Surveys conducted by community research teams show that the overwhelming majority of Anglo-Jews share a strong sense of mutual responsibility, solidarity and belief in common origins, rather than religious convictions. In the USA, ethnic connections are expressed in part through the community center movement, but in the UK there are only two communities that enjoy such facilities, these being Liverpool and Ilford.
Religious affiliation has undergone some dramatic changes since the Second World War. At that time, the United Synagogue dominated Anglo-Jewry led by the Chief Rabbi, who was the key religious figure - both within and outside the community - in some measure paralleling the position of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Church. Today, this hegemony had been undermined by the expansion on the right of the haredi communities, and on the left by the progressive movements, especially the Reform. Illustrative of these trends is the growth in the share of haredi marriages in the total number of such communions. In 1998, some 21% of synagogue marriages were conducted by the haredi sector. This expansion can be explained both by the high fertility rates among this community and by the hazarah betshuvah (return to G-d) movement.
The disenchantment - and even alienation - of some women with their role in the synagogue has led to differing trends in religious affiliation. Some women have left the United Synagogue for the Reform, Liberal and Masorti movements, while others have organized to affect change within that synagogue organization.
Education and Culture
Until the 1960s, the overwhelming majority of Jewish parents sent their children to state schools and, where possible, to the private sector which offered the promise of academic achievements. This meant that Jewish education for most children was supplementary, imparted most popularly on Sunday mornings and perhaps once or twice a week in the evening. Parents viewed the critical age for their children’s Jewish education as from 8-13. Once the barmitzvah had been secured, children were rarely to be found in Hebrew classes. On the other hand, informal settings, youth clubs and youth movements were relatively popular.
Since the mid-1960s, an increasing number of parents have sought a Jewish day school education for their children, such that today more children attend these programs than those offered by the supplementary system. The major factor that explains this transformation is the disillusionment with the academic results and social milieu of the state non-denominational schools. However, other factors such as a Jewish revival and greater tolerance towards expressing religious and ethnic difference have also contributed to this change. Once again, demographic factors are relevant here. The increase in the ratio of the haredi population among Anglo-Jewry, especially due to its propensity for large families, has led to a major expansion in its day school system, with its single-sex schools. In 1992, some 5,330 youngsters attended haredi school and nursery facilities; by 1999, that number had almost doubled to 10,090.
The changing attitude towards Jewish day school education is also reflected by the fact that the Reform movement, once bitter opponents of ‘separating Jewish children from their fellow countrymen,’ now runs several schools of their own. In the early 1950s, some members of the Zionist Federation expressed similar reservations about day school education, but the organization nonetheless embarked on the establishment of a network of primary schools. Orthodox groups opposed the Zionist entrance into the field of day school education, fearing that the ethos of these schools would be secular, in keeping with the model of Israeli non-religious state schools. In fact, the Zionist Federation was careful not to offend these sensibilities, and their schools might better be described as religiously traditional.
The overwhelming majority of Jewish day schools in England are Orthodox, whether haredi or modern: an increasing number have separate classes for girls and boys. The modern orthodox schools are sensitive to the fact that not only do they compete amongst themselves but also with the non-denominational private sector. Much effort is therefore directed towards academic achievement in general subjects. Ironically, parents and school inspectors alike have bemoaned the methods and achievements of the schools in Jewish subjects in the modern and Zionist schools, although changes have been made in recent years to improve this state of affairs.
An unusual feature of Jewish day schools in England is that a large number of them receive state and local government funding that covers 85% of their maintenance and capital costs.
The only Jewish co-educational residential school for the community, Carmel College, closed its doors some years ago, although the ultra-orthodox sector offers a residential high school in Gateshead.
There exists a wide variety of Jewish clubs, organisations and youth movements in Great Britain. These range form the scouts, Jewish lads and Girls Brigades, through Netzer, the Reform Zionist youth movement to the Federation of Zionist Youth, Jewish Youth Study Groups, Bnei Akiva and Betar. A high point of these activities are the teen tours to Israel, which have become a rite of passage for up to 50% of Anglo-Jewish youngsters. The Union of Jewish Students is also very active and has Jewish and Israel societies on most major university campuses, even in cities with small Jewish communities. These societies bear the brunt of anti-Israel propaganda and Antisemitism.
There has been a steady growth in the number of university courses, and even degree programmes, that deal with Jewish and Israel subjects. Jewish Studies departments exist at universities in: Oxford, Cambridge, London, Leeds, Leicester, Manchester, Southampton, Lampeter and Leicester. Jews' College has now become part of the University College London as the Institute of Jewish Studies. A rabbinical diploma at the ultra-orthodox Gateshead Yeshiva is accredited as an academic degree. Leo Baeck College enjoys academic status.
Adult education has blossomed over the last 20 years; Torah study has never been so popular, and interest in Jewish culture, languages and the Shoah has been facilitated by organisations such as the Spiro Institute and other Jewish study centres. The annual Limmud Conference brings together over 4,000 Jews from all over Britain and almost the entire spectrum of Jewish affiliation. Considered a veritable festival of Jewish learning, it invites speakers not only from the UK, but also the USA and Israel.
Another characteristic of the community is its ageing. More than 25% of Anglo-Jews are over 65 years old, compared to the national average of 16%. The organized community is well aware of this reality and, over the last number of years, has attempted to address this challenge by fundraising and streamlining organization. A good example of the latter was the bringing together of several welfare organizations under the framework of Jewish Care, which assists 7,000 people a year.
Policy research has also been expanded to assess future requirements, but data are incomplete. To a large extent, there are pockets of poverty among the elderly and frail sectors of the population, as well as in young families and special needs' sectors.
Recent government policy has gone some way to help fund the needs of the aged and Jewish residential facilities. But such funding always falls short of the overall need and Jewish philanthropists and the broader public are asked to bridge, or at least narrow, this gap. The dilemma is how to distribute limited resources. Over the years, there has been competition amongst the fundraisers between Israel related causes, Jewish education and welfare. An effort has been made to resolve these tensions by expanding what was the JIA (Joint Israel Appeal) to become the UJIA (United Jewish Israel Appeal), which addresses not only Israel related concerns but also the broad field of Jewish Continuity.
Assimilation and Intermarriage
The expansion of Jewish education has touched many, but by no means all. There are those Anglo-Jews who see their Jewishness as peripheral to their identity. Some are alienated from what they see as an introverted and highly particularistic community. Others believe that Judaism is archaic and has little meaning for their lives.
In the atmosphere of an open and generally tolerant society, where individualism is widely embraced, it is not surprising that many Jews have left the community. This goes a long way to explain the decline in the size of Anglo-Jewry. Out-marriage has grown and the number of marriages under synagogue auspices have shrunk from 1,017 in 1999 to 907 in 2000 and 845 in 2001, a decline over 15%. Overall data show that 38% of married many and 50% of married Jewish women under the age of 30 are married to non-Jewish partners, which represents a considerable increase on earlier figures. Divorce rates have also risen.
One is left with the sense of paradox: on the one hand, there is an energetic and more intensive core of Anglo-Jews, but on the other a growing and alienated periphery.
Physical Security and Antisemitism
Anglo-Jewry has been fortunate in that it has not suffered the extremes of Antisemitism as evidenced in Central and Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, there have been manifestations of the phenomenon, at the beginning of the twentieth century and later in the 1930s, with the rise of Fascism.
Damage to Jewish property was experienced at the time of Britain’s departure from Palestine, when - in response to the attacks of the Irgun and Lehi against British personnel and institutions - riots erupted in Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester (July 1947). But, despite the violent denouement to the British presence in Palestine, events did not lead to a profound crisis between the British Government, the public and its loyal - if Zionist-sympathetic Jewish citizens.
During the 1960s and especially the 1970s, there was a growth in the activities of the nationalistic and xenophobic right. In the main, these were directed against the immigrants from the West Indies, India and Pakistan, but it was clear to the Anglo-Jewish defense organizations that Jews were also identified as part of the ‘outsiders.’ Arguments emerged within the community as to how to combat these racists groups, particularly because the broad coalition body established to fight the radical right – the Anti-Nazi League – was allegedly dominated by anti-Zionists.
More recently, there has been a rise of antisemitic attacks against the Jewish community and its institutions. This is part of a broader trend in Europe, where France, Belgium and Denmark have been more seriously hit than the UK. Nonetheless, the number of incidents has risen sharply and caused concern to the Jewish Security Trust, the major Jewish organization involved with protecting the community from anti-Semitism. There is little doubt that the increase in violence is connected to the so-called Al Aqsa intifada, which has been raging in Israel and the territories since September 2000. Muslim sympathizers with the Palestinian cause have attacked Jewish cemeteries, synagogues and even physically assaulted Jews. The radical right has also been linked to this activity.
Much concern has been raised within the community about the behaviour of radical Left wing groups, particularly on university campuses, who are believed to have crossed the fine line between anti-Zionism and Antisemitism. Indeed, certain newspapers have been guilty of this transgression, for example, the left wing, New Statesman carried on its front page a cartoon that suggested a Jewish media conspiracy was operating in England.
Major Problems on the Agenda of the Jewish Community
Apart from confronting Antisemitism and anti-Zionism, the community has made major efforts to turn the tables on its demographic decline.
Funding for Jewish education has increased dramatically over the years. In particular, this has been motivated by the belief that Jewish education, and especially Jewish day schools, act as a panacea to the problem of alienation and intermarriage. Trips to Israel have also been highlighted, because of the belief that this experience strengthens Jewish identity at a critical age. Although the number of youngsters participating in these trips has declined due to the intifada, Anglo-Jewish youth has remained committed to these programs especially when compared to other English speaking Jewish communities.
Despite the post-war the baby boom generation reaching adulthood in the 1970s, a (hypothetical) contemporary discussion of the future of Anglo-Jewry would have necessarily noted the dearth of students in the rabbinical and Jewish education programs offered by the community. (Until today there is no communal service program offered in the UK). Although problems remain in this area, the numbers of applicants to the rabbinical and educators programs at the Institute of Jewish Studies and at the Reform movement’s Leo Baeck College testify to the fact that there has been a growth in interest concerning these career options amongst Anglo-Jews.
An additional item on the communal agenda is the attempt to revamp some of the old, well-established institutions and to determine if they are responsive to contemporary needs. In particular, voices have been raised as to whether the Board of Deputies, founded in 1760, in its present form and structure, is serving the community well. Similarly, there have been attempts to make the United Synagogue more appealing to its potential constituency and, by so doing, avoid its decline. The Chief Rabbinate, for so many years the widely-accepted voice on religious and spiritual matters, both within the community and to the broader public, is continuously involved in a struggle to maintain its links with the haredi groups, on the one hand, and the non-Orthodox, on the other.
A further area of concern is the relationship of Jews to other religious and in particular, ethnic minorities. Attempts to find common ground with Moslems have not been easy, especially because of differences of opinion over Zionism and Israel. But this question is also part of the wider issue as to whether Anglo-Jewry wishes to identify itself as an ethnic group - with all the implications of such a self-definition.
The Future of the Jewish Community in the United Kingdom
Briefly, it can be said that we are witnessing two opposite trends within the community:
On the one hand, we have already mentioned a falling away of numbers in the community. There are fewer Jews now that there were a few years ago and this trend has continued for close on half a century.
On the other hand, there is unquestionably a strengthening of much of the remaining community.
It can therefore be suggested that these two trends will struggle with each other over the next period. The community will indeed continue to lose numbers. How many, depends on the strength of the movement towards a more vibrant Judaism. In this struggle, we suggest, lies the future of the Jewish community of Britain.
One further trend should be mentioned. Most of the provincial centres of Jewry are losing strength and declining in numbers, reversing the trend that developed at the end of the 19th century. It seems that we can expect a return to a community that is more exclusively based around London, returning to the early 19th century pattern.
The Connection to Israel
The community has been supporters of Israel since the founding of the Jewish state. The earlier ambivalence which characterised the community leadership has, on the whole, vanished. However, many in the community make a major differentiation between Israel's existence and the specific policies of Israeli governments.
The high point of support for Israel was undoubtedly 1967, where support for both Israel's existence and for its government policies came together in a tremendous outburst of Jewish concern for Israel, before the war, and pride in its achievements, after the war. Since the mid to late 1970s, there have been some strong voices of criticism within the community.
Recently, during the Al Aqsa intifada, the community has tended to rally round, out of a feeling that Israel's very right to exist is at stake. This does not necessarily imply support for the specific policies of the government - and on this issue there is a strong debate within the Jewish community and in its press.
In addition, Israel visits are a major feature of the lives of many teenagers and the youth organizations that sponsor them. Zionist youth movements have seen many of their graduates coming on Aliyah, a central part of a fairly large Aliyah movement over the years. After a period of decline, programme participation is reviving to near previous levels.
The Jewish Community's Contribution to the United Kingdom
There is no question that Anglo Jewry has contributed immensely to the development of British society.
On the whole, the contribution has been towards the economic development of the society. This trend began with the activities of the first crypto-Jews in trade and commerce. Over the years, a large number of Anglo-Jewish businessmen have made a great impact on the commercial and economic development of the country, a contribution that has been recognized by the conferring of honours by the country on many Jews.
Jews have made a certain contribution to academia and to the cultural life of the country, although arguably this pales in comparison with the parallel contribution of American Jews in these fields. They have also made a contribution to the country's political life. It should be mentioned that in line with the general tendency of British Jews to see themselves as extremely British, much of the contribution of Britain's Jews has been made by them as British or English subjects, rather than as Jews.