The Debate over the Resettlement of Jews in England, 1655–56

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, England had been home to a sizeable Jewish population. Under Edward I, however, the Jews were first impoverished by heavy taxation and punitive fines and then, when they could provide no further revenue, expelled from the country in 1290. For the following three and a half centuries, Jews were banned from English soil. (In fact, a small Jewish population probably lingered secretly, mostly in London, throughout this period.)

In the 1650s, Menasseh ben Israel, a rabbi and leader of the Dutch Jewish community, approached Oliver Cromwell with the proposition that Jews should at long last be readmitted to England. Protector Cromwell quickly recognized the religious, political, and financial sense of the rabbi's arguments. Although he could not compel a council called for the purpose in December 1655 to consent formally to readmission, he made it clear that the ban on Jews would no longer be enforced.

In the years 1655–56, the controversy over the readmission of Jews was fought out in a pamphlet war. The issue divided religious radicals from each another as well as from more conservative members of society. William Prynne was vehemently opposed to permitting Jews to return, the Quaker Margaret Fell no less passionately in favor.

Although in retrospect the lifting of the ban can be seen as a milestone in religious toleration, the motives of those who favored readmission were complex. Both Menasseh ben Israel and his Christian supporters believed that the presence of Jews in England was a prerequisite for the fulfillment of Biblical prophesies. Menasseh argued that the Messiah would not come and restore the Jews to Israel until they had been dispersed over all the earth (including England). The Christians, on the other hand, believed that the conversion of the Jews to Christianity was to be one of the signs of the Last Days; the readmission of Jews to England was thus seen as a necessary first step toward their conversion.

The following excerpts provide three perspectives on Jewish resettlement, from Menasseh ben Israel, an opponent of readmission known only as "W. H.," and the Quaker Margaret Fell, who hoped to convert Jewish readers to Christianity.

 

Menasseh ben Israel, from To His Highnesse the Lord Protector of the Common-wealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1655)

[Click on image to enlarge] Having some years since often perceived that in this nation God hath a people that is very tender-hearted and well-wishing to our sore-afflicted nation; yea, I myself having some experience thereof, in divers eminent persons, excelling both in piety and learning; I thought with myself, I should do no small service to my own nation, as also to the people and inhabitants of this commonwealth, if by humble addresses to the late honorable Parliament, I might obtain a safe conduct once to transport myself thither. . . . And to the end all men may know the true motives and intent of this my coming, I shall briefly comprehend and deliver them in these particulars.

First and foremost, my intention is to try if, by God's good hand over me, I may obtain here for my nation the liberty of a free and public synagogue, wherein we may daily call upon the Lord our God, that once he may be pleased to remember his mercies and promises to our forefathers, forgiving our trespasses, and restoring us once again to our fathers' inheritance; and besides to sue also for a blessing upon this nation, and the people of England, for receiving us into their bosoms, and comforting Zion in her distress.

My second motive is, because the opinion of many Christians and mine do concur herein, that we both believe that the restoring time of our nation into their native country is very near at hand; I believing more particularly that this restoration cannot, before the words of Daniel, chap. 12, ver. 7, be accomplished, when he saith: And when the dispersion of the holy people shall be completed in all places, then shall all these things be completed, signifying therewith, that before all be fulfilled, the people of God must first be dispersed into all places and countries of the world. Now we know how our nation at the present is spread all about, and hath its seat and dwelling in the most flourishing parts of all the kingdoms and countries of the world, as well in America as in the other three parts thereof, except only in this considerable and mighty island. And therefore this remains only in my judgment, before the Messiah come and restore our nation, that first we must have our seat here likewise.

My third motive is grounded on the profit that I conceive this commonwealth is to reap, if it shall vouchsafe to receive us. For thence, I hope, there will follow a great blessing from God upon them, and a very abundant trading into and from all parts of the world, not only without prejudice to the English nation, but for their profit, both in importation and exportation of goods.

* * *

 

W. H., from Anglo-Judaeus, or, The history of the Jews, whilst here in England (1656)

Their faithfulness is sufficiently known, say what they will (however, always to the true interest of this nation >> note 1), and if they should, for better terms, play false with the state, hold intelligence with enemies thereof, counterfeit the coin, clip the money, set the cities on fire, would not a safe prevention have proved better, than a too-late remedy? These things have been practiced, and so may again. We have small encouragement (if opportunity should be had) to hope the contrary.

For their religion: we have no grounds but to think them as conceited and stubborn in their traditions, as great enemies to Christ and Christians as their ancestors. We hear of few that are really and unfeignedly converted. So far is their reduction from affording any hope for their conversion, as we may fear the great cause of their so earnest desire to be received is their ambition to draw others to them. Since the time they have been bolder to return hither, it's more than to be feared, they have made many proselytes; and that if they might with impunity show themselves, and had toleration of their religion, and an open way of their worship granted, hundreds if not thousands would then appear, who are now veiled under the name of Christians.

Now there is opportunity for perverters to stir, matter too much disposed for them to work upon: such and so many opinions amongst us which have affinity with their tenets, as, denying Christ in reality, though not in words (by taking away his natures, offices, and the real history of him), there are but few steps betwixt them and that wherein principally the Jews dissent from us. What will not people now believe? To what will not this prevailing scepticism bring them? . . . Unto what an height are our Quakers and Ranters flown? Who, taking away and destroying all foundations, make their own fancies and deluded conceptions originals and rules of truth; and so, being once poisoned, are impregnable.

* * *

 

Margaret Fell, from A Loving Salutation to the Seed of Abraham among the Jews (1656)

A Loving Salutation to the Seed of Abraham among the Jews, wherever they are scattered up and down upon the face of the earth. And to the seed of Abraham among all people upon the face of the earth, which are all out of the way, wandering up and down from mountain to hill, seeking rest but finding none.

Now this is unto you all, who are out of the light, from the seed which hath obtained the promise, that ye may come to partake of the same, and be brought to the fold where there is one shepherd, and one sheepfold, where the promise of the Lord is fulfilled, who hath said:

It is a light thing that thou mightest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel, I will also give thee for a light to the gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the ends of the earth.

Thus saith the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel, and his holy one, to him whom man despiseth, to him whom the nation abhorreth, to a servant of rulers: Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship, because the Lord is faithful, and the holy one of Israel.

In an acceptable time have I heard thee, and in a day of salvation have I helped thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, to establish the earth, to cause to inherit the desolate heritages,

that thou mayest say to the prisoner, go forth, and to them that are in darkness, show yourselves, they shall feed in the ways, and their pastures shall be in the high places. >> note 2

So here is your mercy offered freely unto you, and the good will of him that dwelt in the bush, and there is no God besides him, neither shall you find salvation in any other. By the hand of the mighty God is Jacob and Joseph made strong, from thence is the shepherd, the stone of Israel, and the precious thing springs from him, which is David's root. Therefore come, O ye house of Jacob, and let us walk in the light of the Lord.


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