The Jews of Britain 1656 to 2000, by Todd M. Endelman

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Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 347 pp. $22.50.

This is a superb history of the Jews of Britain from the time of their readmission to the kingdom in the seventeenth century to the present. Through their history the Jews have only been a tiny proportion of the British population, yet they have had an importance beyond their numbers not only in their achievements but also as a means of revealing how that society functions. As so frequently is the case, and as Endelman splendidly recapitulates in his Conclusion, the accomplishments and failures of the story tend to derive from the same source: the nature of British society. Has it been a success story? Endelman's conclusion is appropriately ambiguous.

In many ways, the Jews were not treated any differently in terms of their rights than any others who were not Anglican men of property. And they too, as did the Catholics as well as the Protestants who weren't Anglicans, came within the "pale of the constitution," culminating by being allowed in 1858 to sit in Parliament. But at the same time their not being Christian -- even worse regarded by some as Christ-killers -- and their having come to the country only in the seventeenth century made them different, a group apart. Although the Jews tended to congregate in the same areas, unlike their European brethren they were not forced to live in ghettos. Also unlike them too, there were virtually no restrictions on what they might do. They became commercially active, fairly low down in the social scale at the beginning -- with the exception of some grandees -- and then becoming increasingly prosperous. Endelman is particularly expert on Jews in the 18(th) century, and he writes vividly here on the raffish existence of quite a few of them. The lack of persecution led to a weakening of the cohesion of the community and a diminishing sense of the need to maintain their religion and their culture. The comparative lack of stress and also their low numbers provide some of the reasons that the Jews of Britain have been intellectually less distinguished than their European counterparts; its intellectuals have frequently come from abroad. (Endelman also ascribes this in part to English philistinism, the dislike of those who are "too clever by half," that could so easily include Jews.) The lack of official antisemitism did not mean that there was not much discrimination against Jews, frequently what Endelman calls quite accurately "garden-party" antisemitism. Consequently it is frequently hard to tell how deep antisemitism is in Britain. Was the great debate about and the ultimate defeat of the "Jew-bill" of 1753 -- designed to grant citizenship to a few rich foreign Jews -- mere party politics, as can be argued, or an expression of a more visceral feeling of hatred, that could certainly be found in the speeches and cartoons of the time. In the 19(th) century, how strong an impress did Dickens's Fagin make upon the British public? Did it reinforce or help create a British stereotype of all Jews? Rather surprisingly, Endelman does not discuss these two questions at any length, perhaps because so much attention has been paid to them elsewhere.

The Jews of Britain almost seem to have made a contract with the state. In rerum for being allowed to get on with their lives without restrictions, they pledged themselves not to make trouble. The message that came down from the leaders of the community -- most notably the Rothschilds -- was that Jews should behave themselves and make a deliberate effort not to reinforce the traditional stereotypes of them as pushy, trouble-making, and money-grubbing. …