Who Speaks for British Jews? Contrary to the Stereotype of a "Clannish" People, Britain's Jewish Population Has Never United Behind a Single Goal, or Spoken with a Single Voice. Dissent Comes Naturally

By Cesarani, David | New Statesman (1996), May 28, 2012 | Go to article overview

Who Speaks for British Jews? Contrary to the Stereotype of a "Clannish" People, Britain's Jewish Population Has Never United Behind a Single Goal, or Spoken with a Single Voice. Dissent Comes Naturally


Cesarani, David, New Statesman (1996)


One of the most enduring myths about the Jewish people is that they are "clannish". Centuries of prejudice have tempered the stereotype of "the Jews" as a unified mass. In many quarters, it is still an article of faith that "the Jews" are invested with enormous power by virtue of their preternatural solidarity and common will to pursue a shared agenda.

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Yet a look at Jewish history or a familiarity with Jewish life soon dispels the myth. The Jews in Britain provide an exemplary case. External critics and internal dissidents may denounce the Jewish communal leadership for using its "power" to stifle debate, but in fact Jews in this country have always been fractious and unruly. Even when representative bodies have been able to knit a fragile consensus, they have been blighted by self-appointed individuals or rivals who claim equal authority.

There is some truth in the notion of Jewish unity. However, what validity it has can be attributed to the hostility that Jews have faced. We can see this in the origins of the British Jewish community. Its roots go back to 1656 and a collection of Spanish and Portuguese merchants in London who were descendants of Jews forcibly converted to Christianity in 1492. They had continued to practice Judaism in secret, but eventually fled the Inquisition and settled in London where they had less to fear.

By a peculiar chain of circumstances, this clandestine congregation was "outed" and threw itself on the mercy of Oliver Cromwell and his government. Cromwell, acting in the teeth of opposition from Protestant divines and City merchants, gave the Jews permission to establish a synagogue.

Official recognition did not guarantee security. For a half-century, the fledgling community faced repeated assaults. Political instability and changes of regime gave Christian fanatics and business competitors opportunities to demand their expulsion. As a consequence, their leaders feared that any infraction of the law or provocation could be used against them. Hence, the rules of the congregation included sumptuary regulations, prohibited Jews from taking each other to the local courts, and required that every publication by a congregant had to be submitted for scrutiny by the elders in case it might offend the host population.

Until the early 18th century, the community was almost entirely composed of Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin, Sephardim. Governance rested with the Mahamad, a committee made up of the elders of the congregation, who were mostly well-to-do merchants. In 1701 they opened Bevis Marks, the first purpose-built synagogue in Britain since medieval times, in the City of London. But the immigration of Jews from northern and central Europe led to the emergence of a community following the Ashkenazi rite. The establishment of an Ashkenazi synagogue in 1707 threatened the Sephardi monopoly. Their rabbi excommunicated its founder, Moses Hart, but this did not stop him.

In truth, neither the elders nor the religious authorities had a hold over fellow Jews of any stripe. Soon there were four congregations in London, three of them Ashkenazi, each with a rabbi assisted by a lay leadership, each jostling for precedence. In a voluntary group dependent on funds from members, anyone with resources could form a breakaway congregation. Those with money would always wield influence.

In 1753, Joseph Salvador, a prosperous Sephardi merchant, persuaded the government to pass a bill that would enable foreign-born Jews to acquire British nationality, making their commercial and personal status more secure. The subsequent "Jew Bill" aroused such protest from clerics and merchants that it was hastily withdrawn. To other Jews, the debacle seemed to stress the danger of individual initiatives.

When George III came to the throne in 176o, the Sephardi elders presented him with a petition of loyalty on behalf of Jews belonging to "the Portuguese nation". …

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