February 19, 2006

The Chief Rabbi on Cromwellian tolerance?

The Chief Rabbi has been caught out again. This time it's on the subject of when Jews were readmitted, as Jews, to the UK. This is from Eliane Glaser in the Financial Times:
events are about to get under way to mark the 350th anniversary of the "readmission" of Jews under Oliver Cromwell. Britain's oldest synagogue will hold a commemorative service in June; Ken Livingstone's office hopes to erect a huge menorah in Trafalgar Square; the Arts Council has funded a new play; and there are plans for events at Tate Modern and the Royal Society.

The only trouble is, Cromwell didn't allow the Jews to return in 1656.

In fact, as I discovered when researching a doctorate in 17th- century religious history, the supposedly historic event of readmission and resettlement was nothing of the kind.
Here's where the "Chief" comes in.
If you had been listening to Radio 4's "Thought for the Day" last December however, you would have heard Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks give a different version of events: "In the Middle Ages, Britain led the world in its hostility to Jews, and in 1290 became the first country to expel them," he said. "But in one of the great reversals of all time, in the 17th century it led the world in tolerance. Jews came back to Britain in 1656, and in a few weeks time will begin celebrating the 350th anniversary of that event."

When I first attempted to interview the Chief Rabbi for this article, the executive director of his office, Syma Weinberg, told me that I should first read some books on the subject. I told her that I had actually read them all, and had written one myself.

Finally, after several days and many phone calls, I received a call from the Chief Rabbi. I put it to him that the readmission story was not what it was cracked up to be.

"You're right - there were people for, people against; the whole thing is wrapped in obscurity," he said. "Technically there was no moment at which you could say Jews were readmitted."

Sacks defends the anniversary, nonetheless, on the grounds that there is something less obvious to celebrate: namely, the English tradition of informal toleration.

"The fact that there was no formal legislation readmitting the Jews, which we could view negatively, actually worked out rather positively," he said, "because other countries which enacted specific legislation found that this became subject to enormous public debate, and sometimes these countries took several steps backwards, sooner or later revoking those laws."

But what of Sacks's earlier claim that the readmission was "one of the great reversals of all time"? Either something happened, or it didn't.
Then we get Eliane Glaser's own take on Crowellian tolerance.
Unlike Sacks, I regard the informal nature of British tolerance as a sign of reluctance rather than affable accommodation. The Jews were not readmitted to England in 1656; a bill to give them equal rights was repealed in 1754, and they were only permitted to sit in parliament without taking an Anglican oath in 1858, after 11 years of debate.

Challenging the traditional faith in British tolerance is a better way of acknowledging true religious diversity than celebrating an event that didn't happen.
I wonder what Catholics will make of the Chief Rabbi's take on Cromwellian religious tolerance.

UPDATE: I was a bit to hasty to run with my "enemy's enemy" here. Here's Charlie Pottins's take on Eliane Glaser's article:
I think this bit of historical revisionism, which has been aired before, should be viewed with suspicion. What is the meaning of calling England "deeply antisemitic" ? Is it supposed to be something in the water, or genetic? I don't know anything about Ms.Glaser, but I catch a whiff here of the
"eternal antisemite" way of thinking which is about as scientific as the "eternal

...If the initial flow of Jews to England was not huge, it may be simply because there was no pressing reason to come, nor any prospects for most. But the Cromwell period was definitely a turning point, and whatever his motives, his rule was good for Jews! As for his "tolerance" or otherwise, Cromwell did clamp down fiercely on his "left" - like the Diggers and Levellers (such as the mutineers commemorated at Burford church, in Oxforshire, where their ringleaders were executed. They had refused to go to Ireland.) He waged a colonial war in Ireland and massacred those who resisted (who were serving not a "progressive" national movement, incidentally, but a reactionary church and king).

But we need to free our historical thinking from religious perspectives, or
anachronistic ethical categories, and look at what happened, including religious developments, historically, asking what interests they served.

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