by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
The more we feel ourselves to be under assault as Jews, the more we are inclined to contrast ourselves favorably with those who come to Britain more recently under benign immigration laws, yet seek to destroy the state and murder its citizens in pursuit of their own ideological goals. Both Britain and the US are currently struggling with the issue of immigration. The history of the Jews in Britain offers some fascinating insights that I think are very relevant, and a lot of what can be said of Jewish immigration into Britain also applies to Jewish immigration into the US.
After Edward I expelled the Jews from England in 1290, they didn’t return to England as Jews (rather than Marranos) until the 17th century. Those first Jewish immigrants were harried by the merchants of London who feared for their monopolies and their protected trade and the guilds who wanted to protect their jobs. They were also harassed by the customs and excise officers, who wanted them to pay additional fines and taxes precisely because they were aliens taking advantage of benevolent English trading conditions. The Church attacked the Jews on the grounds that were dangerous heretics determined to replace Christianity with Judaism and corrupt the morals of innocent English women and children. There were, of course, the anti-Semites who wanted England to remain free of Jews, insisting that the expulsion had never formally been rescinded.
Despite all this, the Jews stayed and increased under the protection of Charles II, William and Mary, Queen Anne, and then the Hanoverians. They were granted the right to stay, “denizenship” rather than citizenship. The Jews were regarded as a harmless enough and an exotic small community, visited in their synagogues by aristocrats and royals (Queen Anne donated a large wooden construction beam to the Bevis Marks synagogue), made fun of and yet tolerated to the point where they could and did rise up through the ranks to very prominent positions amongst the upper classes.
In April 1753 the House of Lords overwhelmingly passed the Jew Bill “that any person professing the Jewish religion whom it may in future be thought proper to Naturalize, shall in Lieu of taking the Holy Sacrament, take oaths of Supremacy and Allegiance etc,” which would both grant Jews the right to become citizens and allow then to take a Jewish rather than a Christian oath. The bill passed the first hearing the Commons with no difficulty, but somewhere between the second and the third reading opposition emerged, was orchestrated and swelled mainly against “poor beggarly foreigners”. Nevertheless, with the support of major politicians such as Walpole, the bill was passed.
But then the London Press began to whip up opposition with articles entitled “No Judaism, Christianity for Ever”, “Jews wish to circumcise Christians”, “Jews to replace bible with the Talmud”. Jews were described as fences, criminals, and crooks. The Blood Libel was revived by a curate in Northumberland who claimed that Jews had killed one of his parishioners to drink his blood on Passover. Jews were accused of dual loyalties, being traitors and revolutionaries in the pay of the French. The campaign grew so loud and popular that the government feared for its majority. As a result, Lord Newcastle moved to repeal the bill in November 1753, and it was indeed overturned by royal assent in December 1753. The liberating contents of the bill would take more than another 100 years to achieve.
What really went on here? The fact was that the first Jews were all Sephardim who came mainly via Holland. They were usually well educated, well adapted to European polite society, and more often than not, comfortable financially. But by the middle of the eighteenth century, upheavals on the continent meant there was a huge influx of foreigners, amongst them rich Ashkenazi Jews, but in the main poor, uneducated ones. Cross Channel shipping used to take anyone onboard for ballast for free. And the natives began to get restless. Just as in our day there was dismay at large numbers of foreigners waiting in Calais to hang on to a Eurostar train in our day (or sneaking over the Mexican border). The problem then was so great that even Jews themselves eventually encouraged legislation against the poor arrivals and also ensured the shipping companies stopped offering freebies.
Amongst these poor refugees, not a few of them turned to crime to make a living. According to the Newgate Chronicle, “The Jews are the most notorious receivers of stolen plate and therefore the greatest encouragers of housebreakers in the kingdom.” In 1747 an illiterate Jew from Holland, Hosea Youell, was hanged at Tyburn for murder. And in 1771 a gang of eight Jews was convicted of the notorious Chelsea Murders. Although they were “anathemized by the London synagogues” their hanging brought odium to the whole of the Jewish community. According to one observer, “A Jew could not walk down the street without being upbraided with the words ‘Chelsea’ or ‘Hutchens’ [the name of the victim] and having his beard pulled.” The public mood was so antagonistic that many Jews actually left England at the time.
Slowly over time measures were taken to restrict poor immigration. The mood settled and most Jews got on with their main business of settling into the host country in a law abiding productive and thoroughly patriotic way.
The huge immigration from Eastern Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century repeated almost identically this pattern. The poor Jews who arrived into the East End of London included criminals and gave rise to the Shylock character of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Jews from Russia played a very prominent role in the Communist Party, in Union agitation, and Left Wing politics (as well as crime). In some ways you might say their critique of their host society was not that different to the Radical Muslim critique of the West today.
Agitation against “communist Jews” combined with working class antagonism to new arrivals also spurred Oswald Mosley, the fascist English aristocrat, to take his Black Shirt toughs right into the Jewish area of the East End of London with police protection and encouragement. Fortunately the Jews then, unlike many Anglos today, actually fought back in the notorious Cable Street Riots of 1936.
New waves of immigration have always stirred up enmity and created problems, even in Israel. But whether it is from Eastern Europe or further east or south, immigrants overwhelmingly simply want to make a better life for themselves and their families. But any group will also contain troublemakers, criminals, and revolutionaries. And if there are criminals or bombers amongst them, they must be dealt with, but you cannot tar everyone with the same brush.
One might argue that the modern Welfare State (even a capitalist one like the US) complicates issues because immigration adds extra burdens on heath, housing, education, and social subsidies. But the fact is that societies which have encouraged immigration have flourished and those which have not have stagnated. The process of adjustment takes time, for any group. The one thing one must not do and here the United States has the edge, just, over Britain, is to pander to them to the point of making non integration a viable option. On the other hand anti-immigration hysteria is a sick and ugly response.
My brother informs me that first generation Latin American immigrants to the US tend to have negative attitudes toward Jews. This is a result of the sort of education they get back home. But slowly and by the third generation they have adopted more tolerant and positive attitudes. Let us hope the same will apply to Muslims.
As Jews, we have every historical reason, let alone moral, to be sympathetic. After all, people whose grandparents and great-grandparents lived in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.