Eliane Glaser writes in the Financial Times:
Over the next few months, a lunch, a dinner, a garden party and two thanksgiving services will be held in honour of Queen Elizabeth turning 80 this year. Next month, the citizens of York will mark the moment 1,700 years ago when Constantine the Great was proclaimed emperor of Rome in their city, and heroic celebrations continue in Europe for the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart.
Imagine how odd it would be to discover that these anniversaries were based on nothing more than an enduring, but utterly inaccurate, myth. Yet that is precisely what is happening in Britain this year where 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; [London mayor] 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.
What is true is this: in the Middle Ages, a deeply anti-Semitic England became the first country in the world to expel Jews. In 1655, a Jewish leader from Amsterdam, Menasseh ben Israel, came to England to try to persuade Cromwell to let the Jews return. In December that year, Cromwell held a conference of merchants, lawyers and theologians in Whitehall to discuss the proposal. Some were in favour - many Jews were well connected merchants, after all. Furthermore, according to an eccentric millenarian prophecy then circulating, conversion of the Jews might hasten Christ’s second coming.
In the end, though, the Whitehall conference failed to reach a verdict. There was no great desire to welcome the Jewish people back from Europe.
A few hundred Jews did arrive in the second half of the 17th century, but their numbers paled in comparison with the more than 50,000 Huguenot immigrants who moved here in the same period, and the order of expulsion was never revoked.…
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.”…
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.…
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.