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When England Expelled the Jews

July 17, 2022 | by Rabbi Menachem Levine

And the rabbi who was instrumental in gaining them re-entry 400 years later.

A small number of Jews lived in England since Roman and Anglo-Saxon times, but they only became an organized community under William the Conqueror in 1066. He encouraged Jewish merchants and artisans to move from northern France to England, where they fared very well financially.

King Henry III

Shortly afterward, English Jews began to experience severe antisemitism; they were subject to several blood libels and accusations that they desecrated Christian religious symbols. Concurrent with the coronation of Richard I (the Lion-Hearted) in 1189, anti-Jewish riots broke out in London and spread to other towns. The Jews of York were locked in a castle and, knowing that they were trapped, Rabbi Yom Tov of Joigny urged them to kill themselves rather than face painful death at the hands of the mob or forced baptism.

Under Henry III of England, Jews were required to wear a marking badge. They were also subject to tremendous financial persecution. The Second Barons’ War in the 1260s brought a series of attacks on Jewish communities in England and, in London alone, 500 Jews were tragically killed.

Expulsion

Ultimately, the Jews were banished from England by Edward I. His motivation was partly financial: once they were expelled, their possessions became the crown’s property.

England was the first European country to expel Jews.

On July 18, 1290, the Edict of Expulsion was issued. Writs were issued to the sheriffs of all English counties ordering them to enforce the edict, which expelled Jews from the country by November 1. Jews were only permitted to carry with them their movable property.

Sadly, the Edict of Expulsion was widely popular and met with little resistance by the gentile population. England was actually the first European country to expel Jews. The majority of the expelled English Jews settled in France and Germany. The process of their return would not begin until almost 400 years later, thanks in part to Rabbi Menashe Ben Israel.

Early Life of Rabbi Menashe Ben Israel

Rabbi Menashe was born on Portugal’s Madeira Island in 1604 with the marrano/converso name Manoel Dias Soeiro. His family moved to the Netherlands in 1610.

Amsterdam was an important center of Jewish life in Europe at this time. It was here that Rabbi Menashe’s family openly returned to Judaism. Rabbi Menashe was given the best possible education in the Sephardic tradition. He excelled in his Talmudic studies and possessed a thorough knowledge of Tanach. He was fluent in the spectrum of Jewish thought from the rationalistic school of the Rambam to the writings of the later kabbalists.

A portrait of what is thought to be Rabbi Menashe ben Israel

Rabbi Menashe also received a comprehensive secular education. He was fluent in 10 languages and had a broad knowledge of medicine, mathematics, and astronomy. He was also well-read in classical literature and the writings of early Christian theologians.

When Chacham Uziel died in 1620, Rabbi Menashe was proclaimed rabbi of the Sephardic community at the astonishingly young age of 18 and soon became one of the most famous preachers in the new center of Sephardic Jewry.

Rabbi Menashe, fluent in 10 languages, was proclaimed rabbi of the Sephardic community at the young age of 18.

Shortly after taking this position, Rabbi Menashe married Rachel Soeiro, a direct descendant of Rabbi Don Yitzchok Abarbanel, with whom he had three children.

Rabbi Menashe rose to eminence, not only as a rabbi and an author, but also as a printer. In 1626 he established the first Hebrew press in Amsterdam (indeed, in all of Holland), named Emes Me’Eretz Titzmach (truth will sprout from the ground). His printing press employed a new typeface that was later copied by many European printing houses. Although it eventually became a flourishing business, it couldn’t support his family and Rabbi Menashe suffered from poverty most of his life.

One of Rabbi Menashe’s earliest works, El Conciliador, published in 1632, won immediate acclaim. Written in Spanish, the work refutes the arguments of self-proclaimed Bible critics. The book was among the first written by a Jew in a modern language that also was of interest to Christian readers. Accordingly, it earned Rabbi Menashe a reputation in the learned non-Jewish world.

Over time, his fame as a scholar and expert on all matters of learning and science spread far beyond Holland. Some of the most outstanding scholars and figures of the world sought his friendship and advice. Queen Christina of Sweden, the painter Rembrandt, and the statesman and philosopher Hugo Grotius were among his non-Jewish correspondents and friends.

Yet, with all his secular knowledge and fame, Rabbi Menashe ben Israel devoted most of his time to Torah studies. In addition to defending the Torah against many critics, Rabbi Menashe wrote many other memoranda in defense of Torah ideas, including resurrection, reincarnation and the divine origin of the soul.

And his thorough knowledge of Kabbalah motivated him to hasten the coming of the Messiah, which ultimately led to the Jews’ return to England.

A New Idea to Bring the Messiah

In 1644, Rabbi Menashe met Antonio de Montezinos, a Portuguese Marrano Jew who had been in the New World. Montezinos convinced him that the South American Andes’ Indians were descendants of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. This purported discovery gave a new impulse to Rabbi Menashe’s messianic hopes, as the settlement of Jews throughout the world was understood to be a sign that the Messiah was coming.

An image of Jews being beaten from a 13th-century English manuscript. The figures in blue and yellow are wearing a badge in the shape of two tablets, identifying them as Jews.

Taken by this idea, Rabbi Menashe turned his attention to England, from where Jews had been expelled since 1290 and worked to get permission for them to resettle there, hoping to thus hasten the Messiah’s arrival.

In 1650, he wrote The Hope of Israel – which was first published in Amsterdam in Latin and Spanish – in response to a 1648 letter from Scottish theologian John Dury asling about Montezinos’ claims. In it, he expressed the hope that the Jews would return to England to hasten the final redemption. Rabbi Menashe also stressed his kinship with Parliament and explained that he was driven by amity for England rather than financial gain.

Along the same lines, in 1651 Rabbi Menashe offered to serve Queen Christina of Sweden as her agent of Hebrew books. In her discussions with her, he asked her to consider opening Scandinavia as a haven for Jewish refugees. He described the Jews being forced to wander from one country to another. He almost succeeded in his appeal, but Christina abdicated the throne and the plan didn’t come to fruition.

Yet, Christina continued to have a positive relationship with Judaism and protected the Jewish community of Rome when she moved there, using her power as a former regent to do so.

Advocates Readmission of Jews to England

Rabbi Menashe attracted the notice of many Protestant theologians who, like him, were convinced of the Messiah’s imminent arrival and naturally desired to know the views of Jewish theologians on the matter.

With the onset of the Puritan Commonwealth, the question of the readmission of the Jews found increased Puritan support. Therefore, Rabbi Menashe wrote an introductory epistle to the English version of his Hope of Israel in 1650 addressed to the Parliament of England hoping to gain its favor and goodwill so the Jews could be readmitted to the country.

A response – “An Epistle to the Learned R’ Menashe ben Israel” (1650), written by Sir Edward Spencer, member of Parliament for Middlesex – insisted upon conversion to Christianity before Messianic prophecies about Israel could be fulfilled. Clearly, that wasn’t up for discussion and it’s possible that the matter was dropped for a while for this reason.

Yet, Rabbi Menashe’s efforts drew the interest of England’s Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was especially sympathetic to the Jewish cause due to his Puritan views, more tolerant leanings, and pragmatic view that the Jewish merchant would benefit English commerce.

Rabbi Menashe pointed out the advantages England could derive from granting the Jews permission to resettle in England and permitting Jews observe Jewish practice.

Cromwell’s representative at Amsterdam was put into contact with Rabbi Menashe and a pass was issued to enable him to go to England.

Arrival in London

In November 1655, Rabbi Menashe arrived in London where he published his “Humble Addresses to the Lord Protector,” a memorandum in which he refuted prejudices against the Jews. He also pointed out the advantages England could derive from granting the Jews permission to resettle in England and permitting Jews to observe Jewish practice.

Cromwell summoned the Whitehall Conference in December of 1655. (It doesn’t appear that R’ Menashe spoke at this conference, though his pamphlet was submitted to it.) A formal declaration was made by the lawyers present at the meeting that nothing in English law prevented the settlement of Jews in England. However, the question of its desirability was ingeniously evaded by Cromwell. Public opinion was against admitting Jews, and Cromwell wished to avoid defeat on this issue in Parliament.

But the door had been opened for the Jews’ gradual return. John Evelyn even entered in his diary under the date December 14, 1655, “Now were the Jews admitted.”

Nevertheless, the process was slow – despite Cromwell’s support and Rabbi Menashe’s advocacy – as the British clergy and wealthy merchants did everything in their power to prevent its realization.

The Robles Case

The first major positive result of R’ Menashe’s efforts was seen in the “Robles case.” Antonio Rodrigues Robles (1620-1690) was a Marrano merchant born in Fundão, Portugal. His family had suffered at the hands of the Inquisition, yet he had settled in London as a merchant in the mid-17th century and had no connection to the crypto-Jewish community.

When his property was seized as that of an enemy alien after the outbreak of war with Spain in 1656, he successfully obtained an exemption on the grounds that, although uncircumcised, he was not a Spaniard but a Portuguese “of the Hebrew nation.” He won the case and his land was returned to him.

The successful outcome of the “Robles Case” established the right of professing Jews to live in England without interference.

In theory, the successful outcome of the “Robles Case” established the right of professing Jews to live in England without interference.

As a result, Jews from Holland, Spain, and Portugal came to Britain, where over time they became more and more integrated into British society. However, it was only in 1753 that English Jews were formally granted citizenship and in 1858 formal emancipation.

Despite his failure in obtaining formal permission for the resettlement of the Jews in England, R’ Menashe had brought the subject prominently before the ruling minds of England. He also elicited recognition of the fact that nothing in English law prevented the readmission of Jews and in 1656 a verbal promise from Cromwell, backed by the Council of State in the Robles case, to allow Jews to return to England and freely practice their faith.

In time, the results of his advocacy would prove to be even more far-reaching.

Opening America to Jews

If no law forbade the Jews’ return to England, that meant no law forbade Jews from relocating to the New World and live in British-controlled territories and colonies.

Rabbi Menashe’s work laid the foundation for Jews to be part of the settlement in the future United States and Canada.

Thus, just as the British North American colonies were being settled by English settlers in the late 17th century, Rabbi Menashe’s work laid the foundation for Jews to be part of the settlement in the future United States and Canada.

Thus, in addition to reopening England to Jews, R’ Menashe’s actions also arguably opened the door for what would become the largest community of Jews in the Diaspora in the future United States of America and Canada.

Final Days and Legacy

Sadly, despite the historic achievement he is now known for, Rabbi Menashe left England a broken and penniless man, feeling he had not accomplished his purpose. He also experienced a personal tragedy when his son, Shmuel, who had accompanied him, passed away on the second day of Rosh Hashanah in 1657.

Rabbi Menashe sailed to Middelburg, Holland, where his brother-in-law lived, to bury his son. A few months later, Rabbi Menashe himself passed away, on the 14th of Kislev. He was buried in the Beis Chaim of Ouderkerk aan de Amstel.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish Press.




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