Sunday, January 26, 2014

Emancipation of the Jews of England

Elkan Levy gave another superb talk at AACI Netanya on the subject of the "Emancipation of the Jews of England." Elkan is an expert on the history of British Jewry and is a former President of the United Synagogue and was a lawyer in Britain.

When Americans hear the word "emancipation" they automatically think of the Blacks, but they forget that even in the United States, complete equality for Jews was not automatic and had a long history. Rhode Island was the first place in the world in 1663 that granted people of all religions, including Jews, complete equality before the law. Other States followed suit (PA, VA, etc.), but Jews were not admitted to the US House of Congress until 1844.

In England, the cause of complete emancipation of the Jews was long and complex and faced entirely different obstacles to those in the USA, mainly because England had an established Church, the Church of Engand, founded by King Henry VIII in defiance of the Pope in Rome. In fact, before 1825 all non-Anglicans, including Catholics, Methodists and Jews, were treated essentially the same in England and could not hold public office or be elected to Parliament. It was the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the industrial revolution in England that ushered in social change that resulted in the gradual removal of such limitations. There were two main factors, the increased presence of Jews in everyday life in Britain and the thinking among the progressive social elite that the opening up of society to Jews was appropriate.

Several contemporary Jewish leaders were active in this issue, they including Francis Goldsmid, Sir Moses Montefiore and Lionel de Rothschild. Among those who worked for the acceptance of Jews as equals into the House of Commons were Benjamin Disraeli, Lord John Russell (future PM) and Benjamin Hall (after whom "Big Ben" is named). There were no laws that prevented Jews from running for office and being elected to Parliament, the only limitation was their inability to swear the oaths required for an MP to be accepted into Parliament. There were in fact three oaths that each MP had to take, but only one of them involved swearing "as a Christian" in order to be accepted.

The Jews at the time could choose to push for change in the swearing in process by legal means, or sit back and wait for change to happen. But, the way things worked out was not predictable. On three separate occasions Lionel de Rochschild was elected one of the MPs for the City of London (where he was of course an influential banker) and each time he refused to take the third oath and was disbarred from taking his seat. He was first elected in 1847, and the PM Lord John Russell introduced a Jewish Disabilites Bill to allow Jews to take the oath, but the House of Lords rejected this Bill three times. After another attempt, Lord Lucan (of charge of the Light Brigade fame) in 1858 suggested that each House should choose its own members, and this allowed the House of Commons to go ahead and accept a Jewish MP. Lionel de Rothschild covered his head when taking the oath and substituted "in the name of Jehovah" for the Christian term and on July 26, 1858, became the first practising Jew to take his seat in the House of Commons. Today, not only is the speaker of the House of Commons Jewish, John Bercow, but so is the leader of the Labor opposition, Ed Miliband.


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