[Hywel Williams in the Chair] — Jewish Communities (350th Anniversary)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 14th June 2006.

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Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon 9:30 am, 14th June 2006

This is the first opportunity in Parliament to discuss the 350th anniversary of the readmission of Jews to Britain. Next week there will be an exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall, which I am sponsoring. I am privileged to represent the constituency with the second largest Jewish community—the largest for any Labour MP. As I have come to know the Jewish community better, I have become aware of its close cohesion and diversity—the Sephardi and Ashkenazi; the Federation, United, Liberal, Reform and Masorti synagogues, and many strands within those. The advantage that I have in not being Jewish is that there are no synagogues that I cannot go to. It is difficult to do justice in a debate such as this to the long history of the Jewish contribution to our country. I am sure that I shall not satisfy everyone. There is an old saying that, when two Jews are together, there are three opinions.

Jews were first recorded in England in Norman times. William invited Jewish financiers from Rouen in the 1070s, but they were subjected to prejudice and worse from the start. What happened at Clifford's tower, in 1190, was a good example. The Jewish residents of York were attacked by the mob. They took refuge in Clifford's tower, which was surrounded and besieged. On 16 March 1190, the tower was set on fire, and the Jews took their own lives rather than be murdered by the mob. Those who did surrender were killed, and about 150 Jews died.

In 1255, 91 Jews, of whom 18 were executed, were imprisoned in the Tower after an infamous ritual murder libel in Lincoln. It is an interesting footnote to history that both cities are now represented by Jewish MPs. In 1290, in return for a grant of taxation, Edward I, the "Hammer of the Scots", hammered the Jews too and ordered their expulsion from England. Estimates vary, but between 4,000 and 6,000 Jews were expelled.

However, the expulsion was not entirely successful and small communities of Jews lived secretly in Elizabethan London. One of the leading Jews was court physician to Elizabeth I. They were refugees from the Spanish inquisition, expelled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century. Known as the Marranos, they pretended to be Catholics but secretly practised their faith. For more than 350 years, Jews were unable to play any visible part in the life of the country. In the 17th century, however, Sephardi Jewish exiles from Spain and Portugal sought refuge, particularly in London. Fearful of persecution, those exiles lived covertly as Spanish merchants.

In the intellectual climate of early 17th century England, the coalescence of a variety of different strands of thinking about the Jews led to increased interest in the question of readmission. Hebrew was revered by scholars, who came to believe that it was the language spoken by Adam and Eve before the fall. Most significantly, the first half of the 17th century was a period of profound millenarian expectation. Many believed that Jesus Christ's second coming was near, and that those living at the time could work to usher it in. The Jews had a central role in that theological drama. The conversion of the Jews was seen by many as a necessary precondition of Christ's return. Some claimed that England, which they saw as specially favoured by God, was the obvious location for that event—which brings me to God's Englishman, Oliver Cromwell.

The English revolution changed the landscape for the Jews in England. The readmission has fuelled a lively debate among historians, and the events of 1656 have been the subject of varying interpretations. It is, however, clear that in September 1655 the Portuguese scholar and rabbi, Menasseh ben Israel, petitioned Oliver Cromwell to grant Jews the right to resettle in England. Traditionally, Cromwell's sympathetic response was primarily interpreted as evidence of his toleration and compassion. Historians today ascribe to him other motives, including his desire for access to finance and his belief that establishing the link would constitute a potential intelligence network, which was particularly important at the time in the context of the war with Spain.

Whatever the motivation, it was Cromwell who achieved the Jews' return. He established a conference at Whitehall to enable England's commercial, political and legal leaders to debate the issue. This old equivalent of a focus group, inflamed as it was by conservative opponents of readmission, failed to produce a favourable outcome, although it received a legal opinion that Edward I's edict applied only to Jews who were in England in 1290, and had no continuing legal validity in statute or common law.

A small group of Marrano families, who were ostensibly Catholics, were now living in the city. One of their number was arrested as a Spanish enemy alien and his property was seized. He declared he was a

"portugee of the Hebrew nation".

He was released and his property restored. It has been said that as a Spanish Catholic his position was open to question, but that as a refugee Jew he was safe. That provoked a crisis among the families. They answered by throwing off their disguise and declaring themselves to be Jewish. Together with Menasseh ben Israel, they submitted a second petition to Cromwell, asking for permission to meet for private devotions according to Jewish rites, and to have a Jewish burial ground. That petition succeeded and was approved on 25 June 1656.

Cromwell told the Jewish community that it had the legal right to live openly in England and that he would protect its members from persecution for failing to attend church services. The year 1656 therefore marked a real revolution for the Jews in England. I doubt that Cromwell could have foreseen that, one day, his Commons seat of Huntingdon would be held by a Jew, as it is today. In a sense, there was no formal act of readmission—simply a limited, practical acceptance that Jews living in England could reside and worship in their own manner, Thus, resettlement was effected in an unobtrusive and informal manner. More Sephardi Jews soon arrived, shortly to be followed by Ashkenazi Jews from central and eastern Europe.

There was from the outset a strong connection between the Jewish community and the City of London. The first Sephardi synagogue was established in 1656. The oldest surviving British synagogue is the beautiful Bevis Marks, where last evening's celebration service, attended by the Prime Minister, was held. It was consecrated in 1701. During the Jacobite uprising of 1745 the Jews showed particular loyalty to the Government. Their chief financier, Samson Gideon, strengthened the stock market, and several of the younger members of the community volunteered in the corps raised to defend London. Possibly as a reward, Prime Minister Pelham in 1753 brought in the Jew Bill, which allowed Jews to become naturalised by application to Parliament. It passed the Lords without much opposition, but on being brought before the Commons, the Tory party made a great outcry against what it called an "abandonment of Christianity". On the other hand, it was contended that the Jews performed a very valuable function in the commercial economy of the nation, providing one twelfth of the nation's profits and one twentieth of its foreign trade.

The Whigs persisted in carrying out at least one part of their policy of religious toleration and the Bill was passed and received Royal Assent. Nevertheless, a great clamour was raised against the Act, and the lord mayor and the Corporation of London petitioned Parliament for its repeal. Effigies of Jews were carried about in derision. In 1754 the Jew Act was repealed. During the 18th century, the Jewish presence in England continued to grow and a joint committee of the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities, which developed into the Board of Deputies of British Jews, was founded in 1760. By the end of that century, before the more numerous immigrations of the 19th century, London Jewry was one of the largest urban Jewish communities in Europe.

From the 1880s to the early part of the 20th century, massive pogroms and the anti-Semitic May laws in Russia caused many Jews to flee the pale of settlement from Russia and Poland. By 1919, the Jewish population had increased from 60,000 in 1880 to about 250,000 Jews, who lived primarily in the large cities, especially London. Originally, the Jews lived primarily in the Spitalfields and Whitechapel areas, which made the east end a Jewish neighbourhood. Manchester and neighbouring Salford were also areas of heavy Jewish settlement. It is interesting to note that the Huguenot church that was on the corner of Brick lane was first converted into a Methodist church, then in the late 19th century to a synagogue, and finally into the mosque it is now, reflecting the changing population of the east end and, of course, migration within London. Many of the Jews who found homes in the east end would now find their families living in my constituency and the neighbouring ones of Finchley and Golders Green and Hertsmere, or in other parts of north London.

Many tales are told of those times, which are within the living memory of the community, whose parents and grandparents were those very migrants. My constituent, Sidney Wagner, told me that his father came from Poland in the late 1920s. He was a trained forester, who, when he got off at Tilbury, thought he had managed to reach Canada. He spoke no English, and Sidney says that apart from Epping forest there was not much call for forestry, so his father went into the garment trade, as did so many Jewish migrants.

Before world war two, Britain was not particularly receptive to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. Approximately 40,000 Jews from Austria and Germany were eventually allowed to settle in Britain before the war, in addition to 50,000 Jews from Italy, Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe. Despite the increasingly dire warnings from Germany, Britain refused to allow further Jewish refugees into the country at the Evian conference of 1938.

The notable exception allowed by Parliament was the Kindertransport, an effort on the eve of war to transport Jewish children from Germany to Britain. However, their parents were not given visas, which led to heartbreak for families, as parents waved off their children, never to see them again. About 10,000 children were saved by the Kindertransport, although the plan had been to rescue five times that number. One notable Kindertransport survivor was Lord Dubs, who was a refugee from Czechoslovakia. There is a commemorative plaque at the entrance to the Strangers Gallery, for those who would like to see it. Despite the official position, however, there were notable heroes, such as Sir Nicholas Winton, who was recently knighted. Working at our Prague embassy, he saved nearly 700 Czech Jewish children.

After the second world war, there was further migration of displaced persons and of British citizens from around the empire and especially from the far east, where many of them were interned by the Japanese. My constituent Isaac Abraham was born in Shanghai in October 1934. His parents were British citizens from Iraq. As a young boy, he was interned from April 1943 by the Japanese. He came to the United Kingdom in 1949 and spent most of his working life as a teacher.

In 1950, the Jewish community's population was estimated at 450,000. Now probably just below 300,000, it is about half of 1 per cent. of the population, which is still a pretty large number compared with the original 35 families in the 17th century.

I have been describing what I hope is a very positive picture, but it would be wrong not to refer to the anti-Semitism that has been endemic throughout the life of the Jewish community in Britain. Historically overt, that racism was tolerated and even encouraged. It was exemplified by popular stereotypes from Marlowe's Jew of Malta and Shakespeare's Shylock through to Dickens's Fagin in Oliver Twist, all of which were profoundly anti-Semitic. It was also exemplified by the growth of the British Union of Fascists under Mosley and by the attitude of much of the British establishment towards the pre-war Jews in the UK and Germany. Rightly, the Jewish community resisted that attitude, and that was perhaps best exemplified by the battle of Cable street.

In late September 1936, the BUF announced its intention to mount a show of strength to intimidate the organised working class and particularly the local Jewish community in east London. The Jewish People's Council responded to that provocation by organising a petition calling for the march to be banned. It received 100,000 signatures and was presented to the Home Office, but the Home Secretary refused to ban the march, despite a large east end Jewish population and the anti-Semitic nature of the BUF.

The battle of Cable street took place on 4 October 1936. It was a clash between the police, overseeing the BUF march, on the one side, and anti-fascists, including local Jewish groups, on the other. Up to 300,000 anti-fascists assembled. According to the estimate in the Daily Herald, up to 10,000 police were brought in from all over London and deployed to protect the march. The anti-fascist group erected barricades to prevent the march from taking place, and after a series of running battles between the police and anti-fascist demonstrators, the march failed. The BUF was dispersed towards Hyde park, and as the fascists skulked off towards the west end, it was reported that

"everyone of Jewish appearance was insulted and in some cases they were spat upon".

When the fascists reached Trafalgar square, they tried to hold a meeting, but they were prevented from doing so by the police and were forcefully dispersed, having been comprehensively humiliated.

I regret to say, however, that anti-Semitism remains alive today. Only a few years ago, property developer Eliot Bernard's staff inquired about membership at a golf club in Surrey. The club secretary said, "We've got a few Jews, but we try not to encourage them." The reply was, "Well, you've got one more now—we've just bought your club."

My constituent Malvyn Benjamin told me that he was once looking to be a Liberal MP. In 1961, he was interviewed as a possible candidate by the Liberal party in Darlington. The meeting's chairman said, "I see you're of the Jewish persuasion." Malvyn replied, "Nobody persuaded me—I'm Jewish by birth." The chairman then said, "Well, that's a problem. We had a Jewish MP before, in 1910. It was Trebitsch Lincoln. He was a bit of a rogue and lost his seat in 1912. If we have another Jewish candidate, people might remember him." Of course, that interview happened more than 50 years later.

However, anecdotes such those mask a serious problem. In 2005, the Community Security Trust recorded 455 anti-Semitic incidents—the second highest total for any year. That included 82 violent assaults, 152 random attacks on individuals, including children, and four cemetery desecrations. Seventy of those incidents showed a far-right motivation, 39 included the expression of anti-Israel or anti-Zionist views and 52 involved a direct reference to Israel and the middle east. Such extreme views are not only found on the far right but, regrettably, expressed by extremists who purport to be of the Muslim faith. It is vital that the Government are seen to be doing all they can to tackle the cancer of anti-Semitism in our society.

Now, however, I should like to turn to some examples of how Jews have contributed to our national life, and it would be appropriate to start with service in the armed forces. The first documented contribution was in 1757, when Captain Alexander Schonfield of the Royal Navy commanded HMS Diana in support of Wolfe's attack on the Heights of Abraham to take Quebec. No fewer than nine Jewish seamen served with Nelson on HMS Victory at Trafalgar, and Wellington reported to Parliament that 15 Jewish officers were with him at Waterloo.

Jews served in the forces throughout the Victorian era, including in the Crimean war and the Boer war, where 3,000 Jewish servicemen were present, of whom 180 were killed. In the first world war, about 55,000 Jews enlisted, of whom 2,200 died. Some 1,100 decorations for bravery were won, including five Victoria crosses for gallantry. The first Jewish VC was awarded to Lieutenant Frederick de Pas in 1914. Of course, we should not forget the first world war poets, and Isaac Rosenberg, who was killed in action, was one of the great first world war poets.

In world war two, about 65,000 Jews served, out of a community of 400,000, which is a very high proportion. That included 4,000 refugees from the Nazis. Some 3,000 of those servicemen died. Jews were awarded 1,500 decorations, including three VCs and three George crosses.

The Jewish contribution to political life is enormous. David Salomons, one of the founders of the London and Westminster bank, was elected sheriff of the City of London in 1835. Twenty years later, in 1855-56, he became the first Jewish lord mayor of London, following in the footsteps of Jewish mayors in towns and cities across Britain.

In 1847, Lionel de Rothschild was elected MP for the City of London, but was unable to take his seat, as he would not make his statutory declaration

"on the true faith of a Christian", as required. In 1858, after he had won four successive election victories, the oath was finally amended, allowing him to become the first practising Jew to serve as a Member of Parliament. At the time, that was only a personal privilege. The Act that allowed all non-Christians to take their seats—the Parliamentary Oaths Act—was not passed until 1866. After finally winning the right to sit in Parliament, Lionel de Rothschild said these moving words:

"Would that this elevation not mean the diminution of our faith".

Of course, we should not forget Disraeli, the son of Isaac, a Jewish-Italian writer. Benjamin Disraeli had an Anglican upbringing after the age of 12. He referred to himself as the blank page between the Old and New Testament. With Jews excluded from Parliament until 1858, Disraeli was able to follow a career that would otherwise have been denied him. Elected as an MP in 1837, and twice Prime Minister between 1868 and 1874, he was Britain's first, and so far only, Jewish-born Prime Minister.

The first Jew to hold ministerial office was George Jessel, who was made Solicitor-General in 1871 and who later became Master of the Rolls. In 1908, Herbert Samuel joined the Cabinet. In 1913, Rufus Isaacs was appointed Lord Chief Justice, and he later became Viceroy of India. Since then, Jews have been continuously involved in Parliament and Government. According to the current "Jewish Year Book", there are presently 25 Jewish Privy Councillors, eight hereditary and 43 life peers and 22 Members of Parliament.

The Jewish community has made a great contribution to business, and many household names, such as Marks and Spencer, Tesco, ICI, Dixons and, of course, the Rothschild banks, were founded by Jews. Jews have also made a great contribution to science and medicine. Lord Winston, the world-famous pioneer of infertility treatment and TV personality, is in the other House. The Jewish community has made great contributions to the world of entertainment, too. Lord Bernstein founded the Granada TV company and brought "Coronation Street" to the nation's televisions. There is Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker, Peter Shaffer—all great playwrights. There is Maureen Lipman—I think it would be fair to call her one of our great national treasures—Sir Anthony Sher, the great Shakespearean actor, and of course comedians such as Sid James, Warren Mitchell and, for the older generation, Frankie Vaughan, the great entertainer. For younger people, there is Rachel Stevens of the former group S Club 7, and Craig David.

Some of the great artists of the 20th century were Jewish, including Lucian Freud, Jacob Epstein and Frank Auerbach. Jews have made a great contribution to our sporting heritage, particularly in the field of boxing. The pugilist Daniel Mendoza, who lived from 1764 to 1836, was heavyweight champion between 1792 and 1795, even though he was only 5 ft 7 in and 11½ stone. He was only an inch or two taller than me, and was about the same weight as me, and I certainly do not feel like a heavyweight boxer. The reason why he was so good was that he saw boxing as a battle of wits. He became known as the father of scientific boxing, inventing defensive boxing techniques such as the guard, side-stepping and the straight left. His patron was the Prince of Wales and he was the first Jew to speak to King George III. He became a popular figure in songs and featured in plays. His contests were illustrated by artists of the time, including James Gillray.

We all remember the film "Chariots of Fire", which was about the 1924 Paris Olympics, and in particular the portrayal of Harold Abrahams, who won gold in the 100 m and silver in the four by 100 m relay. I suspect that very few people will remember Edgar Seligman, who won silver for fencing in three successive Olympics in the last century.

The Jewish charitable tradition is also extremely important. In the 19th century, Jews entered wider fields and worked for both Jewish and wider communities. The best example is Sir Moses Montefiore, a successful Sephardi businessman and a friend of Queen Victoria when she was a child. He retired at the age of 40 and devoted himself to charitable and diplomatic work on behalf of Jewish people in Britain and across the world. His 100th birthday was the cause of much national rejoicing.

Many Jewish leaders are involved in important interfaith activities. Good examples are Sir Sigmund Sternberg, who devoted his life to interfaith activities, and my good friend Dr. Richard Stone, who has worked hard on the Three Faiths Forum. Perhaps the best example of all is the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks. He makes great play of the importance of religious education; he attended a religious school, Christ's college, Finchley. That is probably what gives him his wider perspective. We all very much appreciate his thoughtful comments on the "Today" programme, including those that he made this morning. He emphasised the importance of tolerance across the minority communities and across different faiths.

This Government have done much to support the Jewish community. For example, there is holocaust memorial day. The Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002—my private Member's Bill—was carried by the House with cross-party support. The Government have done wonders on holocaust restitution issues. In particular, they set up the spoliation advisory panel to deal with the return of looted works of art. However, there is a number of outstanding issues. There is the question of compensation for the civilian detainees of the Japanese, such as my constituent, Isaac Abraham, whom I mentioned earlier. It now looks as though, at long last, justice will be done for Isaac, although perhaps not for the rest of his family. In respect of the Kindertransport, there is a long-standing grievance that our Government ought to be taking up with the German Government over pension rights. We have yet to get the Jewish community radio station, Shalom FM, established; it has had great difficulty obtaining a licence from the Radio Authority.

There is unfinished business in terms of tracking down the war criminals of the second world war. I am pleased that the Home Office and police seem to be paying more attention to that, but there is a great deal of urgency in, for example, trying to trace the evil perpetrators of genocide, particularly those involved in the worst activities of the SS Galicia division. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, there is the need to be much firmer and tougher in tackling the problem of anti-Semitism.

On a more positive note, ever since its return—and even during the expulsion—the Jewish community has played a full part in our country's success in every field, including the arts, sport, business, politics and the professions. The community has always contributed beyond its size in activities that are of benefit to the whole of society, putting in far more than it ever received. Jewish community values are British values. Since June 1656, the Jews have become a settled presence in all walks of life. Despite incidents of anti-Semitism, the process of Jewish resettlement has been peaceful. There was no grand gesture or pronouncement, but a pragmatic and practical process of emancipation and integration of the oldest minority in our country, proving that diversity does not mean division.

In commemorating 350 years of the Jewish community's presence in our country, the modern Jewish community remembers the beginning, with Menasseh ben Israel and Oliver Cromwell, and looks forward to many more centuries of contributing to British life. Ultimately, the anniversary commemorates the greatest benefit, which is not to Britain's Jews but to Britain itself, as a uniquely tolerant nation. We wish the Jewish community mazel tov for its 350th anniversary.