In the year 1290, the Jews of England were expelled from the kingdom by the royal decree of King Edward I. Yet, even after the expulsion, Jewishness remained a potent symbol of the moral degradation of the murderers of the son of God. Even after there were officially no Jews remaining on English soil, Christian theologians continued to regard Judaism as a moral peril that threatened the peace of the meek English people. Not only was the Jewish community that had betrayed Jesus guilty of his death, equally culpable were the generations of Jews born after whose hands were also stained with the blood of the messiah.
Jews being burned alive by Christians. German woodcut from the end of the 15th century
Jewish-Christian relations became even more complicated with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the forced baptism of Jews who had remained on the Iberian Peninsula. It had become clear after a time that some of the Jews who had converted, willingly or by force, might (and indeed did) return to their Judaism, if not in the first generation, then in the second or third.
During the sixteenth century, many New Christians and Jewish converts to Christianity began settling in the British kingdom. They developed family trade networks through which they shipped all kinds of good throughout Europe and the New World. From the time that the New Christians returned to settle in England, the attitude toward them, and the Jews, had changed. Many received the New Christians as brothers in all respects, but there were some who viewed the Christian converts as two-faced, shape-shifters, and charlatans. A few still viewed them as the devil’s henchmen. This dubious role had, until then, been filled by none other than the Pope of Rome whom the English viewed as the servant of the devil ever since the English broke with the Catholic Church during the reign of King Henry VIII.
So long as England was ruled by devout Protestant kings, the chances for Jews being readmitted to the kingdom as openly practicing Jews was near zero. The relatively small presence of converted Jews was tolerated so long as they did not stand out, to which the bitter demise of Rodrigo Lopez, the real merchant of Venice, stood as proof.
Rodrigo Lopez was tied to a plot to poison Queen Elizabeth I, etching by Friedreich Von Holsen, 1627
Only with the execution of King Charles I, and the abolishment of the throne in 1649, did a rare window of opportunity open – a historic moment that might have passed quickly had not a leader with an iron fist been on hand to steer its course. Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Young Republic, was determined to be this leader. He was joined on the historical stage by another figure, a Jewish thinker who was known throughout Europe as the “Ambassador of the Jews” and who helped to promote resolution of the “Jewish Question.”
Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector, in a painting by Samuel Cooper, 1656
The Ambassador of the Jews Offers the Jewish People Salvation:
The positive attitude toward the Jews by the victorious Puritans (who sent the king to his death on 30 January 1649) was an open secret. Their messianic belief had them convinced that the second coming of Jesus will occur only when the conversion of all the Jews in the world is complete. They were less certain as to how to go about this.
Menasseh Ben Israel in an etching by Rembrandt
Many found the answer in the short book by Menasseh Ben Israel which he wrote in 1650. In consequence of his discussions with the Portuguese journeyman converso Antonio de Montezino, Menasseh Ben Israel was convinced that the native peoples of South America were descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel. He provided dozens of testimonies and references from sources and travelogues in order to convince his readers. He dedicated his book to the English parliament. But why then set his sights on England?
Since the Jews had been expelled already in 1290, Menasseh Ben Israel called for their readmission to the island nation – a return that would confirm the ancient prophecy that tied Jewish settlement in all corners of the world to the coming of the Messiah. The ideas spread by the Ambassador for the Jews rang true for the English: Menasseh Ben Israel had provided a winning plan for the English who believed that the conversion of the lost tribes heralded the conversion of Jews all over the world.
Thus, when the time came for serious discussion of the question of readmission of the Jews to England, Oliver Cromwell sent Menasseh Ben Israel an official invitation to visit the new republic. The discussions that commenced in December 1655 in Whitehall Palace on the matter of the readmission of the Jews to England provoked a huge outcry among theologians, merchants, and the rank and file citizenry who opposed the prospect that the hated Jews will return once again to the British shores. Menasseh Ben Israel’s apologetic pamphlet Vindicie Judaeorum (The Hope of Israel), was devoted entirely to one purpose: the systematic refutation of the various “accusations made against the Jewish People.” This time, Menasseh Ben Israel abandoned his messianic plea for a legal-philosophical essay.
Hebrew version of Vindicie Judaeorum, by Menasseh Ben Israel, published in Vienna in 1813
With the festive conclusion of the meeting at Whitehall, it was decreed that there is no official law prohibiting settlement of Jews in England. While the government did not necessarily welcome the “blessed” return of the Jews (as many Jews had hoped at the start of the discussions), at least, the door was opened at last for the gradual return of the Jews – a policy that continued and intensified with the reinstatement of the monarchy in England in 1660.