Tuesday, June 23, 2015

  • Tuesday, June 23, 2015
  • Elder of Ziyon

If you’re a visitor to London this Northern Hemisphere summer (here in Australia we’re beset by winter) and find yourself, as is not unlikely, admiring the great edifice, packed with tombs of kings and queens, that is Westminster Abbey, cast your mind back to the Middle Ages – not a hard thing to do in that environment – when the Jews, useful to the Crown as moneylenders, were the chattels of successive kings, to be protected or persecuted as those kings pleased.
When William the Conqueror’s great-grandson, the Crusader Richard Coeur de Lion, was crowned at the Abbey in 1189, representatives of Anglo-Jewry, barred from the holy ceremony itself, appeared at the subsequent banquet with gifts for the king they were set upon, beaten, and flung from the premises. Pogrom-like rioting ensued, in which Jews were killed and property destroyed, and the following March, while Richard was overseas on a Crusade, there was the infamous massacre at Clifford’s Tower in York.
England’s sovereign for much of the thirteenth century (1216-72) was Richard’s nephew King Henry III, whose bones, unlike those of Richard, who was buried in France, rest in the Abbey. His long reign was not a happy one for the Jews of England. From 1218 Jews were forced to wear a distinguishing badge – representing the Tablets of the Law, the earliest instance of compulsory badge-wearing in Europe. Missionary efforts intensified amid a climate of deepening intolerance (whereas in the previous century several Christians had adopted Judaism without reprisal, in 1222 an Oxford deacon who did so and wed a Jewish wife was burned at the stake), constructing new synagogues was prohibited, and so on. Moreover, wealthy Jews were compelled to contribute large sums towards Henry’s enthusiastic rebuilding of Westminster Abbey that began in 1244-45.
When Henry hatched his plan for refurbishing the Abbey, Aaron of York, the country’s richest financier, who was constantly fleeced by the king through levies and fines, was compelled to donate a large sum towards the shrine of King Edward the Confessor in the Abbey “for the salvation of the king and queen and their children”. When the rebuilding started, the twice-widowed financier Licoricia (who was fated, much later, to be a murder victim along with her Christian servant, Alice) was fleeced of over £2500 and Moses of Hereford of £3000. Elias le Eveske, who was at that time archpresbyter – Anglo-Jewry’s officially-recognised communal leader – was forced to donate a silver-gilt chalice. And other Jewish individuals had to defray the cost of the Abbey’s internal embellishments.
To add insult to injury, the Torah Scrolls used by the justices of the Jews for administering oaths were compulsorily sold off in order to pay for new liturgical vestments for the Abbey’s clergy and other ritual items
And all this didn't save the community from rapine and persecution, either under Henry or his son Edward I, who following draconian legislation against them expelled them from the country in 1290, warning that any who remained would be put to death.
However, in the interval between the Expulsion of 1290 and the formal Readmission of Jews by Oliver Cromwell in 1656, a tremendous change occurred in England and Wales that had significant implications for Anglo-Jewry. This was, of course, the Reformation, which, inter alia, abolished the cults of English boys supposedly ritualistically murdered by Jews and consequently venerated as martyrs by the Church: William of Norwich (d. 1144; focus of the first blood libel in medieval Europe), Robert of Bury St Edmunds (d.1181) and, in particular, Little St Hugh (d.1255), whose shrine at Lincoln Cathedral had been a popular place of pilgrimage.
Crucially, King Henry VIII had the Bible translated into English (and Welsh), making its contents accessible for the first time to ordinary men and women in his realms, and commanding a copy to be placed in every parish. Thus people hearing the scriptures read in the vernacular became aware that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate had ordered the crucifixion of Jesus – and the Jews-killed-Christ canard was compromised as a result. (It seems, at least from anecdotal evidence, that it was comparatively infrequently invoked by members of the Church of England and other Protestant denominations.)
But it was the beautiful language of the translation of the Bible produced in 1611 with the authorisation of King James I that endeared the Scriptures to large swathes of the Protestant public, thus consolidating what Henry had begun.
Thus the country embarked on what the nineteenth-century English biologist T.H. Huxley (quoted in Barbara W. Tuchman, Bible and Sword (1956), p. 81) called “the national epic of Britain,” so closely did British men and women identify with the story of Israel.
The nineteenth-century writer Leigh Hunt exemplified such people. During his London boyhood he loved to visit the Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place – he had acquired a smattering of Hebrew – and would later write that whenever he saw “a Rabbi in the street, he seemed to me a man coming, not from Bishopsgate of Saffron Hill, but out of the remoteness of time”. Similarly, the Anglican priest Father Ignatius, an early gentile Zionist who also visited the Great Synagogue as a boy and continued to visit synagogues in adulthood, wrote: “Whenever I met a Jewish old clo’ man, I could not forbear from taking my hat off to him, and rendering him the homage which I felt due to a representative of the aristocratic race of humanity.” And J.E. Budgett Meakin, an Evangelical and orientalist who wrote sympathetically of Jews in the Near East, declared that if he could choose his ethnicity “it would most assuredly be that of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”.
David Lloyd George, during whose prime ministership the Balfour Declaration was adopted, who was brought up in the Welsh chapel-going tradition, recalled (Jewish Chronicle Supplement, 29 May 1925:
“I was brought up in a school where I was taught far more about the history of the Jews than about the history of my own land. I could tell you all the Kings of Israel. But I doubt whether I could have named half a dozen of the Kings of England and not more of the Kings of Wales… On five days a week in the day school and … in our Sunday schools, we were thoroughly versed in the history of the Hebrews.”
In previous columns regarding British policy during the Mandate era I’ve mentioned at some length the pro-Jewish, pro-Zionist Colonel Josiah Wedgwood. He reflected this sort of philosemitism when he stated in his book The Seventh Dominion (1928), pp. 119-21:
“The Anglo-Saxon, more than any other race, wants to sympathise with the Jews … no doubt we understand the Jew better than can those to whom the Old Testament is not familiar from infancy. To the foreigner the word Jew is a hissing in the street; to us the word suggests Solomon and Moses and a thousand cradle stories. So often have we used their names for our own children that they now seem to be our fathers, especially our Puritan forefathers … Towards such a people one has a feeling almost of awe, they are so well known.”
It almost goes without saying that many a Bible reader must have identified with Israel against Pharoah and Haman, and would by extension identify with the Yishuv and with the State of Israel against their foes.
Once upon a time Scripture lessons were part and parcel of every British boy and girl’s state school education. Those days have gone, swept away by secularism and political correctness and the evident demands of a multicultural society. Also, since the twentieth-century regular church-going in England has been in decline, though not to such an extent among Catholics, whose numbers have been in recent years been bolstered by immigration from Poland.
The bottom line is that few British people are familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures any more, and, in Britain though not, it seems, in the United States, the scriptural fount of support for Jews and Israel’s cause has, regrettably, been fading.

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Elder of Ziyon - حـكـيـم صـهـيـون

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