United Kingdom Virtual Jewish History Tour
by Shira Schoenberg and Mitchell Bard
Great Britain Table of Contents
The Jewish experience in the United Kingdom [England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland] is one of the longest in the world. Anglo-Jewry faced increasing persecution from its entrance into England in 1066 until the expulsion of 1290. Once Jews returned in the 16th century, however, they became more and more integrated into society. England was, for a time, one of the most religiously tolerant countries in Europe. British Jewry received formal emancipation in 1858 and has continuously grown larger and stronger. Today, the Jewish population in the United Kingdom stands at approximately 292,000 - the fifth largest Jewish community in the world.
Learn More - Cities of United Kingdom:
Entrance & Persecution (1066-1189)
Massacre at York & Beyond (1189-1194)
Rule of Henry III & Baron Wars (1217-1290)
Expulsion of 1290
Modern Jewish Community
Royal Visit to Israel is a Breakthrough
The Church Repents
Labor Party Controversy
Entrance & Persecution (1066-1189)
There were individual Jews living in England in Roman and Anglo-Saxon times (80-1066 A.D.), but not an organized community. When William the Conqueror arrived in England in 1066, he encouraged Jewish merchants and artisans from northern France to move to England. The Jews came mostly from France with some from Germany, Italy, and Spain, seeking prosperity and a haven from anti-Semitism. Serving as special representatives of the king, these Jews worked as moneylenders and coin dealers. Over the course of a generation, Jews established communities in London, York, Bristol, Canterbury, and other major cities. They generally lived in segregated areas by themselves. However, until 1177 only one Jewish cemetery was allowed to be established in London.
During the Middle Ages, usury, or lending money for interest, was considered a sin by the Catholic Church. Therefore, Christians were forbidden to work as moneylenders, and Jews were called to that occupation and were able to set high interest rates. They played a vital role in maintaining the British treasury and, for a time, the Crown watched over the Jewish financiers and their property, though they also taxed them onerously. Disputes between Christian clerics and Jews in this period were supposedly encouraged by William Rufus (1087-1100). Another influential English figure was Henry I (1100-1135) who granted the Jews a charter of liberties.
Jews still faced persecution and were not fully protected by the Crown. In 1130, the Jews were fined 2,000 pounds on the charge that a Jew had killed a sick man. The first record of Jews in Oxford is from 1141 when they were caught in the political infighting of two sides warring for the throne. In 1144, the first blood libel charge of ritual murder was brought against the Jews of Norwich. During Passover, the Jews were accused of torturing a Christian child named William, using his blood for the Passover Seder, and eventually killing and burying him. Christians attacked Jewish settlements in retaliation. Despite Pope Innocent IV’s protests about the ridiculousness of these allegations, the image of a murderous Jew out to hurt Christians developed in the public mind. These charges were repeated in Gloucester (in 1168), Bury St. Edmunds (1181), Bristol (before 1183), and Winchester (1192).
In 1189, the Third Crusade was launched. The Jews were taxed at a much higher rate than the rest of England to finance this Crusade. Even though Jews comprised less than 0.25% of the English population, they provided 8% of the total income of the royal treasury. Despite the Jews' financial contribution, the pro-Christian ideology of the Crusade resulted in rioting in England, and some Jewish businesses in London were burned.
Massacre at York & Beyond (1189-1194)
One of the most notorious riots led to the massacre of the Jews of York. Jews have lived in York since 1170. They felt that they could use York castle for protection and felt secure among York’s elite residents, who enjoyed Jewish financial services. The situation worsened in July 1189 when King Henry II, a protector of the Jews, died. Richard I was crowned his heir and he refused to grant Jewish representatives admission to Westminster Abbey when they came to offer him gifts. Riots were started and mobs threw stones at the Jews and burned the straw roofs of their houses. Many Jews were murdered, and some allowed themselves to be baptized. Twenty-four hours later, Richard I found out about the riots and ordered that the Jews be protected.
As soon as Richard I left to join the Crusade in 1190, riots began again throughout England. On March 16-17,1190, a mix of Crusaders, barons indebted to the Jews, those envious of Jewish wealth, and clergymen rioted in York. They burned several houses and approximately 150 Jews fled to the royal castle in York. Led by Richard Malebys, a noble indebted to the Jews, the mob besieged the castle. The Jews had little rations and many killed themselves. On March 16, the citadel was captured and those Jews left alive were murdered. The mob then stole the records of debts to Jews from a nearby cathedral and burned them.
When Richard I returned to England, he was angry at the loss of his chief financial source. He introduced a system of registering in duplicate all debts held by the Jews to safeguard all the taxes he received from them. In 1194, he established the Exchequer of the Jews, a catalog of all Jewish holdings in England. The Crown could then arbitrarily collect taxes on Jewish revenue. The Jews were forced to respond to this exploitation by charging higher interest rates, thereby increasing their unpopularity with Christian borrowers. Richard's successors continued to tax the Jews in every way possible. Payment was forced through imprisonment, property confiscation, torture, and the kidnapping of women and children.
Rule of Henry III & the Baron Wars (1217-1290)
In 1217, the English Jews were forced to wear yellow badges in the form of two stone tablets identifying them as Jews. The Synod of Oxford held by the Church of England in 1222 forbade social interactions between Jews and Christians, placed a specific tithe on Jews, banned Jews from some professions, and prevented them from building new synagogues.
From the start of Henry III’s reign in 1232, life went downhill for the Jews. By the mid-thirteenth century, more than one-third of the circulated coins in England were controlled by a few hundred Jews, leading the king to levy upon them untenable rates of taxation and creating rampant anti-Semitism. In 1232, the king confiscated a newly built London synagogue and in 1253, a decree was issued forbidding the Jews to live in towns that did not have an established Jewish community.
In 1255, the Jews were once again accused of blood libel. A Christian boy, Hugh of Lincoln, was chasing a ball when he fell and drowned in a Jewish cesspool. His body was found 26 days later when a large Jewish congregation was gathered in Lincoln for a prominent rabbi's wedding. Some Christians speculated that the boy was killed as part of a ritual ceremony and 100 Jews were executed.
On January 31, 1253, Henry ordered Jewish worship in synagogues to be held quietly so that Christians should not have to hear it when passing by. In addition, he forbade Jews from employing Christian nurses or maids and prevented other Jews from converting to Christianity. Conditions became so bad in 1255 that Jews volunteered to leave, however, their request was turned down by Henry who considered the Jews royal property.
During the Barons Wars of 1263, the Jews were seen as instruments of royal oppression, and between 1263 and 1266, one Jewish community after another was ransacked and many of its inhabitants killed. In 1265, the Crown started dealing with Italian bankers, minimizing their dependence on the Jews for financial services. In 1269, the Crown further restricted Jewish rights. Jews were not allowed to hold land and Jewish children could not inherit their parents' money. When a Jew died, his money reverted to the government. In 1275, Queen Eleanor deported Cambridge’s Jews to nearby Norwich. Also in 1275, Edward I issued the Jewish Affairs Bill, forbidding the Jews of England to loan money on interest. They were allowed to earn a living as tradesmen or farmers, but were ineligible for membership in tradesmen guilds or tenure as a farmer. The Jews became poor and the king could no longer collect taxes from them. In 1278, many were arrested and hanged for secretly continuing their moneylending. On January 2, 1280, Jewish blasphemy of the Church was deemed a capital offense.
Expulsion of 1290
On July 18, 1290, shortly after moneylending was made heretical and illegal in England, Edward I expelled the Jews from England, making England the first European country to do so. Most Jews fled to continental Europe, settling mostly in France and Germany, although some managed to remain in England by hiding their identity and religion. There is disagreement over the number — either 4,000 or 16,000 — who were actually forced to leave England. The Jewish exile from England lasted 360 years.
The first evidence of Jews in Tudor England after the expulsion is in 1494. Under Henry VIII and Edward VI, small numbers of Spanish and Portuguese Conversos (Jewish converts to Christianity) worshiped secretly as Jews in London and Bristol. Henry VIII used Jewish scholars to justify his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. In 1588, the Converso Dr. Hector Nunes was lauded as a hero for being the first to warn of the sailing of the Spanish Armada.
In 1589, Christopher Marlowe’s anti-Semitic play, The Jew of Malta, was first performed. In 1594, Queen Elizabeth I’s physician, a Converso named Dr. Roderigo Lopez, was implicated in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth. He was tortured, tried and hanged on what is suspected to be a false charge of treason. Anglo Jewry then fled to the Low Countries, often disguised as Spanish or Portuguese Roman Catholics. William Shakespeare’s famous play about a Jewish moneylender, The Merchant of Venice, was first acted out in 1597. In 1609, Portuguese merchants were expelled from London on suspicion of being Jewish. This did not stop the Jews, however, and in the mid-17th century, a new Converso colony grew in London, made up partly of refugees from Rouen and the Canary Islands.
Historians disagree as to the exact date of the official readmission of Jews to England as well as to whether or not it was Oliver Cromwell who granted it. Cromwell came to power in 1649. Some believe he was influenced to readmit the Jews by Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam, who functioned as a Jewish ambassador to the gentiles. Menasseh moved to London in September 1655 and on October 31 submitted a seven-point petition to the Council of State calling for the return of Jews to England. He appealed to Cromwell orally at the Whitehall Conference of December 4-18, 1655, which Cromwell had called to discuss Jewish readmission. Cromwell gave no official verdict and when many merchants questioned Cromwell’s ideas he angrily dismissed the conference. Cromwell is believed to have authorized the unofficial readmission of the Jews into England. However, when a few hundred conversos living in England petitioned to establish a synagogue and cemetery in 1656, their request was turned down.
The re-establishment of the Jews in England was a gradual process, one which took many years. Jews immigrated to England from Holland, Spain, and Portugal and opened a synagogue in 1657. In 1664, Charles II issued a formal written promise of protection and, in 1674 and 1685, further royal declarations were made confirming that statement. In 1698, the Act for Suppressing Blasphemy granted recognition to the legality of practicing Judaism in England.
The next immigrants were German Jews who started a synagogue in 1690. By then there were about 400 Jews in England. William III knighted the first Jew, Solomon de Medina, on June 23, 1700. In 1701, a Sephardi synagogue at Bevis Marks was opened. A Hebrew printing press started in London in 1705. By 1734, 6,000 Jews lived in England. The Jewish upper class still consisted of brokers and foreign traders, but Jews gradually entered all areas of life. The first Jews were Sephardim, but in 1690 the first Ashkenazi community was formed in London and soon Ashkenazim established congregations all over England.
In 1753, the Jewish Naturalization Bill (Jew Bill) was issued to give foreign-born Jews the ability to acquire the privileges of native Jews but was rescinded due to anti-Jewish agitation. In 1829, Jews began arguing for official equality. The first emancipation bill passed the House of Commons in 1833 but was defeated in the House of Lords. In 1833, the first Jew was admitted to the Bar and the first Jewish sheriff was appointed in 1835. In 1837, Queen Victoria knighted Moses Montefiore. In 1841, Isaac Lyon Goldsmid was made baronet, the first Jew to receive a hereditary title. The first Jewish Lord Mayor of London, Sir David Salomons took office in 1855.
In 1858 came the emancipation of the Jews and a change in the Christian oath required of all members of Parliament. On July 26, 1858, the Jewish Baron, Lionel de Rothschild, took his seat in the House of Commons after an 11-year debate over whether he could take the required oath. In 1874, Benjamin Disraeli became the first (and only) Jewish Prime Minister. By 1882, 46,000 Jews lived in England and, by 1890, Jewish emancipation was complete in every walk of life. Since 1858, Parliament has never been without Jewish members and recently the Jewish delegation has exceeded 40 members. A Hebrew Bible, used whenever a Jewish member takes an oath, sits in the House of Commons treasury box.
In 1841, the first Anglo-Jewish periodical, The Jewish Chronicle, was founded. It still exists today. In 1855, Jews College, a theological seminary, was started. It is now an affiliate of London University that offers rabbinical training and adult education. A Jewish welfare organization for the poor called the Jewish Board of Guardians (now the Jewish Welfare Board) was created in 1859.
In 1863, Rothschild and Isaac Goldsmith of the Ashkenazic community joined Sir Moses Montefiore of the Sephardim to solidify the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler united all Ashkenazic congregations near London into a United Synagogue and created the chief rabbinate of England.
With a renewal of persecution in Russia in 1881, there was mass immigration from Russia to England. The newcomers settled mostly in urban districts. They virtually created a clothing industry in England. They started Yiddish and Hebrew newspapers, fraternal societies, and trade unions. The communal leadership encouraged their Anglicization through participation in English classes, state-aided schools, and English clubs and youth movements such as the Jewish Lads Brigade. Many became integrated into the community. The Alien Immigration Act of 1905 restricted immigration, but, by 1914, about 250,000 Jews lived in England.
In the early 1900s, Jews became active in both Conservative and Liberal politics. In 1909, Herbert Samuel became the first professing Jew to serve in the British cabinet. He later became the high commissioner of Palestine.
The xenophobia created by World War I ended Jewish immigration to England and caused some British anti-Semitism. The war also helped many Jewish entrepreneurs, however, by creating a demand for uniform clothing. About 50,000 Jews served in the British military, 10,000 were killed and 1,596 received awards.
Zionism began in England with the Hovevei Zion movement in 1887. The English Zionist Federation was formed in 1899. It was England’s Lord Balfour who issued the 1917 declaration officially recognizing Jewish aspirations to a homeland. Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, was also British.
The 1920s were a time of Anglicization of the community. Small Jewish businesses prospered and Jews became professional lawyers, doctors, dentists, and accountants. Middle-class Jews began joining the upper class at universities and middle-class communities sprang up in the suburbs.
The 1930s brought an influx of refugees from Nazism and fascism. Approximately 90,000 Jews came from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Italy, and other countries. Many later moved out of Britain and, by 1950, about 40,000-55,000 prewar refugees were left. Smaller numbers came after the war from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere. The majority of the Central European immigrants were middle class and brought a large amount of capital to Britain with them. They created or transplanted businesses, especially in fashion trades, pharmaceutical production, and light engineering. Other immigrants were professionals, intellectuals, and artists. They strengthened both Orthodox and Reform Jewish life.
There was some fascism in England in the 1930s and blackshirts led by Sir Oswald Mosley occasionally attacked the Jews. The 1936 Public Order Act helped control violence by banning the wearing of political uniforms. The Jews united to defend against the attacks and also to raise funds to help refugees and support settlements in Palestine.
Anti-fascist demonstrators, including many Jews, clashed with British police on October 4, 1936, in what became known as the Battle of Cable Street. The police were overseeing a march by the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley, through an area of London densely populated by Jews. When the fascist marchers arrived at Cable Street in East End, they were stopped by the anti-fascist protestors, and violence broke out between the protestors and the police.
With the start of World War II in 1939, mothers and children were evacuated from London. Many men and women were away from home serving in the armed forces. In 1940, refugees were subjected to temporary internment. Some Jewish synagogues and institutions were destroyed in bombings. Jewish life continued in London on a small scale and new communities were formed in the evacuation areas. The Jewish community of Oxford, which had remained small since its founding in 1842, grew with immigrants and evacuees.
During the British mandate, Anglo-Jewry was split on the question of a Jewish state. The entire community was against the White Paper of 1939 that limited Jewish immigration to Palestine. The Zionist groups and the World Jewish Congress were for a Jewish state, but the Anglo-Jewish Association was against it. The groups struggled to balance Jewish national ideals with a desire for British citizenship and equality. After the declaration of the State of Israel, the Anglo-Jewish Association adopted a policy of goodwill toward Israel while also stressing the responsibilities of Anglo-Jews to Britain. There was some anti-Semitism in England resulting from conflicts between the mandatory administration and the Israeli settlers, but once diplomatic relations were established between Britain and Israel, normalcy was restored.
An emergency organization had been formed during the war to control the education of children dispersed by evacuations. In 1945, a central council for education in England was founded that represented the United Synagogue and other Orthodox institutions. It reopened three schools that had been closed during the war. One, a secondary school, had 1,500 students.
In the 1950s, many Jews began moving from closed Jewish communities into the suburbs. The United Synagogue started hiring younger rabbis who tended toward religious flexibility. Conflicts arose between different segments of the community.
In some areas, mobilizing support for Israel was a major communal and social activity. Increased involvement and support of Israel took place after the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel’s triumph affected many Anglo-Jews, even those who were not previously committed to Jewish life.
Modern Jewish Community
Manchester is the bastion of the British Jewish community, with a Jewish population of approximately 30,000. The city has a large population of ultra-Orthodox, who are especially concentrated in the areas of Prestwich and Broughton Park. The Jewish community has split into different groups. The largest body is the United Synagogue with more than 35,000 families. On the right is the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations (founded in 1926 and dominated by Hasidic immigrants) and the Federation of Synagogues (founded in 1887 by Russian-Polish immigrants). On the left are the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain (1840) and a Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues (1902).
The Board of Deputies of British Jews currently has more than 500 members representing synagogues in London and the provinces. It brings together delegates of all shades of religious and political opinion and is considered the governing body of Anglo-Jewry. It is also taken seriously by the British government. For a long time, it mostly acted to protect Jewish political and civil rights. In the 1930s, with the growth of the British Union of Fascists, it fought fascism. In 1965, it was successful in getting incitement to racial hatred considered an indictable offense. Since 1943, it has remained active in matters concerning Israel. It monitors anti-Semitism and works with other groups to safeguard minority rights. It also supports other commonwealth countries.
One of the world’s top institutions for Talmudic learning is the yeshiva at Gateshead. The Conference of European Rabbis is an Orthodox forum that is based in London and is presided over by the British chief rabbi. The Reform movement set up its own rabbinical seminary in 1956, the Leo Baeck College, which attracts students from all over Europe. Significant numbers of Jewish students attend England’s two largest universities Cambridge and Oxford.
The Community Security Trust (CST) is responsible for the Jewish community's security and defense activity, often concentrating on combating anti-Semitism. The United Jewish Israel Appeal and Jewish Care are widely supported among Anglo-Jewry, providing welfare and education to disadvantaged Jews.
Approximately two-thirds of Great Britain’s 350,000 Jews currently live in London. There are large communities in St. Johns Wood (genteel/establishment), Hampstead (intellectual/arty), Golders Green (professional/religious), and Hendon (serious/scholastic). Outside the London borders, suburban communities include Edgware, Stanmore, and Ilford, the last of which has the largest Jewish concentration in Europe. Nearby Stamford Hill contains Hasidic groups and immigrants from India, Iran, Yemen, and North Africa. Other major Jewish centers are Manchester, with 30,000 Jews, Leeds, with 10,000 Jews, and Glasgow, with 6,500 Jews.
While England's Jewish community has been in decline in recent years due to a low birth rate, intermarriage, and emigration, the 2001 census indicated that there were more Jews than previously thought.
Hampstead is home to Jewish artists, writers, and actors. Sigmund Freud’s last house is located at 20 Maresfield Garden in Hampstead. Walking down Hampstead Heath, one passes the homes of various personalities such as Erich Segal, author of Love Story, and the deposed King Constantine of Greece.
Golders Green is the heart of Jewish London with kosher restaurants, bakeries, butchers, and supermarkets. Golders Green Road contains Jewish bookstores and gift shops. In the area are dozens of synagogues, temples, and shtiebels. Golders Green has the Orthodox Menorah boys school, but most educational institutions are in nearby Hendon. Hendon boasts the Hasmonean and Independent schools, as well as the Jews College and Yakar, a synagogue known for its lecture series.
Finchley is home to the Sternberg Centre, the largest Jewish community center in Europe. It offers Reform religious services, and adult education classes ranging from Jewish walking tours to art classes. The center is also home to the London Museum of Jewish Life, which reflects community life in England since 1656 through documents, photographs, and objects. It includes a biblical garden and a Holocaust memorial.
The Board of Jewish Deputies headquarters is in northern London, as are the Jewish Museum, which contains Jewish art and artifacts, and Adler House, seat of the Chief Rabbi and London Bet Din (Jewish court).
London is home to many old synagogues. The Central Synagogue on Great Portland Street is a modern structure with 26 stained glass windows representing the Jewish holidays. The Marble Arch Synagogue at 32 Great Cumberland Place is the successor to London’s first Ashkenazic congregation (the original building was destroyed by a German bombardment in 1941). West London Synagogue at 34 Upper Berkeley Street is the oldest Reform congregation in London. It has gothic features and a Byzantine-style sanctuary.
In the heart of London, there is still a street called Old Jewry, dating from before the expulsion of 1290. At the corner of Threadneedle and Cornhill is the Royal Exchange with murals by Solomon J. Solomon, once president of the British Royal Society of Artists. The southeast corner of the exchange was once known as Jews Walk. Nearby, on St. Mary Axe, is Bevis Marks, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue finished in 1701. The Cunard Building on Creechurch Lane marks the site of the first synagogue built after Cromwell’s resettlement of the Jews in 1657. Many businesses in the East End are still Jewish owned and cemeteries, former synagogues, and open-air markets remain. The former synagogue at 19 Princelet Street is being converted into a museum of immigrant history.
Many British museums have exhibits of Jewish interest. The British Museum on Great Russell Street contains an Ancient Palestine Room. Their manuscript department holds the original Balfour Declaration. The National Gallery has several of Rembrandt’s paintings of Jewish characters. The National Portrait Gallery has images of Jews from Moses Montefiore to Israel Zangwill. The Victoria and Albert Museum contains various ancient Jewish artifacts. A new Holocaust exhibit, which contains rare items from former concentration and extermination camps, has also recently opened at the Imperial War Museum.
Ramsgate, near London, is the site of the Montefiore estate where Moses Montefiore lived. The site contains his private mansion and a synagogue that he built. The Montefiores are buried on estate grounds.
Further from London is York, containing Clifford’s Tower the site of the York massacre of 1190. A memorial stone sits at the site.
England’s educational centers, Oxford and Cambridge, both have strong Christian influences, but there are some Jewish sites. The Oxford synagogue, at 21 Richmond Road, is at the site of the original synagogue built in the 1880s. The building was redone in the 1970s, although one wall of the old building still remains. The synagogue has both Orthodox and Reform services.
St. Aldate’s street was once the center of the Jewish area in Oxford. Three of its houses - Moyses, Lombards, and Jacobs Hall, are thought to have been Jewish homes. At the Botanical Garden opposite Magdalen College, a plaque commemorates the site of the old Jewish cemetery.
The Bodleian Library in Oxford contains 3,000 Hebrew manuscripts and 30,000 volumes in Hebrew. It also displays a bronze alms bowl that belonged to Rabbi Yehiel of Paris in the 13th century. In the Draper Gallery of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is a collection of antiquities excavated in Jerusalem.
Cambridge’s synagogue is located at Ellis Court. During the school year, students run its services and kosher kitchen. One of Cambridge’s oldest colleges, Peterhouse, stands on land once owned by a Jew. The old Jewish community had two centers. One was within the triangle made by St. Johns Street, All Souls Passage, and Bridge Street, while the other was a marketplace where Guild Hall now stands.
The Cambridge University Library has a myriad of Hebrew books including the Schechter-Taylor Geniza Collection numbering tens of thousands of items. Trinity College and Girton College also have Judaica collections.
In 1231, the earl of Leicester barred Jews from taking up residence in the city and forced landlords to pledge to keep them out. It was not until January 2001 that the Leicester City Council formally renounced the nearly 800-year-old ban on Jews.
The Jewish Chronicle, the Jewish Telegraph, and The Jewish News all report on Jewish communal affairs and serve the northern cities. www.totallyjewish.com and www.somethingjewish.co.uk are UK-based websites that carry national and international news.
In 2003, the Jewish Leadership Council was formed, bringing together heads of major national Jewish organizations and key communal leaders in an effort to encourage communal organizations and leaders to be in greater contact so they may better represent the community.
The British National Union of Teachers (NUT) stirred up controversy in 2015 when they launched a new education resources package for teachers that delved into themes of Palestinian resistance and the “occupation” by Israel. In the foreword of the educational resource booklet, the general secretary of the NUT writes that the material was, “inspired by a union delegation visit [to the Palestinian territories] in 2013.” The educational material contains images of Palestinian children who it says were “assaulted by settlers,” and refers to “Jews” when speaking specifically about Israelis. According to Stand For Peace, an anti-extremism think-tank organization, “NUT’s political propaganda and misrepresentation serves the extremist agenda.”
A study by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research, released in July 2016, provided a look into the marriage preferences of British Jews. According to the findings, the intermarriage rate for British Jews stands at 26%, compared to the intermarriage rate of American Jews, which was 58% in 2013. The study also found that 96% of children with both Jewish parents are being raised Jewish, compared to 31% of children with intermarried parents. Same-sex couples in Britain make up 1.8% of the Jewish population, slightly higher than the national average of 1.6%. Jews are also more likely than any other group in the country to live as a couple, rather than alone.
Britain’s Home Secretary Amber Rudd pledged 13.4 million euros to provide guards for Jewish schools, nurseries, synagogues, and colleges all around the United Kingdom. The announcement was made on November 30, 2016, following the UK Community Security Trust’s receipt of 924 reports of anti-Semitic incidents, including 86 violent assaults, during the prior year. Rudd stated that she was “forced to act,” by the anti-Semitic incidents, and during a speech to Parliament assured listeners that the British government “will continue to put in place the strongest possible measures to ensure the safety of [the Jewish] community - and all other communities too.”
The world-famous British Library launched a new website in November 2017, showcasing its vast collection of Hebrew manuscripts. The documents, ranging from Torah scrolls and prayer books to scientific projects, comprise the British Library’s first bi-lingual online collection. Users may search the collection in Hebrew or in English. At the time of the site's launch, approximately half of the Library's 3,000 total Hebrew manuscripts were available for viewing. Workers at the Library had been digitizing the documents and manuscripts since 2013.
The Church Repents
The Church of England issued a major report in 2019, “God’s Unfailing Word: Theological and Practical Perspectives on Christian–Jewish Relations,” which examines anti-Semitism, its role in the Holocaust and the importance of Zionism for most Jews. The publisher notes the study “is rooted in the belief that the relationship between Judaism and Christianity is a gift of God to the church to be received with gratitude, respect and care, so that we may learn more fully about God’s purposes for the world. It offers a theological exploration of that relationship that is mindful of the prejudice and persecution experienced by the Jewish community throughout history, not least from the Christian church, and is intended as antidote to antisemitism.”
Three years later, in May 2022, the Church of England apologized for the anti-Jewish laws that were passed in 1222. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, tweeted: “Today’s service is an opportunity to remember, repent and rebuild. Let us pray it inspires Christians today to reject contemporary forms of anti-Judaism and antisemitism and to appreciate and receive the gift of our Jewish neighbors.”
Anti-Semitism in England was largely nonexistent or underground immediately following World War II, as racial hatred of Jews became unacceptable after the recent tragedies of the Holocaust. Since then the tides of anti-Semitism have ebbed and flowed with international events, with anti-Semitic attacks and sentiments increasing for example during and after Operation Protective Edge. Right-wing parties in England have the support of an anti-Zionist and xenophobic base, and right-wing neo-Nazi groups and individuals have taken responsibility for attacks on Jews and Jewish places in England. For example, the 2002 desecration of two synagogues in Wales and East London was attributed to the groups. In these attacks, the perpetrators burned Torah scrolls in the synagogues, scrawled a swastika on the walls, and caused thousands of dollars in property damage.
A committee called the All Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism has been active since 2005. In its first report the following year, the group made a number of recommendations, including suggesting that the Home Office provide greater security for Jewish places of worship and schools, that the police have a service for reporting anti-Semitic incidents, that the Home Office conduct further research and reporting regarding anti-Semitism, and that an investigation be made into the low number of arrests for anti-Semitic incidents.
July 2014 saw a drastic spike in anti-Semitic attacks correlating with Operation Protective Edge. Over 100 attacks occurred including swastika graffiti on Jewish houses, and the beating and subsequent hospitalization of a rabbi. Israeli product boycotts followed, including one branch of the Sainsbury’s grocery store in London removing the entire kosher food section from the store in response to a protest by BDS advocates.
Britain became one of the first countries to embrace a new definition of anti-Semitism, published by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), in December 2016. The definition, formally adopted by the IHRA following a conference in May 2016, reads: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
According to the 2017 Anti-Semitism Barometer published by the UK Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, 32% of British Jews surveyed said that they agree with the statement in the past two years I have considered leaving Britain due to anti-Semitism. The survey also found that 36% of all British adults still believed in various Jewish stereotypes, and one-fifth of British Jews have doubts about the long-term survival of British Jewry. Government efforts against anti-Semitism needed more support according to the Jewish community; 64% of British Jews surveyed answered that in their opinion, not enough was being done to combat and punish anti-Semitism.
On June 13, 2018, at least 30 headstones at the Urmston Jewish Cemetery in Manchester were smashed and vandalized. The cemetery was similarly attacked less than a month prior when vandals toppled and smashed 22 headstones.
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) won a landmark case in the Supreme Court on April 29, 2020, in its challenge to the government regulations which restrict Local Government Pension Schemes from divesting from Israeli companies Israel’s detractors accuse of being involved in or profiting from human rights violations.
British Home Secretary Priti Patel told a Conservative Friends of Israel reception on May 16, 2022, that “everything we have seen around the BDS movement is racist." She also said that she is “quite unapologetic” about the proscription of the Hamas terror group last year, saying that it was “not just the right thing to do, [it was] a moral imperative.”
A few days earlier the government suspended its relationship with the National Union of Students (NUS) due to reports of anti-Semitism linked to the union. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said, “I am seriously concerned to hear of so many reports of alleged antisemitism linked to the NUS. Jewish students need to have confidence that this is a body that represents them, and we need to be sure that the student bodies that we engage with are speaking fairly for all students, which is why we are disengaging with the NUS until the issues have been addressed.”
The decision came as the British anti-Semitism watchdog organization the Community Security Trust (CST) reported that the number of anti-Semitic incidents reported by Jewish students and staff hit record levels in 2021, and continued in 2022.
CST’s Antisemitic Incidents Report 2022, recorded 1,652 anti-Jewish hate incidents nationwide in 2022. This was the fifth-highest annual total ever reported to CST, and a 27% decrease from the 2,261 antisemitic incidents in 2021, which was a record high sparked by anti-Semitic reactions to the fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza in May of that year. CST recorded 1,684 incidents in 2020, 1,813 in 2019, and 1,690 in 2018. The report noted a worrisome trend of incidents that involved victims or offenders under the age of 18. It also reported that Covid-19 contributed to the emergence of anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories.
Labor Party Controversy
In July 2018, Britain’s three largest Jewish newspapers published the same front-page editorial warning of the threat to British Jewry posed by a government led by Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. “The stain and shame of anti-Semitism has coursed through Her Majesty’s Opposition since Jeremy Corbyn became leader in 2015,” the papers concluded. This came after months of controversy over the past and present activities and statements by Corbyn and other party members that were anti-Israel, sometimes outright anti-Semitic, and frequently insensitive to the concerns of the Jewish community.
Corbyn was criticized for attending events put on by Holocaust deniers, questioning the removal of an anti-Semitic mural, and membership in multiple Facebook groups where anti-Semitic comments had been made. On January 27, 2010, Holocaust Memorial Day, Corbyn hosted an event in British Parliament during which he compared Israeli actions in Gaza to Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust. In a 2011 interview with the BBC, Corbyn questioned Israel’s right to exist. He described it as an “honor and pleasure” to host “our friends” from Hamas and Hezbollah in Parliament, who he said were committed to “bringing about long-term peace and social justice and political justice in the whole region.” On August 12, 2018, the Daily Mail published photos of Corbyn laying a wreath at a memorial to the perpetrators of the Munich Olympics Massacre in Tunis in 2014.
Dame Margaret Hodge, a fellow Labor MP, has called Corbyn “an anti-Semite and a racist” to his face.
Amid the controversy over Corbyn and the party’s behavior, the National Executive Committee (NEC) refused in July 2018 to adopt the complete IHRA definition of anti-Semitism omitting certain points related to criticism of Israel and forming their own code of conduct on anti-Semitism. The NEC ignored a letter from 68 British rabbis urging them to accept the definition and criticizing Labor for ignoring “those who understand anti-Semitism the best, the Jewish community.” The IHRA and leaders of the Jewish community condemned the NEC and said the definition should be adopted as written. Following over one month of controversy, the Labor Party's National Executive Committee adopted the full unedited definition of anti-Semitism on September 4, 2018.
As Jewish criticism of Corbyn intensified, Hamas tweeted its support for him.
In a poll by the UK newspaper the Jewish Chronicle released in mid-September 2018, 86% of British Jews answered that they believe Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic. Only eight percent of respondents said that they did not believe Corbyn is an anti-Semite.
More fuel was poured on the fire when internal party documents were revealed to show how it was responding to the problem of anti-Semitism in its ranks. “The Labor Party has failed to take disciplinary action against hundreds of members accused of anti-Semitism under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership,” according to internal documents leaked to The Sunday Times, “The party’s system for dealing with such complaints is bedeviled by delays, inaction and interference from the leader’s office. They reveal members investigated for posting such online comments as ‘Heil Hitler,” “F*** the Jews’ and “Jews are the problem” have not been expelled, even though the party received the complaints a year ago.”
After receiving more complaints about the behavior of party members, the Equality and Human Rights Commission launched a formal investigation in May 2019 to determine if the Labor Party has “unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimized people because they are Jewish.”
Many Jews who belonged to the Labor Party refused to support Corbyn who was defeated by Boris Johnson in the December 2019 election.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published its investigative report into anti-Semitism in the Labor Party on October 29, 2020. The EHRC “found specific examples of harassment, discrimination and political interference” relating to the party leadership. “Although some improvements have been made to the process for dealing with anti-Semitism complaints, it is hard not to conclude that anti-Semitism within the Labor party could have been tackled more effectively if the leadership had chosen to do so,” the report states.
The report also said, “there was political interference in the handling of anti-Semitism complaints…in disciplinary cases that were deemed ‘politically sensitive.’” One example was an effort by Corbyn’s staff to dismiss the case against the party leader for his support of an artist who had produced an anti-Semitic mural in London.
The EHRC also charged that members of the party, such as Ken Livingstone, engaged in “unlawful harassment,” including using “anti-Semitic tropes and suggesting that complaints of anti-Semitism were fake or smears.”
Following the release of the report, Corbyn said anti-Semitism in the party was “dramatically overstated for political reasons” by opponents and the media, prompting party leader, Keir Starmer to suspend him. Starmer said those who “deny there is a problem are part of the problem.”
In a speech to Labor Friends of Israel on November 16, 2021, Starmer outlined his views toward anti-Semitism and Israel:
Since it recognized Israel’s independence in 1948, relations between the United Kingdom and Israel have grown progressively stronger. This represents a dramatic reversal from the confrontational relationship between the mandate period and the 1948 War.
By 1956, however, the two countries were working together against Egypt. In coordination with France, the two countries attacked Egyptian forces in what became the Suez War.
The two countries have recently engaged in more peaceful cooperation in various areas. In 2015, for example, the British Royal Society and the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities signed a joint research agreement. The same year, new bilateral research and development programs were announced during the annual UK-Israel Science Day. Israel’s Science, Technology, and Space Ministry announced 1.5 million NIS in funding for bilateral water, agriculture, nanotechnology, and medical research.
A report based on leaked documents from Wikileaks published by Le Monde on December 8, 2016, described how Britain’s GCHQ intelligence-gathering apparatus spied on Israeli diplomats, defense officials, and its military. The report detailed the intelligence service’s success in intercepting and reading emails between Israeli ambassadors and their counterparts. According to Le Monde, the British also spied on Palestinian Authority officials.
Prime Minister Teresa May praised close ties to Israel during a speech given to the Conservative Friends of Israel organization on December 13, 2016. May referred to the Balfour Declaration as “one of the most important letters in history” and stated that Britain would celebrate its centennial anniversary in 2017 with pride. On the anniversary in November, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to London for the festivities, which included a dinner party hosted by Lord Rothschild’s descendants, with members of the Balfour family present as well.
The two countries remain at odds over several diplomatic issues, including how to deal with Iran and the Palestinian issue. Britain also voted against the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in the United Nations Security Council.
On the positive side, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Cabinet led the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism; threatened to join the United States in leaving the UN Human Rights Council if it did not abandon its one-sided and disproportionate focus on Israel; and stood up to critics of the centennial commemoration of the Balfour Declaration. May is also credited with “diluting its institutional hostility toward Israel” of the Foreign Office.
In February 2019, after years of Israeli admonitions, the British government designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Like most European countries, the UK designated Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization in 2013 after the group facilitated the bombing of an Israeli tour bus in Bulgaria in 2012, killing five Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid said the government was acting because Hezbollah “is continuing in its attempts to destabilize the fragile situation in the Middle East – and we are no longer able to distinguish between their already banned military wing and the political party.” A year later, Britain expanded the scope of its asset-freezing measures to cover the entire organization, including its ”military wing.”
April 28, 2020, marked the 70th anniversary of the UK opening its embassy in Tel Aviv, beginning Britain’s diplomatic relations with Israel. The Britain Israel Research and Communications Centre (BICOM) suggested that “the large Conservative victory in the UK’s December 2019 election, combined with Britain’s departure from the EU, could serve to deepen and enhance the Britain-Israel partnership as Britain seeks to redefine its foreign policy and security strategy while strengthening relations with allies outside of Europe.”
In 2022, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was forced to step down and was replaced by Liz Truss who immediately stoked controversy by raising the possibility of moving the British embassy to Jerusalem. Speaking at a meeting of the Conservative Friends of Israel, Truss referred to herself as a “huge Zionist and huge supporter of Israel” and promised to “take the UK-Israel relationship from strength to strength.” At a Tory Party event, she pledged to never allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon and added, “In this world – where we are facing threats from authoritarian regimes who don’t believe in freedom and democracy – two free democracies, the UK and Israel, need to stand shoulder to shoulder and we will be even closer in the future.”
Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, Brexit, created uncertainty about trade relations between Israel and the UK. At the time, Israel was the UK’s 33rd most significant market and Britain’s fourth largest market in the Middle East and North Africa region. The UK, in turn, is Israel’s third largest export market, behind the U.S. and China. In addition, 26 Israeli companies trade on the London Stock Exchange, and hundreds have offices in the UK.
Fears proved to be unfounded. In 2017, bilateral trade reached a record $9.1 billion, up from $7.2 billion in 2016. In 2018, trade exceeded $10 billion for the first time.
The UK imports pharmaceutical products, precious stones, plastic products, machinery, mechanical appliances, electrical machinery and equipment, and fruit and vegetables. Israel also became the first country to sign a post-Brexit continuity trade agreement with the UK.
The U.K.-Israel Tech Hub, based in the British Embassy in Israel, has fostered 175 tech partnerships and 54 deals worth $112 million since its inception in 2011. The Hub allows British entities access to innovative technologies from Israel while allowing Israeli technology and companies to reach a wider global audience. In May 2018, an agreement was signed to expand scientific cooperation between Israel and Britain.
Liam Fox, the UK’s International Trade Secretary, and Eli Cohen, Israel’s Minister of Economy and Industry, signed a trade continuity agreement on February 18, 2019, to take effect after Brexit. According to the Department for International Trade, the deal “allows businesses to trade as freely as they do now, without any additional barriers or tariffs.” It also said that UK consumers would “continue to benefit from more choice and lower prices on goods imported from Israel, such as pharmaceutical products.”
Fox described the UK’s relationship with Israel as “stronger than it has ever been, with record levels of bilateral cooperation in trade and investment between our two nations.
In July 2022, the UK and Israel began negotiations for a new free trade agreement. According to the British government, Israel is the UK’s 37th largest trading partner. A press release noted, “A new upgraded deal would expand a trading relationship already worth £5 billion ($5.8 billion) a year. It could benefit 6,600 UK businesses, including 5,600 small and medium-sized enterprises, employing over 1.7 million people in 2020, who are exporting their goods to Israel by reducing trade barriers.”
The government noted, “Israel has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and their demand for digital products and services is expected to proliferate. The UK’s existing bilateral FTA with Israel contains no specific provisions on services, creating a huge opportunity to enhance the agreement.”
International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan said:
In 2020, around 325 Israeli-owned businesses in the UK employed more than 7,000 people across the country. Its services sector has grown by over 45% in the last decade, and Israel’s total imports are expected to double by 2035.
The FTA will complement the UK-Israel Bilateral Roadmap, which calls for greater cooperation in areas of mutual interest such as science, innovation, defense, health, development, and climate change.
The trade growth has occurred despite the UK being one of the hubs of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, indicative of its failure to impact Israel’s economic relations.
In March 2023, Israel and the UK signed “the 2030 Roadmap for Israel-UK Bilateral Relations.” According to the UK government, “the Roadmap contains detailed commitments for deepening cooperation across the breadth of the Israel-UK relationship, including on trade, cyber, science and tech, research and development, security, health, climate and gender.”
The UK “committed to working closely with Israel to tackle the scourge of antisemitism. As chair for the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2024, the UK will promote fact-based knowledge of the Holocaust and strengthen media and information literacy.”
The seven-year agreement also includes around £20 millon of joint funding commitments on technology and innovation.
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The British Royal Navy HMS Bulwark warship docked in Haifa on November 22, 2016, carrying a crew of 400+ men and women and their support vehicles. The British expressed gratitude for “the growing relationship between the Royal Navy and the Israeli Navy.”
In 2017, Britain bought an Israeli defense system known as the Sky Sabre to help defend the Falkland Islands off the East Coast of Argentina. Sky Sabre is based on technology developed for the Iron Dome defense system.
The UK Ministry of Defense announced the purchase of anti-drone systems developed by Israel’s Rafael Systems in August 2018. The system, dubbed the drone dome, will be used to protect sensitive sites from vulnerabilities that drones can exploit. The drone dome operates by emitting signals through an electro-optical sensor that blocks communication between the drone and pilot, rendering the drone useless even if it can continue to fly without controls. The system then targets and shoots down the drone using laser technology. Rafael will sell the UK government six of the systems in a deal valued at $20 million total.
In a further indication of growing military cooperation, Israeli, American, and British F-35 stealth fighters conducted an exercise in early 2019, the first time Britain acknowledged participation in a joint exercise with the Israeli Air Force (IAF). In September, the IAF took part for the first time in a joint combat exercise in Britain with the Royal Air Force and aircraft from the German and Italian air forces. Israel sent seven F-15s and airborne tankers to conduct mock dogfights, aircraft interceptions, and simulated ground attacks.
On December 3, 2020, the British Armed forces and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) signed an agreement to formalize and enhance defense collaboration and support the growing Israel-UK partnership. BICOM reported that “most of the agreement is highly classified, but the cooperation will include defense medical training, organizational design and concepts, and defense education.” The organization also noted that “both militaries share a commitment to improving and integrating their multi-domain capabilities in maritime, land, air, space, and cyber and electromagnetic.”
For years the British government made a distinction between the political and armed wings of Hamas, labeling only the latter as a terrorist organization. In November 2021, the Home Office finally recognized there was no distinction. “Hamas has significant terrorist capability, including access to extensive and sophisticed weapony, as well as terrorist training facilities,” tweeted Home Secretary Priti Patel. “That is why today I have acted to proscribe Hamas in its entirety.”
On November 29, 2021, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on Monday signed a 10-year memorandum of understanding for deepening ties on issues such as cybersecurity, technology development, defense, trade, and science. They declared they will work “night and day” to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
In August 2022, British-based Babcock signed a deal with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and its subsidiary Elta Systems to provide a long-range radar for the Defence Ministry’s Serpens program, which is designed to detect hostile mortars, artillery, and rockets.
Royal Visit to Israel is a Breakthrough
The United Kingdom’s Prince William took a historic trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories in June 2018, the first British Royal to make an official visit to the area. During William’s four-day tour he met with Israeli President Rivlin and Palestinian President Abbas separately, visited the Temple Mount, spent time at Yad Vashem, visited a Palestinian refugee camp, relaxed in Tel Aviv, and spoke with Israeli business leaders. The visit was widely viewed as positive and received significant coverage in international media.
Israel’s foreign service considered the visit of Prince William a breakthrough given the Foreign Office’s prior success in preventing members of the royal family from paying an official visit to Israel. This was actually not the first visit by a member of the family. William’s father, Prince Charles, attended the funerals of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and Shimon Peres in 2016 and visited the grave of his grandmother, Princess Alice, who is buried in the Church of Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives.
The visit was the latest evidence of the growing ties between Israel and Britain, which are also reflected in rising trade figures, stronger economic ties, and more transparent military and intelligence cooperation. Noa Landau noted that experts attributed the changes to “Britain’s planned withdrawal from the European Union, the shift in international focus in the Middle East from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the global war on terror, and the return to power of the Conservative Party, considered friendlier to Israel than the Labor Party.”
Landau also noted that indications of the more open military cooperation included publicity surrounding the visit to Haifa port of the HMS Ocean, the fleet flagship of the Royal Navy, joint exercises between the Israeli Air Force and the Royal Air Force, and a flyover by RAF jets as part of Israel’s 70th-anniversary celebration. Arms sales from Britain to Israel have also increased from about $28 million in 2015 to $300 million in 2017.
Prince Charles made his first-ever official visit to Israel in January 2020 to attend the World Holocaust Forum marking 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. Speaking at the Holocaust Forum, the prince said: “The Holocaust must never be allowed to become simply a fact of history: we must never cease to be appalled, nor moved by the testimony of those who lived through it. Their experience must always educate, and guide, and warn us.”
With a Muslim population of nearly 3 million, mostly of Indian or Pakistani origin, the Jewish community in England has made concerted efforts to build a strong and steady relationship with the Muslim minority. Mainly this relationship has focused on local issues of concern to both communities and has steered clear of political discussions about the Middle East.
Two main organizations that have been created to foster better relations between Jews and Muslims are the Jewish-Muslim Forum of Greater Manchester and the London-based Faith Matters group. Stamford Hill, a neighborhood of London boasting a strong Muslim community and rich Jewish history is one of the focal areas in which Muslim-Jewish relations have strengthened. Each community has banded together to fight extremism and racism, especially following anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim attacks.
Here in London, we have lived next door to our Muslim neighbors for decades, without friction or tension, says Abraham Jacobson, a Haredi Jewish resident of Stamford Hill who serves as a city councilor for the Liberal Democrats in the Hackney District.
We are simply neighbors ... and friends who look out for each other ... I don't care whether the guy next door is Jewish, Muslim or anything else.
Jewish Community Centre for London
341-351 Finchley Road, London NW3 6ET
Telephone: 020 7431 9866
Fax: 020 7431 6483
Email: [email protected]
Nottingham Hebrew Congregation
Nottingham NG1 4FQ
Email. [email protected]
Marjorie & Arnold Ziff Community Centre
311 Stonegate Road,
Leeds, LS17 6AZ
Tel: 0113 218 5888
Fax: 0113 203 4915
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Photo Credits: Ilford synagogue photo courtesy of Ilford Synagogue.
Central Synagogue photos courtesy of the Central Synagogue.
New West End Synagogue photo courtesy of the New West End Synagogue.