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Petition to Cromwell

After Edward I expelled all Jews from England in 1290, it took over 350 years before they could return. This petition, by the noted rabbi and publisher Menasseh ben Israel, was instrumental in assisting their acceptance into British society

Menassah ben Israel's petition to Cromwell, 1656

Petition to Cromwell by Menassah ben Israel, 1656
National Archives SP 18/125, f.173
Copyright © National Archives. Used by permission

 

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Who was Menasseh ben Israel?

Born Manoel Dias Soeiro (1604-1657) in Madeira, Menasseh ben Israel was a Portuguese-Jewish rabbi, writer and publisher. His family moved to the Netherlands in 1610, where he established the first Hebrew press in Holland, earning a reputation for his writings.

He believed that the Messianic age could not come without the settlement of Jews in all parts of the known world. So he turned his attention to England, from where the Jews had been banned since 1290. There was Christian support for readmission, and Oliver Cromwell also sympathised - partly out of tolerance, partly because commerce needed Jewish merchants.

In 1655, Menasseh arrived in London. He issued his Humble Addresses to the Lord Protector. Opposition came in the form of William Prynne's Short Demurrer. Cromwell summoned the Whitehall Conference in December that year, which involved many of the chief thinkers, theologians, statesman and legal experts of the day.

Judges Glynne and Steele concluded that there was no law which forbade the Jews' return to England. Though little positive happened initially, any legal obstacles to their readmission had been removed. Replying to Prynne's attack on the Jews, Menasseh replied in the finest of his works, Vindiciae judaeorum (1656). Soon after he left London to go back to the Netherlands, Cromwell granted him a pension, which Menasseh did not live to enjoy.

What does the petition say?

It is a simple plea for freedom of private worship and burial rights. The text reads as follows:

To His Highnesse Oliver Lord Protector of The Comonwelth of England, Scotland and Ireland, and the Dominions thereof
The Humble Petition of The Hebrews at Present Residing in this citty of London whose names ar underwritten
Humbly sherveth
That Acknowledging The Manyfold favours and Protection your Highnesse hath bin pleased to graunt us in order that wee may with security meek privately in owr particular houses to our Devosions, And being desirous to be favoured more, by your Highnesse, wee pray with all Humblenesse ye by the best meanes which may be such Protection may be graunted us in Writting as that wee may therewith meete at owr said private devotions in owr Particular houses without feere of Molestation either to owr persons famillys or estates, owr desire Being to Live Peacebly under your Highnes. Governement, And being wee ar all mortall wee allsoe Humbly pray your Highnesse to graunt us Lisence that those which may dey of our nation may be buryed in such place our of the cittye as wee shall thinck Convenient with the Proprietors Leave in whose Land ther place shall be, and soe wee shall as well in owr Lifetyme, as at owr death be highly favoured by your Highnesse for whose Long Lyfe and Prosperitty wee shall continually pray to the allmighty God

What happened next ?

Cromwell never formally replied, but turned a blind eye, and in practical terms Jewish immigrants began to be tolerated again. In 1701 they established their first synagogue in London, Bevis Marks, which is still there today.

But there were limits. The Jewish Naturalisation Act of 1753, which offered British nationality to Jews who had been resident in Britain for three years, caused such an outcry that it was promptly repealed.

Jewish emancipation eventually followed. In 1845 Jews were allowed to hold public office, though already Moses Montefiore had been Sheriff of London and was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1837. However, attempts to pass a Bill through Parliament failed, even after Baron de Rothschild was elected MP for the City of London in 1847. He tried to take his seat but because he could not swear the Christian oath he was dismissed. It was not until 1858, following the Jewish Emancipation Act, that Baron de Rothschild at last entered Parliament.

There has never been a Jewish prime minister, at least officially. Benjamin Disraeli was Jewish by birth and upbringing, but he was baptised a Christian in 1817.

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