6. Readmission and Displacement: Menasseh ben Israel, William Prynne, John Milton
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211  Chapter 6 Readmission and Displacement Menasseh ben Israel, William Prynne, John Milton An Amsterdam rabbi raised by Sephardic émigr és from Portugal, Menasseh ben Israel (1604–57) was a renowned and well-connected scholar, teacher, orator, and publisher. His passions encompassed messianism, the cabal, and, in a more political vein, the problem of Jewish oppression.1 Famously,that latter pursuit entailed Menasseh’s September 1655 journey from Amsterdam to England “in behalfe of the Jewish Nation” to convince Cromwell to, in Menasseh’s words, “grant us place in your Countrey, that we may have our Synagogues, and free exercise of our Religion.”2 Two months later, the Lord Protector convened English “Divines, Lawyers, and Merchants, of different persuasions, and opinions” in the council chamber of Whitehall Palace to consider “Whether it be lawful at all to receive in the Jews” and “if it be lawfull, then upon what tearms its meet to receive them.”3 Unfortunately, Menasseh spurred no formal pronouncement from Cromwell. The five Whitehall meetings that began on 4 December 1655 and disbanded on 18 December did not issue any statements on readmission.4 Jews did immigrate to England in increasing numbers and attained by the end of the century permission to build in London what would become Bevis Marks Synagogue. But the status of that modestly expanding Jewish community was, in James Shapiro’s words, “provisional and subject to challenge.”5 During the next year Cromwell granted a petition permitting London Jews to “meete at owr said private devotions in 212 CHAPTER 6 owr Particular houses without feere of Molestation,” a “right” that in reality differed little from the options already available to crypto-Jews in England.6 Some eight years later, during the Restoration, Charles II generated the first written document authorizing Jews to live in England “so long as they demeane themselves peaceably & quietly with due obedience to his Maties Lawes & without scandall to his Governement.”7 The qualified nature of both Cromwell’s and Charles II’s actions shows just how tenuous the lives of British Jews after Whitehall continued to be throughout the seventeenth century. Menasseh’s experience is a case in point. Some two years after his arrival, the now broken and penniless rabbi left England, only to pass away shortly after in Amsterdam.8 How can we account for both the appearance in England of a climate amenable to readmission—so amenable as to prompt Menasseh’s mission to Cromwell—and the resistance with which that prospect met? Those questions aren’t easy to answer. As Achsah Guibbory puts it, “there were important differences in the attitudes and assumptions of the people who engaged in the controversy over Jewish readmission,” and “the wide range of attitudes expressed cannot be easily categorized.”9 Among the factors favoring Menasseh’s mission and the conference were the following: the shift from a monarchy to a commonwealth; a philosemitic interest in Hebrew, the Old Testament, and Jerusalem; a millenarian stress on conversion; a mercantilist investment in profiting from Jewish traders; a national desire to rethink “what it meant to be English during a period marked by social,religious and political instability”; and a national belief that “England was fulfilling the history of biblical Israel.”10 A host of phenomena also militated against readmission . Those factors included an interest in Jews solely as converts, fears over the economic harm wrought by Jewish businessmen, anxieties about Christians converting to Judaism, a concept of England as homogeneously Christian,and widespread belief in a slew of antisemitic stereotypes. As those two necessarily incomplete lists indicate,the question of why the English did not welcome Jews is just as complex as the reasons why the English pondered opening the nation to Jewish immigrants in the first place. Regardless of where one stood, one thing was clear: debates over readmission pivoted on questions of space, such as where would Jews live and how would those places intersect with larger issues of location and Jewish global dispersal?11 While my point may seem obvious,situating a foreign population in a host country is always a fraught endeavor. Consider the spatial metaphor employed by David Katz in his account of how, “once Cromwell and Charles II realized that the Jews as a nation could never be admitted through the front door, they were anxious to go around the back themselves and let READMISSION AND DISPLACEMENT 213 them in through the entrance reserved for tradesmen.”12 Katz conceives of readmission as a project...



Subject Headings

  • Jews in literature.
  • Antisemitism in literature.
  • English literature -- Old English, ca. 450-1100 -- History and criticism.
  • English literature -- Middle English, 1100-1500 -- History and criticism.
  • English literature -- Early modern, 1500-1700 -- History and criticism.
  • Antisemitism -- England -- History.
  • Jews -- England -- History.
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