Anglo-Jewry's 350-year start

By Zaki Cooper, August 21, 2014

What does 1664 make you think of? Alcohol connoisseurs may think of the 1664 Kronenburg beer, and who could blame them? It is apparently the most popular French beer in the world.

But more sober-minded historical types will appreciate that 1664 was a significant year for British Jewry. Exactly 350 years ago this week, a landmark letter was issued by the new King's Privy Council addressed at the fledgling Jewish community. The letter, dated August 22 1664, said that the Jews could "promise themselves the effects of the same favour as formerly they have had, so long as they demean themselves peaceably and quietly, with due obedience to His Majesty's laws and without scandal to his government."

This effectively set the terms for the newly established community, a sort of "social contract", after an absence of almost 400 years in the Middle Ages. You behave yourselves, and the UK will treat you well. As the doyen of Anglos-Jewish historians, Cecil Roth, has written: "The residence of the Jews of England was authorised for the first time in writing."

The background to the letter is that the Jewish community had recently resettled in the UK only eight years earlier under Oliver Cromwell, after expulsion in 1290. With King Charles II's restoration to the throne in 1760, the Jews felt insecure. They did not know how the new monarch would react to them. It was, after all, during the short interregnum, when the UK was effectively a republic, that Jews had been given the nod to return to living in the country.

The community re-established itself in and around the City of London. In 1656, a house (in Creechurch Lane) was rented for use as a synagogue, and the following year a plot of land was secured in Mile End for a cemetery. In 1665, an association for visiting the sick was established, a forerunner to the welfare provision for which our community has become so famed. The buildings blocs of the community – religious, social and educational - were slowly and surely being put in place.

We have kept the law and made a contribution

In this pre-enlightenment era, the concept of religious toleration was not yet widespread. Hostility to Catholics in particular was rife and led to the passage of the Conventicle Act (1664), which prohibited religious services outside the Church of England.

When some attempted to use this as an opportunity to blackmail the Jewish community to avoid persecution, community leaders petitioned King Charles. It was this gesture that the Privy Council responded to with their landmark letter.

For some the social contract of 1664 is a source of pride. Jews have been good citizens over the ensuing 350 years. By and large, we have kept the law and, more than that, made a fantastic contribution to the commercial and social fabric of the UK. In return, we have been given right to pray and practise our religion (though arguably this is fraying with shechita and brit milah under attack).

For others, though, this tacit agreement between state and minorities is a source of frustration. They contend that at times the Jewish community has been overly obsequious and too sotto voce in the assertion of our Jewish identity. They would like to see a more "out and proud" display of Jewish identity, American-style, that does not dilute our Jewish voice. The tussle between the two arguments is an ongoing one about Jewish identity in modern Britain.

Whatever the arguments nowadays, King Charles left a positive mark on British Jewish history.

The 1660s were not an easy decade for the incoming king. The Great Plague of 1665 caused 70,000 deaths in London alone (including some casualties in the Jewish community) and the following year, the Great Fire of London led to widespread damage including to St Paul's Cathedral.

Despite such travails, including a war against the Dutch in 1665, Charles maintained a positive disposition to the Jews. Before the restoration, while in exile, he had tried to secure funds from the Amsterdam Jewish community and in 1674 the king again defended Jewish rights, stopping legal proceedings to restrict freedom of worship.

The positive sentiment was reciprocated. When the diarist Samuel Pepys visited Creechurch Lane shul on Simchat Torah in 1663, he was a little bemused by what he saw. But one thing he picked up in his diary is that "and in the end they had a prayer for the king, which they pronounced his name in Portugall [sic]; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew." This was an early version of the Prayer for the Royal Family, still part of our Shabbat morning liturgy.

The king died in 1685, converting to Catholicism on his deathbed.

We may have moved on from then, but when the next King Charles ascends the throne, he will hope to replicate the friendly relations his namesake enjoyed with the Jewish community.

Zaki Cooper is a trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews. @zakicooper

Last updated: 1:23pm, August 21 2014