Keren David

History tells us our right to be heard is absolute

Lionel de Rothschild refused to cave in to bigotry – and was able to take his seat as an MP


Lionel Nathan de Rothschild (1808 - 1879), Vanity Fair published in 1877. Caricature by Ape (Carlo Pellegrini). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

June 27, 2024 09:10

The JC has covered many general elections. Forty-four, I believe, starting from the days when Prime Ministers generally sat in the House of Lords and the Labour Party had not yet been invented.

This time, when the election was announced – after sighing with relief that we wouldn’t be juggling election coverage with the High Holy Days – I dived straight into our archives. August 1847 was the first election ever covered by the JC. What was the big political news for our people?

It turns out that 1847 was a great election for the six-year-old paper to cut its teeth on. At last, a Jewish candidate triumphed – Baron Lionel de Rothschild, “a Jew” for the City of London (Disraeli, elected in 1837, didn’t count for the JC as he’d been baptised). Four other Jewish candidates had been defeated: “Yet we by no means despair of the ultimate success of these gentlemen or rather of the success of the cause they are advocating, should they persevere in pressing their claims on the enlightened constituencies of the empire.”

That cause was the right of Jewish MPs to take their seats in the House of Commons, impossible without taking an oath “on the true faith of a Christian”. So the Baron, though elected, could not be an MP. “Whilst we thus rejoice in the glorious victory achieved by the City election, we would remind our Jewish Brethren that, as becomes good soldiers they must follow up the first, and no doubt the most essential triumph, by unremitting, yet peaceful agitation till the Baron has taken his seat in the legislative assembly,” said the JC.

Unremitting peaceful agitation did the job as far as the ruling Whigs were concerned, with Lord John Russell bringing forward a Jewish Disabilities Bill. But the House of Lords refused to accept it. A decade of electoral push and pull ensued, with Rothschild resigning and being re-elected, and the Lords blocking attempts to change the law. In 1850 Rothschild entered the House of Commons and insisted on swearing his oath on the Hebrew bible. This was agreed but when he omitted the bit about the Christian faith he was ushered out.

Disraeli supported the efforts to remove the ban on Jews taking their seats, although his Tory party did not. However the JC did not like his arguments, observing sniffily: “To Mr. D’Israeli we shall be under no obligation whenever Baron Rothschild or any other Jew shall sit in Parliament. We did not like his silent votes, nor do we admire his advocacy of our claims, ‘as descendants of a race acknowledged to be sacred, and the professors of a religion admitted to be divine.’ We demand that ‘full and complete justice shall speedily be done to us’ – as Mr. D’Israeli hopes it will be done – not as a peculiar race, or on account of a peculiar religion, but as citizens of the same state. We claim it not upon the ground of the eccentric fictions of one who praises the Jews up to the skies – and he himself a descendant of Jews, but not a Jew… We ask not for emancipation as the ‘chosen people’ but as not being ‘the rejected’ we ask it not as a ‘race’ or a ‘tribe’ (as the writers in the Times call us when they are ‘particularly liberal’), but we ask it as men.”

It was not until 1858, with the Jews Relief Act, that the House of Lords capitulated. The JC reported on Rothschild taking the oath: “The words specified being omitted, after which he signed the Parliamentary roll, and went through the formality of shaking hands with the Speaker. He also shook hands warmly with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other hon members, and then took his place below the gangway on the Opposition benches.”

Several things occurred to me as I read these old copies of the JC. First, why had I not heard of Lionel de Rothschild before? We make a fuss about baptised Disraeli being the first Jewish prime minister but ignore a real hero who persisted in fighting for our rights to be accepted as Jews with no compromises.

What’s more, he was co-founder of a relief organisation which raised a vast sum, £500,000, for victims of the Irish and Highlands potato famine. Plus, he sounds like a nice guy. When he died, in 1879, the JC wrote in a lengthy obituary: “No opposition could embitter him, no anger followed upon the outbursts of bigotry. But his most vigorous utterances and. most determined public acts had the tone of polished society, and when he entered the House at length, the most ardent antagonists to his admission were disarmed by the consistent becomingness of his demeanour.”

More generally, I thought of how many of us feel that our voices are stifled by the current climate, that anti-Zionist sentiments are cancelling Jews. Literary festivals cave in to activists, protesters clamour for boycotts. The pressure is great to be “good” Jews, even if that means denigrating the Jewish state.

We can learn from the “good soldiers” of 1847. Our right to be accepted as British citizens  – as men (and women) – is absolute. It is not conditional, limited.​ Or negotiable.

June 27, 2024 09:10

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