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1656 and All That

After William of Normandy became king of England in 1066, the Conqueror felt the English economy would benefit from the business skills of the French Jews so he invited Jewish merchants and artisans from northern France to settle in this country. Though well intended, William’s plan went disastrously wrong in the years following.
In the Middle Ages it was considered wrong for “Christians” to engage in “usury”, so money lending became the only trade open to the sons of Israel. Money being what it is, “the Jews” became the focus of hatred and suspicion. Bizarre accusations were levelled at them including the charge that they used the blood of Christians in the preparation of Passover matzah. By 1290 they were of no further use to Edward I so he expelled them from England.

For the next three-and-a-half centuries, it was illegal for Jews to live in England. But on 13th June 1656, one of the most remarkable turning points in English history took place when Oliver Cromwell readmitted Jews to this country. The significance of that event was noted by Charles Moore in The Daily Telegraph of 17th June, “Exactly 350 years ago”, wrote Moore, “we began to be a multi-racial society.”

Moore’s article delineated the benefits that accrued to Britain as a result of 1656, “Anyone who has ever studied at a university, needed good doctors, shopped at Marks & Spencer or Tesco, benefited from scientific invention, listened to classical music, sought accountants or lawyers, watched a film, bought a book or needed his head examined, has gained from Cromwell’s decision. The Jewish contribution is so great that it pervades almost all aspects of British society.”

Unlike William the Conqueror, Cromwell was well disposed to the Jewish people for more than purely political or economic reasons. Cromwell was a Puritan and, as such he was conscious of the importance of the Jewish people in the purposes of God. His Puritan chaplain John Howe preached a series of sermons on Ezekiel 39:29, “And I will not hide my face from them any more: for I shall have poured out my Spirit on the house of Israel”. In those sermons Howe stated his belief that there would come “a time of far more general calling than there hath been hitherto; when the receiving and gathering in of the Jews shall be as life from the dead”. When that happened the Church and the world would be blessed as a result.

England has benefited from Cromwell blessing the children of Abraham. To this day English Jews remember our “chief of men” with gratitude and affection, and some Jewish parents still name their sons Oliver. However, few of Cromwell’s Christian admirers have done much to endear themselves to the Jewish collective heart. One could wish the Protestant church today was half as knowledgeable about the Jewish contribution to our national life as Charles Moore. If only the heirs of the Puritans were as astute spiritually as Cromwell was politically, we Gentiles might succeed at last in fulfilling our calling to “provoke Israel to jealousy”. When that finally happens, not only will the Jews benefit but great blessing will come back on the Church, as it is written, “I will bless those who bless you.”

Mike Moore

This article first appeared in the September 2006 edition of the Herald


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