A Double Bind

When the late Cecil Roth retired, in 1968, after his ninth term as president of the Jewish Historical Society of England, he felt he should apologize for devoting his life to such a “modest cabbage patch.” This was, of course, the polite and appropriately English thing to do, and Roth, the first Reader in Jewish Studies at Oxford, was a very English figure. John Gross, who met him at the open house Roth kept on Saturday afternoons for Jewish students, describes him as “a tall man, with thick glasses, lots of teeth, lank black hair parted in the middle (it was often mistaken for a wig) and a spluttery voice”—in short, a typical Oxford don, except that “his conversation abounded with what you might call the higher Jewish gossip.”

There is nothing in the least apologetic about Todd Endelman’s comprehensive and authoritative history of the Jews of Britain; yet even he seems constrained by the uneventful story, as though to talk about Judaism without dwelling on suffering were historically—or even politically—incorrect:

Anglo-Jewish history in recent centuries is undramatic, at least in comparison to the travails of Jews in other lands. Show trials, pogroms, accusations of ritual murder, economic boycotts, and other persecutions that punctuated the histories of other Central and East European communities were absent, as were political revolutions, like those in France and Russia, that rapidly transformed the circumstances of Jewish life…. While the absence of violence and turmoil in their history did not disturb Britain’s Jews, who saw it as a mark of their good fortune, the same cannot be said of their historians. For them, the absence of persecution is a problem: it eliminates a familiar framework—Jews as a persecuted minority—and a set of related concepts and terms with which to view the history of Britain’s Jews. One eminent historian concluded that British Jewish history was so tranquil it did not merit professional attention.

If the British Jews are lucky to have been spared the violence that makes history interesting, so too is England. It is an island nation with a once powerful navy, and it has fought its wars abroad. Hitler’s bombers apart, the last battles on English soil were fought during the Civil War of 1642–1649, when Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians defeated the Royalist army of Charles I. Partly in response to the havoc that followed the execution of the divinely appointed king and the establishment of parliamentary democracy, Cromwell allowed the Jews, who had been expelled in 1290, to return. He did so not for the usual reasons—because he needed their financial skills and resources—but because, Endelman writes,

In the intoxicating atmosphere of those tumultuous times, many supporters of the parliamentary cause—politicians, preachers, scholars, and ordinary people alike—expected the conversion of the Jews and the coming of the millennium in the near future…. Believing that redemption was at hand and that the repeal of the [expulsion edict of 1290] would …

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