WHEN footage emerged of Jeremy Corbyn saying that Zionists, ‘having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives’, couldn’t understand ‘English irony’, it was rightly met with outrage. Yes, in context it’s not so bad, and certainly can’t be taken as evidence of antisemitism on its own, but for Britain’s Jewish community, the comments were laced with a familiar note. To them, it represents an effort to ‘other’ British Jews, to suggest in some way that they’re not quite English.
It’s nothing new. If we look back the history of England’s Jews during the Middle Ages, we can see in stark relief what happens when they are denied their Englishness, when they are subjected first to othering, then to violence, and finally to expulsion.
The first Jews came to England after the Norman Conquest, when William the Conqueror invited Jewish merchants to settle in the country, bringing their commercial skills and wealth with them. At that time, Jews were largely restricted to money-lending, both because Catholic doctrine saw lending at interest as a sin, and also because Jews were barred from almost every other trade.
Until the thirteenth century, relations between Jews and gentiles were relatively peaceable: during the reign of Henry I (1100-35) they were allowed to travel freely throughout the country, to be tried by a jury their peers, to swear oaths on the Torah, and were considered representatives of the King in financial matters. They also largely escaped the massacres suffered by Jews in other parts of Europe during the First and Second Crusades.
Where England’s antisemitism differed from the rest of Europe was in the country’s unique contribution to antisemitic prejudice: the blood libel.
Things had changed by the middle of the twelfth century. Anti-Jewish violence flared, fuelled by the religious fervour whipped up by the advent of the Third Crusade. For the first time, the cultural and religious differences between Jews and Christians were really being highlighted; furthermore, continental religious art and literature had begun to portray the executioners of Jesus as Jewish, rather than Roman. In this way, Jews were turned into aliens at the heart of a conspiracy, and this othering, the community’s relative insularity, and its general wealth compared to its gentile neighbours put it at odds with the wider English population and made it a target for prejudice.
Where England’s antisemitism differed from the rest of Europe, however, was in the country’s unique contribution to antisemitic prejudice: the blood libel.
This antisemitic conspiracy theory first emerged after 1144, when the wealthy Jewish community of Norwich was falsely accused of murdering a young child – named William – in a sadistic recreation of the crucifixion of Jesus as part of their Passover celebrations. The myth was popularised by Thomas of Monmouth, who sought to use the story of William to cultivate a local saintly cult and shrine, attributing a number of miracles to the boy’s corpse and some gruesome deaths to the city’s Jews and those gentiles who aided them.
The lack of evidence for the crime didn’t stop Thomas from writing his The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich, in which Norwich’s peaceful, prosperous Jewish community are cast as conspirators in a worldwide plot against innocent, Christian children. He developed this story of William of Norwich – in concert with the Bishop of Norwich William de Turbeville – in part because he saw in the city’s growing importance and prosperity the opportunity to establish a potentially lucrative pilgrimage site. The clergy were all too willing to sacrifice the city’s Jews to achieve this, though in practice the cult was never associated with antisemitism.
Nonetheless, and despite significant popular demands for justice, no evidence was ever found to implicate the city’s Jews, and the case was dropped. But the willingness of the local sheriff, John de Chesney, to give the Jews protection with Norwich Castle, the widespread discontent with the rule of the inept King Stephen, and the base appeal of the blood libel, gave rise to a suspicion of collusion between the royal authorities and England’s Jews. Over the next several decades, several more cases of blood libel arose, which only fuelled the growing anti-Jewish mood.
This would eventually have deadly consequences for the Jewish community. Whipped up into a religious fervour, a mob of would-be crusaders turned on the Jewish population of York in 1190, driving them into the sanctuary of York Castle. Trapped within Clifford’s Tower, they were besieged by their attackers who demanded their conversion and baptism until, with no chance of escape, the entire community committed suicide. This was not an isolated incident: further violence against Jews took place in Thetford, Colchester, and in London immediately after the coronation of Richard I, when a rumour spread that the new king had ordered a general massacre of his Jewish subjects.
Things never really improved for England’s Jews after this. Indeed, during the reign of Henry III, anti-semitism became a state-sponsored activity; Henry issued a series of discriminatory edicts against his Jewish subjects, including two demanding all Jews wear a yellow badge of identification, in a grim foreshadowing of the Nazis. He also raised a series of 49 levies targeted at the largely wealthy Jews, formalised segregation between them and the Christians, and even officially endorsed the blood libel.
His successor was no better, and indeed it was Edward I who would finally take the most dramatic step against England’s Jewish population. Deeply in debt, and having already barred the Jews from lending money at interest (the Statute of Jewry of 1275 was designed to eliminate usury, a deadly sin to the Christians, but the core of the Jews’ most emblematic business), Edward needed to raise a harsh but necessary tax on his subjects. To sweeten this bitter pill, he offered to expel the country’s entire Jewish community, then numbered at about 2,000. This wasn’t a new idea: Edward had already thrown out the Jews of Gascony, seizing all their property and taking on the debts owed to them. The Jews were an easy target – and a profitable one.
Henry issued a series of discriminatory edicts against his Jewish subjects, including two demanding all Jews wear a yellow badge of identification.
On 18 July 1290 the Edict of Expulsion was issued. Although a handful were given special dispensation to visit, no Jew could settle in England until 1655, when Oliver Cromwell lifted the exclusion. Jews went entirely missing from the English story, except where they could be cast as villainous caricatures like Shylock, the antagonist of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
When Thomas of Monmouth wrote The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich, he could never have imagined that shreds of the same story would be used to other Jews nine centuries later, of a Jewish fifth column working to undermine good Christians from within. By casting them as subversive or disloyal, by highlighting their prosperity and contrasting it with gentile poverty, and by widening their differences with Christians and gentiles, Jews invariably become the target of violence. Attacks against synagogues, the Holocaust and the Edict of Expulsion all ultimately stem from relatively innocuous acts of discrimination like this.
We can learn from how easy it was to go from a relatively peaceful relationship in the eleventh century to an atmosphere of conspiracy, fear and distrust in the twelfth in our present-day dealings with Jews. How different, after all, is Thomas of Monmouth inventing a fictional Jewish plot to murder Christian children in Norwich from a modern-day left-wing commentator inventing a fictional Israeli plot to infiltrate Britain’s media and political establishment? Jeremy Corbyn gets away with othering Jews today because they have already been cast as his opponents; the Edict of Expulsion shows us what happens when this is allowed fester.
Jews have long since become accustomed to being placed at the centre of sinister plots and global conspiracies, but it all began in Norwich nine-hundred years ago.