The coronation of King Charles III highlights the extent to which the place of Jews in England has changed since being readmitted into England over 350 years ago. While quite a lot has happened since that time, one crucial thing has changed as far as Jews are concerned. To understand this, we must consider the only Anglo-Jewish community to have lived in England since the last time a King Charles sat on the throne, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews. Indeed, for centuries, King Charles II remained a key figure in that community’s self-narrative. The founding document of the S&P are its Ascamot, its rules and regulations. The most famous of these was Ascama 1 which forbade the establishment of a second Sephardi synagogue within 4 (and later 6) miles from the community’s synagogue in the Ward of Aldgate, first on Creechurch Lane, and then on Bevis Marks. The reason given for this injunction was that ‘Duly considering how important is our Union, to keep us from giving offence to the inhabitants of this city, against which we have been cautioned by his Majesty, King Charles II, all the Yehidim of the Kaal Kadosh have, with an unanimous accord, agreed, that there be not allowed in the City of London and its suburbs any other than this our Synagogue of Shaar Ashamaim’. This rule first adopted in Spanish in 1664 was repeated in English in 1785 and then again in 1831.
What was the origin of this regal warning that Jews behave? While Jews were first permitted to settle openly in England in 1656 under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, it was only afterwards in 1664, during the previous King Charles, Charles II, that Jewish resettlement received royal approbation. This was important, because following the end of the interregnum, it wasn’t entirely clear whether Jews would still be welcomed following the dissolution of the Republic and the return of monarchy. Indeed, some Jews had been told in the name of the King that they were no longer welcome. In haste, several members of the community wrote to the king saying, ‘They most humbly beseech yor Matie that until they shall receive from yor Matie some Significacon of your Royall pleasure that they should depart the Kingdom they may remain here under the like protection wth the rest of yor Maties Subjects’. Shortly thereafter they received a reply from Henry Bennet, Secretary of State, dated 22 August 1664, that ‘His Maty having considered this Peticon hath been graciously pleased to declare that he hath not given any particular Order for the molesting or disquieting the Petitioners either in their Persons or Estates, but that they may promise themselves the effects of the same favour as formerly they have had, soe long as they demeane themselves peaceably & quietly with due obedience to his Maties Lawes, & without scandal to his Government’. In other words, King Charles became the first monarch to confirm the right of Jews to live in England since their expulsion in 1290, but it remained conditional on good behaviour.
On the basis of this correspondence, the Jewish community took great care to remain harmonious, and without any public contention, lest they overstay their welcome. This was therefore quickly codified into communal law that same year of 1664 and they forbade any schisms. Perhaps it is for this reason that in 1701 they built Bevis Marks Synagogue off of the main thoroughfare and in a private courtyard to do their best to keep a low profile. Ultimately though, the Jews in England enjoyed greater rights than Jews did almost anywhere else around the globe. However, according to the letter from Charles II, their stay was notionally conditional on their keeping the peace. Perhaps it was for this reason that many Jews in the English colonies, just like their Gentile neighbours, later supported the American Revolution, for shortly after its conclusion in 1790 they received an exceptional letter from then President George Washington that, ‘It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights’.
Of course, since that time, a lot has changed in England. Not only Jews, but all minorities now enjoy equal rights as citizens, irrespective of any kind of test or condition. Fittingly, perhaps no royal has demonstrated that sentiment more than the now King Charles III. He has time and time again demonstrated inclusion and respect for all communities, something which has been particularly felt and welcomed from within the Jewish community. It is therefore all the more fitting that King Charles III deemed it appropriate several years ago to become Royal Patron to the Bevis Marks Synagogue Heritage Foundation which will welcome school groups from all across the country to learn about Judaism, and which will showcase a copy of the above mentioned letter from King Charles II in its new visitor centre. Indeed, different segments of the British Jewish community appropriately gathered together at Bevis Marks Synagogue for a service of celebration to mark the Coronation of King Charles III. You can watch the service online at the end of this post. In this respect the S&P community acts as a model for broader Jewry for how different segments of the Jewish community can come together in such a positive and meaningful way.
Perhaps it is no coincidence then, that just days after the coronation, the Jewish community marked Lag La’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, when we conclude the period of mourning that recalls internal discord amongst the students of second-century Rabbi Akiba. According to tradition they all perished by divine decree because ‘they did not respect one another’. Clearly then, even without a royal warning, Jews are always meant to do their utmost to maintain internal unity as a matter of religious values. One could say then that the warning of Charles II simply helped to reinforce this preexisting religious ideal. However, according to Jewish tradition, it is always better to observe Judaism out of free choice, and not simply when compelled to do so, as a way of demonstrating true commitment to it. We are therefore fortunate to live in a time when Jewish good behaviour is not a precondition to rights, but is rather an expression of our devotion to God and one another. Today, we need not respect one another out of fear of oppression, but because it is the right thing to do. In this respect, as we celebrate Lag La’Omer, and the Coronation of Charles III, we pray that our community lives up to its ideals, and that we always treat each other with respect and dignity.