On December 18, 1655, the so-called Whitehall Conference, which Oliver Cromwell had convened in London two weeks earlier to discuss letting the Jews return to England, came to an end. No clear or explicit decision on the question was reached. Two of the jurists in attendance, however, Judges John Glynne and William Steele, offered their learned opinion that there was no existing law on the books “against their coming in," because their original expulsion had been by royal decree, not parliamentary vote. As a result, the conference had the effect of lowering the figurative wall that was keeping Jews from settling in the country.
More than 350 years earlier, in 1290, King Edward I had expelled the Jews from England. Although a small number remained resident in the country throughout that period, they had no legal status and were in constant danger of banishment.
Cromwell, Lord Protector of the short-lived Commonwealth, was in general sympathetic to the Jews. This derived at least in part from his belief that their return to Britain would hasten the coming of the Messiah, and partly in recognition of the economic and political benefits they were expected to bring to England, particularly in its ongoing war with Spain.
Preparing for the Messiah
In September 1655, Menasseh ben Israel, the Portuguese-born rabbi from Amsterdam, visited London. As a mystic, Menasseh interpreted a line in the Bible as meaning that the age of redemption could come only when the Jews were spread out to every corner of the earth. Though the age of exploration was hastening this day, the ban keeping them out of England still needed to be reversed.
Menasseh therefore presented Cromwell with the “Humble Addresses,” a document in which he requested permission for Jews to live, pray and be buried in England, in consideration of “owr desire Being to Live Peacebly under your Highnes Governement.”
It was to consider Menasseh ben Israel’s request that Cromwell convened a group of prominent lawyers, clergymen, military people and merchants in the Council Chamber at Whitehall, London on December 4. Over the next 14 days, conference participants convened on five separate occasions, the final one of which, on December 18, was open to the public.
Cromwell encountered more opposition to the idea than he anticipated, in particular from the merchants, who feared competition from Jews, and from some of the clergy. To the extent that the participants were willing to consider the proposition, they wanted to attach a number of conditions to the readmission: The Jews had to promise to abstain from any attempt to convert non-Jews, and promise not to insult or blaspheme Christianity.
Shaming the no-sayers
By December 18, Cromwell understood that if he was to put to a vote the resolution with which he had opened the conference – “That the Jews deserving it may be admitted into this nation to trade and traffic and dwell among us as Providence may give occasion" – the motion might fail. He preferred to close the proceedings without a decision – but at the same time, argued that only by allowing Jews to settle in England, would it be possible to convert them to Christianity, which was in principle a prime objective of the Anglican Church.
He then turned to the merchants who had argued that the Jews were unfair competitors and not to be trusted, and presented them with a challenge: “Can you really be afraid that this contemptible and despised people should be able to prevail in trade and credit over the merchants of England, the noblest and most esteemed merchants of the whole world?"
The question was left to hang as the Whitehall Conference adjourned. Over the next few years, a number of incremental steps were taken that strengthened the Jews’ purchase on the island, even if no unconditional declaration was forthcoming.
In the words of historian David Katz, "once Cromwell and Charles II [the leader who followed him when the monarchy was restored] realized that the Jews as a nation could never be admitted through the front door, they were anxious to go round the back themselves and let them in through the door reserved for tradesmen."
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