This Day in Jewish History |

1818: Jamaican Who Wouldn't Become a Rabbi but an English MP Is Born

Sir John Simon represented a district with almost no Jews, yet famously fought for Jewish advancement and rights

David Green
David B. Green
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The West London Synagogue, shown from the junction of Hampden Gurney Street and Upper Berkeley Street, London, England, 2008.
The West London Synagogue, shown from the junction of Hampden Gurney Street and Upper Berkeley Street, London, England, 2008. Credit: WikiCommons
David Green
David B. Green

December 9, 1818, is the birthdate of Sir John Simon, one of the first Jews to serve in the British House of Commons, who used his position to advocate openly for the rights of Jews both at home and abroad.

Although during his two decades in Parliament, the district he represented, Dewsbury, had almost no Jews living in it, Simon was widely referred to as “the member for Jewry.”

The British prayerbook

John Simon was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, where his father, Isaac Levi Simon, was a landowner and merchant. Isaac was believed by some to be the first slaveholder in Jamaica to release his human property, in 1832, a year before the passage of the Abolition of Slavery Act, according to Stephen Klaidman, author of "Sydney and Violet," about John Simon's granddaughter and her husband. John’s mother was Rebecca Orobio Furtado, from a prominent Sephardi family.

In 1833, John was sent to Liverpool to attend school. There he became acquainted with the eccentric reforming rabbi and scholar David Woolf Marks, who taught the young man Hebrew and inculcated in him a love of Jewish studies.

Together, they established the West London Synagogue, and wrote a new siddur (prayerbook), which aimed to be neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, but simply “British.”

John even wanted to pursue a career in the rabbinate. His father, who expected him to study law, put the kibosh on that.

Simon received his law degree from the University of London in 1841. A year later, he became the second practicing Jew in England to be admitted to the bar, after Sir Francis Goldsmid.

In 1843, Simon married Rachel Salaman, also from an accomplished family: Her brother Charles had been elected to the Royal Academy of Music at age 10, and became a well-known composer of Jewish devotional music. Rachel herself was a writer.

The couple lived several years in Jamaica, where John began to practice law in the colonial capital, Spanish Town, but they returned to England when Rachel's health suffered in the tropical climate.

"The Serjeant," Sir John Simon as caricatured by Spy (Leslie Ward) in Vanity Fair, September 1886.Credit: WikiCommons

The 'Orsini plot'

Back in England, Simon became a successful barrister on the Northern Circuit, and his status rose continuously, as he was named a "sergeant at arms" and later a queen's counselor. In practical terms, these honors allowed him to sit as a judge in a number of different jurisdictions.

As a practicing attorney, one of Simon's most notable cases came in 1858, when he served as junior counsel in the successful defense of Simon Francois Bernard, who had been accused of involvement in the Orsini plot, the attempted assassination of Napoleon III of France.

As someone who had fought for Jews' right to serve in Parliament and other public realms, it was fitting that in November 1868 he was elected an MP from the Liberal Party, representing Dewsbury, a mill-and-market town in West Yorkshire

Once in the house, he fought on behalf of Jews both at home and abroad, whether in Romania, Serbia or Russia. The protest movement he initiated after the start of pogroms in the latter country in 1881, led to demonstrations in more than 40 towns across the United Kingdom, and a number of petitions.

In 1870, when parliament debated an elementary education bill, Simon had made it his business to secure the right for Jewish children to absent themselves from the schoolhouse on the Sabbath and on festivals.

He was also one of the founders of the Anglo-Jewish Association, a British educational organization meant to parallel the French Alliance Israelite Universelle, and intended to promote "social, moral, and intellectual progress among the Jews," and to assist those "who may suffer in consequence of being Jews."

John Simon was returned to the Commons in every election up through 1886 – the same year he was knighted -- and he retired only because of his own bad health, in 1888. He died in London on June 24, 1897, at age 78. 

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