The saga of England’s so-called Jew Law of 1753, made law and then repealed within six months, is a little known episode in Anglo-Jewish history that nonetheless has considerable resonance today.
It has now been brought into sharp focus in the latest book by East End born and bred Yoel Sheridan, (whom East End contemporaries may remember as Julius Shrensky, the name he was known by in his earlier years).
The so-called Jew Law was designed to enable people to become English by naturalisation without having to swear that they were taking their oath of allegiance “on the true faith of a Christian”.
In putting the Bill forward the Government argued that it was innocuous as it simply provided a method whereby any rich foreign Jew who had resided in England for three years, could apply for naturalisation through an expensive process that also ensured the worthiness of the applicant to become a British citizen. Applicants had also to prove that they were of the Jewish faith.
Supporters of the Bill and subsequent Act of Parliament argued that the result could only be to the benefit of the country, and cited the spread of prosperity seen in other states where there were levels of Jewish emancipation.
Nonetheless, it unleashed a torrent of anti-Semitism, with arguments that remain horribly familiar today about Jewish characteristics, avariciousness, love of money, lack of patriotism and sense of belonging to any country, and so forth. The ancient blood libel is regurgitated, the supposed role of the Jews in killing Christ is stated as fact, the threat posed to the Christian faith and to Christians is used to garner support for repeal.
Some of the arguments used are seen today used against all immigrants: the stealing of jobs, the destruction of businesses run by native-born Englishmen – it is all horribly familiar.
In Britain in 1753, Catholics were denied equal rights because they had demanded religious supremacy and threatened the throne, Christian Dissidents were denied equal rights because they threatened the religious supremacy and solidarity of the Church of England, and the Jews settled in England, loyal supporters of the King, George II, were denied equal rights as a result of anti-Semitic clamour.
So even the King’s far more tolerant stance is not enough to overcome the powerful feeling against the Act..
What Yoel does is to look at the how other historians have written about the “Jew Law” and the controversy surrounding it, pointing out that the anti-Semitism of the time and its continuation has been underplayed. He then illustrates his point by examining contemporary pamphlets and other documents that show all too vividly the anti-Semitic stereotyping resorted to, as well as looking at the (far fewer) rebuttals made by those in favour of the new naturalisation law.
He ends with a reflection on anti-Semitism today and how, sadly, such a lot seems not to have changed – indeed, how it seems to be on the rise.
A lot of work has clearly gone into this study, and it has very much paid off in creating a narrative around this little-remembered episode that both illuminates and appals,
Yoel, a one-time member of the East End’s Brady Boys Club, has lived in Israel since 1973. He has written other books with specific East End themes.
Anti-Semitism and the 1753 Jew Law Controversy
Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5AA
Paperback £6.99. E-book £3.50. From https://www.austinmacauley.com/book/antisemitism-and-1753-jew-law-controversy
ISBN 9781398442276 (Paperback) ISBN 9781398442283 (ePub e-book)