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The Jewish Community of King's Lynn

King's Lynn

Also: Lynn

Port on the east coast of Norfolk, England, UK.

It had a Jewish community in the 12th century. As the result of the massacre in February 1189, the whole community was exterminated. Jews later resettled there and in 1238 were ordered to maintain one of the royal crossbow- men.

A diminutive community was established in 1747 which survived approximately a century.

At the outset of the 21th century, it had no organized Jewish community.

Place Type:
Town
ID Number:
184880
Written by researchers of ANU Museum of the Jewish People
Nearby places:

Related items:

United Kingdom

United Kingdom of of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK), also known as Britain, Great Britain.
A country in northwestern Europe.

21st Century

Estimated Jewish population in 2018: 290,000 out of 66,500,000. The fifth largest Jewish community in the world and the second largest in Europe. Main umbrella organization for over 300 Jewish communities and organizations:

Board of Deputies of British Jews (BOD)

Telephone: 44(0) 207 543 5400
Fax: 44(0) 207 543 0010
Email: info@bod.org.uk
Website: www.bod.org.uk

 

HISTORY

The Jews of Britain

1066 | William the Conqueror, a Bastard Risen to Greatness

The first documented presence of Jews on British soils dates to the 11th century, when the island was invaded by Duke William of Normandy, also known as “William the Bastard”.
William was the illegitimate son of Robert the Magnificent, who was said to have changed wives at the same alarming rate by which he chopped off heads.
To improve his financial situation, William brought Jews from France with him, hoping they would shore up the economic situation of his newly won kingdom. William's hope rested on the reputation Jews held at the time as skilled merchants, mostly due to the firm trade ties established through the inter-communal Jewish framework of the Middle Ages.


1135 | The Fine Test

In the medieval culture, the test for the financial strength of a community was the size of the fine it was able to withstand. The fine test was passed by the Jewish community in England with great success when in 1135, some 60 years after Jews began settling in Britain, it paid the Crown approximately 2,000 pounds, a legendary sum in those days. In addition, around that time Jews began to settle outside of London as well – testimony to the stability of their political and social status.

1144 | London Justice

The many internecine wars that raged in England significantly increased the demand for cash. And so Jewish business magnates, who were endowed with a fine sense for profit and available capital began lending large sums to knights and nobles with a desire for armaments.
At that time, the legal status of the Jews was stable: They enjoyed special privileges that granted them preferred status, which for instance exempted them from delightful judicial procedures such as “the ordeal of fire and water.” This was a common medieval punishment, in which suspects were tossed from a cliff bound hands and feet. If they drowned, they were pronounced innocent. If they managed to escape their shackles – they were executed by hanging or burning at the stake. London justice, indeed.
But ironically, it was in this relatively Jew-friendly climate that the first blood libel of the Middle Ages was made: a Christian child was found dead in the city of Norwich, and the Jews of that town were accused of using his blood for celebrating Passover.


1255 | Usury Shalt Thou Following

The blood libels against the Jews became evermore popular in England and all over Europe, finding their way into art and literature as well. In these works Jews were depicted as demonic, cursed beings, as “usurers” and “heinous money grubbers”. Examples abound in popular literature, in one folk tale the protagonist is a Jewish child who partakes in the Easter prayers and is punished by his father, who throws him into a furnace. Another example is the play “The Jew's Daughter,” which is based on a Scottish ballad written in 1255, and which was inspired in turn by a blood libel surrounding the death of a Christian child known as “Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln”. In the play, a retelling of the Garden of Eden story, Eve is a Jewish girl who seduces an innocent Christian boy with an apple and stabs him to death.

1269 | “The Jewish Problem” a-la Cecil Roth

The status of the Jews of England as holders of a special economic status was a double-edged sword, which aroused the fury of the masses. This slippery slope, which ended with the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, began with the imposition of the tallage, which completely impoverished the Jews. Just to illustrate the scale of these measures, between 1240-1260 alone King Henry III of England received the enormous sum of 100,000 gold and silver bars from rich Jewish traders. Between 1269 and 1275 King Edward I published a series of laws which severely limited the financial activities of the Jews and eventually completely forbade them to lend money at interest. Many historians, among them Cecil Roth, believed that the root of the edicts was “The Jewish Problem”. The Jews, Roth argued, were trapped in a classic catch-22: On one hand, the Christian faith prohibits lending money at interest, and on the other hand, the Jewish community was banned from any other source of livelihood.

1290 | The First Great Expulsion

Contrary to prevalent belief, the first massive expulsion of Jews did not take place in Spain, but rather in England, 202 years earlier. Ironically, the reason Jews migrated to England in the first place was also the reason for their expulsion: money.
The story goes as follows: Edward I, King of England at the time, found himself in dire need of cash as most of his money was sunk into the defense of the territories of southwestern France, then under control of the English Crown, from the aggression of the kings of France. In those days the kings had a sort of trick to levy money from the people, known as a “voluntary tax”. The usual excuse for levying the money from the people in this manner had to do with security and defense, and when the king was at war the option of refusing to “volunteer” the tax did not exist. However, this king's problem was that at this particular time England had no serious security threats. What did Edward I do? He invented enemies; specifically, the Jews.
Therefore, under the pretense that they were enemies of the Crown, the king issued an edict of expulsion against the entire Jewish community on July 18th 1290. It is important to note that the king did not need to exert himself overmuch in persuading the English people on this issue. At the time hatred of Jews was practically legal tender – valued at 116,000 sterling pounds, to be precise, which was the tax amount received from the people in exchange for this expulsion – the single largest tax levied anywhere in the Middle Ages in Europe. The fact that the Jewish community was already impoverished anyway due to the heavy taxes laid upon on it was another reason for their expulsion.
Despite the expulsion, historians report that a small hidden Jewish community remained in England and survived for 350 years. It was so well-hidden, that King Henry V (1386-1422) had no idea that 20 Jewish musicians lived in his court.


1450 | Long Before Eliezer Ben Yehuda

In the mid-17th century the negative stereotype of the Jews began to crack, thanks to the rise of the Protestant movement and the revival in faith in the Old Testament.
The Protestants believed that in order to read the Old Testament meaningfully, one must know the book's original language, Hebrew. They believed that the Hebrew language held a code to understanding the true nature of divine reality. This view led to renewed sympathy for the Jewish people, for having preserved the Old Testament and its original language.
The Hebrew words ויהי אור – "Let there be light" – which appear in the biblical creation story were endowed with new religious significance. From now on the Jews were not only those held responsible for the death of Jesus, but also the keepers of the “Hebrew truth” - the tongue that speaks the divine reality.
Proof of the popularity of the ancient language can be found in a decision by King Henry VIII to endow two special university chairs for the study of Hebrew.


1655 | Herzl, Corner of Ben Israel

Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel (born as Manoel Dias Soeiro), a preacher and writer of important reference books, was in a way an early version of the Visionary of the State of Israel, Theodore Herzl. Like Herzl, he too devoted his life to a solution of “The Jewish Problem” among world leaders, and like Herzl, he ended tragically as well. But unlike Herzl, who aimed eastward, to the Holy Land, Ben Israel aimed west, to the land of restrained manners and subtle humor: England.
The reason that Ben Israel - who was born on Madeira Island, in the Kingdom of Portugal, and grew up in the Netherlands - looked to England was his belief that when the Messiah comes, Jews would be everywhere in the world, and to that end that they needed to return to England, from whence they had been been expelled some 250 years earlier”
This belief coincided perfectly with history, as a popular Christian belief held that Judgment Day was to arrive ten years from that time – in 1666. Ben Israel exploited the mystical time-frame afforded to him by history in order to make history.
On September 22nd 1655 he appealed to Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of Great Britain at the time, and presented him with the request to allow the Jews driven away in the great expulsion to return to Britain.
Cromwell received Ben Israel with open arms, and one can readily understand why: In those days the English people were greatly occupied with issues of human liberty and freedom of religion. This fact, alongside the revival of the Hebrew language and the partial signs of sympathy towards Jewish culture, created an opening for discussing the return of the Jews. Ben Israel's great achievement was the convening of the Whitehall Convention, which met in London and discussed the return of the Jews for the first time in centuries.


1663 | Anti-Semitic Hysteria, Taken to Extremes

The members of the Whitehall Convention, which met in London to discuss the issue of allowing the Jews to return to England, eventually rejected the idea. The reasons, as usual, were anti-Semitic: The corrupting Jewish capital, fear of the Jewish faith and mostly the concern that Jews would bring back the custom of animal sacrifice to Britain - a most ludicrous fear, seeing as this ritual had been discontinued, as is well known, some 1,500 years prior.
And yet a small Jewish community began to form in Britain, consisting mostly of Jews whose ancestors were expelled from Spain in 1492. The community integrated into the English social fabric, its members built a Jewish cemetery, renovated the synagogue in the borough of Carterhatch Lane, and some were even granted licenses to work as brokers at the London Stock Exchange. Various scholars believe that many of the community's achievements are due to the work of Menasseh Ben Israel, who half a century before laid the “Jewish Question” before the British government.
Ben Israel died, broken and dejected, in 1657, en-route from London to Amsterdam to attend to funeral of his son, without living to witness the rebirth of the Jewish community in England.


1700 | The First Jewish Knight

Archbishop Archibald Campbell Tate, Head of the Anglican Church in the 19th century, once said of change that at first it is said to be impossible, then illegal, and finally the way things have always been. The return of the Jews to Britain after the great expulsion is a classic example of this witty British observation.
Ironically, it was the fact that the British refused to recognize the Jews as a separate entity, and thus for example did not push them into ghettos, that accelerated their natural integration into society. Slowly the Jews were accorded civil status. Among other rights, they were allowed to testify in court and swear on the Hebrew Bible (1667), to practice their religious rituals – a right not extended to other religious minorities (1673) – and to build a magnificent synagogue at Bevis Marks, which still stands in splendor to this day.
A symbolic, yet highly significant proof of the marked improvement in the status of the Jews was given in the year 1700, when the Jew Solomon de Medina was knighted by King William III.


1753 | The Jewish Law

The fact that the Jewish Naturalization Act, known colloquially as “The Jew Bill”, nearly passed in the British Parliament in 1753 should give pause to Francophile historians, who argue with great academic fervor that the gospel of liberalism only reached England 35 years later, from the land of champagne and refined taste.
The law, which proposed that Jews be eligible for British citizenship even without pledging allegiance to the Anglican Church, did pass in Parliament initially, but it triggered a public uproar which produced plenty of stereotypical cartoons in the press and myriad riots.
According to American historian Thomas Perry, the anti-Semitic motivation for rejecting the bill was marginal in the scheme of things. The main reason, he holds, was bad timing: The Jews found themselves trapped in the middle of a deadly political clash between the two rival parties in Parliament: The liberal Whigs and the conservative Tories. Both parties exploited the riots triggered by the law for political gain, and thus prevented a formative historic milestone in the annals of the Chosen People in particular and world humanism in general.


1858 | Tolerance Is All You Need

John Locke, the British philosopher who is considered one of the founders of modern political thought, stated that religious faith is no justification for the withholding of political rights. Which is to say, that Church and State must be separated. This statement caused a true revolution of conscience in the Christian religious climate, especially when applied to the Jewish faith, which had regularly served as the perfect antagonist to Christian Europe.
In 1858, buoyed by the waves of Enlightenment, the Jews were granted an exemption from swearing allegiance to the Anglican Church and were also granted basic civil rights, including the right to be appointed to public office, to be granted academic titles, the recognition of Jewish marriage and more. During this time the Board of Deputies of British Jews was formed, an important Jewish organization consisting of the representatives of the more distinguished families, which focused on promoting the Jewish community's interests. The central figure of the Board and its first chairman was Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, “The Philanthropist”, who in 1837 was appointed as Sheriff of London, an office equivalent to Deputy Mayor today. In addition, as implied above, Montefiore was knighted by Queen Victoria. Later on Montefiore would become enshrined in the annals of Zionism when he funded the establishment of the first Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem outside the walls of the Old City, as well as the founding of the first Agronomy school in the Promised Land, Mikveh Israel.
Montefiore, and soon after Lionel de Rothschild, elected in 1847 to the British Parliament, were the first signs of British spring in regard to the Jews.
Two other Jewish figures to win glory in Great Britain were the Jewish-English boxer Daniel Mendoza, considered the founder of scientific boxing – a method that allowed such a modest-sized man (all of 70 kg, or 154 lbs) to successfully overcome giants weighing in at 100 kg – and of course Benjamin Disraeli, the Prime Minister of Britain, who although he converted to Christianity, remained proud of his Jewish heritage to the end of his days. When a political adversary referred derogatorily to his Jewish ancestry during a debate at the House of Commons, Disraeli famously replied: “Yes, I am a Jew, and while the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”
Towards the end of the 19th century, following the pogroms in Eastern Europe, some 300,000 Jews migrated to Britain, and in time became a majority of British Jews.
The lion's share of these immigrants lived in London's East End, where they maintained a Jewish lifestyle apart from the general British society. These Jewish immigrants lived in great poverty, and the average number of children per family was 7.2, twice the British average at the time. Over the years, these Jews integrated into society at large, and within two generation had blended into all walks of life – from the financial elite to key positions in the public service.


1917 | L'Chaim!

Every country has its own independence myth. The Americans cherish the memory of the “Boston Tea Party”, the French have the Bastille and Israelis have the Balfour Declaration. And indeed, it is difficult to discuss the Jews of Britain in the early 20th century without mentioning the Balfour Declaration. The story of this seminal diplomatic moment involved a doctor of chemistry, corn, and Britain's munitions crisis.
The story begins with Chaim Weizmann, a Zionist activist and a gifted chemist, who managed to produce acetone, a vital ingredient in the production of explosives, through a biochemical fermentation process of various plants, among them corn. This invention saved the British Naval Command from a critical munitions crisis, and cleared Weizmann's path to high places in the British establishment.
Weizmann's diplomatic efforts paved the way for the famous declaration by British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour, who promised to grant a national homeland to the Jewish People in the Land of Israel.
The ties between the Jews of Britain and the British Empire grew ever tighter in those years. During WW1, for instance, some 50,000 Jews served in the British military. Approximately 10,000 of them lost their lives on the killing fields. During that time the Hebrew Battalions were also established, and took part in conquering the Land of Israel from the Ottoman forces.
Britain received a mandate to govern Palestine/Eretz Israel, and the members of the Zionist Movement in Britain fought tirelessly against the British policy of restricting Jewish immigration to the Promised Land, as set forth in the “White Papers”. The impact of British Jews on achieving the historic aims of the Zionist endeavor was crucial.


1939 | The Kinder Transport

Within the great darkness of Nazi Europe a few light-beams of human solidarity shone through. One of these was the “kinder transport” - the rescue operation of Jewish children from Germany, planned and executed by the initiative of the Jewish community of Britain and with the help of the British government.
Immediately following Kristallnacht, Jews all over Germany began seeking ways to get their children out of Europe. The Jewish organizations of Britain enlisted in this effort, and applied political pressure on their government to allow the refugees to enter. The British government acceded to the request of the Jewish community, and in an operation later to be dubbed “The Kinder Transport” over 7,000 Jewish children reached the shores of Britain. The British government even went so far as to call upon British families to take the young refugees into their homes.
An amusing essay written by one of the refugee children offers a glimpse into the experience of finding oneself at a young age in totally unfamiliar surroundings. Even in the midst of a tragedy, children are the most astute observers of reality.
This is what the boy wrote:
The English live in strange, fragile houses
They don't have automatic dialing outside of London
They drink a strange liquid that looks like coffee, tastes like poison and they call it tea.
They've never heard of double-pane windows.
They let 90% of the fire go up the chimney.


1991 | 150 Years of Making Headlines

In 1991 the “Jewish Chronicle”, the famous Jewish weekly founded in London, celebrated a century and a half of continuous operation. The Chronicle serves to this day as a sort of seismograph indicating cultural and political shifts among British Jews in particular and European Jews in general. More than once, the publication actively set the agenda of the European Jewish community in the modern era. Its standing, influence and values have embodied the principles of the free world on one hand and the maintenance of a unique Jewish identity on the other, and still do. Its editorials and op-eds have reflected the shift in the Jewish community of Britain from an established Victorian society to a raucous immigrant one, unique in character, language and customs.
Among its seminal reports was a series of magazine specials titled “Dark Russia – A Persecution Journal .” In 1881 this series exposed the pogroms taking place against Jews in Tzarist Russia, which led to a massive wave of Jewish immigration from Russia to Britain. The weekly also published Herzl's article “A Solution to the Jewish Question”, in which the Visionary of the State first addressed the Jewish issue. Yet more proof of the periodical's power is the fact that the British government postponed the publication of the Balfour Declaration by a day just so that the Jewish Chronicle could report it at the same time as the daily press.


2014 | An Empty Trough

In the new millennium the Jewish community in Britain faces an empty trough. On one hand, it is flourishing and numbers over 250,000 people. On the other, its power as a community, as well as its political influence, are continually dwindling due to the phenomenon of assimilation. One of the reasons for this is the reduced numbers of leaders with deep Jewish awareness, such as those who had grown among the immigrants from Eastern Europe in previous generations. This spiritual pool is emptying fast .
Most British Jews currently reside in London, but there are large communities in Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Liverpool as well. Approximately one third of British Jews describe themselves as secular, and the rest are divided among three main groups: The Liberal Congregation, the Reform Congregation, and the Sephardi Congregation. Some 10% of British Jews are Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi).