42 members and guests gathered at the Avner Cohen Casa Chabad Jewish Community Centre in Cascais and were rewarded with an excellent talk by BHSP member, David Sampson, on Menasseh ben Israel and his petition to Cromwell in 1655. David’s talk prompted many insightful questions. Participants were also able to view the centre’s library, which contains numerous books and documents connected with Jews in Portugal. Some of these are 500 years old.
Menasseh ben Israel was born in 1603/04. His father’s family had suffered considerably from the Inquisition in Lisbon. His father had been arrested after denunciation under torture by his wife, and was only released after providing evidence that he was a “New Christian”. He was himself tortured in 1596, and then admitted to following Jewish practices, notably fasting. His wife was tortured for a second time, as was her aunt, who also accused him under torture. His wife was crippled by the torture and did not survive for long.
Menasseh’s father left Portugal around 1603, together with his second wife. Menasseh claimed to have been born in Lisbon, but his marriage certificate says that he was born in La Rochelle, France, where the family settled. They moved to the Netherlands about a decade later and reverted to Judaism. Menasseh became a rabbi, an author, and a printer, establishing the first Hebrew press in the country. As David Sampson explained, his family background made him especially sympathetic to the Portuguese former New Christians in Holland, many of whom had suffered under the Inquisition. He was also one of the few rabbis open to Christian beliefs and enjoyed talking to Christians. He was the “go-to” rabbi for Christians wanting to learn about Jewish beliefs. As an author, one of his earliest works, El Conciliador, written in Spanish and published in 1632, won him an immediate reputation.
Until the 17th century England did not welcome Jews at all. Edward I had issued an edict expelling them from the country in 1290. They were considered to be Christ killers, child murderers and cheats, and were alleged to carry out coin clipping (shaving metal from the coin's circumference). David gave three examples of anti-semitic comments from well-known works of English literature: Chaucer’s The Prioress’s Tale; Christopher Marlow’s The Jew of Malta; and, of course, Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. However, when Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector after the execution of Charles I, it appeared that there was a chance for Jews to be re-admitted, as Cromwell was commercially minded and saw that Jews had the trading connections that he wanted.
Menasseh was invited to London in 1655 and was accommodated at Cromwell’s expense in the Strand. He went to the Council of State in October to present his petition that the Jews be re-admitted. Cromwell organised a large conference of judges, the nobility, and other important people in December to discuss the issue, but it was first necessary to clarify whether the existing law would permit this. Judges agreed that there was no problem as Edward I had not made a law but only issued an edict. On the fifth and final day the conference was opened to the general public and it became apparent that there was widespread opposition to the idea of admitting Jews, particularly from clergymen and merchants. To avoid a negative decision, Cromwell put a stop to discussions and quietly permitted Jewish immigration, while making no formal announcement.
The diarist, John Evelyn, wrote on 14 December 1655, "Now were the Jews admitted”, but Menasseh ben Israel never received an official reply to his petition. He returned to Holland and died there in 1657 without knowing the outcome of his efforts. Cromwell’s decision to allow Jews to live in England was endorsed by Charles II in 1661 after the restoration of the monarchy.
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