I could feel the crunch of gravel under my shoes as I trekked through Lower Grosvenor Place towards the front gates of the Palace. Similar to the warm embrace of a foot massage, I let my body surrender to this therapeutic treat. My mind momentarily drifted to the days I’d visit my granny Gertrude, and the winding gravel path in front of her Hampstead flat, lined with clusters of fragrant flowers, carefree butterflies, laboring bees, and singing birds as though I had an appointment for tea with a grand fairy, rather than my granny. Although tea with granny fifty years ago was as delightful as a fairy tale.
And then it suddenly dawned on me that I had arrived at Buckingham Palace for tea with The Queen. These types of tea parties were a tradition that Queen Victoria initiated in the 1860s. So how did Ilana K. Levinsky get an invitation for tea with Her Majesty?
“Come along inside . . .
We’ll see if tea and buns can make the world a better place”
(Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows).
I was not alone, there were thousands of other guests, a sea of pastel fascinators and floral prints, even a few lemons. But I ignored them all. When I received my invitation from the Palace, all I envisioned was The Queen and I sipping tea and nibbling on biscuits, so why let a few other people interfere with such perfect imagery.
Once inside the gates, I stood in front of the Palace—a house of monarchs since the 17 hundreds—and my feet refused to budge. This was not my first encounter with sites of historic significance in England; in fact, I had visited castles, churches, and palaces many times before but on this particular occasion the idea that I was a guest at the Palace triggered a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts. You see, the treatment of Jews in England throughout its history is not part of the normal discourse; England has not really confronted that past. Nowadays, some Jewish history is included in the Tower of London tours and the Church of England did apologize 850 years after the fact for the blood libel of Little Saint Hugh. But you have to understand that today’s anti-Semitism in England has deep-seated roots, otherwise how would you explain thundering chants of “F#ck the Jews, f#ck their mothers, rape their daughters” or an effigy of a grotesque-looking Jew parading along Finchly Road in the latest anti-Israel protest a few weeks ago.
The late Chief Rabbi of Great Britain Sir Jonathan Sacks had said: “German Fascism came and went. Soviet Communism came and went. Anti-Semitism came and stayed” (Robert Wistrich, A Lethal Obsession, Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad, p. 62).
Spot the Jew
We were escorted through the Palace, and coasted through long hallways with tall ceilings, countless paintings, and gold-coated furniture until we reached the gardens. My head bobbed up and down and from side to side in an effort to scan every single object in sight, without being too obvious about it. I thought, wow, surrounding me is a backdrop that depicts civility and all-things English: The Queen’s residence and administrative headquarters. But how many people realize that so many important buildings in England were also a testament to Jewish history in Medieval England, structures that have stood the test of time unlike the countless Jewish souls that were buried among brick and mortar, and forever erased from people’s consciousness. These grand architectural sites also serve as a vignette of physical clues that unmask the unique treatment of Jews by their fellow countrymen. Would this close encounter with the Palace trigger the same thoughts in any other Jews who were there sipping tea and hoping for a chance to say “How do you do?” in their best vernacular. It’s difficult to detect Jews these days, so who knows. However, the Fourth Lateren Council of 1215 made it much easier to spot the Jew after Pope Innocent III initiated a new law that required all Jews to wear a tabula (two cloth rectangles that symbolized the tablets that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai). Muslims and heretics were also forced to wear their own distinguishing markings.
Now my focus shifted to the splendor of the emerald green that encompassed the gardens that we were allowed to roam. The fragrance of blooming flowers and shrubs filled the air with the scent of summer, and I was sure that I saw a fairy or two dance among the petals. About an hour later, the military band played the National Anthem and God Save The Queen. The Queen was finally among us! My phone buzzed and although I was warned that Her Majesty disliked phones, I answered the call—most guests had their phones out anyway. “Remember what happened to us twenty-two years ago at the Palace?” said Maya and I chuckled. How could I forget that day when my daughter and I were walking by Buckingham Palace and noticed a gathering outside the gates. We approached the crowd and learned that The Queen was about to inspect the Sandhurst Cadets. Maya was so excited to see a real live queen but when I pointed out the woman wearing green from head to toe, her face soured. “She’s ugly!” said my little one. Oh my goodness, the looks from people within an ear-shot away; their glaring eyes poked us like sticks, and we had to slink our way out of there. She was only six years old and thought that all queens must have long hair, flowing gowns, and sparkling crowns. You can’t blame me for her attitude, if anything, blame Disney!
I Beg Your Pardon
“Hello.” A soft, familiar voice tickled my ear but it wasn’t granny, not mine anyway.
“Oh!” I curtsied and casually slipped my phone in my flowery dress pocket. I was surprised that The Queen approached me because I was not preselected for a chat.
She stretched out her hand and said, “How are you?” as though we were old friends.
“I’m fine, thank you—it’s surreal, the whole experience, all lovely—and the garden is certainly a place to sit and reflect.”
“I agree, it’s a lovely lovely day,” said The Queen as she withdrew from me to continue her stop-and-chats with other guests.
“Although, I can’t imagine—“
The Queen immediately stopped in her tracks—there’s nothing wrong with her hearing. Ugh, I should’ve just kept my mouth shut. Her sapphire eyes smiled at me patiently. Whatever, I’ll go ahead and speak my mind, it’s not as though she can send me to the Tower of London or expel me, I thought.
“Well, you see I look at this palace and everything it represents is the epitome of dignity, remarkable pomp and ceremony and centuries-old traditions. But all this grandeur was made possible because of Jewish contributions to the Crown a thousand years ago.”
The Queen maintained a neutral expression and didn’t say one word, but I had to push didn’t I.
“Unfortunately they were not treated very kindly—their history in this country includes torture, expropriation, extortion, forced conversions, scapegoating of high-profiled individuals, pogroms, restrictive statutes, extra taxes, tallages (royal taxes), and expulsion.”
I wondered what other people said to The Queen, whether it was always fluff and drivel she had probably grown tired of hearing after decades of tea parties, scones, and finger sandwiches.
“I mean, take Licorcia and her husband David of Oxford, it’s their money that built most of Westminster Abbey.”
“You must understand that England had always appreciated the Jews’ contribution. It was the reason we afforded them special protection,” said The Queen.
“I doubt that Licorcia Benedict felt very protected when she and her infant son were sent to the Tower of London shortly after her husband’s death in 1244. While there, King Henry III seized all of her late husband’s property—their home at St. Aldates was transformed into the Royal House of Converts, and he used their money to rebuild the Abbey and create the shrine of Edward the Confessor. The beautiful, ornate Cosmati mosaic pavement was paid for by Licorcia and David of Oxford. This is where royals are crowned!”
I could not believe I said this to The Queen. I expected two of her guards to grab me by the arms, drag me across the pristine grass, and banish me from the Palace for life. So, imagine my surprise when things turned out differently, almost in a dreamlike sequence.
“I can assure you that kings and queens do not always act on their own volition,” she explained.
“I beg your pardon.” I took a deep breath, unsure of how best to utilize my limited time with Her Majesty without breaking protocol. “William the Conqueror brought the first group of Jews from Normandy in 1066 and settled them in England for one purpose alone—he needed their cash to fulfill his expansive building projects of abbeys, cathedrals, palaces as well as funding his wars. They had international connections, which meant access to cash! But Jews were also considered the property of the Crown and for this reason their position was always tenuous.”
“They were also favored by the Crown,” she said while hugging her pink purse closer to her body. “As wards of the Crown they received the Charter of Liberties—of course, this gave them access to the Tower of London and various castles for their protection in time of need, and mind you, the early monarchs were just as cruel to each other as they were to anyone else.”
Protection Money and the Crown
It took me a minute to collect my thoughts; I mean, how does one argue with The Queen? But was she kidding; the Jews paid 4000 marks for that contract, not that they had a choice—the Crown’s so called protection was nothing more than a racket, England was the birthplace of the first blood libel, and this twisted, malevolent lie about Jews had brainwashed humanity for millennia. The list of imaginary crimes committed by Jews is as old as the first English penny; apparently Jews were a busy lot, they engaged in ritual crucifixion, desecration of the host, black magic, profiting from usury and coin clipping—so it’s no surprise that Christians were warned against fraternizing with this rapacious lot of evil doers.
The belief that Jews engaged in ritual murder of Christian children has never left us—it was just as prevalent when England expelled all of its Jews and remained Jew-free for 300 years. During this time the malevolent Jew was immortalized in famous works of art, literature, poetry, plays, and blown into stained glass windows even during reformation and counter-reformation, and European enlightenment. This type of history helped facilitate stereotypes of money-hungry and bloodthirsty Jews, which then slithered right into the modern era and adapted to a new form of antisemitism—ideological and political Judeophobia. Although we get the mutated brand of antisemitism, it is just as toxic as religious-based antisemitism. Every single time the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the forefront of the news, what do you know, the same ancient themes pop up in political cartoons. They are attached to Israeli soldiers and Israeli leaders, and you see this in Egyptian papers as well as European news outlets. In 2003, The Independent newspaper featured a cartoon by Dave Brown of Israel’s former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a child eater. In spite of complaints that were filed, it went on to receive the Cartoon Society’s “Political Cartoon of the year award.” The award was presented by former Labor Party cabinet minister Clare Short.
This is one of many examples. You then find celebrities such as Mohamed Hadid, his daughter Bella Hadid, and singer Dua Lipa reposting these types of pernicious cartoons, and even after they delete said posts, due to public pressure, no worries, the damage has already been done. And they know this all too well!
But why why why why did I have to raise these grievances with The Queen, and during her annual tea party of all places. Why could I not keep my mouth shut or perhaps just stuff it with some Victoria sponge or a lemon cream tart, and enjoy myself during this once-in-a lifetime occasion. Well, hmmm, not sure but maybe it had something to do with the latest explosion of anti-Semitic rhetoric, and there was that one particular thread on social media that labeled me an unscholarly ethno-racist/ethnic supremacist after I had commented on an article that marginalized the Jews’ experience of the Crusades. These folks bombarded me with comments; they argued that the Church had never persecuted Jews and that Jews were a non-entity at that stage, they had long disappeared from the Holy Land. I said that the Crusades were the defining moment in the demise of Jewish-Christian relations because preceding every Crusade there were pogroms against Jews all over Europe. And it was no different when King Richard I joined the Third Crusade to fight against Saladin in the Holy Land (1189), more massacres were inflicted upon the Jews of England and the Continent prior to the invasion of Jerusalem. The whole experience fatigued me. It also depressed me. Why do Jews always find themselves having to prove their history, their existence? Was there not enough proof already? I felt a slow pull on my feet as if they were being sucked into quicksand; I read comments about my imaginary Jewish problem and my perennial victimization syndrome.
A lusterless protrusive eye
Stares from the protozoic slime
At a perspective of Canaletto.
The smoky candle end of time
Declines. On the Rialto once
The rats are underneath the piles.
The jew is underneath the lot.
Money in furs. The boatman smiles
(T.S. Elliot, Burbank With Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar, 1920)
Medieval England was a Nightmare for Jews
Ah, okay, is this what The Queen meant when she mentioned protection—was she talking about King Richard’s Coronation Banquet that also resulted in a killing spree. When a group of Jewish leaders arrived at the Abbey to pay their respects to the new King, they were flogged by a slaughterous crowd. The attack extended to the Old Jewry, a predominantly Jewish area in London—some of the lucky ones managed to seek refuge in The Tower of London. These mobs continued to massacre Jews and plunder their property all across the kingdom, reaching King’s Lynn, Colchester, Thetford, Ospringe, and Lincoln. Benedict of York was among the Jews outside the Abbey; he was an agent of Aaron of Lincoln who was a community leader and one of the wealthiest Jews in England at the time. Benedict was mortally wounded; before his death he was also forced to convert. Killing him meant wiping out all outstanding debts owed by noblemen, priests, knights, common folk, and the Crown. The bloodthirsty mobs eventually descended upon the Jewish community of York, and murdered Benedict’s widow. The rest of the Jews fled to a nearby castle but after running out of food and water, what hope did they have to survive?
They were given an option to leave the castle and convert; however that was a lie, and those who succumbed to a baptism were murdered in cold blood. The rest of the Jews made a suicide pact to save themselves from imminent death in the hands of their neighbors, and the ones who preferred to surrender after their coreligionists had died were hunted down and killed anyway. The noblemen of York proceeded to burn every shred of evidence relating to their outstanding debts. Yes, King Richard was angry, and he fined the people of York but no one was imprisoned for the death of 150 Jews and what really bothered him most was the loss of their financial records. He was focused on the Jews’ fortunes, and since they were The King’s personal assets, their wealth belonged to him too. There were many outstanding debts owed to the murdered moneylenders. The outcome of this tragic event was the creation of the Exchequer of the Jewry. The office operated from the Tower of London where all Jewish affairs were taken care of. On the one hand it afforded “protection” for the Jews, but it was also a scheme that allowed the Crown to change the terms of any loan owed to them; the Crown could seize anything of theirs at any time. Later when Aaron of Lincoln died, his wealth was so vast that the Crown confiscated the entire ledger of debts owed to him and they created the Saccrium of Aaronis—the Exchequer of Aaron—to steal as much of his money as possible.
If Only the Bishops and Monks had Kept Kosher
The murder of a 12-year-old William of Norwich, England, in 1114, was pinned on an entire Jewish community even though there was no evidence to suggest they had murdered the boy. In due time this lie then launched a sequence of copy-cat accusations against the Jews. When they were blamed for the death of Hugh of Lincoln in 1255, these make-believe tales had ascribed to the Jews the ritual murder of innocent Christian children. Bishops, monks, and preachers incited their followers against the enemy of Christendom; these deaths were described as Jewish plots to avenge themselves on Jesus. Their followers believed that Jews had crucified William and Hugh, and all other victims, around Easter time in order to mimic the crucifixion and mock it; they drank the children’s blood and reserved some of it for their matzah recipes.
When Hugh was found drowned in a well, Jewish high society were all congregated in Lincoln for a wedding. What a coincidence, and a perfect scenario for anyone with an outstanding debt to Jewish moneylenders. However, this blood libel was elevated to new heights when King Henry III showed up in Lincoln to investigate Hugh’s murder. By taking part in the investigation, he gave the lie the royal seal of approval and thus legitimized the blood libels. These vicious tales were a hit among the English, and like the success of a modern-day television show they scored licensing rights to reproduce the crime in more countries. How quickly these stories gripped the locals and inflamed their incurable hatred of Jews; how they cheered when Jews were dragged through the streets and whatever left of their bodies they hanged. The pogroms that followed would wipe out entire Jewish communities that supposedly colluded in the crime. Not only was this a cruel, twisted myth but it just occurred to me that it was also anathema to Jewish laws of kashrut (dietary laws) because they did not drink or eat blood. And if you think, eh, not all Jews kept kosher, new archeological evidence from a recent Oxford dig supports the claim that Jews in Medieval England adhered to a kosher diet. The discovery was made at a latrine and rubbish dump in Oxford’s Jewish quarters. They found a mixture of chicken and goose bones, but no pig or other non-kosher foods. They were also able to determine that meat and milk were not cooked in the same dishes!
The bishops were quick to turn these dead children into martyrs and their shrines became popular pilgrimage destinations. In reality, these men of the cloth were shrewd businessmen who knew how to turn a tragedy into a very profitable business. Every church and monastery wanted their very own child-saint killed by a Jew, and the blood libels encouraged offerings and a steady income. Centuries later these fabricated murders inserted themselves into English and European folklore, where new literature, ballads, poems and nursery rhymes repeated the Jews’ horrific crimes. There are about 30 later chronicles with passages on Hugh’s crucifixion. One popular version was Geoffrey Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale (from Canterbury Tales), albeit a variant of the blood libel, and if you think it’s only stories so who cares—you are only fooling yourself.
Oh young Hugh of Lincoln, slain
By cursed Jews, as it is well
For it is but a little while ago,
Pray also for us, we sinful folk
That of his mercy God so merciful
Multiply his great mercy on us
For reverence of his mother Mary
Here we are a thousand years later and Jews have not been able to shake off the myth of the thieving Jew, the money-hungry Jew, the bloodsucking Jew. Funny how Christian society had an ethical aversion for lending money with interest, and usury was legally prohibited by canon law, but that did not include circumventing the law, borrowing from Jews, extorting money from Jews, lying about Jews, and killing Jews.
Since 1959, the site of the shrine of Little Saint Hugh has featured a plaque that explains the trumped up stories of ritual murders of Christian boys by Jews during medieval times. But there are so many other churches . . .
Clipping Nails and Coins
By the year 1210 the Jews’ fate had been sealed and King John’s actions were a catalyst for their financial demise. Early Pipe Rolls show that yearly taxes that Jews were ordered to pay amounted to what the entire nation was charged by the Crown. King Henry III had raised the Jews’ taxes and increased the frequency of taxation. However, under King John’s reign they were required to pay 45,000 pounds when the Crown would usually collect 13,000 pounds of royal income in a year. This type of financial persecution caused devastating hardships from which most people could never fully recover–Jews who were forced to convert had to forfeit all of their wealth to the Crown. By the year 1240 half of the total wealth of Jews had been taxed out of them—estimated at 80,000 pounds—which translates into billions of pounds today. The final blow came in the form of the 1275 Statute of the Jewry, this Machiavellian decree by King Edward I forbade all Jews from lending money with interest and among many new demands, every Jewish boy over 12 had to pay an annual tax of 3 pence.
A few years later many Jews were imprisoned for coin clipping; at one stage 300 London Jews were sent to the Tower of London for this crime, though very unlikely that all were guilty of this accusation. Those engaged in coin clipping would use shears to cut off the edges of silver coins then melt the clippings together into silver plates. Coin clipping devalued the currency, but it was not the only contributing factor to the deteriorating state of English coinage; English money had been in circulation for over 40 years and looked worn and thus weighed less, which also affected trade. At the end of the day, it was King Edward’s face on each coin and the monetary situation reflected badly on his reign.
Soon enough coin clipping became a crime punishable by death, and London streets filled with hanging corpses. Jews were not the only ones to hang for this crime, but in the end all Jews were accused of coin clipping, regardless of the evidence. Surprise surprise, coin clipping remained a problem until 1696 while there were no Jews in the land, but the movement to renew English currency had mutated into a personal attack on all the Jews of England.
For 225 years, the Jewish community in England had somehow managed to survive and even thrive, but do not confuse the presence of domestic stone homes, a sign of enormous wealth, as a microcosm of the entire Jewish community’s experience. Most Jews were low paid workers who engaged in other fields of work apart from money-lending; however, all Jews became identified with usury by the 12th century. And yet they carried on, even though they could not own land, or leave their children an inheritance, and they were constantly exploited by a demand for higher taxes and frequent tallages. Jewish merchants were systematically expelled from different towns—eventually they were confined to living in a small number of places, they had strict travel restrictions, and limited options for making a living. In order to branch out into other trades they had to belong to a trade guild, but you guessed it, they were not permitted any such membership. Their synagogues had to be lowly buildings and during Christian holidays they were not allowed outside their homes. The Crown used Jews to assess and collect taxes from the local population and this position generated more hate and resentment towards the entire Jewish community. In their final years in England, the numbers of Jews had depleted to 2000 or less, compared to about 4 million Christians and they were still deemed a big threat. Their leaders were dead, and anyone else who survived financial and physical persecution was left destitute and psychologically scared.
Economics in the Face of Religious Convictions
King Edward I hated Jews just as much as his father King Henry III. Jews were told that their banishment was a result of their crimes and the crucifixion of Jesus. The reality was that without steady income, they were of no use to the Crown and coincidentally at that time, Parliament had granted The King the sum of 120,000 pounds. This time, money for the Crown had to be granted through legitimate channels; everything depended on the consent of the barons, lords, townsmen and their representatives, all people who would have likely been in debt to Jewish moneylenders. You can begin to see the deal that was struck between The King and Parliament.
The expulsion order on November 1, 1290 allowed Jews 3-4 months to put their affairs in order and head towards the Tower of London before their final departure. How generous of The King, but in spite of the financial consideration behind his decision, I’m left wondering whatever happened to the zealous religious conviction that a life outside of Christ meant that some Jews were to be preserved since they were living witnesses to the triumph of Christian salvation. Their presence was a precondition for Christ’s Second Coming yet King Edward l got rid of all the Jews anyway.
For the next 300 years England remained Jew-free until their readmittance in 1656. England’s expulsion of Jews and the blood libels served as a model for many other countries to mimic and follow thereafter.
We had a kettle; we let it leak:
Our not repairing made it worse.
We haven’t had any tea for a week…
The bottom is out of the Universe
(Rudyard Kipling, Natural Theology).
A Minute Later
“And Licorcia with her infant son, were they saved in the Tower of London?” asked The Queen.
“She survived in the Tower but a few years later she was murdered anyway. Her son was hanged a few years after.”
“Oh dear; I was hoping for a good ending.”
The Queen continued on to the Royal Tent and I made no attempt to stop her. I think that she was very generous with her time with me. A few people approached me, intrigued by my lengthy conversation with The Queen. Funny how two minutes with Her Majesty had translated into a “lengthy” period of time.
Finally, it was my turn in front of the long buffet; I picked up a porcelain tray and chose a number of cakes and sandwiches that looked absolutely delicious. I had to try a scone with clotted cream and a scoop of The Queen’s favorite Balmoral jam. I took my tea with a splash of milk then balancing both tea cup and small tray, I found myself a little spot on the grass to rest my feet and enjoy the remainder of my afternoon. I took a bite of the scone and my eyes naturally closed as I tried to inhale every bit of flavor.
When I opened them, I was lying in bed. My own bed, far removed from Buckingham Palace—in a house on a hillside in Camarillo, a southern Californian town. My palace. I rubbed my eyes, and leaned back into my pillow. If only the British had drunk tea in Medieval England, maybe they would have been a little kinder to their Jewish countrymen, I thought.