David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

The Jew Bill: Parshat Vayishlach

When the 1753 London Evening Post drew inspiration from the rape of Dina by a Hivite prince and the slaughter of his people in a diatribe against the local Jews
Henry Pelham by John Shackleton. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Henry Pelham by John Shackleton. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William III and the monarchs who followed him began creating the first economy in Britain that would look today like a modern economy. Government bonds were first issued in 1693, creating government debt, the Bank of England was set up a year later in 1694, and shortly afterward, the stock market was created. This became known as the Financial Revolution and was Britain’s answer to the belligerence of European nations bent on empire building. Great Britain would become great not primarily through war, but by becoming the hub of international finance. Through this, it also became a massive trade hub.

Jews were expelled from England on 18 July 1290 by an edict of King Edward I. That edict was never formally repealed, but by the 1650s, under Oliver Cromwell and later after the monarchy was restored, Jews were allowed to live in Britain and practice their faith openly.

However, Jews, along with Catholics and other non-Anglican religions, were banned from activities such as holding public office and studying in university. More importantly, for a nation trying to build financial and trade ties with Europe, Jews were banned from owning ships and colonial trade. Everyone knew that Jews had their own network of finance stretching across Europe. Removing the restrictions on Jewish traders would increase the sovereign wealth and enhance Britain’s reputation as the major financial hub of Europe. But Jews could not become naturalized citizens of Britain because one of the requirements was taking the sacrament (a rule primarily intended to block Catholics from gaining power in the country).

Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne by William Hoare. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Thomas Pelham was the Duke of Newcastle and brother of Prime Minister Henry Pelham. He also went on to become prime minister himself, after his brother’s death in 1754, On April 3, 1753, at the request of Joseph Salvador, one of the most prominent Jewish merchants, Thomas Pelham introduced legislation to the House of Lords, allowing Jews of means to apply for citizenship without taking sacrament or declaring allegiance to the king using the name of the Christian deity. The legislation stated:

That person professing the Jewish religion may, upon application for that purpose, be naturalized by parliament without receiving the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

In addition, applicants had to prove they had lived in the country for at least three years and had been Jewish for that time.

The law passed on April 16, and the next day was sent to the House of Commons, where it quickly passed its first and second readings. However, by the time it passed its third reading, on May 22, and then received royal assent on June 7, the country had become swept up in a huge antisemitic outcry.

The level of antisemitism was of a far greater magnitude than the impact of the bill itself, which would have affected only a handful of wealthy individuals, and in passing, enriched the treasury.

Josiah Tucker, a Welsh churchman, wrote in A Letter to A Friend Concerning Naturalizations:

As to the Bill itself, it only empowers rich Foreigners to purchase Lands, and to carry on a free and extensive Commerce, by importing all Sorts of Merchandise and Raw Materials, allowed by Law to be imported, for the Employment of our own People, and then Exporting the Surplus of the Produce, Labour, and Manufactures of our own Country, upon cheaper and better Terms than is done at present. This is all the Hurt that such a Bill can do.

The entire matter was really seen by the Tories as a way to attract votes away from the Whigs. The initial political opposition had virtually nothing to do with Jews. There was a general election coming up, and this was a way for the Tories to make a dent in the government’s majority.

William Northey, Tory M.P. for the rotten borough of Calne in Wiltshire, was one of those leading the fearmongering. He claimed the law would rob Englishmen of their birthright:

Attempts have formerly been made to rob them of their birthright as Englishmen, but this bill I must look on as an attempt to rob them of their birthright as Christians. We know what a curse Esau brought upon himself and his posterity, by selling his birthright to his brother Jacob for a mess of pottage, when he was faint and at the point of dying for hunger; his posterity were to serve the posterity of Jacob: Ought we not fear that this may be the fate of our posterity, as we are now about to sell our birthright to the posterity of that same Jacob?

See the Jews become the highest bidders for every estate that is to be purchased in England, the counties of which . . . they will at some private meeting divide among their several tribes, by lot, as they of old did the land of Canaan; and when the rich Jews have thus become possessed of land estates, great numbers of poor Jews must necessarily settle in their neighbourhood; for we know that they can make use of none but Jew butchers, bakers, poulterers, and the like trades, which, of course, must make them soon become very numerous in this country.

Nicholas Fazakerley, MP for Preston, warned that they should learn from the Purim story:

Which informs us that upon their getting the power into their hands, they put to death in two days near 76,000 of those they were pleased to call their enemies, without either judge or jury.

Nicholas Hardinge countered that the only benefit to the bill was for the British people:

What is it, then, that they are to acquire by this Bill, should it be passed into law? Nothing but the power of obtaining from parliament, at a very great expense, a privilege to live and spend their money here, instead of spending it abroad. This is really all they are to acquire by this Bill, or by anything in consequence of it…With regard to trade, Sir… new men will probably make new experiments, and by new experiments, new channels of trade may be discovered, through which new and additional quantities of our manufactures may flow to a foreign market; no people can be supposed more capable, or more ready than the Jews to make these new experiences, because of their great propensity to trade, and because of the curse that attends them. By being dispersed through all nations, and by being the chief traders in every nation where they sojourn, they know what sort of fabric in every kind of manufacture is best suited to the taste of the people of every country, and they may give directions to our manufacturers to work up several new sorts of fabrics hitherto unknown in this country…

They are more likely to improve and extend our foreign trade than any other set of people whatever… They support their own poor in all countries where they are, so that we can be under no apprehension that any of them will become burdensome to any parish. And… as they have no country, they can properly call their own, nor anywhere they can live with so much security, we are in no danger that after they have gained an opulent fortune by trade in this country, they will retire to spend the income of it in any other.

The debate in parliament went on at length, with politicians on both sides of the chamber using antisemitic tropes to justify banning or allowing Jews to become citizens of Britain. Granting residency to the Jews would allegedly either lead them to take over the entire country and undermine Christianity or allow the country to flourish due to the Jews’ great skill at business and finance.

The prime minister wrapped up the discussion, explaining the Jews should be considered:

Not as enemies of our ecclesiastical establishment, but as men, whose conscience will not allow them to conform to it… We have less danger to apprehend from them than from any other dissenters, because they never attempt to make converts and because such an attempt would be peculiarly difficult. The strict tenets of their religion exclude every man who is not of the seed of Israel; and as they cannot intermarry with a strange woman, we need not fear that they will have any success in converting our countrywomen.

However, the argument spread from Westminster to the streets. Newspapers, pamphlets, stage performances, public debates and satirical cartoons came out against the “Jew Bill” as it was then known. Bear in mind that there were so few Jews in London, that most people would never have met a real-life Jew.

One popular ditty of the time went:

No Jews! No wooden shoes! No long beards, nor whiskers! Christianity forever!

Others expressed their opposition through cartoons. According to a 1910 article by Israel Solomons, everyone who supported the Bill was, “without the slightest justification, portrayed receiving bags of gold from the Jews in return for their good offices.”

In his “History of the Jews in England,” Cecil Roth writes:

The mob frenzy that [antipathy to the bill] aroused provides as close an approximation as we are likely to find in eighteenth-century England to the kind of popular hysteria that in pre-expulsion days may have sparked a pogrom.

Some even argued that if the bill were passed, sales of ham and bacon would be reduced, causing financial harm to the country.

The London Evening Post was one of the major London newspapers. It was also hugely influential because most provincial papers took their news from it. Time after time, editorials and articles drew upon common blood libel language and other antisemitic tropes to rile up the populace against the bill. Writers using nom-de-plumes like “Britannicus” wrote “articles” about “historic” massacres carried out by the Jews. And on July 14, 1753, the paper published a parody of what life would be like under the Jews entitled “One Hundred Years Hence.” By then, it was claimed, the newspaper would have been renamed “The Hebrew Journal.” It read, in part:

Yesterday morning, Lord Jacob De Paibe set out from his seat at Sion House with a grand retinue… to celebrate the Passover.

Last week, 25 children were publicly circumcised at the Lying-In Hospital in Brownlow Street.

Last night, the bill for naturalizing Christians was thrown out of the Sanhedrin by a very great majority…

Last Sunday, an order came from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office to the managers of both theatres, forbidding them, under the severest penalties, to exhibit a certain scandalous piece, highly injurious to our present happy establishment, entitled, “The Merchant of Venice.”

Several petitions were received from the merchants of London supporting the bill, explaining the potential financial benefits it would bring to the city. More than 200 merchants, traders, manufacturers, and exporters signed a petition supporting the bill that stated:

The passing the said Bill into law may encourage persons of wealth and substance to remove with their effects from foreign parts into this kingdom… [and they will be employed] in foreign trade and commerce. And in the increase the shipping and encouraging the exportation of the woolen and other manufacturers of this kingdom; of which the persons who profess the Jewish religion have for many years last past exported great quantities.

But these petitions were ignored or seen as further evidence of Jews bribing their way into Britain.

The vicious antisemitic and anti-Government rhetoric of the London Evening Post led the Secretary of State to try and limit the paper’s distribution. Rather than calm the situation, it merely encouraged the paper to complain loudly about freedom of the press and attack the government even more.

Due to the public outcry, whipped up in large measure by the London Evening Post, the bill was scrapped just a few months after it was passed. Roth writes:

On the opening day of the new session (November 15th), the Duke [of Newcastle] brought forward a fresh Bill in the House of Lords to repeal the unpopular measure, in a speech described by a contemporary as being ‘rather worse than usual. He maintained that the original proposals were wise and beneficial, but that the government had no choice but to yield to the clamour raised by secret enemies of the dynasty and of the Protestant Establishment.

The very same Thomas Pelham, Duke of Newcastle, who had introduced the legislation, was forced to bring a new bill undoing his earlier one. The new legislation banning Jews from citizenship was passed on December 20th, 1753, only half a year after the original bill allowing Jews to become citizens.

One of the many diatribes published on October 20 in the London Evening Post was based on an incident described in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach. The author used the term “Pelhamites” to describe the British people in the wake of the prime minister’s legislation:

The Pelhamites and the Germanites are peaceable with us, therefore we dwell in their land and trade therein; for behold, the Land is large enough for us to take their daughter to us for wives and their lands for portions.

Only herein will the Pelhamites consent unto us that we clear off their mortgage and give them a sufficient number of banknotes; then will they order every male to be circumcised.

And it came to pass on the third day, whilst their private parts were sore, that the Jews took up their swords and slew every male of the Britons.

This “article” drew its inspiration from one of the worst incidents from the book of Genesis. Chapter 34 relates that Jacob’s daughter, Dina, was kidnapped and raped by a Hivite prince, Shechem, the son of Hamor. Then Shechem asked his father to justify his heinous crime by making a peace treaty with Jacob and his family.

Hamor approached Jacob’s sons and asked them to join forces through marriage and a trade alliance. Clearly the rape of Jacob’s daughter was uppermost in their mind and they tried to justify it by including it in the deal (Genesis 34:9-10):

Marry us – give your daughters to us and take our daughters for yourselves. Dwell with us and the land shall be before you. Stay and trade in it and own it.

Shechem made it quite clear that this goodwill was merely a ruse so that he could marry Dina (Genesis 34:12):

Ask me for a very large dowry and gift and I will give it – whatever you say. But give me this young woman as a wife.

Two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, plotted to rescue their sister and destroy Shechem and his city. They demanded that the condition for marriage was that all the men in the city be circumcised. Only then, they claimed, would a treaty be possible.

Despite knowing that this was all because of a violent rape, the people of Shechem allowed Hamor and his son to convince them that it would be to their advantage to be circumcised and intermarry with Jacob’s family. Once again it was the daughters who were the focus (Genesis 34:21):

These people are peaceable towards us, they will dwell in the land and trade in it, and the land is large enough for them. We will take their daughters as wives and give them our daughters.

On the third day after the people of Shechem circumcised themselves, Simeon and Levi came and massacred all the men in the city. And they rescued their sister. Then they took the women, children and spoils of the city. This was in revenge “for having defiled their sister,” (Genesis 34:27).

We cannot justify the actions of Simeon and Levi. Jacob himself criticized them (verse 30). Just before his death, when Jacob blessed all his sons, he refused to bless Simeon and Levi (Genesis 49:5-6):

Simeon and Levi are brothers, violence is their weapon. Let my soul not enter their secret, let my honor not be part of their congregation.

The stain of their actions remained for generations. When Moses blessed the nation at the end of his life, he blessed 11 of the tribes, but conspicuously had no blessing for Simeon’s descendants.

Yet thousands of years later, when the antisemites of England were looking for slanders against the Jews, they seized on this story and saw in it a warning of what Jews would do if they were granted citizenship. And no doubt countless massacres, pogroms and murders of Jews were “justified” because of the story of Simeon and Levi in Shechem, despite the Bible itself condemning the actions of the two brothers.

Antisemitism is nothing new. It has been around as long as there have been Jews. What we read in the media today is just the continuation of what has been going on for thousands of years. There are those today who justify their hatred because they claim that Jews are too wealthy and too powerful. Others hate the Jewish people because they say they are too weak, a drain on resources. Some substitute the word “Zionist” for “Jew” to justify their antisemitism to themselves. Some praise Hitler. Others praise terrorists. I believe there is very little that can be done to change that hatred.

But at the same time, we must be like Jacob, and criticize even our own children if they behave in a way that will encourage and attract anti-Jewish sentiment. Jacob said to his sons (Genesis 34:30):

You have made me slandered me and made me despised by the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites. I am few in number. If they gather against me and smite me they will utterly destroy me and my family.

Though we can do very little about the antisemites, we must nevertheless never act in a way that encourages them or in any way justifies their hatred.

I learned about the Jew Bill from Rabbi Aubrey Hirsch on the History for the Curious podcast. Go and listen to every episode. There is so much to learn.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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