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An Inquiry Into the First Settlement of Jews in England

By the Rev. Abraham De Sola

“It is a difficult thing to restore an eminent art that is lost, to create authority for a thing that is new, to throw light upon a thing in darkness, to beget faith in things that are doubtful, and favour to things that are loathed.”—Phin. ad Vesp.

1. Among the almost infinite number and variety of inquiries that have engaged the human mind, among the numberless speculations in which man has ever delighted to wander, there is, perhaps, not one which more completely includes all the “difficult things” enumerated above, not one which is attended with less certainty, and less satisfaction, than that which has for its object, the determination of obscure or controverted points in history. To form any definite opinion on these points, with meagre and insufficient data, is morally impossible; and to arrive at any valid conclusion with doubtful and disputed premises, is logically impossible. He, therefore, who essays to remove the difficulties and obscurities attendant upon such an inquiry, believing that he can “create authority to a thing that is new,” must needs produce that which has been the cause of his conviction, <<209>>so that the general voice may decide, whether the reasons he puts forth be sufficiently weighty and authoritative to make certain, the things that have been hitherto doubtful. Introduction
2. This task, and its attendant difficult things, devolve more particularly upon him, who seeks to determine, what has hitherto been regarded with so much doubt, and uncertainty—the period of the first settlement of Jews in England.

Difficulties and obscurities of the inquiry.

He finds the path he has to pursue, entirely enveloped in darkness, save where an occasional, but insufficient light, has been carelessly and uninterestedly shed. He beholds, it is true, some few friendly hands held out to assist him; but them these are few indeed. He discovers that those who have trodden the path before him, have sought rather than afforded assistance, and have borrowed light from one great and common source* rather than afforded it themselves. With few then to aid him in his endeavours to “throw light upon the thing in darkness,” a work so easily and efficiently performed when the lights lent, however faint and obscure singly, when manifold are most powerful and bright; when the efforts to level besetting mountains, however difficult and impotent individually, when combined, prove most easy and irresistible, the inquirer must proceed to his task.

Meagerness of information.

* “Anglia Judaica, or the History and Antiquities of the Jews in England; collected from all the English historians, both printed and MS., as also from the records in the Tower,” by De Bloissiers Towey, LL.D., Oxford, 1738.

3. We have said that those who have treated on the antiquities of the Jews in England, have followed, rather than led, repeated, rather than originated, and this will be clear from a reference to the pages of such as would naturally be considered authorities on this subject. In assigning a period to the first settlement of Jews in Britain, Jost,† Millman,‡ and Blunt,§ adopt confessedly or otherwise, the opinion of the talented and celebrated Tovey; and this is not at all surprising.  

† “Geschichte der Israeliten,” vol. 7.
‡ “History of the Jews,” vol. 3, p. 329.
§ “History of the Jews in England, with an inquiry into their civil disabilities,” p. 2, et seq.

The labours, attainments, and unwearying perseverance of this learned man, doubtlessly <<210>>establish him as an authority of no mean order, and deservedly claim our most respectful consideration. But while we join in assigning that mode of praise and respect to which he is so eminently entitled, we cannot but remark that he has committed, what we deem, a great oversight, in not inquiring what was the opinion of the Jews themselves upon this matter, and stating the result of such inquiries.

We cannot impute this neglect to any disrespect on his part for Jewish learning, or contempt for Jewish opinion; because, when in the course of his work he was in doubt whether he should place the re-establishment of the Jews in England under the Protectorate of Cromwell, or the reign of Charles II., he expresses the desire he had felt to know what “the Jews themselves had to say on the subject.”*

Dr. Tovey and Jewish opinion.

* Vide Anglia Judaica, passim.

This desire was sufficiently great to induce him to apply for information to the Rev. Haham Nietto, then ecclesiastical head of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community in London. The learned Rabbi, after searching the Synagogue and national records, acquainted him with the result of his inquiries, and this result is now contained in the Anglia Judaica, as the adopted opinion of the author of that work. Let us rather suppose then, what was most likely to be the true cause of this omission, that such a course did not then present itself to him, and that if it had, he would most readily have adopted it. Notwithstanding, it may be considered strange that he should have overlooked here a source of information, from which he was afterwards so anxious to draw; yet we must remind our readers of Columbus and the egg, and that “the thing which is perfectly obvious to any man of common sense, so soon as it is mentioned, may, nevertheless, fail to occur even to men of considerable ingenuity.”† This we may perhaps <<211>>exemplify in the following pages, by seeking that aid which we fain would have seen invoked by him; and the result of this proceeding will show that we have considered ourselves justified in assigning a much earlier period for the first settlement of Jews in England, than either he or those who have followed him have done.  

†Whatley. Neither can we suppose that this omission on the part of our author, arose from his ignorance of the Hebrew language, in which the most esteemed Jewish chronological works were written, because even assuming that his work affords no conclusive evidence of his Hebrew learning, we cannot but be aware, that in R. Nietto, who was most favourably known for his talents and erudition both to him and to the citizens of London (see Ang. Jud. pass.), he possessed the same satisfactory source of information, to which, on another occasion (see above), he generally expresses his obligations.

(To be continued)