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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

England was the last of the major European countries to be reached by the Jews in the gradual spread of the *Diaspora from Palestine; it was also the first to expel them. They arrived in the wake of the Norman *Conquest and soon became a prosperous community through money-lending (an activity which Christians despised as usury, but also one of the few activities open to the Jews, who were excluded from the Christian craft guilds). Persecution of the Jews began later in England than in central Europe, but took a particularly unpleasant and hysterical form.

It was here that the dangerous legend began of Jews killing children in ritual sacrifices. The first case was William, a boy found murdered in Norwich in 1144, whose death was blamed on the Jews. More famous was the 9-year-old Hugh of Lincoln, found in a well in 1255. These children became the cause both of pilgrimage and pogrom. Meanwhile Italians were becoming money-lenders, and the state had less need of the Jews. In 1290 *Edward I made it illegal for them to live in England, a law which remained in force until it was repealed in the 1650s, during the Commonwealth. It is a strange fact, therefore, that there were no Jews in London when Shakespeare created Shylock in The *Merchant of Venice.

Within 50 years of their return the two Jewish communities of Europe were well established again in London. The *Ashkenazim (Jews from central Europe) founded in 1692 their Great Synagogue in Aldgate; it was bombed in World War II. Not far from Aldgate is the *Bevis Marks Synagogue, built in 1701 for the *Sephardim (Jews from Spain, Portugal and north Africa). The 19C saw the beginnings of a much closer involvement of Jews in British public life. In 1804 Nathan Meyer *Rothschild opened in London one of the most important branches of the family bank; in 1858 his son Lionel Nathan took a seat in the House of Commons and ended the restriction on Jews holding public office.

Poverty and persecution in Russia and central Europe brought Ashkenazim in large numbers to Britain in the late-19C and 20C, the East End of London and Manchester being where the majority settled. Religiously they divide into two communities (Orthodox and Reform) in a split dating back to the early 19C in Germany. The first Reform group in England was established in 1840 at the West London Synagogue. The *Chief Rabbi is the leader of the Orthodox community.

Numbering now some 300,000, the Jewish community has made a contribution to the artistic and business life of Britain out of all proportion to its size.

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