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Smithsonian Associates - Entertaining, Informative, Eclectic, Insightful

The Jews of Britain: A Complicated History

Evening Program

Monday, October 28, 2019 - 6:45 p.m.
Code: 1H0459

Please Note: This program has an updated location.

Britons of Jewish ancestry have long ranked among the nation’s political leaders and peers. They have played an important role in England’s cultural life, too, as artists as varied as Yehudi Menhuin, Peter Brook, and Sasha Baron Cohen attest. Their long history in Britain, however, is a testament to surviving ignorance, prejudice, and hypocrisy.

Jews began to settle in British towns in the 11th century, but the history of Anglo-Jewry was troubled from the start. Although they played an important role in Britain's society and economy, Jews were barely tolerated, highly taxed, and subject to anti-Semitism. Expelled from England in 1290, readmitted by Oliver Cromwell in 1656, they had to wait until 1858 to be eligible to be members of Parliament.

By the Victorian era, suspicion of Jews in England had become ingrained. In one famous instance, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, no less, was forced to defend himself when he replied to a politician’s rant in Parliament by stating “Yes, I am a Jew and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon."

Characterizations in literature, from Shakespeare’s Shylock and Dickens’s Fagin to anti-Semitic undercurrents in T.S. Eliot’s poetry and Agatha Christie's mysteries also served to further distort the image of British Jews.

Threatened today by the steep rise in anti-Semitism in Europe, the conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and turmoil in Britain's political future, can Jews continue their transformation from vilified interlopers to vital members of the British community? Historian Virginia W. Newmyer explores the successes and setbacks of the nation’s Jewish population through the centuries.

Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden
Marion & Gustave Ring Auditorium
7th St & Independence Ave SW
Metro: L'Enfant Plaza