England, it isn’t often realized, was the birthplace of what we have come to know as “blood libels” — baseless canards accusing Jews of killing Christians to use their blood in imaginary ceremonies or as ingredients in matzos. The myths spread into other countries over centuries, and are still believed in one or another form by the ignorant or malevolent, or the ignorant and malevolent, in some Arab and Muslim countries today .
Antisemitism was common in England since Jews first settled on the island in the time of William the Conqueror, who died in 1087. It grew in vehemence, though, over ensuing centuries, and massacres of Jews occurred in London and York during the 12th one. In 1275, Jews were accused of financial crimes and all of the country’s Jews were imprisoned and their homes ransacked. More than 300 were reported to have been executed in 1279.
Then, in 1290, under a decree of King Edward I, England became the first country to expel its Jews. Jews would not return to the land until permitted to do so by Oliver Cromwell in 1657. And even then, although centuries had passed during which no English citizen had ever seen a Jew, there was opposition to the resettlement plan, and antipathy toward Jews persisted.
Last week, British Jewish history was in the news, with the unexpected announcement that the Church of England is planning to apologize for British Christians’ treatment of Jews in ancient times.
The formal expression of contrition is timed to occur during next year’s 800th anniversary of the Anglican church’s Synod of Oxford, which, in 1222, implemented anti-Jewish decrees including a ban on building shuls and a requirement that Jews wear a “badge of shame.”
Needless to say, the untold suffering of generations of Jews in ancient Britain, and the spilling of innocent Jews’ blood over centuries, can never be put straight by any apology, no matter how public, no matter how strong.
At the same time, though, the move, even at this point — Dave Rich of the British Jewish organization the Community Security Trust (CST) reacted to the announcement with the observation “better late than never” — is worthy of note.
The horrors of ancient mistreatment and murder of Jews by Britons notwithstanding, Anglican clergy today are not responsible for the acts of British Christians centuries ago, and so their assumption of responsibility for disowning and regretting ancient British Christian actions is laudable.
What is more, the impetus for the Church of England’s move is particularly noteworthy.
When announcing the planned apology, at a recent meeting of the General Synod, the Church of England’s legislative body, Anglican leaders described it as a way of addressing recent and “rapidly worsening antisemitism in the U.K.”
A record number of antisemitic incidents have been recorded in the U.K. since the Hamas attacks on Israel and her counterattacks in May, according to the CST. Mr. Rich says a current trend that has stood out were convoys of cars, whose occupants shouted anti-Israel and anti-Jewish slurs, driving through areas where Jewish people live, as well as a “disproportionate impact” of antisemitic acts on school pupils, teachers and university students.
But even before the most recent Gazan conflict, antisemitic acts in the country were hardly uncommon. According to the CST, there were over 1.6 thousand such incidents in 2020. In 2013, 535 antisemitic acts were reported.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick acknowledged to the House of Commons in May that there had been a “deeply disturbing” upsurge in antisemitism in recent years, particularly on social media.
At that time, too, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed support for the U.K. Jewish community amid the newest wave of Jew-hatred.
Responding to a question in Parliament from a member of the opposition Labor Party, Mr. Johnson said: “I share his horror at the outbreak of antisemitic incidents and the government has conveyed that message loud and clear to those who are responsible for enforcing the law against hate crime.”
“As a country and as a society…,” he continued, “we call this out at every stage. We will not let it take root, we will not allow it to grow and fester.”
Jew-hatred, of course, always finds its “reasons” and its hosts, and today in England it has found new excuses and has infected new parts of the populace.
But British Jews today, baruch Hashem, are not subject to either official British anti-Jewish edicts or to clerical antisemitism. On the contrary, Britain’s Jews have the sympathy and declared support of government and religious authorities. May that fact, with Hashem’s help, keep the newest blood libels at bay.