Faith changes in Banglatown, but our social enrichment stays the same

September 16, 2006
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 16th September 2006

Walking down Brick Lane in the heart of the East End of London it was hard to believe that it was once called Little Jerusalem because of the number of Jews living there. A century earlier it was full of Huguenots, refugees from persecution in France. Today it is known locally as Banglatown. The sights and sounds, dress and language, are Bangladeshi. A century from now it will be something else again as the next wave of newcomers make it their own. The faces change, the story stays the same.

I was making a television programme to be shown just before the Jewish New Year. The theme dictated itself. This year British Jews have been celebrating the 350th anniversary of their readmission during the time of Oliver Cromwell, having been expelled by Edward I in 1290. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that all immigrant groups face the same challenges. Then it was Jews: now Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Looking back at those fraught beginnings, what eventually emerged was a story of hope.

In the course of making the programme, Sir Martin Gilbert told me of the struggle that Jews had to win readmission. Their case was made by the gifted polymath from Amsterdam, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel. His argument was a curious mix of the practical and the theological. The admission of Jews would, he said, be good for trade. It would also hasten the Messiah who would come, the Bible said, when Jews had been scattered to every land on Earth. Their absence from England was holding up redemption. To the English Puritans of the 17th century, this was not as strange an idea as it would be considered today.

The Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, shared with me his thoughts about the 11 years that it took for the first Jewish MP, Lionel de Rothschild, to gain admission to Parliament. First elected in 1847, it was not until 1858 that he was able to take his seat without a Christian oath. The Speaker spoke movingly about the integrity of a man prepared to wait that long to be able to serve his country without denying his religious faith.

Yet it was walking in Brick Lane, together with the historian Dr Anne Kershen, that past and present came together most vividly. A century ago Jews had to face the same suspicion and hostility that confronts other immigrant groups today. In 1911 one national paper was blunt about Jews: “We cannot consent longer to admit these thousands of undesirables” or “permit indefinitely the scum of Europe to be poured into our country”. It cautioned: “That way lies the moral and spiritual death of our race.”

Yet within less than a century the “scum of Europe” had produced leading industrialists such as Arnold Weinstock, intellectuals like Isaiah Berlin, two of Britain’s last four lord chief justices, Nobel prizewinners, leading politicians, historians of the calibre of Martin Gilbert and Simon Schama, and television personalities from Alan Sugar to Robert Winston. What was the key factor? In retrospect one can only marvel at the foresight of the prophet Jeremiah who, in his letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon 26 centuries ago, told them: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Jews throughout the generations have cared for their religious identity and taken great pains to pass it on to their children. Yet they also, under Jeremiah’s tutelage, cared for the country in which they lived. They loved Britain for its tolerance, its eccentricities, its respect for tradition. They were devoted to its institutions, above all the Royal Family.

Jews had spoken Yiddish — a folk language that mixed medieval German with Hebrew and Aramaic — for a thousand years. Yet they gave it up so that their children would be forced to speak English. They knew how important social and cultural integration was.

They also knew that you do not have to give up your religious identity in order to belong. Their ideal was to be good English men and women as well as good Jews. The programme will show a group of young Muslims, members of the City Circle, who are taking the same route. There is no alternative than to love your country and contribute to it while loving your faith and staying true to it.