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Focus on Issues the Struggle for Jewish Representation in Britain’s House of Commons

On July 26, 1858, Baron Lionel Nathan de Rothschild become the first professing Jew in Britain to be adnitted to the House of Commons. Yesterday, exactly 125 years later, the event was marked by a festive luncheon attended by his great greatgrandson, Jacob de Rothschild, and two more of his descendants.

At the luncheon held by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Leon Brittan, the Jewish-born Home Secretary in the present government, expressed what he called “our great debt to the Rothschild family” and to the English people’s spirit of compromise and tolerance.

Among the many other guests, who included Jewish and non-Jewish members of both Houses of Parliament was 98-year-old Lord Emmanuel Shinwell who in 1922 became the first Jew to represent the Labor Party in the House of Commons.

Ian Mikardo, another prominent Jewish Labar MP. said that had it not been for Baron de Rothschild’s fight to enter Parliament, Britain might not have adnitted to its shores the waves of immigrants fleeing from Czarist oppression towards the end of the last century. “Instead of being a member of the House of Commons I might have had an unmarked grave in the Warsaw Ghetto,” Mikardo said.

PARALLEL PLIGHT OF JEWS AND CATHOLICS

Britain’s Roman Catholics were represented at the luncheon by the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Perth, the two senior Catholic peers in the country.

In his address, Sir Immanuel Jakobovits, Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, pointed to the parallel plight of England’s Jews and Catholics as they fought for civil and political emancipation, in the last century.

Sir David Salomons, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London, had been responsible for erasing from a London monument an inscription blaming Catholics for the great fire of London in 1666.

Speaking on behalf of his family, Jacob de Rothschild noted that it took his ancestor 12 years to win his fight to sit in the House of Commons after winning his first parliamentary election, but that once he had done so he never made a speech there.

In all, the parliamentary battle for Jewish emancipation had taken 28 years. The first bill to admit Jews to the House of Commons had been presented in 1830, a year after the Catholics were enfranchised.

ISSUE OF OATH OF ALLEGIANCE

But it foundered, like other subsequent moves, over the thorny question of whether or not Jews could refuse to swear an oath of allegiance “on the true oath of a Christian.”

Benjamin Disraeli, a supporter of Jewish emancipation, did not face this hurdle because he had been converted to Christianity while a child. But professing Jews recoiled from doing so.

Although the opponents of Jewish enfranchisement included a hard core of reactionary bigots, there were also high-minded Christians like Lord Shaftesbury who wanted to uphold the Christian oath of allegiance on purely religious grounds.

The matter was finally resolved in 1858 by a compromise whereby each House of Parliament could determine the form of oath to be administered for its members.

Even so, Jews were still for some time debarred from the House of Lords: de Rothschild was excluded at the insistence of Queen Victoria. He was also barred from the exclusive jockey club of race horse owners and although he won the Derby he did so under an assumed name.

A DOMESTIC BRITISH AFFAIR

Yesterday’s commemoration was a purely domestic British affair. Hence the absence of any representative from the Israel Embassy. Otherwise it would have been difficult to ignore the fact that it was to another illustrious member of the Rothschild tribe — Lord (Walter)Rothschild — that the Balfour Declaration pledging British support for a Jewish national home in Palestine was addressed. Of this, however, there was no mention at the luncheon.

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