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Despite Concerns About Safety, British Jews to Celebrate 350 Years

Concerns about safety in the wake of the Israel-Hezbollah war, as well as the recently foiled terror plot in London, are creating a cloud over upcoming celebrations of the 350th anniversary of Jews in Britain. On Sept. 17, the yearlong celebration of Oliver Cromwell’s decision to readmit Jews to England 350 years ago is scheduled to culminate in a daylong festival in Trafalgar Square, one of London’s most public spots. The festival is being presented by Jewish Culture UK.

The Simcha on the Square festival will feature comedians, cantors, klezmer bands and Sephardi choirs, as well as art exhibitions and traditional Jewish food.

Mayor Ken Livingstone will not be included on the program, as he continues to battle legal and personal charges of inappropriate and anti-Semitic remarks.

Instead, his deputy will represent the Mayor’s Office of the Greater London Authority, which has contributed nearly $115,000 to the event.

An official with the Community Security Trust, the organization that ensures the safety of Britain’s Jewish community, told JTA: “Recent international and domestic events emphasize the need for security at Jewish events. The police and authorities are well aware of this and are closely monitoring the situation. We hope that the event will proceed as planned, albeit with an increased security presence.”

The anniversary of official Jewish re-entry into England in 1656, when Cromwell is believed to have granted the community the rights to practice openly and build cemeteries, has been marked throughout the year with a series of cultural, educational and official events presented by individuals, Jewish organizations and cultural institutions.

At the most visible anniversary event of the year so far, Prime Minister Tony Blair, BBC Chairman Michael Grade and other officials joined Britain’s chief Orthodox rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, and 500 invited guests in a June service at Britain’s oldest synagogue, the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London’s East End.

After the British national anthem was recited in Hebrew, Blair told the congregation that Britain’s Jewish community demonstrates “how identity through faith can be combined with a deep loyalty to our nation.”

Jews first arrived in Britain with William the Conqueror in 1066 and served as special representatives of the king. For over a century, they worked as moneylenders and coin dealers.

According to Richard Huscroft, author of “Edward I and the Jews,” by the mid-13th century more than one-third of the circulated coins in England were controlled by a few hundred Jews, leading the king to levy upon them untenable rates of taxation and creating rampant anti-Semitism.

Conditions became so bad that the Jews volunteered to leave in 1255, but their request was turned down by Henry III, who considered them royal property.

In 1290, a short time after money lending was made heretical and illegal in England, Edward I expelled the Jews, who fled to continental Europe.

Not all historians agree about the exact date of the Jews’ official re-entry into England, or if re-entry in fact was granted by Oliver Cromwell at all.

According to Eliane Glaser, a Jewish scholar who also works for BBC radio, when Rabbi Menasseh of Amsterdam appealed to Cromwell in 1656 at the Whitehall Conference of traders and businessmen to allow the Jews back into England, no verdict was given.

The following year, the few hundred Jews still living in England but practicing covertly were turned down when they petitioned to have a synagogue and a cemetery.

“The process of re-entry was gradual and didn’t just happen all of a sudden in 1656,” Glaser told JTA. “Bevis Marks Synagogue wasn’t founded until 1701. There was much debate at the time about who let the Jews back in, and it was probably people who didn’t like Cromwell that claimed it had been him because he had organized the Whitehall Conference.”

In 1894, the first “resettlement day” was celebrated by Jews in Britain, and Glaser hypothesizes that they chose to celebrate Cromwell because he was more popular at the time than Charles II.

“In a way, these anniversaries do provide an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of Jews in this country,” Glaser said. “But we have a vibrant history of questioning and engaging in critical debate, and if we celebrate tolerance only, we can’t see what has gone wrong and can’t do anything to address current issues like religious disintegration.”

In any event, this year’s celebrations have prompted many British Jews to get in touch with their heritage, marked most notably by sold-out lectures on British Jewish history, as well as the public’s use of the newly re-opened Jewish Chronicle archives.

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