Monday, June 25, 2012

Opening England

Menashe ben Israel (Manoel Dias Soeiro, 1604 -1657), whose family fled Portugal after the Lisbon auto-de-fe of 1603, was raised in Amsterdam where he received a full Jewish education and was recognized for his great abilities early in his life. (He accepted a rabbinic post before he was 20.) In addition to his rabbinic duties, Menashe ben Israel established the first Hebrew press in Amsterdam, which served the needs of a community that continued to grow as more conversos  sought to escape the Inquisition.

Menashe ben Israel is probably best remembered as an activist for the thousands of Jewish refugees seeking a home. It is believed that Queen Christina of Sweden, had she not abdicated her throne, would have allowed Jews to settle in Scandinavia. After her abdication, Menashe ben Israel turned his attention to England.

When Menashe ben Israel first began to petition for the admission of Jews into England, the ban on Jewish settlement had been in place since 1290. His petitions began in 1650, after the British Civil War established the (short lived) Commonwealth. Menashe ben Israel was granted permission to visit England, but, shortly thereafter, war broke out between England and Holland. In 1655, Menashe ben Israel finally came to London where he met with Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector.

Cromwell was open to Jewish settlement (essentially for its financial benefits), but he could not muster enough support to get permission for Jews to settle. However, the standing of the ban itself was brought to question, and, as a result, many individual Jews were granted the right to live in London, and the community that had lived in England in secret, now openly revealed themselves.

Sadly, Menashe ben Israel passed away on his journey back to Amsterdam.

An Extra Piece of Trivia: Menashe ben Israel was a teacher of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

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