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Jewish Community Studies

British Jewry

Daniel J. Elazar


One of the major dilemmas in understanding the structure and operating processes of British Jewry, especially for a researcher in Israel, is the lack of current and available information. British Jewry, it seems, has few offices in Israel, while publications emanating from Britain are few and deficient in both substance and analysis. There is no question on religion included in the census in Great Britain, further complicating issues of identification. Moreover, the question of "who is a Jew," in an increasingly pluralistic society where a halakhic definition can not but fail to embrace the entirety of the operative Jewish population, only serves to compound the difficulties in researching Jewish community organization in Great Britain.

Jewish Population and Settlement

According to the report issued by the Board of Deputies' demogrphic unit in 1991, Jews in Great Britain and Northern Ireland number 300,000.


London remains the focal point of British Jewry today as it has throughout its history. London, the industrial, commercial, and administrative center on Great Britain, was the principal port of entry for new immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe. Furthermore, only London possessed the infrastructure to absorb these individuals, most of whom settled in the East End near the docks when they first arrived. Gradually, in a phenomenon predominating the 20th century, "Jews, traditionally concentrated in the larger urban centers, have become selectively more metropolitan, and within the metropolitan areas, more suburban."

London presently has a Jewish population of 219,000 representing approximately two-thirds of the total U.K. Jewish community.

The Regions

Manchester: The Jewish community of Manchester dates from roughly 1780, but by 1865 there were less than 5,000 Jews in Manchester. The Jewsih population of Manchester surged between 1883 and 1905 as a consequence of of the intensified persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe. These settlers were joined by a new immigrant class of merchants and cotton-traders from Central Europe and North Africa. The Jewish population presently numbers 30,000, the second largest in the UK. In addition, Manchester is the only community in the UK besides London which enjoys its own active and successful religious and cultural community.

Leeds: Jews have lived here since the middle of the eighteenth century, but a cemetery was not requisitioned until the year 1837. The Leeds Jewish community is primarily the product of Russian immigrants escaping persecution in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Jews were attracted to this city by the rapidly expanding clothing industry where both wages and working conditions proved superior to those in London or Manchester. Today, the Jewish community in Leeds approximates 10,000, and is represented by the Leeds Jewish Representative Council and over 100 Jewish community organizations.

Glasgow: The community was founded in 1823, and soon became the premier Jewish center in Scotland. East European immigrants were attracted by employment opportunities in the late 1870s and 1880s. The community now numbers 10,000.

Birmingham: One of the oldest Jewish communities in the provinces (1730), which became an ideal home for Jewish tradesmen. However, few Eastern European immigrants settled here and, thus the Jewish community never grew as in other cities. The community now numbers 3,000.

Liverpool: The community was founded in 1750, and became an important place for Central and East European immigration. Today, the Jewish community numbers only 4,000, in part due to its close proximity to Manchester (where the Jewish community is larger and more active).

"There is a large shortfall of Jews in most medium-sized cities, in the Midlands, and in Scotland and Wales," writes Stanley Waterman, a geographer from Haifa University nad author of Jews in an Outer London Borough, Barnet. Outside London and Manchester, only coastal resorts such as Brighton, Bournemouth and Southend, are growing. Moreover, all major centers of Jewish population have experienced dramatic declines since 1918, as evidenced by the Board of Deputies of British Jews' publication of British Jewry in the Eighties, a trend which continues today.

Assimilation and outward migration to the cities and suburbs are difficulties which continue to plague smaller centers. Religious and communal activity in these areas is dying out -- their future lacks promise. The future for the Jewish community in the U.K. would seem to rest in the larger cities of London and Manchester.

Historical Development of the Jewish Community in the UK

No one is exactly sure when the first Jews settled in these islands, points out Aubrey Newman in her article, "History of Anglo Jewry." However, it is generally accepted today that the Jews arrived sometime in the Middle Ages in the company of the Normans (1066) as an extension of the Jewsih communities of Northern France. It has been calculated that the Jewish community in England at this time numbered between 5,00 and 6,000 individuals, but these figures are difficult to verify as communities continually appeared and disappeared.

From 1066 to 1290, different forms of anti-Jewish sentiment plagued the Jewish population of Great Britain: blood libels, mass riots, and discriminatory legislation all were aimed at extracting Jewish wealth.

On November 1st, 1290, King Edward I expelled the Jews from England. Jews fled to France, Belgium, and Germany.

Certainly, small numbers of Jews remained in Great Britain after the official expulsion order had been given. However, no organized communities were tolerated, and whenever one was discovered, it was immediately destroyed. Not until the middle of the seventeenth century was any official toleration possible. In 1655, Menasseh Ben Israel, the Sephardi Rabbi of Amsterdam, came to London in hopes of persuading Oliver Cromwell for Jewish re-admittance. No formal decision was rendered at the time, but Jews were able to acquire a house for a synagogue and burial grounds, free of religious disturbance. Thereafter, Jewish settlement was never questioned, and a mixture of immigrants arrived from Amsterdam, Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and Northern Italy. Ashkenazi Jews also began to arrive from Northern Europe, although slightly later in the seventeenth century. Most of these Jews were of lower social and commercial status when compared with many of the affluent merchants from the Sephardi communities of Amsterdam and Spain.

By the mid-eighteenth century, Jewish communities were growing in the port cities and manufacturing towns of Birmingham, Leeds, and Manchester. London, however, remained the focal point of Jewish activity and development.

The 19th century brought continued improvement in Jewish communities throughout Great Britain, and more importantly, the political constraints previously placed on Jews as a non-Anglicans were gradually abolished. Jews began to infiltrate the higher echelons of British financial circles and society. In 1833, the first Jew was admitted to the Bar; in 1835 Sir David Salomons was the first Jew to become Sheriff of London; in 1855, London enjoyed its first Jewish mayor. In 1847, Lionel de Rothschild became the first Jew to be elected to the House of Commons (although he did not assume office until 1858 because of the varios oaths he was required to take). The first member of government was George Jessel, who became Solicitor-General in 1871. By 1890, all religious restrictions on political and commercial positions and Jewish emancipation was complete.

1881 represented the beginning of a massive wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. This large influx of refugees radically transformed the Jewish community of Great Britain. The Jewish community rose from approximately 25,000 in the mid-nineteenth century to almost 350,000 by 1914. Moreover, the Jewish population underwent large geographic changes. The original community began to disperse into suburbs along with their English counterpart, whereas the newly arrived immigrants settled in the crowded ghettos of East London, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, and Glasgow. The provincial communities witnessed substantial growth and increased influence over the community as a whole. These Jewish immigrants quickly adapted themselves and proved highly socially mobile. This period saw an upsurge in ghetto life as well as a move to the suburbs.

By the end of WWI, the great waves of immigration had ceased, and Jewish emancipation was virtually complete. The 1920s saw the progression of the Jews from the working to middle classes which was reflected in the ongoing movement to the suburbs and the emergence of a new and distinctive Anglo-Jewish middle-class existence. By the end of the 1920s, Jews could be found in every sphere of British life. In addition, the Zionist Movement reached new prominence in the 20s under the direction of Chaim Weizmann, and leadership was gradually transfered from the older community members to the offspring of the new immigrants.

The coming of the Second World War and the rise of Hitler's Nazi Germany ushered in a new wave of immigration, although much smaller than that of the previous era. Jews continued to move away from the ghettos of the inner cities, never to return. This new wave of immigrants, no longer went into the ghetto life, but arrived in a continually developing suburban culture.

(This brief summary of the history of Anglo-Jewry was taken from The Jewish Year Book and an article entitled, "History of Anglo-Jewry," written by Aubrey Newman.)

Trends and Migration

Since the Second World War, Ango-Jewry has been declining and there has been a gradual polarization in the community along religious and geographic lines. Within the religious sphere, "...The Right-Wing Orthodox and the Reform groupings are increasing. The increases are occurring both among the Jewish population in general and within their own streams of Judaism, representing demographic increase and recruitment from other groups." Thus, although Central Orthodoxy maintains its commanding position amongst the groups composing Anglo-Jewry, its position is deteriorating relative to and at the expense of the extremist camps.

Geographically, 75 percent of the Jewish population is now concentrated in 5 major cities, and smaller communities are continuing to suffer as the result of outward migration to the cities. "The London area has maintained its dominanace and its two-thirds share of the population. The provincial bias towards the old manufacturing centres and coalfields has lessened in recent years. The main beneficiaries of the shift in the distributional patterns of the Jewish population have been the coastal resorts. Outside London, only Manchester has maintained a size sufficient enough to offer a wide communal infrastructure." The result of this marked trend has been the demise of the provincial communities.

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