British Jewry Factsheet



What is the Jewish Religion?

The Jews believe in one God. This type of Religion is called “Monotheistic” and Judaism is the oldest one in world and inspired Christianity and Islam. The details of Jewish beliefs and rules are set out in the Old Testament and in a series of writings by the Rabbis called the Talmud. The most well known rules are in the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai. They form the basis of behaviour in civilised societies and include prohibitions against murder, theft and slander. Observant Jews keep a great number of rules such as laws against eating certain animals such as pigs, strictly refraining from work on Saturdays and ones requiring praying three times a day on weekdays.


The values that the Jewish Religion inculcates in its adherents were described by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair in a foreword to “Living Giving” a pamphlet produced as part of the celebrations for the 350 years anniversary of the re-admittance of the Jews to Great Britain


“…the Jewish Community has been sustained, and its contribution underpinned, by the values for which it so strongly stands – the family, help for the needy, care for the sick, hard work and inventiveness, compassion and aspiration in equal measures – values which are also the best of what the United Kingdom stands for.”


Who are the Jews?


The vast majority of Jews are descended from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin together with those members of the tribe of Levi who lived with those tribes. Originally there were twelve tribes of Israel but 10 disappeared in antiquity. There are some people who have converted to Judaism but conversion is not encouraged and they and their descendants are relatively few. According to Jewish law, apart from conversions, a Jew is a person born of a Jewish mother.


Like Christians and Muslims, there are divisions within Jewry. Historically the most significant is that between those Jews who lived originally under the influence of the Muslim world called Sephardis and those who lived in Eastern and Middle Europe called Askenazis. Both these groups accepted the same rules but differed in the way they practised them.


In modern times a different type of division has arisen rather like the divisions in the Christian Churches between non conformists, Church of England and Catholicism. In essence the division is based on how strictly one interprets the rules. There are at least five major groupings with the liberals on the “left” and the Adath on the “right”.


There are a significant number of Jews who are ethnically Jewish but do not believe in the religion.


How Long have Jews lived in Great Britain?


Jews first came to England shortly after the Norman invasion of 1066. However in 1290 those Jews remaining were expelled. In the centuries that followed, although there are believed to have been Jews here, it was not until 1656 that it is generally accepted that Jews were permitted openly to follow their religion. Cromwell and Charles 2nd believed in showing tolerance to the Jews and they began to flourish to become the first non Christian minority of significance in this Country. It should be remembered that until the 19th century non members of the Church of England were actively discriminated against. They could not sit in Parliament nor attend university. In fact Jews were allowed to have Synagogues before Catholics Churches! All barriers were swept away by the latter part of the 19th century so that Jews as others could take a full part in public and university life.


Where did they come from?


There were basically three waves of Jewish immigration into this Country. The Jews present in 1656 were the descendants of the Jews who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century. These Jews had settled in Holland where the Government had a policy of tolerance towards the Jews. Those who had come to England were mainly merchants and financiers. They were joined by further immigrants from Holland making up a community of Sephardi Jews. They lived in the City of London and in 1701 consecrated a Synagogue in Bevis Marks; a Synagogue that is still in use today. German Jews followed their example. For example Moses Hart came as the Jews were expelled from his home town of Breslau. These Askenazi Jews built in 1720 their own Synagogue in Dukes Place; a building destroyed during the Second World War. These Jews were added to by further immigrants so that by 1815 there were over 20,000 Jews in Great Britain. Many of these Jews achieved prominence in business, Parliament, the law and other professions. They built up institutions to educate their children and to relieve the distress of the poor members of the Community.


From the 1880s until the beginning of the First World War, some 120,000 thousand poor Jews fled to Britain from persecution in the Russian Empire which in those days covered large parts of Poland, and the whole of the Ukraine and Belarus as well as what is today Russia. These Jews radically altered the make-up of the Community much to the discomfort of the existing Community. Unlike the leaders of that Community, their trades were in manufacturing clothing, shoes and furniture and many were small traders such as credit drapers. In appearance and speech, they were seen as foreigners. A anti-immigration movement came into being resulting in a Royal Commission followed by the first Act of Parliament restricting immigration – The Aliens Act 1905. As a younger generation grew up, this influx was absorbed into British Society. These immigrants and their descendants have, as described later, many important successes to be proud of.


With the coming to power of the Nazis in Germany in 1933, the systematic State persecution of the Jews grew rapidly eventually resulting in the holocaust and the death of some six million Jews. Britain had a restrictive policy towards immigration by that time seeking to ensure that no immigrant became a burden on the State. Immigrants had to have sponsors or otherwise be able to demonstrate the ability to support themselves. This policy was relaxed in 1939 when some 10,000 children were admitted in the so called Kindertransport. Despite the restrictions some 55,000 came.These immigrants include some very prominent scientists, musicians and other highly cultured individuals. Their contribution to Britain will be described later.


After the Second World War some of the survivors of the holocaust came to Britain. In recent times many South African Jews came to live in this Country. They include several who have become prominent lawyers, doctors and businessmen.


How many are there and where do they live?


Out of the estimated number of Jews world wide of just under 13 million, according to the 2011 census there were 263,346 living in the England and Wales. The Jewish population peaked in about 1945 at some 400,000. The steady drop in the number of Jews is attributed to low average birth rates and increased inter-marriage with non Jews. Apart from the very observant (often referred as the Charedi) who have high birth rates and low inter-marriage, this trend of declining numbers is expected to continue. This means that number of very observant Jews as a proportion of a declining total number can be expected to rise.


Again according to the census 148,600 lived in Greater London. The next largest community was Manchester with 23,013, then Hertsmere 14,293. Leeds had 6847. According the Scottish Census 5,887 Jews lived there.


How have they benefited the Country?


In a short fact sheet, it is impossible to do full justice to this topic. Books and lengthy pamphlets have been written on the subject. Her Majesty the Queen in a letter as a foreword to a pamphlet “Living Giving” published by the Board of Deputies of British Jews summed up the benefits as follows “The contribution of Jewish individuals and organisations to our national life has been remarkable”.


To give a flavour Tesco, Marks and Spencer and Great Universal Stores owe their existence to Jewish Entrepreneurs. Jews have served in the British Armed Services from the 18th century onwards. Over 50,000 served in the First World War with 5 Victoria Crosses. Over 60,000 served in the Second World War with three Victoria Crosses and three George Crosses. Some 10,000 did National Service.


Jews have been prominent in the professions. Two recent Lord chief Justices were Jews. In medicine Ernst Chain, a German Refugee, was responsible for making penicillin a commercial proposition and today we have doctors as eminent as Lord Winston. In entertainment Jews have contributed greatly both backstage and in front of house. In the inter war period Joe Loss and Bud Flanagan were household names. In the post war period we had examples such as David Jacobs and today we have Sacha Baron Cohen (Ali G and Borat).


The leading technical expert behind the TV system adopted in this country was Isaac Shoenberg, born in Russia. Lew Grade (Lord Grade) and Sidney Bernstein (Lord Bernstein) were leaders in the early days of ITV, a tradition carried on by Lord Grade’s nephew Michael.


In politics, Jews have held important positions in all three main parties often strongly opposing one and other. Two Jewish backbench M.Ps. who had major influences on British life were Sydney Silverman who private members bill resulted in the abolition of the death penalty and Leo Abse who was responsible for de-criminalising homosexuality. Other important Parliamentarians are John Bercow, Grant Shapps and Lord Young who was a Minister in the Thatcher Government and continues to be a Goverment Adviser.

Many of the Jews who fled Germany were highly educated professionals. An outstanding example was Dr Ludwig Gutterman who, as a specialist on spinal injuries, through sport restored to health many who otherwise might have been left to die. It was his inspiration that resulted in the Paralympic Games. He was knighted in 1966.



Finally British Opera, Classical music and Ballet benefited greatly from the input of Jews especially those who fled from Nazi persecution.


Anti Semitism


The persecution of the Jews has a long history but its basis has changed over the years. In medieval times it was based on the refusal of Jews to convert to Christianity. For an individual Jew conversion solved the problem. Thus Jews avoided expulsion from Spain in 1492 by converting. These Jews became known as Marranos and many secretly continued to observe Jewish rituals.


Modern Anti-Semitism is racially based so that, for example, a person in Nazi Germany was considered a Jew if one of his or her grandparents was Jewish. It is based on misconceptions and downright lies. There is no evidence of a Jewish conspiracy. Jews as others cover the full range of opinions and actions and the mere fact that one is Jew does not mean that you take a particular action or point of view. Jews have been advocates of totally opposing political philosophies. Harold Laski inspired the Labour Government of 1945 -51 whilst Sir Keith Joseph and Alfred Sherman inspired so called Thatcherism. It is often alleged that Jews control the media. Apart from the Daily Express none of the British newspapers are Jewish owned. Jews have the right fully to exploit their talents as any other individual and the mere fact that one is a Jew should not an advantage or disadvantage.


Unfortunately the bitter struggle between Israel and the Palestinians has led to an upsurge in anti-semitism particularly in the Arab world. This is to be regretted. It has spilt over into University politics where Jewish students have been subjected to harassment for trying to put the point of view of Israel.


What is their relationship with Israel?


Because Britain became responsible for administering Palestine after the First World War, British Jewry was deeply involved in the history of that unhappy country particularly until the State of Israel was proclaimed in 1948. The initial step towards that State was the so called Balfour Declaration of 1917 when Arthur Balfour, then Foreign Secretary, wrote to Lord Rothschild stating the the Government viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. This was controversial at the time amongst Jewish people and until today there are a wide variety of opinions about Israel from those who strongly oppose the policies of the Israeli Government to those who think otherwise. However there is strong sympathy for the Jews in Israel, many of whom are related to British Jews. This is no different to to say an person of Pakistani origin having sympathy with Pakistanis and giving money to victims of earthquakes in Pakistan.


What of the Future


The future is always difficult to foretell. However it seems likely that the number of Jews both absolutely and as a proportion of the general population will continue to fall. Within the Jewish community the number of Charedi will increase as the remainder falls so that at some point in the next few decades, they will become the majority. Generally Jews will continue to make a full and positive contribution to the life of this Country.