the English crown, imperialism, & the Jews

EDICT OF EXPULSION

On July 18, 1290, King Edward I of England announced a royal decree known as the “Edict of Expulsion,” instructing the sheriffs of all counties to expel their Jewish populations by no later than All Saints Day (first of November). A total of about 2000 Jews lived in England at the time. The Edict of Expulsion was not a standalone event, but rather, the culmination of 200 years of increasing antisemitism, including blood libels and pogroms (anti-Jewish massacres).

For several decades prior, the situation for Jews in England had been rapidly deteriorating. In 1218, King Henry III required Jews to wear a distinguishing badge. Many other antisemitic laws were passed between 1218 and 1290, including the prohibition of building new synagogues, barring Jews from public office, banning Jews from the medical profession, heavy fines, heavy taxation, and more.

The Edict of Expulsion was extremely popular among the English population. Jews were permitted to take their possessions with them, but their homes and properties were forfeited by the king. Jews were not allowed to return to England until 1655, though there are records of Jews living in England in secret between 1290-1655.

It was not until July of 2021 that the Church of England announced that it would formally apologize to the Jewish community in 2022, on the 800th anniversary of the 1222 Synod of Oxford, which led to a series of discriminatory laws that ultimately resulted in the 1290 Edict of Expulsion.

The English crown has never formally apologized.

 

JEWISH EMANCIPATION

The emancipation of Jews in Europe was a long process between the 18th and early 20th centuries when Jews were finally given citizenship rights in their countries of residence. The United Kingdom emancipated its Jews relatively late, in 1858, finally granting Jewish males full legal rights a little over 200 years after Jews were allowed to return to England. However, complete legal freedoms were not granted to Jews until 1871.

In the centuries prior to emancipation, Jewish residents of the United Kingdom were required to pay taxes but were barred from voting or holding public office. The British parliament had attempted to emancipate Jews about a century earlier, in 1753, but this brief emancipation was almost immediately repealed due to severe public backlash.

The emancipation of Jews in the United Kingdom was not without heavy controversy and even vitriol. Catholics and Protestant dissenters had been emancipated a few decades prior, in 1829. Every year following the Catholic emancipation, bills for Jewish emancipation were brought up in the House of Commons, but they were repeatedly rejected. King William IV (1830-1837) himself vehemently opposed Jewish emancipation.

Though Jews were barred from holding public office, there was no rule barring them from running for public office. As such, they started running anyway. In 1835, a Jew named David Salomons ran for — and was elected to — the position of Sheriff for the City of London. As such, he became the poster child for Jewish emancipation. In 1837, after King William IV died, Victoria, who was much less hostile to Jews, became queen. Because of that, she didn’t interfere as much in parliamentary attempts to emancipate Jews.

 

NAZI SALUTE

In 2015, the British newspaper The Sun released video footage of a young Queen Elizabeth II, her mother, her sister, and her uncle and known Nazi sympathizer, King Edward VIII, doing the Nazi salute at Buckingham Palace in 1933 or 1934.

The footage is about 17 seconds long. The Queen Mother does the Nazi salute first, with Queen Elizabeth II quickly mimicking the gesture. Edward VIII then raises his arm too.

After its release, Buckingham Palace released a statement stating that “No one at that time had any sense how it would evolve. To imply anything else is misleading and dishonest.” This, however, is untrue. Hitler published Mein Kampf in 1925, and by April 1933, Germany had passed its first antisemitic laws.

 

EDWARD VIII

From January 1936 until his abdication in December of 1936, King Edward VIII was king of the United Kingdom. Edward VIII was a Nazi sympathizer at best, with some claiming that he had been involved in a plot to overthrow the British crown during World War II.

After Hitler rose to power in 1933, Edward applauded him for swiftly recovering the German economy. In 1933, Edward allegedly told a family member: “[It is] no business of ours to interfere in Germany’s internal affairs either regarding Jews or regarding anything else…Dictators are very popular these days. We might want one in England before long.”

After the passing of King George V in 1936, Edward ascended to the throne, worrying the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. As such, the MI5 began its surveillance of Edward and his mistress, Wallis Simpson; the FBI, also concerned with Edward’s pro-Nazi sentiments, also engaged in its own surveillance.

In 1937, after his abdication, Edward travelled to Germany to meet with Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi officials. Towards the end of World War II, files pertaining to Edward were discovered in Germany, including a number of telegrams between Edward and the Germans before and during the war. The files included a secret plan with the Germans to overthrow King George VI in favor of Edward. After the discovery of the documents, Winston Churchill blocked them from being published, claiming that they were unreliable; some in the US intelligence community also agreed with Churchill’s assessment.

Later on, Edward dismissed Hitler as a “ridiculous figure,” but, in private, he said he was “not such a bad chap.” He frequently blamed Jews for causing World War II.

 

BRITISH MANDATE

The British Mandate for Palestine was a League of Nations mandate (essentially, a territorial transfer) for British administration in Palestine following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. The mandate was assigned to Great Britain in April 1920 and became effective from 1923-1948. Transjordan (now Jordan) was added to the mandate shortly thereafter.

The period of the British Mandate was increasingly bloody. With the influx of Jewish immigration, most fleeing violence in Europe and elsewhere in Southwest Asia (the Middle East) and North Africa, the Arab majority in Palestine grew more and more hostile to the Jews, both new immigrants and Jews whose families had lived in Palestine for millennia.

Under the influence of the virulently antisemitic  (and later Nazi SS member) Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the Arabs periodically massacred the Jewish population. The Jews accused the British of complicity and formed Jewish self-defense units, such as the Haganah and Irgun, which preceded the Israeli Defense Forces of today.

In 1936, the Arabs in Palestine revolted and boycotted Jewish products. This quickly escalated into violence, leading to the murder of 415 Jews and hundreds of British. In retaliation, the British murdered thousands of Arabs. As a result of the revolt, the British issued the Peel Commission to investigate the cause of unrest. The Commission agreed that Partition — that is, one Jewish and one Arab state — was the best course of action. However, until the plan was enacted, antisemitic legal restrictions were imposed (only) on Jews. In 1939, the British issued the 1939 White Paper, severely limiting Jewish immigration and opposing Partition. Dismayed, the Jewish Agency for Palestine issued a statement, claiming that the British were denying Jews their rights in “the darkest hour of Jewish history” (i.e. on the eve of the Holocaust).

 

INSURGENCY & 1948

The Jews of Palestine responded negatively to the 1939 White Paper. In 1944, the radical Jewish paramilitary group, the Irgun, launched a rebellion against British rule. The Haganah, which was under the jurisdiction of the officially recognized Jewish leadership in Palestine, remained mostly cooperative with the British, while putting pressure on them to open up Jewish refugee restrictions. Meanwhile, both the Lehi and Irgun attacked British police and military targets. After the Irgun bombed the King David Hotel in 1946, killing 91 people, the Jewish resistance movement was briefly disbanded. However, the insurgency resumed in full swing in 1947, which resulted in the British putting the Jews in Palestine under martial law and indiscriminately killing Jewish civilians, including children.

The British treated Jewish Holocaust refugees with brutality, including beatings. Because of immigration restrictions, most tried to reach Palestine via illegal means. The British detained most and held them in prisons and interment camps, the majority located in Cyprus, a British colony at the time. The conditions in the camps were atrocious. The American Joint Distribution Committee, which provided medical aid, extra food rations, and more, stated that the British treated Jewish refugees in Cyprus worse than they treated Nazi prisoners of war in adjacent camps. Some 10,000 refugees who did reach Palestine were detained in Atlit, a concentration camp in Haifa. They were deloused with dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane upon arrival, which was deeply traumatic for the Holocaust survivor refugees.

It was the Jewish insurgency that prompted the British to finally decide to leave Palestine in 1947, leaving its fate up to the United Nations and setting the groundwork for the November 1947 partition vote. When five Arab nations invaded the newly established State of Israel in 1948, the Jordanian Arab Legion was led by Sir John Bagot Glubb, a British commander.

 

BURYING ARCHIVES

The Nazi relationship to the British crown was hardly limited to King Edward VIII. In fact, in the 1920s and 1930s, many members of the royal family flirted with fascism and Nazism. Since 1922, Carl Edward, the Duke of Coburg and grandson to Queen Victoria, established a close relationship with Hitler. He was likely even aware of the gas chambers during World War II. For his part, Hitler was an Anglophile and had long hoped for a Nazi-British alliance.

Queen Elizabeth II’s husband Prince Phillip’s brother-in-law was a high ranking SS officer and a close aide to Heinrich Himmler. There exist other connections as well: for example, the wife of the Queen’s first cousin, Prince Michael, is the daughter of an SS officer.

Since the Holocaust, including under the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, Buckingham Palace has gone through great lengths to bury — and even destroy — evidence of the Nazi-royal alliance. Karina Urbach, a German historian who published a book about the Nazi-aristocratic secret negotiations, has stated that the Royal Archives have hindered historians from researching the subject, and it’s possible that numerous documents were burned after 1945.

According to Urbach, when she was writing a book on Queen Victoria, she was openly invited to the Royal Archives. However, when she started asking questions about the crown’s dealings with the Nazis, “I was ostracized by the Royal Archives because I wanted these papers.”

Whatever the Royal Archives are or are not hiding, the royal family’s antisemitism during the interwar period is no secret.

 

TODAY

Following the bloody period of the British Mandate of Palestine and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, during which British soldiers aided the Arab armies, relations between Israel and Great Britain were extremely strained, so much so that at times the British contemplated invading Israel in the early 1950s. Following a brief alliance during the Suez Crisis  (1956), relations between Israel and Great Britain soured once more, not improving until the early 2000s.

In May of 1952, several months after the death of her father, Queen Elizabeth II visited the British Chief Rabbi, establishing warm relations with the British Jewish community, which continued until her death. Even though Queen Elizabeth II had cordial relations with Israel, the British royal family unofficially boycotted the country, a boycott which was not lifted until 2018, when Prince William visited.

In 1996, the queen visited Poland but did not visit Auschwitz, which garnered criticism. She did not visit a concentration camp until two decades later, when she laid a wreath at Bergen-Belsen and met with Holocaust survivors, who shared their stories with her. In response, she stated: “It must have been horrific.” In 2000, the queen inaugurated Great Britain’s first permanent Holocaust memorial. In 2008, she knighted the former Israeli president Shimon Peres.

While the British Jewish community largely liked Queen Elizabeth II, the history between the British Empire and British crown and the Jewish community is rather dark. Though Queen Elizabeth II established close relationships with the Jewish community, she was also the figurehead for a system and an empire that inflicted centuries of pain and violence on the Jewish world.

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