The Changed Face of English Jewry at the end of the Eighteenth Century

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Dickens, it will be recalled, made ample literary amends for his creation of the villainous character of the Jew Fagin in Oliver Twist. Yet he made his choice of a Jew for the part of a forger, receiver, and trainer of pickpockets in the year 1837, nearly seven years after the publication of Macaulay's essay on the civil disabilities of the Jews, and at a moment when philosemitism was becoming fashionable and the disabilities themselves fast disappearing. Fagin's intrusion into Dickens's picture of the underworld owed nothing to direct observa? tion. He was a type-figure, part of a literary tradition which was then rather more than half a century old. Dickens used this type figure in the same way that others used Scots? men and Irishmen, portraying alleged national vices which were not a subject of deep reflec? tion. But there had been a time when the legend of a Jewish underworld of crime had done far more harm to the community than could be attributed to Dickens's knockabout villain of music-hall melodramas, whom one expects at any moment to break into a comic song.

Essentially the Fagin legend belonged to the late eighteenth century, and the prejudice in it was the prejudice of an age which somehow failed to include racial and religious tolerance in its own peculiar brand of political radical? ism. The same mob that rioted for Wilkes and liberty plundered the Catholics during the Gordon riots, and set upon the Irish labourers. Tolerance, one may even conclude, flourished more when the course of politics meant least to the man in the street, when the politician had no need to embrace any popular causes beyond the bribing of a few freeholder voters.

If we turn very briefly to the age preceding the one with which we are concerned, the reign of George II appears singularly deficientin popular democratic causes. In those days the game of Parliament was a struggle for interest and privilege between groups of country gentry. Yet the least privileged of religious minorities was probably less in need of protection under this reign than at any time before the great Reform movements of the 1830s.


To call it a golden age would, however, be a little bizarre. Unable to subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, the Jew shared the restrictions of the Roman Catholics and Dissenters. Offices under the Crown, in Parliament, the armed forces, the law, and the universities were debarred him. There was a doubt whether he was even entitled to buy land. Yet Sampson Abudiente or Gideon (1699-1762), the son of an immi? grant Jew, obtained an influence over govern? ment far beyond the reach of any of the Roman Catholic landowning families. The comparison is fair because there is no evidence that Samp? son Gideon was received in the Church of England, though, late in life, he abandoned the Sephardic synagogue. Of course, the Jew whose command of liquid capital made him indispensable to kings was

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