When Oliver Cromwell accepted Jews back into England in 1656, it was a time of religious turmoil. Jews may have been allowed to live in England, but they were by no means accepted members of society. Instead their reli? gious beliefs were more likely to lead to them being brought before the criminal-j us tice system.
Within that system, magistrates had considerable powers. They could sentence people to prison, recommend them for deportation, flog them and fine them, and they also played an important role in local government and administration (with policies such as the Poor Law) until the late nine? teenth century.
The Justices of the Peace were an integral part of society, dealing with the minutiae of daily life from licensing public houses to sanitation. In England they were part of a powerful elite of male Anglican Protestants, many of whom also made the law as MPs. The idea that Jews could join this elite appeared impossible. Yet before the middle of the nineteenth century, Jews had reached magisterial office. This, I would argue, even more than the Parliamentary emancipation which later followed, is an important measure of their acceptance in English society.
Magistrates even today have never been asked about their religion1 dur? ing the selection process, and this makes it impossible to produce exact sta? tistical evidence for how many Jews were put forward and what proportion were actually appointed once they first began being accepted. In practice, Jews, along with women, Catholics and others, were traditionally excluded from sitting on the Bench. For nearly 700 years JPs were male members of the landed gentry (women were not eligible for appointment until 1919), and after the revolution of 1688 they were also solely Anglican Protestants. Nonconformists were permitted to sit by the passing of special Indemnity Acts from 1728. Jews were not even as fortunate as that.
Indeed, the embryonic Jewish community found their religion under constant threat both from government and the legal system, and it would have seemed extraordinary in the seventeenth century that Jews would ever
1 Except in Ireland where the procedure is somewhat different.
be passing judgements on others regarding the law. An Act of Uniformity in 1662 required every clergyman to use the Book of Common Prayer, and in 1664 the Conventicle Act2 empowered JPs to impose penalties on anyone over the age of sixteen who attended a meeting of more than five persons for religious worship other than with the Book of Common Prayer. The initial punishment was a fine, but transgressors were warned that they faced seven years deportation for a third offence. Justices who did not implement the Act were themselves fined, while Jews who met in London to pray could be brought before justices and indicted. It was also illegal to carry out work or business on a Sunday, a day which for Jews could have been just another working day, and no one might travel by boat or barge.3
It was King Charles II rather than Parliament who changed the situation. Charles