“Better late than never”
The Church of England announced this week, they intend to “offer an apology for the role of English churches in the expulsion of Jews in the 13th Century.” The expulsion, ordered by King Edward I in 1290 expelling all Jews from England predated the Church of England which was established in 1534. At the time of the expulsion, the Jewish population totaled about 3,000. The expulsion remained in place, barring Jews from the kingdom until it was overturned in 1657.
Speaking at a meeting of the General Synod on Saturday, Anglican leaders announced plans for an “act of repentance” to apologize for historic anti-Semitism within churches across the country that took place prior to the Church of England’s formation. The Bishop of Lichfield said a symbolic service of repentance has been proposed for the 800th anniversary of the church’s Synod of Oxford in 1222, which saw the introduction of anti-Semitic laws requiring Jews to wear badges and banning them from particular jobs.
Jacob Vince, a member of General Synod from the Diocese of Chichester raised the issue of rising anti-Semitism in the UK, asking: “In light of rapidly worsening anti-Semitism in the UK in recent months, might the 800th anniversary next year be an opportune moment for the Church of England to consider making a formal break with these historic prejudices as a gesture of solidarity with our Jewish neighbors, England’s oldest ethnic minority?”
“The phrase ‘better late than never’ is truly appropriate here. The historic trauma of medieval English antisemitism can never be erased and its legacy survives today — for example, through the persistence of the ‘blood libel’ allegation that was invented in this country,” Dave Rich, the policy director of a British antisemitism watchdog group, told the Telegraph.
“But at a time of rising antisemitism, the support and empathy of the Church of England for our Jewish community is most welcome as a reminder that the Britain of today is a very different place,” Rich said.
In May, leaders from the Church of England joined in condemning a wave of anti-Semitic events that accompanied the conflict between Israel and Gaza.
Church of England repenting for originating blood libels
Though this is the first time the Church of England has specifically repented for the expulsion of the Jews, in 2019, it issued a document titled “God’s Unfailing Word” saying that Christians must repent for centuries of antisemitism, most notably the Church of England’s role in originating the blood libels accusing Jews of using the blood of Christian children to bake Passover Matzah. The document said that such ideas, along with perpetuating the myth that Jews killed Jesus, ultimately led to the Holocaust.
The declaration also urged Christians to accept the importance of Zionism for most Jews, warning that “some of the approaches and language used by pro-Palestinian advocates are indeed reminiscent of what could be called traditional antisemitism.”
Rabbi Efraim Mirvis, the Chief Rabbi of England, criticized this declaration for failing to “reject the efforts of those Christians, however many they may number, who as part of their faithful mission dedicate themselves to the purposeful and specific targeting of Jews for conversion to Christianity”.
The chief rabbi pointed out that his ancestors were “faced with the brutality of the Crusades; it meant being forced to choose between converting to Christianity or certain death”.
England’s history of anti-Semitism
While an anti-Jewish attitude was widespread in Europe, medieval England was particularly anti-Jewish. Before the expulsion, Jews were perceived as usurers. The perception had a basis as Jews turned to moneylending after being excluded from trade guilds and owning land. This was tolerated by the king as the Jews were his direct subjects and he could appropriate Jewish assets in the form of taxation. He levied heavy taxes on Jews at will, without having to summon Parliament.
In frequent cases of blood libel, Jews were said to hunt for children to murder before Passover so that they could use their blood to make the unleavened matzah. Anti-Jewish attitudes sparked numerous riots in which many Jews were murdered, most notably in 1190, when over 100 Jews were massacred in York. In 1218, Henry III of England, who openly espoused blood libels, proclaimed the Edict of the Badge requiring Jews to wear a marking badge. In 1260, a wave of pogroms was carried out as part of the Second Barons’ War, killing 500 Jews in London as well as more Jews in other areas of England.