“The Jews” by Hilaire Belloc: The Present Relation Between the English State and the Jews

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Editor’s note: The following comprises the tenth chapter of The Jews, by Hilaire Belloc (published 1922).

(Continued from Chapter 9: The Position in the World As a Whole)


The various nations of Europe have every one of them, in the course of their long histories, passed through successive phases towards the Jew which I have called the tragic cycle. Each has in turn welcomed, tolerated, persecuted, attempted to exile—often actually exiled—welcomed again, and so forth. The two chief examples of extremes in action, are, as I have also pointed out in an earlier part of this book, Spain and England. Spaniards, and in particular the Spaniards of the Kingdom of Castile, went through every phase of this cycle in its fullest form. England passed through even greater extremes, for England was the only country which absolutely got rid of the Jews for hundreds of years, and England is the only country which has, even for a brief period, entered into something like an alliance with them.

Though it is the present position of the British State—that is, the position of official British politics towards the Jew—with which we are concerned, it may be of service to introduce the matter by a word upon past relations.

The Jewish element in this island, whatever it may have been during the Roman occupation, was of small account during the Dark Ages. Things changed at their close in the eleventh century. The Jew is the camp follower of each new economic movement among us and that is why one finds him in the wake of the Norman Conquest. Throughout the economic development which it began appears the secondary rôle of the Jew. Every one knows the mediaeval rule of Jewish Status. It was established here as everywhere else in Christendom. The Jew was the King’s; that is, under the special protection of the State. If he were the subject of popular attack, that attack was an attack on the King’s peculiar, and liable to speedy repression. The individual attacker was punished with special severity because the danger of mass-movement is always great where the populace is free to act in masses as it was throughout the middle ages, and the necessity for preventing individual attacks from spreading was correspondingly great. Now and then the popular feeling got out of hand and the monarch had to deal with numbers which he could not control; but as a rule the Jew, especially the rich Jew, enjoyed a privileged position, both in Northern France and throughout England. The Jew of the early Middle Ages in England was normally a well-to-do man and often an exceedingly rich man. Then, as now, a small number of Jews were much the richest men of their time.

He had most of the finances in his hands, and this immense privilege (which he has lost), that he alone was allowed to practise usury. Here we must pause a moment to define usury.

Usury then (as now) signified the receiving of interest upon unproductive loans. It is a practice which all moralists and all philosophers have condemned and which the Church in particular condemns. If you lend money to a man for a productive purpose: if, for instance, he is to buy a ship and trade with the money you advance, or to buy a farm and grow produce, then, of course, you are perfectly free to stipulate for a portion of the profit. But if you lend the money for a purpose not directly productive, as, for instance, to a man in grave necessity, or in lieu of charity, or to build such a building as a church, which will not produce a rent, or if in any other fashion you lend money to one who (to your knowledge) will not spend it in some reproductive agency, then it is immoral to demand interest.

Now an exception was made in mediaeval Christendom in favour of the Jew. He was allowed to lend money at interest, even in the most grievous cases of necessity, and for services as unproductive as religion or war. The only stipulation was that the moneys saved from this lucrative practice returned to the Crown (in theory) upon the death of the licensee. In practice no doubt a very large part remained with the accumulator, who during his lifetime was enjoying the income he had acquired by usury, who could give it to his heirs while still living, and could use opportunities for secret investment, or pass it to the custody of others throughout international Jewry. But liquid sums left by him, the product of his usury, returned to the Crown upon his death. This was a great advantage to the Crown, not only in protecting the Jew from the native hostility of his alien hosts (and particularly of the populace), but in giving him that great privilege—a monopoly.

The rate of interest was enormous. It varied from nearly 50 per cent to over 80 per cent. When Jews lent money on security the King was party to the safe custody of the security, and their privilege extended so far that they were exempt from the common law, and a case between an Englishman and his Jewish creditor could only be tried by a mixed jury in which the Jew’s own compatriots were present in equal numbers with the English.

All during the Angevin period Jewish financial domination continued, up to the end of the twelfth century and even into the beginning of the thirteenth. But with the first half of the thirteenth century, for some reason of which I have never seen a sufficient historical analysis and of which, perhaps, the full causes have been lost, the Jewish power began to decline very rapidly, so far as England was concerned.

And here it may be noted that the misfortunes of the Jews in any country never begin until their financial position is shaken. As long as they are the financial masters of the Government they are protected; but woe to them when they begin to lose their financial power! Then there is no longer any reason for supporting them either on the part of the governing classes in general or of the Executive in particular. Popular passion is let loose and disaster follows.

At any rate, the thirteenth century saw in England a rapid decline of Jewish financial power and at the same time a rapid rise of official animosity towards them. They got poorer and poorer as the century proceeded. Their activities were at the same time more and more restricted. They had lent money largely upon land and yet, in the public interest, were at last forbidden to foreclose upon it. The final step came when their special licence to practise usury was withdrawn by Edward I in the earlier part of his reign; and at last, in 1290, after increasing severities, they were all expelled the country under penalty of death.

The unhappy people, already reduced by two generations of falling fortune, were hurried out of the country, carrying, by permission, their money and movables. They were protected, indeed, at the ports by the royal officers, who even paid the passage of the indigent among them; but they were plundered at sea and some even murdered. The murderers were punished, but the memory of the persecution remained in the Jews’ mind and England became a natural object of their hate. The Jewish community expelled by the English was surprisingly small, not 17,000, and suggests the historical truth that in the Middle Ages, and indeed until quite modern times, the Jewish community in Northern France and England was a community of people in the main well-to-do. It so remained until quite modern times.

There followed three and a half centuries and more during which England was the one example in Europe of a State that would not tolerate the Jews upon any terms whatsoever. There certainly remained throughout this time, or at any rate visited the island, not a few of what the Jews themselves called “Crypto-Jews,” that is, Jews who outwardly deny their nationality and practise our religion for the purpose of private gain. These, when they could defeat the law successfully, remained within the British seas. But their effect was slight; and the English people during the whole of their great military advance in France, during the whole period when their language and culture was forming, during the whole great national episode of the Tudors and of the Reformation, formed the one great exception out of all Europe in that the Jew remained unknown to them and was rigorously excluded from their Commonwealth.

They returned, as everybody knows, under Cromwell. Their numbers, and still more their wealth, increased at the end of the seventeenth century and concomitantly with this, partly as an effect of it (but here we must not exaggerate), a number of novel financial features appeared in the English State each of which shows the increased power of the Jews. The institution of the Bank, of the National Debt, of speculation in Exchange and in the fluctuation of stock.

But the real causes of that alliance between the English and the Jews which is seen in the late seventeenth century, which quickened throughout the eighteenth and became so very marked in the nineteenth century, was the cosmopolitan position of England as the leading commercial State. This it was which led to something like identity between the interests of Israel and the interests of Britain, an identity which has lasted so long that now, when divergence is beginning to appear, it still seems odd and novel to the older generation that there should be any Jewish action which is not favourable to England. They cannot understand what the new indifference to Jewish interests, let alone the new hostility to them, can mean.

There were, of course, many other causes contributory to the peculiar position which the Jew came to enjoy in modern England, a position which he has not yet lost in external circumstance, though it is so badly shaken morally. There was the fact that England was the Protestant power of the West.

This religious motive played a great part. Between the Catholic Church and the Synagogue there had been hostility from the first century. In so far as it was possible to take sides in that quarrel it was natural for the Protestant power to take sides against the Catholic tradition and therefore in favour of the Jews. Again, the English were not only Protestant, their middle classes were steeped in the reading of the Old Testament. The Jews seemed to them the heroes of an epic and the shrines of a religion. You will find strong relics of this attitude in Provincial England to this day. One should add a certain national distaste for violence, which feeling was exasperated by hearing of the Jewish persecution abroad. One should also further add the pride which modern Englishmen take in the feeling that their country is an asylum for the oppressed.

Meanwhile there was not, until quite lately, any considerable body of poor Jews in the country to excite the animosity of the populace. That was an important negative factor in bringing the Jew within the boundaries of the English State. But with all these factors fully considered, it remains true that the main cause of the accidental Jewish position in England was the cosmopolitan character of English commerce and the essentially commercial character of the English State. As English export and English shipping began to cover the globe, the English financial system covered it as well. London became after Waterloo the money market and the clearing house of the world. The interests of the Jew as a financial dealer and the interests of this great commercial polity approximated more and more. One may say that by the last third of the nineteenth century they had become virtually identical.

Every new economic enterprise of the British State appealed to the Jewish genius for commerce and especially for negotiation in its most abstract form—finance. Conversely, every Jewish enterprise, every new conception of the Jew in his cosmopolitan activities (until these became revolutionary) appealed to the English merchant and banker.

The two things dovetailed one into the other and fitted exactly, and all subsidiary activities fitted in as well. The Jewish news agencies of the nineteenth century favoured England in all her policy, political as well as commercial; they opposed those of her rivals and especially those of her enemies. The Jewish knowledge of the East was at the service of England. His international penetration of the European governments was also at her service—so was his secret information. With the consolidation of the Indian Empire after the Mutiny the Jews were again an ally from their traditional hatred of the Russian people, which hatred has led them in our time to wreak so awful a vengeance upon their former oppressors. The Jew might almost be called a British agent upon the Continent of Europe, and still more in the Near and Far East, where the economic power of England extended even more rapidly than her political power.

And the Jew pointed to the English State as that one in which all that his nation required of the goyim was to be found. He here enjoyed a situation the like of which he could not hope to enjoy in any other country of the world. All antagonism to him had died down. He was admitted to every institution in the State, a prominent member of his nation became chief officer of the English Executive, and, an influence more subtle and penetrating, marriages began to take place, wholesale, between what had once been the aristocratic territorial families of this country and the Jewish commercial fortunes.

After two generations of this, with the opening of the twentieth century those of the great territorial English families in which there was no Jewish blood were the exception. In nearly all of them was the strain more or less marked, in some of them so strong that though the name was still an English name and the traditions those of a purely English lineage of the long past, the physique and character had become wholly Jewish and the members of the family were taken for Jews whenever they travelled in countries where the gentry had not yet suffered or enjoyed this admixture.

Specially Jewish institutions, such as Freemasonry (which the Jews had inaugurated as a sort of bridge between themselves and their hosts in the seventeenth century), were particularly strong in Britain, and there arose a political tradition, active, and ultimately to prove of great importance, whereby the British State was tacitly accepted by foreign governments as the official protector of the Jews in other countries. It was Britain which was expected to interfere, within the measure of her power, whenever a persecution of the Jews took place in the East of Christendom: to support the Jewish financial energies throughout the world, and to receive in return the benefit of that connection.

We shall have a most imperfect picture of the causes which gradually made the Jews regard this country as their centre of action if we omit one essential point.

England was secure.

During the whole period which saw the rise of the Jews to eminence in this island and their ultimate alliance with its political and commercial system, English society enjoyed a profound peace. Save for the petty incidents of the ’15 and ’45 (the first of no effect south of the border, the second ephemeral and confined to the North), no hostilities took place upon English soil between the rebellion of Monmouth under James II and the bombarding of London by the Germans from the air during the late war. There has been (save for some quite insignificant local riots) complete security for property and especially for large property. There have been since the middle of the eighteenth century no confiscations, and of commercial fortunes none since the middle of the seventeenth: no invasion, no civil war, and therefore no loot: no personal danger from violence.

Such conditions formed an environment ideal for the permanent establishment and rooting of Jewish power, and for the organization of a Jewish base.

The political situation reflected itself, as it always does, in literature. The Jew began to appear in English fiction as an exalted character, quite specially removed to his advantage from the mass of mankind. He is already a hero in Sir Walter Scott, but the full development was much later. You could still have a Jewish villain as late as Oliver Twist, but with writers as different as Charles Reade and George Eliot we reach a time where the Jew is impeccable. The worst any writer dares do at the end of the process is to be silent. The best is to flatter the Jewish type out of all knowledge. This singular interlude was in part due to the divorce between literature and popular feeling in the middle and latter part of the nineteenth century; at least, it was permitted by that divorce. But the active cause of it was the reflection of the Jew’s political position upon the mind of the educated class as expressed in its literary art.

At the same time a parallel movement appeared on the historical side of literature. A convention arose that in the clash between the Jews and the English of the Middle Ages the Jews were invariably right and the English invariably wrong. Where the struggle was between the Jew and the non-Jew abroad, the historian exceeded all bounds. The European hostile to the Jew was a senseless monster, and the Jew hostile to the European was a holy victim.

The whole story of Europe and of this country, in so far as it was affected by this very considerable factor, was distorted through suppression, and false emphasis and quite exceptional lying.

The general reader of history neither knew what part the Jewish question had played nor the claims that could be advanced for his own race in the conflict. And as historians live by copying one another, the legend was established in every school and college.

At the end of the process the Jews, in proportion to their numbers, held a power in this country beyond anything that has been seen in any other of the world. Poland at the end of the Middle Ages, when that country was most nearly comparable to Britain for the harbouring and support of the Jewish people, is the only parallel, and that a remote one.

Every English Government had (and has) its quota of Jews. They had entered the diplomatic service and the House of Lords; they swarmed in the House of Commons, in the Universities, in all the Government offices save the Foreign Office (and even there representatives of the Jewish nation have recently entered); they were exceedingly powerful in the Press: they were all-powerful in the City. No custom unsympathetic to their race, from the duel to popular clamour, survived. They could boast that England was not only the country where no distinction whatever was made in practice, let alone in law, between the Jew and the native, but that England was the only country where the Jew was always well received, where his natural defects counted least and where his natural abilities had most scope.

Such a state of affairs could not last. It was not natural. It was not consonant with hidden but deep popular tradition or with popular appetites; it corresponded only to the mood of one European community in its wealthier classes. A divergence between the cosmopolitan financial interests of the Jew and the particular national interests of Britain was bound to come. War on a large scale, though it did not imperil the country itself, was a warning of change. It appeared with the South African campaign before the end of the century. The position of the Jew was altered. Some dissatisfaction with his power began to stir. It was already muttering and beginning to show itself with the rise of commercial and maritime competition in the new German Empire which, in its turn, had become led, upon all its commercial side, by Jews. There was bound, I say, to be a reaction and a permanent one. While it was yet taking place, in the heat of the Great War, before it had reached the official world, that one of the English politicians who was best fitted to speak for the Jews, who was most intimate with them through manifold ties of friendship and hospitality, Mr. Arthur Balfour, was chosen to make the famous pronouncement in favour of Zionism. It came within a month of the great crisis of the war. Its object was to divide the general influence of the Jews throughout the world, which had hitherto been upon the whole opposed to the cause of the Allies, because, like every other neutral, the Jews were more and more convinced, as the campaigns dragged on, that the Central Empires were certain of victory.

Though this was the motive, the effect was to tie the British state yet closer to the fortunes of Israel, for here was England pledged to support, to defend, to act as a special protector over, the peculiar interests of the Jews, just where those interests would most challenge the whole of Christendom and of Islam, just where it would be most acutely difficult to confirm Jewish claims.

The declaration in favour of Zionism, the solemn pledge of the forces of the British State to an exceptional support of the Jew in a matter wholly to his benefit and not in any way to that of England, coming though it did after the climax of Jewish power had been reached and passed, was the last stage of that long process of alliance between the British commercial policy and its ruling classes on the one hand and the Jews upon the other.

Already, as I have said, that alliance was morally shaken. The great influx of poor Jews had shaken it. The mere effect of time, the inevitable revolt of the human conscience against an unnatural pretence and an obvious fiction, was bound to come, and was overdue. But although the alliance was already shaken, the English State remained officially closely interlocked with Jewry, and its last action, the demand for the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine, was, as has so often happened in the story of human development, at once the term and the turning-point of a process which had reached its conclusion; for it will be remarked throughout history that any force is most expressive, its manifestation of power most crude and most emphatic, in the perilous interval after its real strength has begun to decline and before its first open defeat.

But the problems presented by this experiment in Palestine merit a separate examination. To this I will now turn.

(Continue to Chapter 11: Zionism)

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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