Jews were banned from this country for three centuries, until Oliver Cromwell allowed their return. Today, a ceremony in London celebrates that decision 350 years ago

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When people ask writer Ashley Perry where his family is from, he replies "Britain". If they ask where his grandparents came from, he gives the same reply. When the more persistent ask where his great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents came from, the reply is still "Britain".

"This answer is usually met with incredulity as most assume that Anglo- Jewry is in the main no more than two or three generations long and has its origins in Eastern Europe," says Mr Perry. But those who assemble today at the Bevis Marks Synagogue in the City of London know better. A varied group - including the Lord Mayor of London, several Government ministers, MPs, peers and representatives from a wide spectrum of Britain's religious communities - are gathering to celebrate the 350th Anniversary of the Resettlement of Jews in England.

The first record of Jews living in England dates from Norman times. Just after 1066, William the Conqueror invited a group from Rouen to bring their commercial skills and incoming capital to England. It was to become, to say the least, an ambiguous relationship.

In the Middle Ages, lending money with interest - usury -was considered a sin and forbidden to Christians. But medieval monarchs found it useful that Jews were allowed to engage in the practice. The outsiders financed royal consumption, adventures and wars - and made themselves rich in the process. By 1168, the value of the personal property of the Jews (around pounds 60,000) was regarded as a quarter of the entire wealth of England. And when Aaron of Lincoln died not long after - all property obtained by usury passing to the king on the death of the usurer - Henry II inherited the then massive sum of pounds 15,000.

During Henry II's reign, Jews lived on good terms with their Christian neighbours. They helped fund a large number of the abbeys and monasteries and were allowed to take refuge there in times of commotion which came from time to time for religious or commercial reasons.

They needed the refuge. Clerics and Popes routinely stirred up ill-feeling against the Jews as the "killers of Christ". HI will was fed by the Crusades, in which the Jews were as much a target of the righteous sword-wielders as were the infidel Saracens. One of the most popular - and heinous - myths was that known by Jews as "the blood libel", which appears to have originated in England in an accusation against one William of Norwich in 1144.

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David M Fahey - 6/13/2006

See the article by Eliane Glaser in History Today, March 06, for a revisionist perspective.