In 2016, it was estimated that the core Jewish population (those who identify as Jewish) in the United Kingdom (UK) was 290,000 (0.44 per cent of the wider population) and the enlarged Jewish population (those who have a Jewish background but not a Jewish parent) was 370,000 (0.57 per cent of the wider population). The majority of the UK Jewish population lives in London and south Hertfordshire. Sizeable communities also reside in Manchester, Leeds and other large cities.
British Jews are of predominantly Ashkenazi (Central or Eastern European) descent, though, as elsewhere, Jews in the UK are not a homogenous or unified community but have a variety of Jewish ethnicities, including mixed Jewish and non-Jewish heritage, converts and people subscribe to a variety of religious affiliations or none. The UK has some of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities in Europe. Most British Jews speak English as their mother tongue, while Yiddish is often the main language spoken by Orthodox Jews with an estimated 30,000 Yiddish speakers in the UK. There are around 6,000 Hebrew speakers in the UK.
Jewry in mediaeval England
The Jewish community’s presence in the UK began in 1070 when William the Conqueror invited Jewish merchants from mainland Europe to settle in England. They received protection from the crown but did not have the same legal status as ordinary English people. Jews were not allowed to own land or serve in the military or state. Their main source of income was often lending money at interest, an activity that was otherwise prohibited for Christians. Despite fulfilling an unpopular role, Jews became important for the English economy, often lending money to members of the royal court. Jews were targeted by the crown as a source of tax income, especially in order to fund military campaigns. For example, heavy taxes were placed on Jews to finance Edward I’s war against Wales from 1277.
In 1275, Edward I introduced the Statute of Jewry which declared that Jews had to live in specific parts of towns. Those aged 7 years or more had to wear an emblem identifying them as Jewish, and all Jews over 12 had to pay a tax every Easter. They could only sell property or negotiate debts with the king’s permission and were not allowed to join guilds. The result was that many Jewish families became poor, and the crown was unable to collect taxes from them.
Antagonism towards the community increased. In November 1278, all Jews in England were arrested for coin-clipping, an allegation that they were tampering with the value of the official coinage. This resulted in around 300 Jews being executed. Although some Christians were also arrested and executed for the practice, Jews were far more likely to be killed.
Edward I had to turn to parliament to raise funds. In exchange, he issued the Edict of Expulsion, whereby the entire Jewish population was expelled from England in the autumn of 1290. This decision was based on the belief that Jews were guilty of infidelity, usury, forgeries of charters, clipping coins and falsifying monies.
Although the Jewish presence in the UK began in the second millennium, aversion towards Jews was already widespread in early Christian Europe when Jews were accused of being responsible for killing Christ, a theological position called ‘deicide’. This accusation led to anti-Jewish feelings amongst the European Christian majority and was often used to defend violence against Jews.
From the middle of the 1150s, antisemitism in England and across Europe grew, fuelled by anti-Jewish sentiment linked to the crusades and ‘blood libel’, a crude and false belief that Jews abducted and murdered Christian children for religious rituals. The deicide theological interpretation also sparked increased violence against Jews, especially on Good Fridays after performances of the Passion in churches. The Passion is a theatrical reenactment of Christ’s crucifixion that was especially popular in medieval Europe.
Beliefs surrounding Jews have changed over the centuries, but many of the same stereotypes, myths and ideologies have remained relatively constant. The history of Jews in the UK has been characterized by a struggle to enjoy political and civil rights. Their history has been defined by varying degrees of toleration, civic participation, exclusion and discrimination. Jews born in the UK finally gained emancipation in the 19th century, although this did not signal complete acceptance and certainly did not result in a view that those fleeing persecution from fascism in Europe in the 20th century should easily seek refuge in Britain.
Although forced to practise Christianity in public and Judaism in private, some semblance of covert Jewish life remained in Britain from their expulsion until their formal readmittance in 1656. The decision to readmit them was promoted by Oliver Cromwell (the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, 1653-1658). Cromwell’s decision was based on the recognition that Jews could bring vital skills to enhance England’s economy.
Due to the increasing economic contributions and political influence of Jewish merchants,
Jews in Britain gained some short-lived rights with the passing of the Jewish Naturalisation Act in July 1753. Previously foreign-born people could only gain citizenship by receiving the sacrament of Anglican Holy Communion. The Act allowed Jews to apply for naturalisation without participating in an Anglican service. The resulting antisemitic unrest in what has been called the ‘Jew Bill’ Controversy led, however, to Parliament repealing the Act in December 1753. Nevertheless, by the end of the 18th century, 25,000 Jews resided in the UK.
The number of Jewish communal institutions increased in the 19th century, with the establishment of the Jewish Chronicle, the Federation of Synagogues, the Jewish Board of Guardians, and the Jewish Board of Deputies, the official channel of communication with the government in affairs that concerned Jews. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 and anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia in the 1880s drove Russian Jewish communities west, and thousands settled in the UK. The Jewish population increased from about 60,000 to around 350,000 by the end of the 19th century.
Emancipation was the culmination of decades-long efforts by the Jewish community and its allies to remove the restrictions that it faced. When finally achieved, emancipation allowed Anglo-Jewry to move into previously unchartered economic, social and cultural areas. Jews were allowed to own land, enter the military service as well and enter professions such as finance, banking, trade, industry, medicine, law and the arts. Increased civic freedom allowed many Jews to be more politically engaged, especially among liberal, reformist and radical causes.
20th-century restrictions on immigration
Throughout the last decades of the 19th century and into the first decades of the 20th century, large numbers of Jews continued to flee to Western Europe and North America from anti-Jewish pogroms in Eastern Europe. Seeing Britain as a relatively tolerant and safe haven, 120,000-150,000 Jews arrived in Britain between 1870 and 1914. However, such large-scale immigration provoked Britain to pass the 1905 Aliens Act to restrict further arrivals.
These new Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe were poorer and less Westernized than the earlier merchant immigrants leading to antisemitic sentiments that impoverished Jewish people would bring crime and disease into the country. Indeed, the increasing visibility of the community led to heightened antagonism. The term antisemitism was coined in the late 19th century as an expression of resentment towards Jews.
Britain, Palestine and Israel
The hostility and violence towards Jews across Europe in the 1800s led to the formation of the Zionist Organization (later World Zionist Organization) to secure a Jewish homeland. Following a concerted campaign involving prominent British Jews and seeking the community’s backing of the war effort, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour issued a public letter in 1917, known as the Balfour Declaration, promising support to establish a homeland for world Jewry in Ottoman-controlled Palestine, though it should be noted that amongst Jews, Zionism remained a fringe belief until after the Holocaust and that European colonialism in the Middle East and the centuries of European antisemitism culminating in the Shoah (the Hebrew name for the Holocaust) were central factors in the creation of the state of Israel and the many successive tragedies that would unfold there.
At the end of 1917, the British army took control over Palestine, and in 1920, Britain was granted a mandate for Palestine, which was approved by the League of Nations in 1922. At this time, Palestine was inhabited by a small Jewish minority alongside the Muslim majority as well as other communities. During the next two decades, over 100,000 Jews emigrated to Palestine. By assuming responsibility for the task of establishing a national home for Jewish people in Palestine, the British government fuelled tensions between Jews and Palestinians. Outbreaks of violence between the two communities occurred throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
Following a large-scale Palestinian revolt, the British authorities limited Jewish immigration to Palestine in 1939. The British were also motivated by the need to maintain relations with key Arab allies in the war effort. In response to the immigration restrictions as well as continued British control, several Jewish armed groups targeted the British presence in Palestine. In 1947, the UN voted to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Palestinian states, a plan rejected by Palestinian leaders and Arab governments. On 14 May 1948, the British mandate ended, and Jewish leaders declared the creation of Israel. The following day, the British army withdrew, and forces from neighbouring Arab states attacked the newly declared state, sparking the first Arab-Israeli war. Ever since, tensions between Israel and Palestine have repeatedly erupted into violence and conflict, with intermittent peace talks unable to resolve the conflict.
The response of the British government before and during World War II to the systematic persecution and murder of millions of European Jews by the Third Reich has been criticized for lack of action. Their restrictions on Jewish immigration to Britain and Palestine for various reasons have been viewed as an antisemitic response.
When Adolf Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in Germany in 1933, several laws were passed that removed Jews from their rights and isolated them from the rest of German society.
About 60,000 German Jewish refugees came to Britain between 1933 and the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Following Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938, the UK government was concerned about the high number of refugees seeking asylum in the UK. As such, the government implemented a visa requirement, with Jews having to apply before departing their home country. Many Jewish women were able to find refuge in the UK by coming over as domestic servants. By the outbreak of war in 1939 around 70,000 Jews had made it to the United Kingdom, though it is estimated that ten times that amount were denied entry.
The November pogroms, or ‘Kristallnacht’ (‘Night of Broken Glass’) as they have become known, took place between 9 and 10 November 1938. The mass violence marked a turning point in the attitudes of the British public towards European Jews. The pogroms were conducted by the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazi party’s paramilitary forces, and by civilians. Over 7,000 Jewish businesses were damaged or destroyed, 267 synagogues throughout Germany and Austria were destroyed, and around a hundred Jews were murdered. 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and taken to concentration camps. Jews were forced to pay for the cost of the damage inflicted by the SA and civilians.
In response to the increasing threat to Jewish lives in Europe, 9,000-10,000 children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Netherlands and Poland were sent to the UK as part of the Kindertransport scheme between December 1938 to May 1940. These children were fostered by British families while their parents remained behind, many of whom perished in the Holocaust.
As German forces occupied European countries, increasing numbers of European Jews sought to flee to Britain to escape persecution. Foreign nationals who had been in the UK for less than 20 years were classified as ‘enemy aliens’; many were Jews. Many were interned in specially created camps in the UK and British dominions. Although not all Jewish refugees were interned, this policy only heightened their sense of non-belonging.
Following the end of the war and the liberation of the concentration camps where Jews and other minorities had been imprisoned and millions had perished, the news of the crimes of the Nazis reached Britain.
Fascism and antisemitism did not end with World War II, however. August 1947 saw widespread anti-Jewish rioting in the north of England.
The Community Security Trust (hereafter CST), a charity that protects British Jews from antisemitism, recorded 1,652 antisemitic incidents in the UK in 2022. The number had been increasing for four consecutive years, reaching 2,261 antisemitic incidents in 2021 – a record high that was at least partly sparked by the conflict that year between the Israeli military and Palestinian Hamas. The scapegoating of Jews for the Covid-19 pandemic was still occurring in 2021, while this seemed to fall in 2022. The fall in 2022 highlighted the dramatic rise the year before. Due to the visibility effected by their codified dress, Orthodox Jews are especially vulnerable to hate crime.
The trend generally is nevertheless unfortunately one of sustained increase, with the total of antisemitic attacks in 2022 still being the fifth highest total ever recorded, which CST fears may represent a ‘new normal’ when it comes to antisemitism in the UK. The incidents range from extreme violence, assault, damage and desecration to Jewish property, threats, abusive behaviour and antisemitic literature. Reported motivations for antisemitic incidences were related to alignment with far-right extremist ideology or beliefs, conspiracy theories relating to the war in Ukraine, as well as allusions to Israel and the Middle East. 28 per cent of incidents reported in 2022 referred to Hitler, the Holocaust and/or the Nazis.
Criticism of the Israeli government’s actions is of course not necessarily antisemitic. However, the number of antisemitic incidents in the UK repeatedly increases during armed conflict or major armed clashes between the Israeli military and Palestinian armed groups. The last two times when there have been a record number was following the 11-day conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in May 2021, and in July 2014, which coincided with a major eruption of antisemitic attacks, including violence, in the UK. Dave Rich, CST’s head of policy, says 416 of the 460 incidents that occurred between 8 May to 7 June 2021 ‘used language or some other evidence’ related to Israel. He adds that generally, most incidents involve verbal abuse, with a ‘relatively small’ number involving violence. ‘Every time Israel is at war… 2014, 2009, 2006 being the main ones, we’ve seen record [number of incidents in the UK]. Each year, each time, [they are] higher than the previous time.’ The CST also warns that, where the ages of perpetrators and victims could be ascertained, the proportion of both groups who are children appears to be increasing.
From around 2019 to 2021, headlines in the UK were dominated by allegations of institutional antisemitism in the UK’s Labour Party. Allegations centred around then party leader Jeremy Corbyn and those loyal to him. The scandal severely affected Jewish perceptions of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party more broadly. It profoundly divided those who felt threatened and those who did not. The antisemitism scandal became an arena where factional differences within the Labour Party itself, as well as those between the UK’s left and right wing, were staged in a guise of anti-racism. Legitimate allegations of antisemitism sat side-by-side with unwarranted accusations, such as those levelled at Jews themselves for holding anti-Zionist beliefs. After multiple reports and headlines, the question concerning antisemitism in the Labour party remains indelibly muddied.
The political currency of this putative fight against antisemitism, as waged in the mainstream media against politicians, posed a power to reify antisemitic ideas and even to increase tensions between Jews and Britain’s other minority communities over concerns of unequal treatment. The prominence, for example, given to antisemitism in the media during these years as opposed to that given to other forms of racism, is likely to have galvanized conspiratorial sentiments about Jews and their elevated power in society or influence over the media. Hence, it is likely that the scandal has done more to hinder the fight against antisemitism than to help it, notwithstanding the strengthened reporting mechanisms now in place in the Labour party.
Many Jews in the UK are to greater and lesser extents assimilated with the majority population and enjoy good standards of living. Conversely, Orthodox Jews tend to live in close-knit, insular communities where the lifestyle presents challenges as well as benefits, that are covered in the following paragraphs.
Orthodox families experience a high cost of living due to their large family sizes and need for kosher food. The impact of a cost of living crisis in the United Kingdom beginning in 2021 has had an impact on observant Jews, who have found the cost of kosher food reportedly rising by 25 per cent in 2022, four times that of non-kosher food. In May 2022, Jewish charity Give It Forward Today reported a 50 per cent rise in the number of families asking for help over the last 12 months. In Stamford Hill, Hackney, home to a large Charedi Orthodox community, overcrowding of homes is also a concern, again due to large family sizes within the community and the need for housing near to centres of Jewish communal life. Moreover, such families may be at greater risk of general poverty due to a complex picture of wage-earning potential; much importance is placed on ongoing religious education for men, preventing both their qualification and availability for well-paid work, which often renders women the sole breadwinners of their families. Yet at the same time, women have children in numbers well exceeding the national average. Though there are strong safety nets in Orthodox communities, the impact of all this is doubtless magnified by cuts in the UK’s benefits system, including a two-child limit on the child tax credit element of Universal Credit and the housing benefit cap.
Mental health is a concern for Orthodox Jewish communities. A study of Orthodox Jewish communities in northwestern England, found that local doctors perceived that formal NHS mental health services were not meeting the needs of minority groups and were hence less willing to refer their Orthodox Jewish patients into secondary mental health care. Physical health issues include lower uptake rates of both childhood and COVID-19 vaccinations, obesity and oral health. Public services that are linguistically, culturally and religiously sensitive are needed to address these issues.
Whilst homophobia is difficult to measure, it is a concern particularly for the Orthodox community. In 2018 the UK government found that both cisgender and transgender Jews surveyed had been offered conversion therapy at elevated rates as compared to the national average. Orthodox Jewish children often attend faith or independent schools which have been known to refuse or be resistant to offering education on sex, including issues of LGBT+ inclusion. Similarly, while it should not be assumed that the gender roles in Orthodox Jewish life automatically equate to a uniquely sexist society, some community issues pertaining to women’s issues are worth raising. Research by Jewish Women’s Aid found that Jewish women take two years longer to report domestic abuse compared to the national average, again highlighting the need for culturally specific services. British Jewish think tank Nahamu has identified markers of forced marriage in the Charedi Jewish community. Leaving marriages is difficult for both men and women but is harder for women due to a religious need for the male partner’s consent to divorce.
Though the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle presents certain challenges like those outlined above, it ought to be stressed that its strong social and communal bonds, as well as community services and support systems, offer relief and support to those facing hard times. To better meet the needs of Orthodox communities, statutory systems and services should find ways to integrate with and learn from these internal safety nets. It is however also worth mentioning that those who wish to leave Orthodox communities may struggle with numerous barriers, including but not limited to social stigma and unfamiliarity with secular life. For instance, men do not typically receive a good secular education and may have a poor command of English and no formal qualifications, limiting their ability to find employment and access public services.
Updated November 2023
Minorities and indigenous peoples in