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ince achieving complete emancipation in the second half of the nineteenth century Jews have contributed substantially not only to the literary, dramatic, and artistic culture of Great Britain, but to its broader political culture; and those contributions have come not only from Jewish families settled in the country at the time of the legal admission of Jews to Parliament in 1858, but from the large numbers of Eastern Jews who immigrated to Great Britain in the wake of deadly pogroms in the Russian Empire (1881-84, 1903-06). Some of the best known names in modern British art are of artists of Jewish extraction (Sir William Rothenstein, David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Lucian Freud) and the same holds for writers, especially playwrights and directors (Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Peter Brook) and musicians (the great cellist Jacqueline Du Pre, the pianist Dame Myra Hess, the composer Gerald Finzi). Most notably, Jews have played a prominent role in British politics, a majority of them as Liberal or Labour M.P.s, but with some of the most distinguished among them as members of the Conservative party and serving in Conservative governments. To conclude this study of the Jews in England from expulsion to emancipation, some randomly selected examples in roughly chronological order will help to demonstrate how integral a part of British society and culture the nation’s Jews have become since complete emancipation was achieved in 1858.

Rufus Daniel Isaacs (1860-1935; 1st Marquess of Reading as of 1926), Liberal M.P. for Reading 1904-1913, was appointed Lord Chief Justice of England in 1913, and served as Ambassador to the U.S. in 1918 and 1919, and as Viceroy of India from 1921 until 1926. In 1931, he served as Foreign Secretary in the government of Ramsay MacDonald and as Leader of the House of Lords. He is buried in the Jewish Cemetery of Golders Green, a heavily Jewish middle-class district of London.

Herbert Samuel, (1870-1963, 1st Viscount Samuel as of 1937), a Liberal M.P. (1902-1918 and 1929-36), was Leader of the Liberal Party from 1931 to 1935. He served as Home Secretary in the national government of Labour M.P. Ramsay MacDonald in the crisis years 1929-31 and, despite his Jewish ancestry, aligned himself in the years after 1933 with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy towards Adolf Hitler, urging that Germany be cleared of its 1914 war guilt, and that the German colonies lost after WWI be returned. In 1938, however, he supported the Kindertransport movement for refugee children from Europe with an appeal for homes for them. As High Commissioner for Palestine (1920-25), he tried to mediate between Jews and Arabs though he failed to win the confidence or support of either.

Edwin Samuel Montagu (1879-1924), Liberal M.P. for Chesterton and then Cambridgeshire 1906-22, was the third practising Jew to serve in the British cabinet. Under Prime Minister A. A. Asquith he was named Under-Secretary of State for India (1910-14) and under Lloyd George, he served as Secretary of State for India from 1917 until his resignation in 1922. In that role he had the interests of the Empire chiefly in mind and opposed extreme nationalist movements. Montagu was primarily responsible for the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms which led to the Government of India Act of 1919, committing the British to the eventual evolution of India towards dominion status. Montague was a good friend of other notable figures in British politics – Asquith, Gertrude Bell, Duff Cooper.

Arthur Samuel (1872-1942), from a family of Ashkenazi Jews, was Lord Mayor of Norwich (1912-1913) and Conservative M.P for Farnham (1918-1937). Under the premiership of Stanley Baldwin, he served as Secretary for Overseas Trade (1924-27) and as Financial Secretary to the Treasury (1927-29) He was raised to the peerage as Baron Mancroft in 1937.

Keith Joseph (1918-1994) was Conservative M.P. for Leeds North East (1956-87). His father headed the vast family construction and project-management company, BOVIS, and was Lord Mayor of London in 1942–43. At the end of his term as Lord Mayor he was created a baronet and on his death in 1944, his son inherited the title. At the end of WWII, during which he served as a captain in the Royal Artillery, Keith Joseph became a director of the BOVIS company and was elected Alderman of the City of London. In 1956 he began his parliamentary career and within a few years, under the premierships of Edward Heath and Alec Douglas-Home, he was appointed Minister for Housing and Local Government (1962-64), under the premiership of Edward Heath, Secretary of State for Social Services (1970-74) and under Margaret Thatcher successively Secretary of State for Industry (1979-81) and Secretary of State for Education and Science (1981-86). He is best known as a friend and adviser of Prime Minister Thatcher (who referred to him as her closest political friend) and as a strong influence on her social and economic policies. He collaborated with her in setting up, in 1974, the Centre for Policy Studies, a think-tank designed to develop policies for the reformed free-market Conservatism that they both favoured.

Nigel Lawson (b. 1932, as of 1992, Baron Lawson of Blaby), scion of a wealthy Jewish family from Hampstead, and Conservative M.P. for Blaby in Leicestershire (1974-1992), served successively in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet as Secretary of State for Energy (1981-83) and Chancellor of the Exchequer (1983-1989). A key proponent of Thatcher's policies of privatisation of major industries and monetarism (according to an article in the Glasgow Herald for 15 September 1981, Mrs. Thatcher thought of him as “my golden boy”) Lawson oversaw the deregulation of financial markets in 1986, commonly referred to as the “Big Bang,” which shifted the centre of gravity for the world's financial markets to London from New York City – and, as he himself subsequently acknowledged, inadvertently paved the way for the financial crisis of 2008. The immediate effect of his and Thatcher’s economic policies, however, was the “Lawson boom,” with a striking decline in British unemployment. Lawson was also a sceptic on the issue of climate change and an early advocate of what has come to be known as “Brexit.” The UK vote to withdraw from the European Union, he claimed, by then retired and speaking in the House of Lords, was a “historic opportunity” to finish the work Margaret Thatcher started and make Britain “the most dynamic and freest country” in Europe.

Malcolm Rifkind, born in Edinburgh (1946) to a Jewish family that, like many Scottish Jews, had immigrated from Lithuania in the 1890s, was elected Conservative M.P. for Edinburgh-Pentlands (1974-97) and for Kensington and Chelsea (2005-10). Rifkind was one of only five Ministers to serve throughout the whole eighteen years of the Governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major -- the longest uninterrupted Ministerial service in Britain since Lord Palmerston in the early 19th century. He was successively, under Thatcher, Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (1979-82), Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (1982-83), and Minister of State for Europe (1983-86), and under John Major as Prime Minister, Secretary of State for Scotland (1986-90), Secretary of State for Transport (1990-92), Secretary of State for Defence (1992-95), and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (1995-97). In addition, he was appointed Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (2010-15).


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Katz, David S. The Jews in the History of England 1485-1850. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

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Last modified 9 July 2020