Group 2 Research: Representation of the Jewish Population in England

Anti-Semitism had been seen as a disease passed down from generation to generation through the medium of printed word. Some common misconceptions of Jews over the years are that they’re greedy, communists, dirty and poor, and unable to be trusted. The English imagination seemed unable to free itself of Shakespeare’s text ridiculing Jews.  In fact, Charles Dickens portrayed his character Fagin in Oliver Twist as “devilish” and referred to him as “the Jew” 257 times, while other character’s ethnicity was rarely mentioned. It was hard to find a piece of literature that positively represented the Jewish population. Luckily, Dickens was criticized for this portrayal of Jews and halted the printing of Oliver Twist to make more edits. He changed a part of the book and after chapter 38, there were no longer references to “the Jew”. Dickens later published the novel Our Mutual Friend in 1864 that appeared as he was trying to repair his past mistake by portraying the Jewish character Riah as the pinnacle of virtue, despite him still being a stereotypical Jewish moneylender. According to Linda Hunt in “Amy Levy and the “Jewish Novel”: Representing Jewish Life in the Victorian Period”, in her 1886 article “The Jew in Fiction”, Amy Levy was critical of the novelists portrayal of Jewish characters such as Dickens’ Fagin or LL. Clifford’s Mrs. Keith’s Crime where they are “offensive” and “condescending” depicting them as minor characters only used for comic relief. Levy also criticizes George Eliot’s “Jewish novel”, Daniel Deonda. Eliot’s book was at the time viewed as a model of how to treat Jewish people in fiction. Reuben Sachs then satirizes the idealized depiction of Jews in Eliot’s book. Indeed, the Victorian Era didn’t make Jews the protagonists in literature, but it did help advance their status and representation in literature.

Although prejudice still ran rampant, the Victorian Era saw a lot of legal strides made for Jewish people, specifically men. In fact, the Jewish population grew by 165,000 people over the course of the 19th century which shows how the Victorian Era aided in changing the environment. Right at the beginning of the Victorian Era in 1935, Jews received the right to vote. Moses Haim Montefiore was a British banker, philanthropist, and activist. He became the second Jewish Sheriff of London and was then knighted by Queen Victoria herself in 1837. He was born to an Itlaian-Jewish family and promoted the advancement of Jews in England through charity work. In addition, Sir David Salomons and Lionel Nathan de Rothschild represented the Jewish population in England during the Victorian Era. Sir David Salomons was the first Jewish Mayor of London, elected in 1855. He supported the cause of Jewish emancipation in England and was the first Jewish Sheriff of London. On the other hand, Lionel Nathan de Rothschild was the first practicing Jewish member to sit in Parliament, which is a big deal. Although this was such a be progression, Prime Minister Gladstone requested from Queen Victoria that he be made a peer and she refused saying that giving a title to a Jew would raise antagonism. The Victorian Era certainly did not solve antisemitism, but it increased the amount of representation, both in literature and in government, for the Jewish population and made England a slightly better place for them to live.

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