February was an interesting month in Jewish history. In Seville, Spain, the Spanish Inquisition conducted its first auto-da-fe ("Act of Faith"). In August 1492 Spain's last professing Jews were expelled from the country.
On Feb. 4, 1657, Oliver Cromwell granted the right of residence in England to a Jew (one Luis Carvajal). The Jews had been expelled from England four centuries earlier (on the Ninth of Av) by Edward II. The stage for this event had been set a year earlier when Rabbi Menashe ben Israel of Amsterdam appeared in Parliament and appealed to Cromwell to readmit the Jews to England. At the conclusion of the session, Rabbi ben Israel submitted the Petition of the Hebrews to Cromwell.
Below is an excerpt from my novel, Jehovah's Anvil, Book 2 of Joseph's Odyssey, which takes the reader through that epic encounter. Excerpt from Jehovah's Anvil A clerk placed himself between Cromwell and the delegation. “All rise. God bless this Commonwealth and our Lord Protector . . . .” Cromwell motioned to the two hundred or so men to be seated. Then, looking directly at Menashe and Joseph, Cromwell made his opening remarks. “You are free to speak and present your petition on behalf of the nation of Israel. Who is to be the spokesman?” Menashe took a half step forward and again, tipping his hat, bowed slightly. “I, Rabbi Menashe ben Israel am he, my Lord Protector.” Joseph began to relax. Menashe’s English would be more than adequate for the job ahead. Of course, Menashe had been preparing himself for this mission for well over seven years. Noticing Joseph, Cromwell interrupted, “. . . and your companion . . . ?” “A scholar of our Talmud and also my personal physician, my Lord.” “Your colleague my be seated. You may begin at any time.” Cromwell sat down and so did every man in the chamber. Menashe rested his hand on Joseph’s shoulder. “It will be all right my friend. Sit down and pray quietly that I succeed.” “With all my heart,” answered Joseph as took his seat near the table. His friend remained on his feet. Menashe ben Israel glanced around the room and began to speculate. How many of the men seated there were fanatical Puritans to whom every word of the Bible meant more than gold coins? How many were representing the commercial interests, whom he ascertained, would not be too sympathetic to competition coming from a viable Jewish merchant class? And what about Cromwell himself? How much influence did he really have and how much weight would the Protector’s view have when Menashe would finish and the dictator would deliberate privately with his advisors? Should he stress the commercial argument or the religious one? For Menashe ben Israel, the moment of truth, and the seminal moment in his life, had arrived. “My Lord Protector, distinguished gentlemen, citizens of this great country. All of you seated here today know why we are here. We are here to help speed up the coming of the Last Judgment and the return of your Savior, Jesus of Nazareth . . . !” Shock tremors went rippling through the room. Even Joseph, who was expecting his friend to begin with a brief summation of England’s economic situation and how the Jews could improve it, was caught by surprise. Menashe, so it seemed, was going to use every one of Joseph’s suggestions after all. Joseph, who had been as steeped in the New Testament as the Puritans had become in the Old, had had long discussions with Menashe about which line to take once in Cromwell’s presence. The crowd, also expecting to be given a lecture on economics and the Jewish question, was hardly prepared for a Jew telling them that he had a way to hasten the return of Jesus and the ushering in of the Last Days. The whispering was unstoppable until Cromwell waved his hand, beckoning silence. And when the room was again quiet, Menashe continued. In his hands Rabbi ben Israel was holding a printed copy of John Wycliffe's Bible which the Oxford professor, scholar, and theologian had translated from Latin into English in 1389 (much to the horror of the Pope). Menashe flipped through several pages until his fingers rested somewhere in the middle of the volume. “My Lord Protector and the esteemed gentlemen seated here are well aware that the Prophet Daniel long ago gave us a clue about the coming of the Last Judgment. In the very Scriptures which both of our peoples hold sacred, it was foretold by the Prophet that the Jewish people had to be scattered from one end of the earth to the other before the redemption could be realized . . . .” Again the murmuring began and just as quickly Cromwell raised his hand for a second time. “The learned Rabbi is requested to proceed. No further interruptions will be tolerated in this chamber!” Cromwell warned the assembly. “My Lord Protector, my argument is a simple one. You and the members of your Christian faith are of the view that the revealed word of God as set forth in the Holy Scriptures provides us with many prophecies regarding mankind’s future. We, the Nation of Israel, have similar views. Now, Christians have for over a millennium awaited the return of the one whom you acknowledge as the savior who will usher in the Last Judgment. But today I am asking you one fundamental question: How can such an event come about when the prerequisites outlined in the Scriptures have not been fulfilled? My people, the Jews, have not yet been scattered to the four corners of the earth. As I stand here addressing this esteemed assembly, no Israelite dwells in England. To deny my people the right to live here is to delay God’s plan of scattering us throughout the world. In short, to deny us the right to emigrate to England is to thwart God’s plan and to delay the Final Judgment! It is, then, in the spirit of fulfilling the words of the Holy Scriptures, that this humble delegation wishes to present its petition to the Lord Protector and his Council.” Menashe ben Israel removed from his pouch a small scroll which he passed on to Cromwell’s sergeant-at-arms who then transferred the document to Cromwell himself. Printed in a beautiful calligraphy, the first line in pronounced letters read: “To His Highness Oliver Cromwell Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland . . . .” The petition went on to refer to the Jews as the “Hebrews.” Heading the list of signatures was that of Menashe ben Israel. Other signatures included those of some of the richest Jews in Amsterdam, something not lost on Cromwell as he perused the document. The date affixed to the bottom of the message read “March 24th, 1656.” The Lord Protector re-rolled the scrolled petition. “Does the Rabbi have any additional comments at this time?” Menashe ben Israel bowed a third time in Cromwell’s direction. “No, my Lord Protector. It is not within my poor ability or jurisdiction to add one syllable to the revealed word of God. The Scriptures speak for themselves.” “That being the case,” Cromwell concluded, “I declare this audience to be adjourned. I will consider the petition in Council and a reply will be sent forthwith to our guests from Amsterdam.”
Many other events of significance occurred to our people in this month. I would like to recall two more.
The infamous MacDonald White Paper, first issued on 17 May 1939 by Malcom MacDonald, Colonial Secretary of State of the British Government, was tightened on February 28, 1940. Its main clause was the restriction of sale of Arab land to Jews in Palestine. This document basically overturned the Balfour Declaration and in effect was an attempt by Britain to appease the Arabs and strangle the nascent Jewish state in its cradle. Two years later, on February 24, 1942, The Struma with 769 "illegal" Jewish immigrants aboard was torpedoed off the coast of Turkey by a Soviet submarine. This tragedy was a direct result of Britain's restrictive immigration policy as set out in the White Paper of 1939.The sinking of the Struma was a tragedy that has often been consigned to the dustbin of history.
On December 12, 1941, a Greek boat with a Bulgarian captain (G. T. Gorbatenko) under a Panamanian flag left Constanza, Romania bound for Palestine. The 769 passengers on board the 180-ton Struma had paid an exorbitant price for passage on this boat. The ship Struma carried 769 Jews from Romania (both Sephardic and Ashkenazi) to British Palestine in 1942. It was stranded for ten weeks in Istanbul, because Britain didn't permit them to enter Palestine. The British government steadfastly refused them visas to Palestine as illegal entrants of an enemy country (Romania). The local Turkish Jewish community helped feed the passengers during the 70 days that the ship remained in the port, prior to its untimely demise. The Struma was towed into the open sea and sunk by a Soviet sub on February 24, 1942. Only one person survived – David Stoliar, who now lives in the United States.
And there are still Jews today who wonder why a Jewish state is necessary!