June 18 marks 200 years since the Duke of Wellington’s forces defeated Napoleon’s armies in a muddy field in Belgium.
The battle is seen as the final act in one of the greatest military campaigns in European history, the end of a decade-long struggle for power on the continent and the day Wellington saved Britain from French dictatorship.
But while the Duke — who was twice prime minister — has long been feted as a national war hero, he was no friend of the Jews.
As prime Minister, Wellington supported the Catholic Relief Act in 1829, but opposed measures to similarly secure Jewish emancipation a few years later.
Daniel O’Connell, the great advocate of Catholic emancipation, had advised the Jews to campaign for the same goal. Yet private entreaties by communal leaders led to a stonewalling by Wellington.
O’Connell achieved a shedding of discriminatory measures against Catholics because his community was numerically large and influential. The Jews were neither. The stereotypes persisted — they were unEnglish, unChristian and rich. Even reformers such as William Cobbett saw the Jews “as descendants of the murderers of Christ”.
Such was Wellington’s dislike of Jews that when he died in 1852, a JC editorial commented:
“The Duke was the stern, unbending and uncompromising opponent of Jewish emancipation. But as much as we may and do regret his error of judgement as regards ourselves, we cannot forget that we are Englishmen in whom the fire of patriotism burns as fervently and as purely as in the greatest and the proudest in the land.”
Fearing accusations of double loyalties, the communal leadership of the time played it both ways — as British Jews and as Jewish Britons.
When the Jewish Civil Disabilities Bill came before the House of Lords in August 1833, Wellington showed his true colours. He proclaimed that “this is a Christian country and a Christian legislature and that the effect of this measure would be to remove that particular character”. He asked whether the Jews had ever enjoyed “the blessings of the English Constitution” and reminded his fellow peers that they used to be considered “as alien enemies who were not allowed to live in this country”.
Any previous privileges bestowed on the Jews by Parliament were only designed to encourage Jews — “as Europeans” — to leave and settle in the colonies. “No such necessity exists now with regard to this country, we do not wish Jews to come and settle here.”
When another peer who was in favour of the bill pointed out that “15 officers of the Jewish religion” had fought for Wellington at Waterloo, the Iron Duke responded that it made no difference since they were not Christians. The bill was defeated by 104 votes to 54. The diehard duke blamed his political opponents for raising the issue since “it suited the liberal opinion of the day”.
It was another 25 years before Lionel de Rothschild could enter Parliament as a Jew without swearing an oath “upon the true faith of a Christian”.
By contrast, Jews fought in the international armies of revolutionary France, marching to the Hebrew rendition of the Marseillaise. While Napoleon as emperor certainly betrayed the revolution, he both advanced and inhibited Jewish advancement. After 1815, Jewishness came to be understood as Jewish civilisation — culture, language, literature, religion, history — and not solely by Judaism.
In 1799, quoting from the Book of Isaiah, Napoleon called for the restoration of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. The European Enlightenment, which followed the Napoleonic era, found it difficult to accommodate the Jews. Even so, it gave birth to the Zionist movement. Early Zionists such as Herzl and Nordau looked back on the revolution with respect, and were astounded that the Dreyfus affair could take place in — of all countries – France.
Both Wellington and his French opponents, reactionaries and revolutionaries, saw the Jews as an inconvenience, a national group that did not fit into their worldview. Two centuries later, the Jews continue to tread a different path.
Jewish Chronicle 18 June 2015