[First published in the November 2006 issue of commentarymagazine.com, reprinted with permission].
The oldest Jewish cemetery in England is in Mile End, in the heart of the East End of London. It was created exactly 350 years ago on the orders of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, who, overruling his own council, officially readmitted Jews to England for the first time since their expulsion in 1290. I came across it recently while visiting Queen Mary University, where I had once taught history, to give a public lecture.
The disused cemetery is now marooned on the Queen Mary campus, which is itself an island in the East End, an area long since abandoned by Jews and now populated mainly by Muslims. With its graves dating back to the 1660’s, Mile End is thus a reminder both of the continuity of Jewish life in Britain and of its precariousness. And the reminder is timely, for today the atmosphere in England has become less hospitable for Jews than at any time since Sir Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts marched through the East End in the 1930’s.
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