Dissertation

“Jewish Toleration, Assimilation, and Citizenship in the British Imagination, 1655-1755”

My dissertation argues that Jewish thinking helped shape a cosmopolitan British identity rooted in a secular, rather than in a religious, ethics. This identity was liberal, tolerant, and cosmopolitan. My project shows how, in response to Britain’s growing mercantile and colonial empire, British writers repurposed Jewish histories and political philosophy to promote toleration as a means of maintaining a distinctly Protestant British identity that could accommodate the values of non-Christian cultures. Early Enlightenment political theorists like John Selden and Thomas Hobbes utilized Jewish political theory for their own theories of government. Although they did so through the lens of British Protestantism, they irrevocably tied Jewish philosophy to the foundations of the British Enlightenment. I then demonstrate how this tradition was remediated by radical thinkers like John Toland, and then again into more literary texts by writers like Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood. These writers and others found Jews and Judaism to be a compelling model for toleration, and integrated aspects of Jewish thought, history, and identity into their critiques of Western philosophical and literary traditions. Ultimately, my project rewrites not only our understanding of how Jews became a part of the fabric of “Britishness,” but also our understanding of the extent to which Jewish thought informed British liberalism and national identity in the eighteenth century.

I begin by examining the Jewish foundations of Enlightenment liberal theory in England. In chapter one, I show how, from the earliest moments of Jewish “readmission” to England, Jewishness and liberal citizenship were intertwined. Jews had been banished from England since the thirteenth century, and were only unofficially readmitted in 1656. Menasseh ben Israel’s Humble Addresses to the Lord Protector (1655), uses the Jewish political philosophical tradition of secular citizenship to capitalize on English interest in Jewish thought to make a case not only for readmission, but also for a specifically Jewish form of a social contract based on secular ideas of citizenship. Ultimately, ben Israel’s Jewish social contract becomes a new methodology through which both Anglo-Jews and Anglo-Protestants conceptualize citizenship as a relationship of mutual obligation between the individual and the state.

In Chapter two, I explore how the concept of cosmopolitan citizenship evolved in conjunction with the assimilation of Anglo-Jews into English—later British—society. Rationalist philosophers, like John Toland, used alternative histories of the Jews to make a case for toleration, and ultimately, Jewish naturalization.I examine Toland’s Reasons for Naturalizing the Jews (1714) within the debates surrounding toleration and the naturalization of foreigners—including Jews—that preoccupied Parliament following the Glorious Revolution. Proponents of naturalization emphasized the pragmatic issues of population and economics, while the xenophobic arguments against it were largely based on beliefs about the essential differences among races and the superiority of the established Anglican Church. I argue that by reframing the history of Christianity within a larger, cosmopolitan ancient culture, each text de-prioritizes Protestant Christian supremacy and suggests that excluding foreigners and non-Christians, especially Jews, is detrimental to the nation.

In chapter three, I turn to literary texts to establish how writers adapted Jewish history and political thought in service to the British cosmopolitan ideal. I begin by studying Aphra Behn’s translations of Fontenelle, in order to examine her radical intellectual stance and her familiarity with biblical history and Jewish thought. This reading underpins my analysis of Behn’s Oroonoko (1688), which I argue is an assimilation narrative that erases Jewish difference at the expense of African slaves. Behn rewrites the colony’s history by erasing Surinam’s large Jewish community. In this respect, Oroonoko can be understood as a strategic re-narration of the colony’s political and social history that draws a close connection between African slaves and Jews; it reveals Behn’s assessment of both Christian intolerance and the necessity of breaking down the false divisions of race and religion that separate Jews from the rest of European society.

Chapter 4 considers Eliza Haywood’s early exploration of the Jewish Question in her amatory novella, The Fair Hebrew (1729). Reading the text against the backdrop of growing Jewish acculturation in the first part of the eighteenth century, I argue that despite its apparently virulent anti-Jewish rhetoric, the novella counterintuitively draws parallels between the legal and social disenfranchisement of Jews and women. Through what appears to be the first openly Jewish female protagonist in British literature, Haywood suggests that anti-Jewish stereotypes are not only hyperbolically ludicrous, but also evidence of a corrupt system of authority (the patriarchal British State) that fears the power of the Jewish Other in much the same way that it fears female agency.

My final chapter examines how Eliza Haywood narrativizes the controversy surrounding the Jewish Naturalization Bill of 1753. The bill was initially passed by Parliament, but the resulting hysteria and public outcry led to its quick repeal. In The Invisible Spy (1754), Haywood responds to this hysteria by creating a covertly Jewish protagonist who has the power to move unseen in British society, by virtue of an invisibility belt. Through the Spy’s use of the belt, Haywood explores the anxieties surrounding Jewish naturalization and its implications for British national identity. Ultimately, Haywood suggests that moral hypocrisy within British society is far more dangerous than Jewish natualization. In this way, Haywood’s position in 1753 extends her stance in The Fair Hebrew to a specifically political end.

I conclude my manuscript with an epilogue that anticipates later Enlightenment literature written by and about Jews, examining the development of philo-Semitism, especially on the British stage. I contrast the performance of Jewishness in plays like Charles’ Macklin’s Love à la Mode (1759) and Richard Cumberland’s The Jew (1794) to the Jewish performance of Britishness in Jewish-authored plays such as Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (1779) and revisionist histories such as the Jewish-sponsored Historical Essay on the Colony of Surinam (1788). Each of these texts demonstrates the capacity of the concept of Britishness to incorporate a broad spectrum of Jewish identities.