Quakers and Jews

Harvey Gillman on common threads

A rabbi losing members of his congregation to the Meeting house next door is said to have complained: some of my best Jews are Friends! The relationship between Friends and Jews has been warm but ambiguous.  When young, it is unlikely that George Fox would have met many Jews. They had been expelled from England in 1290 through religious and economic persecution. In the early 1600s Puritans believed that the Second Coming could not happen until Jews were scattered through all lands and converted to Christianity and so negotiations opened in the 1650s for Cromwell to allow them back in. Quakers were in favour of this, but many including Fox himself, Margaret Fell, Isaac Penington, William Penn and John Perrot wrote epistles to Jews in mainland Europe to persuade them to convert to true Christianity. By this, of course, they meant the Quaker movement which they saw as ‘the house of spiritual Israel’, ‘Jews in spirit’, ‘inward Jews’. If Jews according to Fox were descendents of the Pharisees and caused the death of Jesus, other so-called Christians had betrayed Christ with their outward forms. But Jews were the people of the prophets and of Jesus and if they turned to the Light, and they would find Christ.

There was, however, some sympathy for a people who had been persecuted by these apostate Christians, and Quakers were strong in demanding religious liberty. In Quaker Pennsylvania, the right to religious liberty was enshrined in law but Jews, deists and atheists were excluded from public office. When in 1699, however, the Committee for the Building of the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London signed a contract with Joseph Avis, a Quaker architect, for the construction of a synagogue, Avis decline to collect the fee, on the ground that it was wrong to profit from building a house to God.

As time passed Friends found themselves in closer contact with Jews in commerce, banking, insurance and scientific societies. They had much in common. Both believed that they could have direct access to the divine without human intervention. They both worked together for the abolition of slavery; their marriage regulations needed the endorsement of the state; they were both smallish scattered communities. Quakers had commercial and family links with coreligionists in North America; Jews had similar links with communities scattered all over the world. Both emphasised religion as a practical path of ethics and in both there were splits over doctrinal differences. Both had an uneasy relationship with the state, and were excluded from university and Parliament. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, Quakers were respectable and legal. Jews, on the other hand, on average a much poorer community, had to struggle to gain social acceptance.

The twentieth century saw a rapprochement as British, American and German Friends were heavily involved the rescue of Jews from Nazi Germany and in the countries that the Nazis invaded. The Kindertransport, bringing over around 10,000 children to Britain before and during the second world war, brought Friends and Jews together. On the other hand, the stance that some Friends’ bodies have taken towards the state of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians has caused friction, especially in the United States. This is in spite of the fact that Friends try to work both with Israelis and Palestinians, looking for the divine light in all parties.

Modern Jewish thinkers, like Martin Buber with his writings on the I – Thou experience, Emmanuel Levinas with his concept of finding God in the face of the ‘other’, and the wonderful Etty Hillesum who died in Auschwitz, have much to teach Friends today about answering that of God in the other, in the most desperate circumstances. The Quaker desire to see the divine in all people is attractive to many Jews. It is significant that when Yearly Meeting decided this year in favour of same-sex marriage, one of the first groups to support us were the Liberal Jews.

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