Alaina Pincus

Jewish Cosmopolitanism and Acculturation in the British Imagination, 1655-1753

The modern concept of toleration, of a government allowing the practice of non-state religion, developed in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in response to the religious turmoil wrought by the Protestant Reformation. Christianity had fractured and a cacophony of competing interpretations of scripture left monarchs, ministries, and parliaments, who previously had relied on the unity created by a shared system of belief, without an established theological justification for their governance.  In England in 1642, this turmoil contributed to the overthrow of the monarchy and civil war.  Although England restored its monarchy in 1660, the impact of the civil war was such that although England maintained a state religion, it found the concept of toleration useful as a way to unite the country internally while concentrating on international trade, efforts on the Continent to limit French power, and its colonies in NorthAmerica.  

In this way, England’s, and later Britain’s, national identity became predicated on the Enlightenment philosophy of toleration—of the ethical relation of a state to those outside the established Church.  In the twentieth century, the idea of toleration was expanded beyond religion to include people of other cultures, races, genders and sexualities.  Although in its strictest usage in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries toleration refers strictly to religion, religion, race, and nationality were as intertwined in this period as they are today.  Jewish immigration to Great Britain and its colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries provoked uncertainty about what it meant to be British and what it meant to practice toleration.  Jews were seen as different not only because they practiced a different religion, but also because they maintained a communal identity outside national identity that was largely founded on a particular vision of Christianity.  

I argue that the dialectic of cosmopolitanism fostered the incorporation of Jewish cultural identity into the discourse on toleration. Jewish cultural identity was rooted both in a contemporary cosmopolitan ideal and an ancient biblical past—a fact that Jews themselves capitalized on in order to make a case for affinity with Protestant nations like Great Britain.It was this ability to maintain a strong link to the past while demonstrating cultural flexibility that made the case for Jewish toleration such a strong one, even in the face of xenophobic opposition. 

(Excerpt from Alaina's proposals)