A peculiar chapter of the story of Jewish resettlement in Britain is the apparent suggestion that Karaites should be invited to settle in England. In Volume 4 of the Jewish Historical Society of England transactions (1899-1901), Rev Solomon Levy links the story with John Dury, a 17th century English divine, and his contemporary Samuel Hartlib, whom Levy calls “an amiable busybody”.
Hartlib, in a letter written to the theologian John Worthington, favours the idea that “the Caraites might be invited hither and encouraged, being such as begin to look towards their engraffing again”. “Engraffing” is probably meant to be “engrafting”, and the allusion is to being grafted onto the Christian vine. In Mark chapter 12 the term Vineyard is used for the Christian Church; in John chapter 15 Jesus is the Vine.
Karaism, which arose in the 8th century as an anti-rabbanite movement, might have appealed to some Christians on the supposition that it resembled the conventional Christian antagonism to the Pharisees.
Little were they to know that a major anti-Christian polemical work, “Chizzuk Emunah” – “Faith Strengthened”, was by a Karaite scholar, Isaac ben Abraham of Troki in Lithuania; written at the end of the 16th century, the work was translated into various other languages, with an English version by Moses Mocatta in 1851.
Nor were Hartlib, Dury and others presumably aware that by this stage the heat had gone out of the Karaite-rabbanite conflict.
Hartlib, however, reports to Worthington that fashionable society is busily engaged in debating both issues, admitting the Jews and approaching the Karaites. Worthington, uncertain about the Karaite issue, is told by Dury that the suggestion is ill-advised: “To call in the Karaites would fright away these (the Jews); for they are irreconcilable enemies. Time must ripen these designs and prudence may lead them on.” It seems that Dury, whilst not uncritical of Jews, finds there is no legal impediment to admitting them, though under conditions designed to protect Christianity.
What was the source of the initiative concerning the Karaites? We know there was Christian interest in Karaite writings, but did any Karaite group themselves express an interest in settling in England? It is unlikely. Karaism did not share the messianic impetus of Manasseh ben Israel’s writings, which argued that before the Messiah came Jews needed to be widely dispersed, including in England, “the end of the earth”.
How different would Anglo-Jewish history have been with a significant Karaite element? In any case, did any Karaites ever live in England? Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler used to say he was less worried about the Karaites than the “Don’t-Care-Ites”.