The Society of Maccabaeans was founded in 1891, as an “association of Jewish professional gentlemen in a species of club”. This was an interesting landmark in the history of Jews in England. Expelled at the end of the thirteenth century, invited back by Cromwell but only much later fully enfranchised - formal discrimination at universities only ended in 1871, with the Universities Tests Act - their number increased rapidly in the latter half of the nineteenth century to around 50,000 in London alone.
Among these, now that “he was given free play and fair play”, the Jew was “found so intertwined with all the most characteristic institutions of English life - the law, the army, the universities, the colleges, the academies of music and painting, the press, the stage, that he is able to muster a larger number of eminent Englishmen than any other section of the population of similar size”.
By the mid-1880s, an informal group of these intellectuals, ‘The Wanderers’, began to forgather in each others’ homes, for free-ranging discussions. In 1891, one of their number, the barrister (and editor of ‘Gladstone’s speeches’) Herman Cohen, suggested to the artist (and Royal Academician), Solomon J Solomon, that a new society should be formed for Jews in the liberal professions. The prime motive seems to have been to encourage the maintenance of their Jewish identity against the perceived danger that professional integration might lead to total assimilation into English society. In the words of one of its founder members, the novelist Israel Zangwill (also responsible for all the other phrases quoted here), “the association is a reaction against the centrifugal tendencies which have made the emancipated Jew anxious to sink his individuality in the high-hatted squadrons of civilisation”.
Naming the society
Zangwill wanted to call the new Society ‘The Mosaics’, but eventually the name agreed upon was ‘The Maccabaeans’. This name refers to the Jewish heroes of old who, led by Judas Maccabaeus, successfully rebelled against the Syrian-Hellenist attempt to destroy traditional Judaism and established the Hasmonean dynasty in Palestine in 165 BCE. However, the Society of Maccabaeans was based on cultural rather than religious roots, “so that zealots may jostle agnostics in amicable disagreement ... the only passwords to the clubroom are character and culture. Dogma is left on the doorsteps”. Such prejudice as there was, was “to gather not the celebrities, but the men of brains”. “The commercial element” was excluded.
The first President of the Society was Solomon J Solomon. Other founder members were Herman Cohen (the Honorary Secretary), Lieutenant Colonel Goldsmid (of the War Office), Frederick Cowen (the musician), Alexander (the Oxford Hegelian Philosopher), Claude Montefiore (the theologian), other scholars like Gollanz and Schechter, writers like Lucien Wolf and Israel Zangwill, and “men of science like the great chemist Meldola”.
In the 21st Century
Over the past 100 years the original ‘club’ has evolved into a Society with nearly 500 members, men and women, mostly distinguished in the professions but with a small number of non-professionals deemed worthy of membership through their charitable or other contributions to the community. There is no longer a clubroom, nor regular informal meetings. Typically there are now three functions a year, the formal Chanukah dinner (with distinguished ‘heavyweight’ speakers), the informal House dinner (with an entertaining after-dinner speaker), and a Summer function (usually a chamber concert with supper, at a suitably attractive venue).
Additionally, however, the Society has endowed, over time, a number of prestigious prizes, medals and lectures. These include the Maccabaean Lecture in Jurisprudence at the British Academy, the Alan Marre Lecture in the Humanities at University College London, the Solomon J. Solomon Memorial Medal at the Royal Academy, the Maccabaean Prize and Medal in the History and Philosophy of Medicine and Pharmacy at the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London, and, most prestigious of all, the Meldola Medal, endowed in 1922 and now administered by the Royal Society of Chemistry. Many recipients of that Medal, for the best work in chemistry by a British subject under the age of 30, have achieved great distinction, including several Nobel Laureates.
The most recent endowment by the Society of Maccabaeans is the annual Lecture in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies. The first Lecture took place in 1996 and was given by Dr Martin Goodman on the subject: 'Romans of Jewish Faith: dual citizenship and conflicts of loyalty in the ancient world.'
A complete list of previous lectures can be found here.