The Jews



“The Jews,” said Rousseau,

afford an astonishing spectacle. The laws of Solon, Numa, and Lycurgus are dead; those of Moses, much more ancient, continue to live. Athens, Sparta, and Rome have perished and left no offspring on the earth. But Zion, destroyed, has not lost her children; they are preserved, they multiply, they spread throughout the world. … They mingle with all peoples, yet are not confused with them; they have no rulers, yet they are always a people. … What must have been the force of a legislator capable of effecting such marvels! Of all the systems of legislation now known to us, only this one has undergone all tests, has always been steadfast.1

Perhaps the Mosaic Code owed its survival not so much to its inherent wisdom as to its service in maintaining order and stability in communities living dangerously amid hostile creeds and alien laws. In the Dispersion the synagogue had to be both church and government, and the rabbis held their people together through all vicissitudes by giving the sanction of a proud religious faith to a code that regulated every phase of Jewish life. The Pentateuch became the constitution—the Talmud became the supreme court—of an invisible state stronger even than human hate.

Anti-Semitism lost some of its religious bases as orthodoxy declined. An enlightened minority saw the absurdity and cruelty of punishing an entire people, generation after generation, for the ancient sin of a handful of individuals collected on his way from Temple to court by an old priest who resented the admiration given to Christ by the great majority of those who knew of him. Careful readers of the Gospels remembered that Jesus had always remained loyal to Judaism even while critical of its pious hypocrites. Those who had learned some history were aware that almost every people in Christendom had at one time or another persecuted heretics, not by one crucifixion but by wholesale massacre, inquisitions, or pogroms.

Voltaire knew all this.2 He repeatedly denounced the Christian persecution of the Jews. His epic Henriade spoke of

Madrid’s and Lisbon’s horrid fires,
The yearly portion of unhappy Jews
By priestly judges doomed to temporal flames
For thinking their forefathers’ faith the best.

He praised the Jews’ “sober and regular way of life, their abstinence, their toil.” He recognized that European Jews had taken to trade because, prohibited from owning land, they had been “unable to establish themselves permanently”—securely—“in any country.”3Yet Voltaire became violently anti-Semitic. He had unfortunate dealings with Jewish financiers. When he went to England he carried letters of exchange on the London banker Medina, who meanwhile went bankrupt owing Voltaire twenty thousand francs.4 In Berlin, as we have seen, he employed Abraham Hirsch to buy depreciated bonds in Saxony, planning to import them (illegally, as Hirsch warned him) into Prussia and there have them redeemed at a sixty-five-percent profit.5 Philosopher and financier quarreled, went to court, and ended with mutual hate. In his Essai sur les moeurs Voltaire let himself go; he described the ancient Hebrews as “a petty nation, a brigand people, atrocious, abominable, whose law is the law of savages, and whose history is a tissue of crimes against humanity.”6 A Catholic priest protested that this was a ridiculously savage indictment.7 Isaac Pinto, a learned Portuguese Jew, published in 1762 Reflections criticizing the anti-Semitic passages in the article “The Jews” in the Dictionnaire philosophique;Voltaire admitted that he had been “wrong to attribute to a whole nation the vices of some individuals,” and promised to alter the offending passages in future printings; but this slipped his mind.8 French writers in general sided against Voltaire in this matter.9Rousseau spoke of the Jews with understanding sympathy.10

The Jews in France had no civil rights before the Revolution, but they developed some thriving communities and influential leaders. One of these bought a seigniory that included Amiens; he exercised his feudal right to appoint the canons of the cathedral; the bishop protested; the Parlement of Paris upheld the Jewish seigneur (1787). The French government gratefully acknowledged the help of Jewish financiers in the wars of the Spanish and Polish successions, and Jews played a large part in reviving the Compagnie des Indes after the collapse of Law’s venture in 1720.11 The Jews of Bordeaux were especially prosperous; their merchants and bankers were known for their integrity and their liberality; but they prided themselves on their Sephardic descent, and succeeded in excluding all Ashkenazi Jews from Bordeaux.

There were no professed Jews in eighteenth-century Spain. In the first years of the Spanish Bourbons some small groups presumed on the supposed enlightenment of Philip V to resume secret observance of Judaic worship; many cases were discovered; the Inquisition, between 1700 and 1720, put to death three Jews in Barcelona, five in Cordova, twenty-three in Toledo, five in Madrid. Enraged by these revelations, the Inquisition flared up in renewed activity; in the 868 cases tried by its tribunals between 1721 and 1727 over eight hundred were for Judaism, and of those condemned seventy-five were burned. Thereafter such instances were extremely rare. In the final years of its career, 1780-1820, the Spanish Inquisition tried some five thousand defendants, of whom only sixteen were accused of Judaism, and ten of these were foreigners.12 The laws of Spain continued to exclude from civic or military office all persons who could not prove their limpieza— the purity of their blood from all tincture of Jewish ancestry. Reformers complained that this requirement denied to the Spanish army and government the services of many able men; and in 1783 Charles III relaxed these laws.13 In Portugal the Inquisition burned twenty-seven Jews for refusing to apostatize from Judaism (1717).14Antônio da Silva, whom Southey rated the best Portuguese dramatist, came to Lisbon in 1712 from Rio de Janeiro; he and his mother were arrested as Jews in 1726; the mother was burned, the son abjured and was released; apparently he relapsed, for he was burned in 1739, aged thirty-five.15 The Marquês de Pombal, among his many reforms, ended all legal distinctions between Old and New (converted) Christians (1774).16

In Italy Venice led the way in liberating the Jews: in 1772 the Jews of the republic were declared free and equal with the rest of the population. Rome lagged; the ghetto there was the worst in Europe. High fertility, encouraged by the rabbis, increased the poverty and squalor; at one time ten thousand Jews lived in the space of one square kilometer.17 Annually the Tiber overflowed, covering the ghetto’s narrow streets and filling the cellars with pestilential mud. Excluded from most trades, the Roman Jews took to tailoring; in 1700 three fourths of their adult males were tailors,18 setting a custom that endured till our time. In 1775 Pope Pius VI issued an “Editto sopra gli Ebrei,” renewing the old disabilities of the Jews and adding new ones: they must not ride in carriages, nor sing dirges at funerals, nor erect tombstones over their dead.19 The Jews of Rome had to wait for Napoleon to bring them freedom.

In Austria Maria Theresa felt that piety compelled her to confine the Jews to certain narrow districts, and to exclude them from crafts, office, and the ownership of realty.20 Her son Joseph, touched by the French Enlightenment, proposed to the Council of State in 1781 a project for “rendering useful to society the large class of Israelites in our hereditary lands” (Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia). They should be encouraged to learn—and, after three years, be required to use—the national language in all legal, political, or business affairs. The Jews were “not to be troubled in any way in the exercise of their ritual or doctrine.” They should be invited to take up agriculture, to enter industry and business, to practice the arts—but they still could not become masters in the guilds, for this required an oath of Christian belief. All humiliating distinctions, and all constraints hitherto imposed upon the Jews, were to be abrogated, “as well as all external marks whatever.” The Council of State and the provincial administrators objected to the program as too broad and sudden for public acceptance. Joseph compromised by issuing on January 2, 1782, a “Toleranzpatent” for the Jews of Vienna and Lower Austria: they received the right to send their children to state schools and colleges, and to enjoy economic liberty except as to owning real estate; however, they must not maintain a separate communal organization, they should not build synagogues in the capital, and they were forbidden to reside in certain towns—perhaps because anti-Semitism there was dangerously keen. Joseph counseled his Christian subjects to respect the persons and rights of Jews as their fellow men; any insult or violence offered to a Jew “will be sternly punished,” and there must be no compulsory conversions. Soon the Emperor issued similar edicts for Bohemia, Moravia, and Austrian Silesia. He appreciated Jewish contributions to his treasury; he raised several Jews to the nobility, and employed several as state financiers.21

But his reforms, reported the French envoy at Vienna, “arouse a universal cry of disapproval; … the great facilities accorded to the Jews are considered as assuring ruin to the state.”22 Christian merchants deplored the new competition, and priests condemned the edicts as tolerating open heresy. Some rabbis objected to Jewish children attending state schools, fearing that these would lure Jewish youth from Judaism. Joseph persisted, and a year before his death he extended the Patent of Toleration to Galicia; there one town, Brody, had so many Jews (eighteen thousand) that the Emperor called it the modern Jerusalem. By the time Joseph died (1790) Vienna had accustomed itself to the new dispensation, and the ground was prepared for the brilliant Judaeo-Christian culture of Vienna in the nineteenth century.

By and large the Jews fared better in Islam than in Christendom. With presumably some exaggeration Lady Mary Wortley Montagu described their condition in the Turkey of 1717:

The Jews … are in incredible power in this country. They have many privileges above all the natural Turks themselves, … being judged by their own laws. They have drawn the whole trade of the Empire into their hands, partly by the firm union among themselves, partly by the idle temper and want of industry of the Turk. Every pasha has his Jew, who is his homme d’affaires. . . . They are the physicians, the stewards, and the interpreters of all the great men. … There are many of them vastly rich.23

Quite different was the fate of the few Jews who were found in Russia—chiefly in the “border provinces” confronting Poland—on the death of Peter the Great. In 1742 the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna ordered that “from our whole Empire … all Jews shall … be immediately deported, … and shall henceforth under no pretext be admitted into our Empire … unless they … accept the Christian religion of the Greek persuasion.” By 1753 nearly 35,000 Jews had been expelled.24 Some Russian businessmen pleaded with the Empress to relax the edict, arguing that the expulsion had depressed the economy of the provinces by deflecting trade from these to Poland and Germany; Elizabeth refused to relax.

When Catherine II acceded she wished to let the Jews re-enter, but felt too insecure on her throne to face the opposition of the clergy. The first partition of Poland, however, brought the problem to a new phase: what was to be done with the 27,000 Jews long established in that part of Poland which Russia had now acquired? Catherine declared (1772) that “the Jewish communities residing in the cities and territories now incorporated into the Russian Empire will be left in the enjoyment of all those liberties which they possess at present.”25 A large measure of self-government was allowed to these Polish Jews, and they were made eligible to municipal office; however, they were forbidden to emigrate from the “Pale of Settlement” (the formerly Polish provinces) into the Russian interior. In 1791 the Jews were permitted to settle in the provinces of Kherson, Taurida, and Ekaterinoslav, as a means of rapidly populating these recently conquered regions and making them easier to defend. Meanwhile the economic anti-Semitism of most Russian businessmen, and the religious anti-Semitism of the Russian commonalty, made life difficult’and dangerous for the Jews in the empire.

In 1766 there were 621,000 Jews in Poland.26 Protective “privileges” granted them by previous rulers were ratified by Augustus II and Augustus III, but these Saxons, busy with two realms and two faiths (not to mention their mistresses), had little time to counter the racial hostility of the Polish populace. The government laid extra taxes upon the Jews, the gentry sought to reduce them to serfdom, and the local administrators made them pay heavily for protection from mob violence. The priests denounced the Jews for “stubbornly clinging to irreligion”; an ecclesiastical synod in 1720 demanded that the government forbid “the building of new synagogues and the repair of old ones”; a synod of 1733 repeated the medieval maxim that the only reason for tolerating the Jews was that they might serve as a “reminder of the tortures of Christ, and be an example, by their enslaved and miserable condition, of the just chastisement inflicted by God upon infidels.”27

In 1716 a converted Hebrew, Serafinovich, published an Exposure of the Jewish Ceremonies, in which he charged the Jews with using the blood of Christians for various magical purposes: to smear the doors of Christians, to mix in the matzoth eaten at Passover, to soak a cloth containing an incantation designed to protect a house or bring business success. . . The Jews challenged Serafinovich to defend his allegations, and assembled a board of rabbis and bishops to hear him; he did not appear, but republished his book.28Repeatedly the Jews were accused of killing children to get Christian blood; Polish Jews were summoned to trial on such charges in 1710, 1724, 1736, 1747, 1748, 1753, 1756, 1759, 1760; in many cases they were tortured, in some cases to death; some were flayed alive; some died slowly by impalement.29 The terrorized Jews appealed to Pope Benedict XIV to stop these accusations; the evidence pro and con was laid before Cardinal Campanelli; after receiving a report from the papal nuncio in Warsaw, he issued a memorandum to the effect that in none of the cases had guilt been proved. The Roman tribunal of the Inquisition supported the Cardinal’s memorandum. The nuncio informed the Polish government (1763) that “the Holy See, having investigated all the foundations of this aberration—that the Jews need human blood for the preparation of their unleavened bread,” had concluded that “there was no evidence whatever testifying to the correctness of that prejudice.”30 Pope Innocent IV had made a similar pronouncement in 1247. The aberration persisted.

Fear of massacre was a frequent element in the life of the Polish Jew. In 1734, 1750, and 1768 bands of Cossacks and Russian Orthodox peasants, organized as haidamacks (rioters), ravaged many towns and villages in the provinces of Kiev, Volhynia, and Podolia, pillaging estates and slaying Jews. In 1768 the raiders carried a “golden charter” falsely ascribed to Catherine II, inviting them “to exterminate the Poles and the Jews, the desecrators of our holy religion”; in one town, Uman, they slaughtered twenty thousand Poles and Jews. Catherine sent a Russian army to co-operate with Polish forces to suppress the raiders.31

In Germany the Jews were relatively safe and prosperous, though they suffered various disabilities in economic and political life. Special taxes were levied upon them in most of the principalities.32 The law allowed only a limited number of Jews to live in Berlin, but the law was loosely enforced, and the Berlin community grew in number and wealth; similar Jewish settlements existed in Hamburg and Frankfurt. Over a thousand Jewish merchants attended the Leipzig fair in 1789.33 German rulers, even Catholic prince-bishops, employed Jews to manage their finances or provision their armies. Joseph Oppenheimer (1692?—1738), known as “Jew Süss,” served in these and other capacities the Elector Palatine at Mannheim and Karl Alexander, duke of Württemberg. His skill and industry enriched him and the Duke, and earned him many enemies. Accused of malfeasance at the mint, he was exonerated by a board of investigators, and was raised to membership in the Duke’s Privy Council, where he soon became the dominant power. He invented new taxes, established royal monopolies, and apparently accepted bribes—which he divided with the Duke.34 When the Duke proposed that all church moneys should be deposited in a central state bank, the Protestant clergy joined with the nobility in opposition to the Duke and his minister. On March 3, 1737, the Duke suddenly died; army and civil leaders arrested Oppenheimer and all Stuttgart Jews. Oppenheimer was tried and convicted; on February 3, 1738, he was strangled, and his corpse was suspended in a cage in a public square.35

We have noted Goethe’s sallies into the Judengasse in Frankfurt. One of the oldest families there took its later name, Rothschild, from the red shield that distinguished its dwelling. In 1755, on the death of his parents, Meyer Amschel of the Rot Schild became head of the family at the age of eleven. The numerous states of Germany, each with its independent coinage, made money changing a frequent necessity for travelers; Meyer learned in his boyhood the interstate monetary equivalents, and earned a small fee for each exchange. As a side interest he studied numismatics and collected rare coins; he guided another collector, Prince Wilhelm of Hanau, and secured from him the title of “crown agent,” which helped him in his Frankfurt business. He married in 1770, and thereafter begot five sons, who later developed branches of the Rothschild firm in Vienna, Naples, Paris, and London. Meyer earned a reputation for judgment, integrity, and reliability. When Wilhelm of Hanau succeeded his father as landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, more court business came to Meyer Amschel, so that by 1790 he had a yearly income of three thousand gulden—six hundred more than that of Goethe’s prosperous father.36 The family wealth grew rapidly during the French Revolutionary Wars; Meyer engaged in provisioning armies, and was entrusted with the concealment, sometimes the investment, of princely fortunes.

The Jews continued to enjoy a relative freedom in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. The Amsterdam congregation flourished. In Denmark ghettos were unknown; the Jews moved about freely, and mixed marriages were allowed. Altona, a commercial city across the Elbe from Hamburg but then belonging to Denmark, had one of the most prosperous Jewish communities in Europe. In Sweden Gustavus III protected the Jews in the peaceful practice of their religion.

Many Jews, fleeing from persecution in Poland or Bohemia, found refuge in England. Their number there rose from 6,000 in 1734 to 26,000 in 1800, of whom London had 20,000. Their poverty was extreme, but they took care of their own poor, and maintained their own hospitals.37 Jew-baiting was a popular sport; it declined when the Jews took up boxing and one of their number became the national pugilistic champion.38 The requirement of a Christian oath excluded Jews from civil or military office. Sampson Gideon, having accepted conversion, became one of the governors of the Bank of England. In 1745, when the Young Pretender was advancing upon London with a Scottish army pledged to depose George II and restore the Stuarts, and the public, losing confidence in the security of the government, fell into panic and threatened a run on the bank, Gideon led the Jewish merchants and magnates to the rescue; they poured their private funds into the bank, and bound themselves to accept the notes of the bank at face value in their commercial transactions; the bank met its obligations, confidence was restored, the Pretender was repulsed.39

The Whig ministry expressed its appreciation by introducing into Parliament (1753) a bill offering naturalization and citizenship to all foreign-born Jews who had resided in England or Ireland for three years. (Jews born there were naturalized by birth.40) The lords and the bishops approved the bill; the Commons passed it ninety-six to fifty-five. But the British public, which knew, or understood, little of the role which the Jews had played in saving the bank, rose overwhelmingly against the measure. Protests came to Parliament from almost every town in Britain; pulpits and taverns united in their condemnation; merchants complained that Jewish commercial competition would become intolerable; the bishops who had voted for the bill were insulted in the streets; old legends of ritual murder of Christians by Jews were revived; hundreds of hostile pamphlets, ballads, caricatures, and lampoons were circulated; women decorated their dresses and bosoms with crosses, and wore ribands bearing the motto “No Jews, Christianity Forever.”41The Whig leaders, fearing defeat in the coming election, secured repeal of the law (1754).

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