Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/July 1882/The Jews in Europe II


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A GLANCE at the changing fortunes of the Jews in France, England, and Spain, brings clearly to light how their condition was influenced by the hierarchy. In England as in Germany, the Jews were the special property of the king, and were in part fostered as a valuable and profitable possession, and provided with privileges, and in part, particularly under King John and Henry III, made the object of merciless extortion. They enjoyed, indeed, also the royal protection, which, however, in times of sudden attack by the populace, came almost always too late, and only sharpened the popular hatred to which they fell a prey. Henry III, after forcibly assessing them several times, took (in 1230) suddenly from them a third of their possessions; afterward, to get a loan, he mortgaged all the Jews of Great Britain to Count Richard. The Jews begged, since their condition had become unendurable, for permission to emigrate; but it was refused them, since the king loved them all too dearly to let them go. Bishops, as Grossetete, of Lincoln, demanded their banishment, and Edward I ordered it in 1290; and in this way robbed himself of a most valuable instrument, by which previous kings had indirectly taxed their subjects. On account of the general lack of regular and sufficient income for the crown a lack under which all states at that time suffered some persons must be found who would take the place of those who had been banished. Such substitutes presented themselves in the associations of the Caorsines and the Italian money-brokers. Their way to England was paved by the Roman curia, which used them as its collectors, though the most prominent of them became bankrupt suddenly in 1345, and went off with debts unpaid. As usurers and financial managers for the crown, they were hated no less than the Jews.

In France the system of extortion practiced upon the Jews was still more methodical and crafty. Philip Augustus began his reign at the age of fifteen (1182) with the plundering and banishing of all Israelites. The report that they put a Christian to death every year at the time of their passover is said to have led him to this course, but the debts left him by his father were the immediate occasion. In the year 1198 they were recalled. Louis VIII declared all their claims for interest to be invalid, and ordered that the moneys due them should be paid to their lords, the king and the barons. Louis IX, convinced equally that all taking of interest was heinous sin, and that all the Jews of the land were his slaves, compelled them several times to purchase the privilege of remaining in the country; and, when he thought that he had extorted enough from them, banished them from his kingdom, with confiscation of whatsoever they still possessed. When the Jews implored before the governor of Karbonne for the restoration of the rights that had been taken away from them by the king, they complained: "The Jews are robbed of their means, and yet compelled to pay their debts; while, on the other hand, those who owe them are freed from the obligation to pay their Jewish creditors. They are forbidden to loan money on interest, and yet are not allowed to earn a living in any other way." The king's order was not completely carried out. Many remained, others returned afterward from time to time.

Louis's brother, Count Alphonse of Poictiers, made use of a particularly shrewd procedure in his state, which was afterward imitated in Germany. Under the pretext of expenditure for a crusade, he had himself authorized by the Pope to appropriate to himself all interest that had been collected by the Jews; and then the entire Jewish population, including women and children, was incarcerated. The poorer ones were liberated after a while; but the rich, with their wives, were held in prison until they had completely satisfied the avarice of the count and his officials. Philip the Fair did not fail to follow the example of his grandfather, in a way that was even more thorough, and brought more profit. He banished suddenly all Jews in the year 1306; possessed himself of their entire property; had their houses, synagogues, schools, and even their burying-grounds, sold to the highest bidders; and compelled all their debtors to pay into his own treasury. With the barons, who craved their share in the spoils, he came to an agreement.

The drama closed at last in the year 1394 when Charles VI, on the representation of his confessor, and at the request of his spouse, who was under this man's influence, ordered the last expulsion of the Jews from his kingdom, on the plea that many who had intercourse with them had become lukewarm (tepidi) in their faith.

In Spain, under Mohammedan rule, the condition of the hunted and afflicted people was more favorable than in any Christian land. Although not free, the synagogue chose its own national judges or kings to represent it before those in power. Their schools flourished there; they pursued especially the study of medicine with greater success than the Christians. Also under the Christian kings in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries they were still influential, serving the kings as financial advisers, chancellors of the exchequer, as astronomers and physicians. In Toledo alone there were some twelve thousand of them; their wealth permitted them to purchase at least the most indispensable rights by the expenditure of money. In general, from the time of the Arabian rule to the end of the thirteenth century, their condition in Spain was more favorable than in any other European land. Within the walls of their Jewish quarters (aljamas), they lived according to their own law and statute. But the fourteenth century brought evil in its train also to the Jews of the Peninsula. While valuable and serviceable to the kings as farmers of the taxes and chancellors of the exchequer, they were hated by the people. Now in one city, and now in another, they were attacked, struck down, and their synagogues burned. The most violent storm broke upon them in the year 1391, and raged throughout the whole of Spain; priests, like the Archdeacon of Ecija, had kindled the conflagration by their sermons. Many thousands were slain; 200,000 saved themselves by baptism, but after a few years it was found that 17,000 had relapsed into Judaism. A hundred years later—1492—the royal edict appeared which commanded the entire body of the Jews to emigrate, and leave their possessions behind them. Since the Inquisition at the same time forbade selling food to the Jews, the majority were not able to emigrate, if they wished, and so were compelled to be baptized. The most of those who went out of the land—the numbers vary from 170,000 to 400,000—perished by plague, famine, or shipwreck. The descendants of the survivors, the Sephardim, found reception in Italy and in that part of the Orient which was under Turkish dominion; also for a short time in Portugal. Spain, however, became filled with families of mixed descent, and the contrasts of pure and impure blood, of old Christians and neo-Christians, poisoned the whole social life.

The fate of the Jews was still worse in Portugal than in Spain. For a Ion or time their condition was better than in the rest of the Peninsula. The murderous storm of 1391 did not extend to them; they enjoyed some privileges, had property in land, and pursued agriculture and wholesale businesses. But in the reign of King Manuel (1495), otherwise praised as gentle and humane, they met with a deadly blow: their children under fourteen years were snatched from them and baptized; they themselves could remain in the land only as they became converted to the Church. Thus this kingdom also was filled with those who feigned conversion and were forcibly baptized. The results were fearful. In the year 1506, in Lisbon, two thousand new converts were put to death in three days, because one of the neo-Christians had ventured to doubt a supposed miracle. Soon after, the Inquisition was introduced as the well-tried instrument for handing over the property of the wealthy neo-Christians to the state treasury.

In the larger commercial cities of Italy, the existence of the Jews was, comparatively speaking, endurable. Since the trade in money was already in the hands of Christian bankers, they occupied themselves more here with mercantile business. They encountered no risings of the mob, or massacres.

All these things become more comprehensible when we observe that the historians of the time, in narrating the enormities that were committed, give no sign of pity, and do not utter a word of indignation. Many times the clerical chroniclers even express their satisfaction: for example, the Monk of Waverley writes in a triumphant tone of the massacre, in London, at the coronation of Richard I, which was perpetrated without any provocation on the part of the Jews, and closes with the exclamation, "Blessed be the Lord, who has given up the godless to their deserts!" ("Annales Monast.," p. 246). And yet they do not fail to point out that avarice was a principal cause of these misdeeds; that nobles and citizens who were in debt incited to them, in order, by a single stroke, to become free of their (Jewish) creditors; for money was in truth the protecting as well as the destroying angel of the Jews in those days. The unhappy ones must press their debtors, always expecting that at the next moment they themselves would suffer from the inevitable reaction against them.

Since the clergy declared the mere existence of the Jews among the Christians to be an immeasurable danger, requiring the most careful watching and isolating, we should expect that they would have labored conscientiously and with all their powers to convert the Jews. This did not happen, however. The men who were capacitated for such a work were completely wanting until the beginning of the thirteenth century, and even after the rise of the mendicant orders, a part of whose work was to institute missions among the Jews, there was very seldom a theologian who could lay claim to the education indispensable to this end. An interpretation of the prophetical books (of the Old Testament), which could have made an impression upon educated Jews, was beyond the powers of that time. That great flood of allegorical interpretations, which ruled the Biblical literature of the Christians, appeared to Israelitish Biblical scholars the empty play of an arbitrary and unbridled imagination. The early Church stood, in general, much nearer to the Old Testament people and faith; the great alterations and new formations of the middle ages had immeasurably widened the gap. The worship of images, which, according to the Israelitish view, contradicted the Decalogue, the whole scheme of dominion and compulsion which had been organized by Hildebrand, the religious wars with the system of indulgences—these were things that made the conversion of a Jew uncommonly difficult; and the pictorial representations of the Trinity, that appeared in the latter part of the middle age, must have seemed like a confirmation of the charges of tritheism which they brought against the Christians. In many places, indeed, the Jews were compelled to hear discourses aiming at their conversion by the monks, but an effect opposite to what was intended was unavoidably produced. It is told of the preacher-monk Vincenz Ferrer, that his eloquence effected 30,000 conversions in Spain. But these ostensible conversions took place in the midst of the horrors of the slaughter of 1391 and of the ensuing occurrences, and the apostasy that soon commenced of 17,000 new converts indicates how much the conversions were worth.

If a Jew voluntarily became a Christian, he lost everything that union with a people holding so firmly and faithfully together had hitherto secured him, and by no means did he win the favor of the Christians; rather did his condition in most cases become worse. For the Church met him with suspicion. In Rome, indeed, it was regarded as a rule, to which there was hardly any exception, that a baptized Jew would relapse. If he had means, it was made a duty for him to return all the interest he had taken, a sum often in excess of his present possessions; and in France it was even the custom to confiscate all his goods, and indemnify the king or baron for his loss of a bondsman, and of the income derived from him. Two laws of Charles VII destroyed this custom; but this very monarch took from the Jews, who avoided exile by embracing Christianity, two thirds of their property for himself; and his contemporaries thought this a softening of the severity of the old statutes. If the converted Jew was poor, he experienced the lack of the means of subsistence; for he had not learned a trade, nor could he any more take up with traffic in money, and his only resource was to become a barterer and dealer in small wares. The worst and most horrible thing was that the new convert fell a prey to the power of the Court of Inquisition, and, wherever there was an inquisitor, he was liable to arrest and torture on a mere suspicion, and could be sentenced either to money-fines or to imprisonment. That the inquisitor could impose fines upon merely suspected persons was already, in 1330, the teaching of the canonical writers, and nothing was easier or more tempting than the discovery of some cause of suspicion against a rich Israelite, baptized or unbaptized.

While the Spaniards were striving to root out Israel from the Peninsula, they prepared for themselves a most fearful scourge, under whose lashes they were to bleed for centuries. For, since they drove so many Jews into the Church through fear of death, and forced them to continuous hypocrisy, they caused the establishment of the Holy Office, which was directed at first against this secret retention of the Jewish faith. The majority of educated Spaniards at the present day doubtless acknowledge the Inquisition to have been the sorest national misfortune; it was an institution which has served to dishonor the Spanish name, and has been a source of manifold misery and a school of hypocrisy to the Spanish people. But that this institution maintained itself so long in Spain, and for over two hundred years found continually new victims for its "acts of faith," is owing to the events of 1328, 1391, and 1492, along with the distinction, contrived by the Church, between absolute and relative coercion in baptism.

Many thousands of Jews were then forced to be baptized; they were often allowed no other alternative than that of death or entrance into the Church. In many cases they preferred death, and perished either by their own hands or at the hands of their oppressors, and the example of some who were steadfast inspired whole hosts to copy after them. At the same time, there was a considerable number who, in fear of death, or to escape banishment and loss of property, suffered themselves to be baptized; and it was just as natural that, when they breathed free, again, they should renounce Christianity and turn back to the cult of their fathers.

The doctrine was indeed continuously taught and accepted that a baptism forced upon one was null and invalid, and it would hence seem self-evident that he who had been coerced should be free to turn back to his ancestral religion. But, as early as 633, the Spanish Visigothic bishops had declared that those forcibly baptized should be held in the Church. This had passed over into Gratian's book of doctrines and statutes, and now no one was any longer permitted to surrender the Christian faith once confessed, or return to the practices of Judaism. He was once for all a Christian, and, as such, subject to the jurisdiction of the religious court; if he went back to the faith of his fathers he must suffer, as every heretic and apostate, the death by fire. The princes were also ready, in ease no Court of Inquisition was in existence, to execute this punishment. The Emperor Frederick III caused a young man, who was valuable to him as a servant, and who, after being baptized out of fear turned back to Judaism, to be conducted to the stake, to which he went singing psalms. In Spain and Portugal the observing of some Jewish rite, on the part of a new convert, sufficed to subject him to imprisonment and torture. It was not realized that by this means the Church was being filled with hypocrites, and that numberless profanations, otherwise sought to be avoided in every possible way, unavoidably took place. In her better days the Church regarded an entrance of her walls, accomplished by the influence of slaughter and terror, a disgrace and a sacrilege; but now all, bishops, priests, and laity, worked harmoniously together to imprint this stigma on their Church—above all, in Spain.

A more painful existence than that of a Jew in the middle ages is scarcely thinkable, and, if he had had a knowledge of history, with what longing would he have looked back to the happy time of the Roman Empire! Every day the Jew must be prepared for some act of extortion, or the loss of all his goods, or imprisonment or banishment. Emigration was often impossible, and was in most cases not permitted, so long as the Jew had any remaining possessions which could be taken from him; and when he did undertake it his condition hardly ever improved; it was often "falling out of the frying-pan into the fire." Moreover, he had to pay a high price for permission to live elsewhere, even if it was only for a few years. On the highways of the country his person was as insecure as that of an outlaw.

The whole external history of the Jews for almost a thousand years makes up a succession of elaborate oppressions, of degrading and demoralizing afflictions, of violence and persecution, of wholesale slaughters, with interchanges of banishments and recallings. It is as if the European nations had vied with each other in trying to create the double delusion that the Jews were condemned till the end of time in the decrees of Heaven to the severest helotism, and that the sons of the Gentiles were ordained to act the part of jailers and hangmen to the chosen people of God! Christians knew not how to dispense with them; they were serviceable in many ways; and yet they could not be endured. Their countenances worked like a challenge upon the believer, who was touched by no scruple, and thought it possible to explain the Jews' fixed attachment to their ancestral faith, under the clear light of the gospel, only as a species of wicked obstinacy.

Nevertheless, one feature is striking in the great mass of abusive discourses, arraignments, and declamatory outbursts against the detested people—a feature which, along with endless repetition of the customary phrases, characterizes the ecclesiastical literature of those centuries: and this is, that their moral life, so far as the family, chastity, temperance, and fidelity to obligations go, is never attacked. Along with the charge of avarice and usurious money-lending, it is always simply their religious belief that made the ground for charges against them: they are continually accused of crime; and the fact that they did not recognize the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation was sufficient proof of their guilt. That they actually railed at Christ and his mother before the ears of Christians was certainly very rare, since they knew that a word of that sort sufficed to devote them, and often also their families, to death. It could not occur to an Israelite to wish to convert a Christian to his own faith. It is written in the Talmud, "Proselytes are as dangerous for Judaism as ulcers on a sound body." If one not a Jew had really a mind to become a convert to Judaism, he must be told, "Do you not know that the Jews live in sufferings and woes, that they are insulted and cast out, tormented and put to the rack?" At the same time, he was reminded of the oppressiveness of the statutes, and of the privations and sacrifices to which he would have to submit.

"The Christian brought the Jews to this pass," Shakespeare makes his "Merchant of Venice" say, and history for thirteen hundred years says the same. When the Jews in Spain were threatened with destruction and banishment, a rabbi is reported to have said to the Christian: "We are at once a people blessed and laden with a curse. Now you wish to destroy us, but you will not succeed, because we are blessed. The time will come when you will exert yourselves to raise us up, but in this you will not be successful, for we are cursed." If this was actually uttered, it is not clear whether the reference was to the Spanish Jews, the Sephardim, or the curse was conjectured to rest on the whole people. A retrospect of nine centuries of ignominious treatment and misery might easily have awakened such a thought. But since the Reformation the lot of the Jews has been steadily growing more favorable, and to-day no rabbi can any longer have the sense of a curse resting upon his race. The number of Jews now living on the surface of the globe has been estimated to be very nearly twelve million; should the number be less, it is none the less certain that they are more powerful than they ever were in past time, not excepting the period of their political independence. The official (Christian) interpretation of the word of the prophets, current in the middle ages, is thereby proved delusive; according to it, the Jewish people were to be reduced by continuous mistreatment and persecution to a very small handful of survivors. But in spite of all the heavy blows dealt upon this anvil, and of the numerous proselytes to Christianity and Mohammedanism, they have not lost but rather steadily increased in numbers. For a hundred years Israel has struggled for political emancipation, and at last has won it in all European states; only Russia, Spain, and Portugal have not as yet granted it. It has also not been granted them in the Mohammedan world. But in Europe the larger half of the Jews find themselves" in possession of all social and political rights. Israelites sit now in the parliaments and congresses. They are allowed to be teachers in most of the universities, and the number of Jewish young men who devote themselves to study increases with every year. Important offices are already intrusted to Jews. Their protective union, the judiciously managed "Israelitish Alliance," which has its seat in Paris, appears to be constantly winning greater influence. The facts of comparative statistical science are favorable to them. In most countries, theirs is, relatively speaking, the smallest number of judicial crimes, and they stand foremost among the population in general prosperity and wealth, even in length of life and rate of increase. The old virtues of temperance and continence, of well-ordered and affectionate family life, of filial piety to parents, which served so well in preserving this people from destruction in the troublous times of the middle ages, have not yet vanished from among them. Marriage unions with Christians and conversion are more common than formerly; in Berlin alone several years ago, there were estimated to be some two thousand proselytes.

It is true, however, that there are dark shadows to the picture; the better spokesmen of this people do not deny their serious faults; they must allow that there is abundant occasion for sharply reproving them: they only urge that the faults arrest attention more than the virtues. The strongest charge and the principal reason for the popular hatred of them is the economical injury they inflict, and the manner in which they take advantage of the peasantry in the Slavic and also in some German countries, in connection with small bartering and money-lending, which seem to be their favorite occupations. In the East, particularly in Galicia, this injury is called even by a stronger word—it is named devastation. The fault is undeniable; our Israelitish fellow-citizens lament it as much as we, but it would be unjust to make, on account of race connection, the whole responsible for the conduct of a fractional part, who are far removed and beyond control. The same is true of the founding of sham companies (Gründerunwesen) and the pernicious speculation in money, which is a fault common to Christians and Israelites. As it was formerly alchemists, astrologers, and searchers after hidden treasures, who took advantage of the blind and eager credulity of the higher classes, so now Jewish speculators do the same. In a similar way, the sins of the press of the day are to be charged upon its circle of Christian readers as well as upon the Jewish editors, who only follow the fashion in pandering to, rather than trying to mold, the opinions and passions of the people.

The great reform movement, that began with Mendelssohn in the bosom of Judaism, has given it a new form in Germany, France, and England. Those of the Jewish people who live in Slavic countries remain for the most part untouched by this movement, and are still bound to the Talmudic standards; but in Western Europe the Israelites have given up many of their traditional prejudices and customs, and come nearer the Christians in manners and ways of thinking.

At the present time, Germany is the bearer and foster-father of the spiritual life of Judaism, as in earlier times (and in the order stated) were Spain, Southern and Northern France, and then Holland. The German Israelites lead those of the rest of the world, because of the language they use; they alone, too, have a religious and theological literature of their own, to which their brethren in other countries resort for instruction in spiritual things. And hence it may be justly asserted that the influence of German ways of thinking is stronger than any other one thing among the Jews to-day, and it extends even to North America.

Among civilized peoples with a distinctive moral and intellectual life, the Jew residing in their midst thinks with the bulk of the nation. The German Jew thinks about all questions of spiritual and social life in an essentially German manner, which was far from being the case in the preceding century; and since our culture and civilization have come out of Christianity and have a Christian coloring, the Jew, however disinclined he may be to Christian views, can not help thinking and acting about many things, whether consciously or unconsciously, in a Christian way. So, for example, in regard to marriage, which is regarded by the Jews no longer from the Old Testament point of view, but from the Christian. And the same may be said of the British and French Israelites; they think and feel as the great nation thinks and feels in whose midst they live.

Altogether too long has the false and detestable view ruled in the world that we are called upon to avenge, generation after generation, the sins and mistakes of the fathers upon their guiltless descendants. It is a view which has covered Europe with a multitude of cruel and shameful deeds, the thought of which causes us to shudder and avert our faces. Woe to us and our posterity if such a law of revenge is ever applied to the descendants of the Germans, Frenchmen, Spaniards, and Englishmen of the middle ages! But there is one thing which the self-styled anti-Semitic agitation of to-day should not forget, viz., that hate and contempt are feelings bitter and of no comfort to him who cherishes them, and painful and exasperating to those against whom they are directed. A sad thing it is when (to use a Scriptural expression),

"Deep calleth unto deep."

Rather let the saying of Sophocles's "Antigone" be and remain our motto:

"My nature leads to sharing love, not hate"

  1. Anniversary Address before the Academy of Sciences at Munich, delivered July 25, 1881. Translated by Mr. W. M. Salter.