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An eminent historian and author of A History of Israel provides a readable, comprehensive study of the Jewish people over the course of the last four hundred years, analyzing the diverse roles of the Jews as both catalysts for key accomplishments of modern civilization and as the victims of reactionary political ideologies and totalitarian regimes. 20,000 first printing.
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Howard M. Sachar is the author of fifteen books and the editor of the thirty-nine-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He is Professor of Modern History Emeritus at George Washington University.Estratto. © Riproduzione autorizzata. Diritti riservati.:
The Jew as Non-European
A Tremulous Minority In the eighteenth century, a majestic silhouette of battlements and spires greeted the traveler who made his way down the valley of the lower Main River. It was the profile of Frankfurt, one of the four remaining free cities of the Holy Roman Empire, and one of the German world’s three most important commercial entrepôts. Frankfurt’s cobblestoned streets teemed with movement, with shouting hucksters, bawling cattle driven in for sale and slaughter, rattling vegetable carts pushed along to market, paunchy burghers and weather-beaten farmers arguing the cost and quality of produce. But as the traveler continued down the main Sachsenhäuser Bridge into the city’s principal business center, pausing occasionally to sample the wares in shops and pavilions, stalls and warehouses, he found his way barred by the Börheimertor, a large wooden gate demarcating still another townlet within the larger urban area, a ganglion of twisting alleys, ramshackle storefronts and cramped apartment structures. The gate’s solitary entrance, guarded by an armed warden, suggested that a prison community may have been locked inside. The notion was not entirely far-fetched. The little enclosure was the Judengasse, the ghetto of the Jews.
The ghetto of Frankfurt-am-Main, and comparable enclaves in scores of other towns and cities throughout West-Central Europe, evinced a central fact of Jewish life well into the Modern Era. This was the Jews’ indeterminate status as non-Europeans. It is fair to speculate, then, whether the Jews were foreigners or interlopers. Were they voluntary immigrants newly arrived from other lands or continents? Or had they been transported to Europe as captives, as African slaves had been imported to the New World? None of these descriptions would have been apt. The Jews were neither recent slaves nor recent immigrants. Most, rather, were descended from ancestors who had lived on European soil for many hundreds of years, in some instances as far back as the Roman Empire. In the German world, their settlement traced back at least to the eleventh century, and in Frankfurt itself to the twelfth century, when some two hundred Jews took up residence in the squalid little encinture beyond the Börheimertor. Even this initial settlement in Frankfurt was intermittently curtailed. In the fourteenth century, the city’s inhabitants, and those of other German communities, were ravaged by the bubonic plague. Afterward, it became the custom to attribute the “Black Death” to the Jews, the “wizards,” the “devils,” who had survived the epidemic in inexplicably greater numbers than their neighbors (possibly owing to Judaic hygienic regulations). In their fear and rage, local populations in ensuing years hurled themselves into a succession of anti-Jewish massacres. Those Jews who escaped Christian mobs fled eastward, most of them ultimately to settle in Polish and other Slavic territories (p. 9ff.).
In the sixteenth century, small numbers of Jews ventured a return to Central Europe. Their reception was not congenial—not in an age of religious turmoil. This time, they encountered the animus of Protestant Reformers and Catholic Counter-Reformers alike. The obloquy that attached to their presence was revealed in an obscene sixteenth-century graffito carved into Frankfurt’s ghetto wall. It revealed a trio of Jews debasing themselves around a sow. As one Jew suckled at the animal’s teats, another (in rabbinical garb) lifted the Judensau’s tail, allowing the third (also a rabbi) to drink the animal’s excrement. Several feet higher on the ghetto wall an even more repellent carving appeared, this one of a dead baby, its body punctured by countless miniature knife wounds, and beneath its corpse an array of nine daggers. The caption read, “On Maundy Thursday in the year 1475, the little child Simon, aged two, was killed by the Jews.” The inscription alluded to the death of Simon of Trent, allegedly a victim of Jewish “ritual murder.” In Frankfurt, these graphic expressions of Jew-hatred dated back at least to the fourteenth century, and in France to the twelfth century, when the myth first became current that Jews were enjoined by their religion to slay Christian maidens and children, whose blood was presumed necessary for the Passover festival. Thus diabolized, most Jews would not risk setting foot in Central Europe until the latter seventeenth century. Only then, with religious passions largely exhausted following the carnage of the Thirty Years’ War, did Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand III allow substantial numbers of Jews to resettle in Prague and Budapest and in such imperial “free” cities as Frankfurt; and other German princes also then relaxed their bans on Jews.
Nevertheless, throughout the Habsburg Empire and the German principalities alike, numerous towns, districts, and duchies continued to exclude Jews. Some municipalities admitted Jews, some did not. Even in Leipzig, where Jews played an important role in the city’s great fairs, it was not until 1713 that a single Jewish family was permitted to settle permanently, and forty more years passed before a second one was admitted. Official policy was continually in flux. Vienna’s tiny nucleus of Jews was expelled in 1670. Although several Jewish families were readmitted five years later, it was not until 1748 that Jews were allowed to form an organized community in the Austrian capital. Even where the various governments of Central and Western Europe allowed a certain incremental Jewish resettlement, their reasons were narrowly pragmatic. Barred from access to the feudal land system of Europe, Jews over the centuries had generated a compensatory vocational experience in trade and moneylending. Determined to exploit this Jewish talent for producing liquid wealth, substantial numbers of rulers were willing intermittently to protect “their” Jews as dependable sources of taxes and loans. Thus, Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II, although a militant early-seventeenth-century defender of the Counter-Reformation, was unwilling to dispense with Jewish funds for his military campaigns. Neither would Protestant kings and dukes. It was strictly as a quid pro quo for their money, therefore, that Jewish communities were allowed to revive in a succession of Protestant and Catholic dominions. By the mid-1700s, the Jewish demography in Central and Western Europe may have approached 300,000–400,000. These included approximately 165,000 in the German states; 35,000 in Habsburg Bohemia, Moravia, as well as in the city of Vienna; 80,000 in Hungary; 40,000 in France; 80,000 in the Dutch and Belgian Netherlands; and 8,000 in England.
A People in Quarantine
For the privilege of return, however, the Jews paid a price that transcended loans and taxes. Responding to the demands of clergy and of local guild members, state and local governments limited Jews to vocations disdained by gentiles. For this reason, perhaps as many as three-fourths of the Jews in Central and Western Europe were limited to the precarious occupations of retail peddling, hawking, and “street-banking,” that is, moneylending. Some Jews managed to earn enough to establish small shops. Most did not. In their struggle for a livelihood, they generated a sizable underclass of beggars, fencers, pimps, even robbers, thereby creating a self-fulfilling gentile scenario of Jews, one that would be endlessly invoked by Jew-haters throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
These constraints must be judged in the context of their time, of course. If Jews possessed fewer rights than did their urban Christian neighbors, they also bore fewer obligations and enjoyed more privileges than did Europe’s peasant masses. Even in comparatively prosperous Western Europe, most villagers remained bound to the soil. In 1689 a French commentator, Jean de La Bruyère, described his nation’s peasantry as “savage-looking beings . . . black, livid, and sunburnt. . . . They seem capable of articulation and, when they stand erect, they display human lineaments. They are in fact men. [Yet] they retire at night into their dens, where they live on black bread, water and roots.” As late as the eighteenth century, French and German peasants were encumbered by a wide variety of tailles, tithes, decimes, and quitrents, obliged to pay tolls and dues at bridges and fairs, to labor on the king’s roads, to serve in militias, to purchase their staples from royal monopolies. In contrast, the Jews were better off. Although burdened with arbitrary restrictions and taxes that often were little short of crippling, they were spared the obligation of feudal military service. They could move reasonably freely from place to place. They were allowed in effect to govern themselves (pp. 8–9). These were not trivial privileges.
Nevertheless, even in a Europe not lacking in afflictions and injustices, there remained constraints on Jewish life that eventually became insupportable. One of these was the ghetto. These walled slum-shanty neighborhoods effectively barred Jews from all but the narrowest, commercial—daytime—interaction with the gentile citizenry. It had not always been so. The first Spanish and Italian ghettos of the late medieval era actually had been requested by the Jews themselves as private, self-governing “territories.” Be- yond trading hours, after all, what need or desire could Jews have had for contact with the hostile Christian world? Who would have imagined in those earlier years, when populations were small and plague-decimated, that in time the ghetto would become dangerously overcrowded? By the mid-sixteenth century, however, the ghetto more commonly was imposed f...
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