A logo of Banque Privee Edmond de Rothschild.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Archbishop Agobard of Lyon was outraged.
In a letter to Louis the Pious, heir of Charlemagne in the Frankish Empire, the archbishop complained that the royal court treated their Jews much too well.
The Jewish merchants and financiers in the cities of the empire – invited by Charlemagne to stimulate the economy – owned Christian slaves, the Jewish women dressed lavishly like the women of the court, and the market day was moved from Saturday to Sunday to accommodate the Jews. Agobard was angry that the killers of Christ could be treated with such respect and were not humiliated for the crime of deicide. Louis the Pious and subsequent emperors continued to treat the Jews favorably for their economic role in the empire.
Despite the Crusades centuries after Archbishop Agobard – when Jews were murdered in large numbers and martyrdom was idealized – Jews continued their economic success through the practice of lending money to Christians. This form of lending was so popular in Europe that Pope Innocent III had to condemn the French king and aristocrats for allowing Jewish moneylenders to take advantage of them. In a 1205 letter to the French monarch the pope supported the Jewish dispersion in the hope that they would be baptized but emphasized that it is “exceedingly offensive” that “Jews have become so insolent that by means of their vicious usury, through which they extort not only usury but even usury on usury, they appropriate ecclesiastical goods and Christian possessions.”
According to historian Robert Seltzer in his book Jewish People, Jewish Thought,
the situation was so dire that Church property was offered as collateral to Jews for defaulted loans and the Church was losing its tithes. Eventually the French exiled Jews living in their territory but one wonders whether they listened to the pope before the expulsions.
We begin to paint a portrait of Jewish history where Jews were victims but, at times, defied Church theology and had a modicum of power. The history continued with the Court Jews of the Germanic states in the 17th and 18th centuries. Wealthy Jews played a major role in loaning money to the absolutist rulers, supplying luxury goods including precious stones, and minting coins. Most important, they supplied the material for German armies to fight their wars. When one Court Jew died in Vienna, the state that he served almost declared bankruptcy. The Court Jews remain controversial for being given special privileges denied to the rest of the Jews, who were confined to Jewish neighborhoods and ghettos, but no one can deny their financial power in the Christian world.
The Rothschild family is synonymous with Jewish financial power in Central and Western Europe in the modern period. The legendary banking family fueled the new industrialized European economy, but not without raising suspicions of a Jewish cabal that transcended nations. Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the founder of the financial dynasty, refused to convert to Christianity and advised his nine children not to do so either. His heirs founded settlements in the Land of Israel.
He strategically placed his children as bankers in central cities and, indeed, his financial empire extended beyond national borders. But by World War I, the Rothschild family identified with the nations in which they lived and any suspicion of a Jewish banking conspiracy to take over the world could be rejected as a libel.
In the US, Jewish financial power was epitomized by Jacob Schiff, German-born immigrant and great financier and philanthropist.
He was proud to be a Jew. He headed the banking house of Kuhn, Loeb, and Co. As a supporter of various Jewish organizations and institutions, including the American Jewish Committee, Schiff was the unofficial leader of American Jewry. He used his wealth to support Jews and Jewish causes. Never ashamed of being a Jew, Schiff loaned millions of dollars to the Japanese war effort in 1905 to defeat Russia, arch-enemy of the Jews under the Czars. This is certainly an example of Jewish financial power in America.
While Jewish financial success is attributed to the Christian ban on Jews owning land or the exorbitant Muslim tax on dhimmi agriculture, the reality is that our ancestors were bankers, merchants and financiers.
Jews lived in a Diaspora that spanned the world, even in the pagan period, and they established networks that supported merchant activities. The family of the first great Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, was a banking family with strong connections to the Roman aristocracy.
The anti-Jewish caricature of the money- grubbing Jew haunts us. It is a lie. Most Jews throughout history were farmers before the Exile and artisans afterward. The elite had the connections and education to succeed in the financial world. There is no shame in that. We should not have to apologize for Jewish economic power.
While this essay is confined to the Ashkenazi world, there are many examples in the Arab and Islamic lands of powerful Jews. Of course, whether in Spain or Germany, this power was not absolute and could be taken away at any time. While many Jews will laud the power of ancient Israel before the Exile, there is a certain discomfort in addressing Jewish power in the Diaspora. While we are proud of the cultural and economic achievements of our ancestors, we still are disturbed by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and more recent accusations in America that through AIPAC Jews control US foreign policy in the Middle East.
Sometimes, we are more at home being victims than being victors. But had there been no successes in the 2,000 years of Exile, our people would have ceased to exist. Rather than shy away from Jewish power – a power that defied both Christian and Islamic theology – we should celebrate it.
The author is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.