The myth of the ‘Wandering Jew’

The myth of the Wandering Jew is precisely that: a myth.

President Reuven Rivlin visits newly built Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw October 28, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)
President Reuven Rivlin visits newly built Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw October 28, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The myth of the Wandering Jew is precisely that: a myth. Babylonian Jews endured in Iraq for 2,500 years. The Jews of Yemen lived in the Arabian Peninsula for two millennia.
Jewish settlement in Poland began in the 13th century and ended only 70 years ago in Sobibor, Treblinka and Belzec. German Jewry had its roots in Charlemagne’s invitation to Jewish merchants to settle along the Rhine River in the year 800. The Jewish presence in Spain spanned from the Roman domination of Iberia until the expulsion 1,000 years later.
Yes, Jews were often expelled, exiled and the victims of massacres and blood libels, both in the Christian and Islamic realms. But they were not the wanderers of our collective imagination.
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Jews lived in the Diaspora for centuries and always understood that persecution was a possibility. Both in the Christian and Islamic realm this persecution was embodied in forced conversion and charges of ritual murder. To a certain extent, Jews lived in fear. But we would be fooling ourselves if we thought that each day a Jew worried about a pogrom soon to take place. The reality is that there was much stability in the self-governing and autonomous institutions that were the hallmark of Jewish life. Think of ancient Alexandria, medieval Granada or early modern Poland. Jewish life, learning, culture and economic ventures flourished in these environments.
It is true that for all these communities the “golden age” would end in disaster. But the persecution and exile that ended these communities in no way negates the life and success that endured for centuries before the final blow. Not all roads led to Auschwitz. The extermination of European Jewry and the expulsion of Jews from Arab and Muslim lands in no way negate the greatness and success of these Jewries.
One caveat, however – Diaspora Jews were always vulnerable. Lacking an army and without sovereignty and the ability to determine their ultimate fate, Jews could never be secure. There was always the yearning for messianic redemption. But traditional theology of waiting for God to set this redemption in motion resulted in a passivity that proved to be disastrous. The State of Israel must exist and must thrive.
Zionism must endure. Aliya must remain a cornerstone of the Jewish renaissance of modern times.
In the Diaspora of the ancient and medieval world, Christianity and Islam allowed for Jewish survival in theory although not always in practice.
Jews endured institutionalized humiliation in both worlds but the theology of the majority culture did not demand the death of every Jew.
But now we live in a modern age of genocide. The ancient and medieval safeguards, as flawed as they were, are gone. The murder of every Jew in the world is no longer in the realm of theory. We, as a people, have lived through that horror. Jews all over the world are vulnerable in a way our ancestors were not. Those Jews who believe that the Diaspora existed for centuries without a Jewish state and could do so again, have no understanding of history or of modernity. We live in the most dangerous of times. Iran no longer demands that Jews be “dhimmis” – institutionally inferior. Iran clearly demands the extermination of the Jewish people.
IF JEWS were relatively secure for millennia in the Diaspora of the ancient and medieval world, how did the notion that Jews were perpetual wanderers take hold in our psyche and our self-understanding? There are two answers to that question.
The first, no doubt, is the theology of the Catholic Church. Pope Innocent III, the most powerful of the medieval pontiffs, branded the Jews with “the mark of Cain” as murderers of Christ. He condemned the Jews to perpetual wandering for the sin and crime of deicide.
The reason he declared this in the 13th century was precisely because Jews in Europe were living fairly comfortable lives. Moneylending was dangerous but lucrative. The urban Jewish international merchant was educated, unlike the Christian feudal serf. Jewish success allowed by Christian authorities was protested as early as 825 – Bishop Agobard of Lyons complained to Emperor Louis the Pious that the ruler treated Jews much too well, granting Jews rights through charters for mercantile activity and lavishing them with privilege. Like Pope Innocent, Bishop Agobard saw a clash between how Jews were actually being treated by Christian authorities and the condemnation of Jews as Christ-killers.
The Wandering Jew was a Christian ideal but not always the reality.
It was an image of Jews that the Church propagated as an ideal. In practice, however, reality clashed with theology. There was much for Jews to fear, but let us never forget Jewish success and the Jewish sense that persecution in no way diminished the idea of being God’s treasured people.
The second reason that the idea of the Wandering Jew took hold was the way modern Zionism viewed the past. This way of viewing the past was necessary for its time and was closely tied to ideology. The Zionist project was initially a response both to the failure of Emancipation and the erosion of traditional authority in the Russian Pale of Settlement.
Certainly, the Holocaust – both the culmination of 2,000 years of Jew hatred and the manifestation of modern racial Nazi anti-Semitism – urgently convinced most Jews, for good, that the State of Israel must exist in order for Jews to survive and thrive. But the epoch in which Zionism came to fruition does not represent every phase of Jewish history.
The history of the Jewish Diaspora, of life in the Exile, was not just a vale of tears. There is so much that is wonderful emerging from the Jewish past that we must embrace it.
It cannot be that 2,000 years of life outside of Eretz Yisrael were simply a “black hole” and a living hell for Jews. For the past century Zionism did not have the luxury to transcend ideology and paint positive portraits of Jewish self-government and autonomy. The persecutions of Jewish history loomed large because of the terrible devastation of Jewish life in modern times. The black-andwhite portrayal of the Diaspora galvanized Jews to join the movement to restore Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. It was the appropriate stance to take for its time.
Was life better for the Jews in the Diaspora than it is today in the State of Israel? Of course not – sovereignty, an army, a parliament and a vibrant democracy are part of one of the greatest triumphs in Jewish history.
Those post-Zionists who idealize the Diaspora and claim that Israel was an “invented nation” are absolutely wrong. There was much wrong with Jewish exile – but let us not forget what was right. The Jewish character of the Jewish state will endure. It is not just the story of Judah Maccabee and Bar Kokhba but that of Saadya and Moses Maimonides. We cannot engage in amnesia regarding our history. And it would be a shame if the greatness of the ancient and medieval Diaspora were kept locked in museums, as relics of a dead past.
The author is a rabbi and teacher in Boca Raton, Florida.