Shylock and his daughter, Jessica, in this painting by Maurycy Gottlieb: A storyline of brokenhearted fathers is still relevant today.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In 1788, at a performance of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice in Prussia, the production was introduced with a brief apology to “discerning Berlin” which was “beginning to have a higher regard for the brethren of in faith of the wise Moses Mendelssohn.”
Mendelssohn, the great Jewish philosopher of the European Enlightenment, had died two years earlier but the way he impacted German society would not be forgotten by those Christians who wanted to see Jews accepted into society. The apology to the Jews in the audience for the portrayal of Shylock as a Jewish moneylender who demanded his “pound of flesh” is indicative not only of the acceptance of Mendelssohn but the power of the Jewish elite in the Germanic states in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The power of the “hofjuden”—the Court Jews who served the Germanic princes in the many states that would eventually come together to form modern Germany – was great. The majority of Jews in the various Germanic states were persecuted and ghettoized but the wealthy Jews who served these states were exempt from the restrictions placed on the Jewish masses. Court Jews were exempt from living in the confines of the ghetto. They lived in luxury and were far more integrated into German life than their poorer brethren. Court Jews served as military contractors, providing gunpowder, grain, timber and horses to the Christian leadership, whether Catholic or Protestant, in the wars that they fought.
The Jewish elite arranged for loans, extensions of credit and were even responsible for the minting of coins. As international merchants with Jewish financial connections throughout Europe, the Court Jews were considered “extraordinary” and filled a niche in Germanic absolutist states that followed the lead of French King Louis the 14th who claimed “I am the State.”
Court Jews provided many other services to the German princes. The Jewish elite provided the court with precious stones, fine clothing, and founded and funded various industries. Court Jews provided these services in Hanover, Mannheim, Berlin and Dresden. Court Jews were often appointed to be the leaders of the entire Jewish community, including those Jews in the ghetto.
It remains an open question whether they empathized with their poorer brethren and provided strong representation for them in the court or whether they were an elite that was solely concerned with advancing their status in Christian society.
Jews are often thought of as the victims of history but the case of the “hofjuden” provides us with a very different picture.
The Court Jews were quite powerful. Samuel Oppenheimer, a 17th century Court Jew in Vienna, was powerful enough to suppress publication of an anti-Semitic tract and his death resulted in a grave economic crisis in Vienna. From 1695 to 1739 Jews extended credit of 35 million florins to the Austrian princes. Samuel Oppenheimer was one of those Court Jews who cared deeply for the needs of the Jewish poor and was not just an opportunist.
The authority of the Court Jews was based on their service to the state – on the reality of politics – and not tradition. In this way they ushered in a new era of Jewish politics that began to break away from the centuries-old model of Jewish self-government.
The Court Jews were harbingers of modernity and forerunners of great financiers such as the Rothschild dynasty. But, most importantly, they were not victims and they possessed great power. Jews often see themselves as the victims of history in the Diaspora. They shy away from any suggestion of powerful Jews because it raises the specter of the charge of a Jewish cabal to take over the world. This libel was perpetuated by the Czarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a text that has been translated into languages all over the world, defaming Jews as money-hungry schemers who control the financial and cultural institutions of Western society in order to manipulate good Christians and their nations. Today, the Protocols has gained popularity in Arab and Islamic lands and continues to fuel the false notion that Jews are all-powerful and poised to rule the planet.
Yet, we should not allow our discomfort with Jewish power to negate the history of Jews, whether as individuals or a class, who were influential and powerful. Jewish power was never about genetic superiority or malevolence. It was all about the premium Jews have placed on education throughout the millennia and the Jewish will to succeed. This is not only an issue with a history of the Diaspora in which Jews often were successful and not merely the victims of persecution. We should not be embarrassed by the exercise of power in a modern Jewish state. The idea that constantly being the victim gives one the high moral ground is irresponsible. Power is not evil if exercised in the right way. In fact, the secret to Jewish longevity has been the ability of Jews to empower themselves through self-government, belief in the cultural and religious superiority of their way of life, and most recently, the reclamation of Jewish sovereignty in a Jewish state. Let the world apologize for Shylock as did the Berliners in the time of Moses Mendelssohn.
We are entering a new epoch in which the idealization of powerlessness is not noble but suicidal.