Archbishop Agobard's Jewish Problem

 Archbishop Agobard of Lyons was angry: How dare Louis the Pious—leader of the Frankish Empire—grant the Jews charters permitting them to sell Christian slaves. How dare the heir of Charlemagne allow Jewish women to flaunt their opulent dress like the women of the Emperor’s court. It was an outrage that the market day was switched from Saturday to Sunday to accommodate the Jewish merchants whom Charlemagne invited into his kingdom in the early years of the ninth century CE. The archbishop protested that the royal court favored the Jews and granted them charters to conduct business and be a self-governing entity. How could the killers of Christ be treated so well in Central Europe in the heart of Christendom? They deserved to be humiliated and debased, not lauded and favored by the powers that be. Archbishop Agobard sent a letter with these protests to Louis the Pious around the year 825. For Agobard, Christian theology was not jibing with political reality. This chasm could not be tolerated.

As far as we know, the Emperor simply ignored the archbishop’s protest. Jews were good business for the Frankish Empire—this trumped all else, including Church theology. Agobard’s protests indicate that not every period of Jewish history was a tale of misery and persecution. Whether in ancient Alexandria, medieval Granada or early modern Cracow, Jewish life thrived often in the Diaspora. Of course, every golden age ended in persecution, forced conversion or exile. But more often than not, Jews benefited from Emperors, Kings, Caliphs and Sultans who did not conform to cleric’s calls for their humiliation due to the beliefs of Christianity or Islam. As killers of Christ and infidels who rejected Muhammad as a prophet, Jews had a status of inferiority. But this seemed to not always interfere with their success as merchants, poets, rabbis, physicians and philosophers. Often, there was a gap between political and economic reality and that of religious dogma.

The time has come for Jews to dispense with the narrative that all roads of Jewish history in the Diaspora lead to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Jews were not a wandering people. The Jewish elite was often quite influential and powerful in different places at different times. The “Court Jews” of 18th-century Germany received special privileges to live outside the ghetto and were crucial as bankers and suppliers of armies of absolutist Germanic states. As I say often in these pages, persecution did not drive the Jews into the protective and welcoming arms of Christianity and Islam. Jews held their bearing as a Chosen People whose culture, beliefs and way of life were superior to that of the non-Jewish majority. Only with the onset of modernity do we see the beginnings of an inferiority complex that has proven devastating to Jewish continuity and survival.

Yes, after the events of the past century and those of our own time, Jewish sovereignty and a Jewish army in the Land of Israel are a must. We cannot survive without them. But to simply write off 2500 years of a thriving Jewish life in the Diaspora as a black hole of terror and suffering is to engage in national amnesia. Hatred of Jews has been a reality for millennia and will continue to be a reality. That is a sobering and depressing statement but it is true. While we must battle against anti-Semitism and stand up for ourselves as a people and a nation and a faith community, we must not make the mistake of dismissing centuries of Jewish economic success, literary and religious creativity, and successful self-government as failures to be thrown away and forgotten. We must not view all of Jewish history through a lens of our experiences in modernity. We can learn from a past that had its share of persecution and exile. But that is only one part of a grander story that has yet to be told.