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Jewish Power and Jewish Powerlessness

The psychic toll of Jewish privilege being so cyclically linked to victimization

Mordechai Shinefield
April 03, 2015
York Castle in England, where in 1190 the city's Jews hid during a massacre by Crusaders, egged on by crowds. 500 Jews were killed. (Wikimedia Commons)

York Castle in England, where in 1190 the city’s Jews hid during a massacre by Crusaders, egged on by crowds. 500 Jews were killed. (Wikimedia Commons)

Once as a child, thumbing through a haggadah since lost, I came across a timeline of anti-Semitism. (Many haggadahs must have these.) Reading like an itinerary of unending expulsions and massacres, it illustrated in bullet points and dates a solemn truth of the maggid: “In every generation they rise against us to annihilate us.” The events happened many years ago, in cities far away — Baghdad, Gascony, Oberwesel, Würzburg.

I felt safe, though, growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia where almost everyone I knew was Jewish and my community was financially and politically secure. My friends’ parents were doctors and lawyers and accountants. I also believed that this “every generation” thing was obsolete. We live in a pluralistic immigrant democracy with broad acceptance for the Jewish people. Anti-Semitic violence here is rare, mainly perpetrated by weirdos and loners.

Last year the U.K.’s Community Security Trust reported its highest number of anti-Semitic incidents since 1984. This January, anti-Jewish violence erupted at a kosher supermarket in France to global attention. Even with troubling news last year from Europe sure to give this year’s seder contemporary resonance, the U.S. can feel like an eternal exception. The success of Jews in America is cause for celebration and gratitude.

Except it’s not unique. Over and over again in the historical record Jews have attained positions of prestige and power that seemed unshakable, but that were ultimately stripped away by legislative decrees or violent mobs. These two dynamics—accomplishment and devastation—are not incidental. For many royals of the medieval and early modern era, using a “Court Jew” as a firewall between them and an angry peasant class was sound strategy. Patrons would employ Jewish bailiffs as financiers, diplomats, and taxmen. Patronage was a path to Jewish social privileges, even sometimes noble titles, guaranteed by the grace of a patron. When that grace ran out, often because civil unrest needed a break-in-case-of-emergency Jewish scapegoat, all the associated social privilege ran out too.

“[These] retainers symbolize one of the central paradoxes of traditional Jewish existence in many countries: their apparent wealth together with their ultimate powerlessness,” wrote Walter Zenner in his paper on “Jewish Retainers as Power Brokers.”

It’s a paradox mirrored in the most fundamental tropes of anti-Semitism itself—the fever-dream of conspiratorial, powerful Jews that control all of society, but are ultimately unable to protect themselves. Sometimes the accusation of Jewish power is followed so closely by repeated demonstrations of Jewish weakness that the whole thing is vertiginous. In 1066, Muslim mobs stormed the castle of the Berber king Badis al-Muzaffar, and, ignoring their liege, crucified his Jewish vizier, Joseph ibn Naghrela. Following the crucifixion, the crowd spilled out into the Jewish community where they massacred more than 1,500 families.

Historian Bernard Lewis attributed the massacre “to a reaction among the Muslim population against a powerful and ostentatious Jewish vizier.” Arab chroniclers said that Naghrela “controlled” the King and “surrounded him with spies.”

Lewis quotes the poem by Abu Ishaq of Elvira that incited the pogrom:

“How can they have any pact when we are obscure and they are prominent?
Now we are humble, beside them, as if we were wrong and they were right!”

In 1190, 500 Jews in York were killed by departing Crusaders egged on by people who owed debts to Jewish moneylenders and were anxious to have the slate wiped clean. In 1498 Prince Alexander of Lithuania forced his Jewish subjects to forfeit their property or convert—again as a clever accounting trick to wipe out debt.

These were just some of the many similar bullet points in my haggadah. The practice was so widespread that when Paradox developed the Crusader Kings video games to simulate life in the Middle Ages it included it as a feature: the quickest way to raise funds is to tax your Jewish community and then expel them. And even when Jews weren’t cynically empowered only to be thrown to the crowds, their power evaporated the moment a relationship of mutual utility broke down. The “non-real power” of contacts and social agreements gave way to the immediate power of violence. Inevitably, Jews lost.

There are reasons to believe things are different today. Half of world Jewry lives in Israel, a regional hegemony with, according to Global Firepower’s 2015 ratings, the world’s 11th most powerful military. The contemporary condition of global capital and international law means that Jewish “non-real power” is realer than ever before in history. Jews are undoubtedly safer from expropriation and slaughter today. Even the statistical jump in anti-Semitic events in Europe are, on a historical scale, still minor.

Still, there are only so many times that Jewish power can augur Jewish powerlessness before an existential sense of precarity is not just understandable, but wise. Jewish critics of privilege are not wrong to evoke Jewish history; their feelings of insecurity are grounded in centuries of illusory Jewish strength.

Even with Israel’s truly unprecedented representation of Jewish power—not in contracts and laws but in soldiers and nuclear weapons—this dialectic of power and weakness still shines. Punk feminist rock critic Ellen Willis, in a 2003 article on why she’s an anti-anti-Zionist, noticed the eerie parallels that continue to haunt us: “It was true geopolitically,” she writes of Europe’s displacement of the ‘Jewish problem’ onto the Middle East, “in that Israel was slated to be a Western ally in a region struggling to overcome the legacy of colonialism—an alliance that would put Israel in the classic position of the Jew with a ruling-class patron, who functions as surrogate and scapegoat for the anger of the ruled.”

Maybe the psychic toll of cyclical Jewish victimization explains why when after the haggadah gives us one somber reminder about every generation, it immediately follows with another touchstone of Jewish existence: “However, the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” When you can’t rely on power or promises to protect you, all that’s left is to trust the Almighty.

Mordechai Shinefield has written about Judaism and Jewish culture for a variety of outlets including the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and Spin Magazine. He lives in Bala Cynwyd, PA with his wife and two children.

Mordechai Shinefield has written about Judaism and Jewish culture for a variety of outlets including the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and Spin Magazine. He lives in Bala Cynwyd, PA with his wife and two children.

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