Essays in Judeophobia III: Antisemitism in Prime Divider Societies, the Middle Ages

[This is the continuation of the essay on Anti-semitism which will appear in its entirety (eventually), here.]

Optimists think that civil society should put an end to Antisemitism, whereas the pessimists think that Antisemitism is a permanent element of human nature (even Jews are susceptible). The perspective suggested here suggests that both are misconceived.

Antisemitic sentiment, in this view, derives from those authoritarians who benefit most from the prime divider, both the elites and their agents of domination among the commoners. Jews, with their iconoclastic intellects, their developed moral discourse, their educated and assertive (chutzpadik) commoners and responsive and responsible elites, offer a counter-example to the aristocratic insistence that prime dividers are necessary for social order.

As long as the Jewish communities in a larger diaspora culture remain relatively separate and interact only to a limited degree, they do not present a serious threat. But, especially in cultures that at least nominally prize biblical values of social justice (Islam and Christianity), easy and positive-sum intercourse between Jews and lay commoners tends to create conditions favorable to the flourishing of civil society: contracts and credit (which necessitate mutual trust), economic initiatives, religious and moral discussions, rule of law and equity. Here the presence of the Jews as a kind of social leaven creates a threat to many with a stake in the prime divider.

These two elements of Jewish-gentile interaction have operated in a kind of dialectic, especially notable in Latin Christian society, which runs roughly as follows. We begin with a period of extended Jewish-gentile interaction based on a Christian “philo-Judaism” during which the forces of civil society flourished, and economic, legal, and cultural transformations favored initiatives from below. Elites might initially favor, even encourage such interactions because they proved so fruitful and hence enriching for them as well as for the commoners involved. But over time, the kinds of transformations such interactions wrought began to threaten the grip of elites, began to subtly but recognizably alter the socio-economic landscape, creating new and potentially aggressive forces to reckon with.

Thus the continued influence of Jews on an increasing assertive and articulate Christian commoner population triggered the emergence of hostility specifically among those – elites and commoners – who stood most to lose from the new rule-set and the way it undermined the interests of the prime divider. For these people, the constantly changing social and economic landscape created deep anxiety, fear of change, fear of being left behind by change. Denunciations of greed and economic exploitation aimed attacks at those who profited most from new market relations, and attacks on the Jews served as a scapegoat aimed at undermining the new “modern” forces at work in the culture. And at some moment, the gathering forces of this hostility manage to seize upon a widespread social malaise to explode in violence against the designated scapegoat. Soon thereafter, coercion and violence attack the other forces of civil society within the culture – religious dissent and autonomous commoners.

In the history of Jewish-Christian relations, the full cycle of this dialectic remains largely hidden from view, especially the initial period of cooperation since it takes place largely at the level of commoners where little gets recorded in the surviving documentation. Violence, however, pogroms, expulsions, inquisitorial attacks, blood libels and their consequences, leaves a more visible documentary trace. Looking back at this documentation, historians tend to see an almost unbroken string of anti-Jewish outbreaks, a lachrymose narrative of hatred and violence. But my own work on the 11th and 12th century, and subsequent inquiries into later periods like the Renaissance and the Reformation suggest that when we see a violent outbreak of anti-Jewish sentiments, we should look to the previous period of evidence of more philo-Judaic attitudes and the kinds of socio-economic changes that such positive Jewish-Christian interactions encourage.

Thus, in the period just before the explosion of crusading violence in 1096, we find a century of extensive Jewish-Christian interaction, the emergence of autonomous, self-regulating urban communities based on remarkably egalitarian law codes (communes), and the rapid spread of agricultural, commercial, and productive capacities within the European economy. When, in 1084, the bishop of Speyer, following the example of the archbishop of Mainz , granted the community of Jews in his town the right to rule themselves according to their own laws. At the dawn of European economic growth, the Jews were prized players. And when the violence came, it often came not from those who had interacted with the Jews, but those who had “lost ground” as a result of the economic growth such interactions had fostered.

4 Responses to Essays in Judeophobia III: Antisemitism in Prime Divider Societies, the Middle Ages

  1. Sissy Willis says:

    Totally fascinating, but “allow them to rule themselves according to their own laws” called to mind the horrific call from today’s misogynist Islamist leaders amongst us who ask to be allowed to rule themselves according to Sharia law (gak). According to what I’ve read of late, that permits “honor” killings of gals who allowed themselves to be raped and such.

  2. RL says:

    yes, not all laws are the same.

    in medieval europe, certainly in the earlier periods (before the 13th century at least), there was no state, certainly nothing as penetrating as the modern civil state. so then, muslims in christian europe (spain, siciliy) would live accsrding to their own laws, certainly where relations between muslims were concerned, and where questions of self-help justice (feud, vendetta, etc.) were involved even when other groups were involved.

    the jews, however, regularly sought to be governed by the kings law where others were concerned, rather than self-help justice, because they did not do that among themselves and did not want to (could not do it effectively) with others (in many places they could not/ did not wear weapons). in some sense the king’s justice and law courts as a civic replacement of self-help justice has its first and most eager participants with the jews. (hence the jewish dependence on the state.) See David Nirenberg’s fascinating Communities of Violence.

    muslim “self-rule” today doesn’t represent an island of civil society in the midst of a prime divider society, but the opposite, an island of primitive law including self-help justice (of which honor killings are some of the most revolting examples, partly because the girl is being killed by her “natural” and only protectors, her own clan) amidst a modern civil society. add that these islands of primitive law are part of an aggressive imperialist ideology which sees secular civil society as the realm of the sword to be transformed into dar-al-islam, and you have a recipe for disaster, worse than the barbarian move into rome.

  3. qwerty182764 says:

    Read your blog. I like the opinions presented here so far. It’s definitely going in my favorites list.

  4. RL says:

    thank you. feel free to post comments. it’s the conversation that counts.

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