Messianic strains

Issue: 132

John Rose

Antony Polonsky, The Jews in Poland and Russia, Volume 1: 13501881 (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2010), £39.50

It was Abram Leon who pioneered Marxist writing about the economic role of Jewish communities in medieval Europe. (He wrote the original manuscript for The Jewish Question in Nazi-occupied Belgium.) One of his most important observations was that the wave of Jewish expulsions from 13th and 14th century Western Europe was triggered by the emergence of Christian traders in the expanding markets of the embryonic nation states. And that Eastern Europe and especially Poland provided a “refuge” because feudal relations not only continued to flourish but actually became more entrenched. By the middle of the 18th century the Jewish community in Poland-Lithuania was the largest in the world.

However, what Leon didn’t realise was the way Polish feudalism combined with parts of its Jewish component momentarily to service a step-change in the rise of capitalism in Europe through a process the late Chris Harman described as “market feudalism”. There is now a scholarly consensus that these Jewish communities constituted a distinctive economic unit, a medieval trading estate or class. Leon called it a “people-class”.

One of the great merits of Antony Polonsky’s study is to refine this concept, distilled out of a mass of new evidence that has been assiduously researched in recent years.1 He describes a “special case, combining characteristics of an estate with those of a pariah group”. The strength of this approach is that it can acknowledge the primacy of the economic without losing the religious dimension. This is important because reading history backwards from a secular world means that it is easy to forget the domination of religion over all aspects of medieval society. Polonsky cites the lasting significance of St Augustine’s ruling on the Jews in the 5th century: “It held that the Jews were to be tolerated in an inferior position in order to demonstrate the truth of Christianity.”

This suited very well popes, kings and a landowning nobility who could simultaneously justify and benefit from a legal and religious ban on Jews owning those agriculturally productive parts of God’s earth while at the same time taking advantage themselves of those financial and trading skills that Jews began to develop. And in turn Jewish communities realised that their religion would be tolerated only “in exchange for the economic services…performed”.

This was clearly a peculiar and indeed a potentially incendiary arrangement. It sustained periods of relative tranquillity and prosperity for both sides punctuated by anti-Semitic outrages. At the dawn of modernity, Poland would become the principal theatre where its tensions would become unbearable.

Poland’s dependency on Jewish financial skills had begun nearly a thousand years ago. Jews minted coins for Polish rulers as early as 1170. Jewish trading, banking and money lending would flourish as the Jewish population increased. The backward character of Poland’s early economic and political development is critical to understanding the Jewish predicament. Royal authority weakened and the power of the landowning nobility increased—especially in Eastern Poland and lands colonised in the Ukraine. Here the nobility developed their privately owned towns and villages, reinforced serfdom on the peasantry, and invited the Jews to help them.

Jews began moving to the private towns, particularly in the Ukraine, from the late 16th century. By the mid-17th century, according to Polonsky, probably three quarters of the Jewish population lived in towns and villages owned by the nobility.

But what interests us here is the extraordinary economic relationship between the nobles and the minority of wealthier Jewish traders, often community leaders, known as the leasing system. This took a number of forms, the most important being “the practice of leasing out a whole estate to a Jewish leaseholder…which became a central aspect of the noble-Jewish ‘marriage of convenience’.”

In European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism 15501750, Jonathan Israel describes Polish nobles showing “little inclination to manage their business affairs themselves”, leasing their estates, mills and distilleries to Jewish managers:

“Jews were thus main agents at the eastern terminus of a vast traffic encompassing the whole of Europe, the intermediate stages of which were handled by the Lutheran burghers of the Baltic ports—and the Dutch, who supplied some 70 percent of the shipping which transported Polish grain and timber to the west. At all stages…closely tied to the rhythms of international trade.”

According to Israel, a leading authority on Holland’s “Golden Age”, it was that cheap Polish and Ukrainian grain and timber from the Baltic river trade that “laid the foundations” of the early Dutch experiment with industrialisation. And the grain and timber was cheap largely because of the “second serfdom” that the nobles had imposed on a previously relatively free peasantry from the 15th century onwards.

Thus the Jews were caught in a classic medieval double bind. In fact it was a triple bind. They had sold economic services to the nobility to protect their religion only to find themselves simultaneously agents at the start of a chain in Europe’s most advanced internal international trade route, as well as agents of the nobility in Polish and Ukrainian peasant oppression. An economic and social explosion was in the making and it came laced in a cocktail of proto-nationalism and religion usually described as the 1648
Khmelnytsky Uprising.

Bohdan Khmelnytsky was a leader of the Greek Orthodox Cossacks, a notorious group of warrior horseman fugitives and independent peasant farmers who struggled to resist enserfment and who had established a self-governing entity in the Ukraine. The uprising triggered smouldering Ukrainian peasant resistance both to the Jews and their Polish Catholic masters. It also triggered the start of the break-up of Poland-Lithuania which would lead eventually to the partition of Poland itself following a long spiral of political and economic decline.

Thousands of Jews were massacred not only by the local Orthodox peasantry and Cossacks but also by armies sent from Sweden and Moscow in search of major land grab opportunities. The Jewish communities were shaken to their foundations perhaps leading inevitably to an irrational religious retreat from the material world. There had been an impressive and enlightened element within Judaism until 1648, personified by Krakow’s Rabbi Moses Isserles who defended Aristotle and was fascinated by the rising science of astronomy.

Isserles’s remark that “it is better to study philosophy than to err through the
kabbalah” serves here as a prophecy of stunning accuracy. Kabbalah is a form of Jewish mysticism and 1648 triggered wave after wave of mystical Jewish mass movements. The Khmelnytsky Uprising was perceived as God’s punishment for all manner of sins. Calls for repentance created a mood favourable to messianic expectation and all kinds of pretenders to the holy crown came forward.

For example Sabbatai Zevi built up a very impressive following that spread beyond Poland to the wider European Jewish communities and alarmed some of the Christian authorities. But, alas, en route to the holy land he had to confront the Ottoman Turks—who succeeded in converting him to Islam!

Jacob Frank filled the gap Zevi vacated and embarked on a messianic career even weirder than the Sabbateans. He and his followers managed a conversion to Islam but went one better than Zevi with a later conversion to Christianity—an act that, as Polonsky points out, carried the “sinister” excess of publicly indulging ancient anti-Semitic prejudices like the blood libel. Many of Frank’s supporters, including Jewish ones, deemed this a clever manoeuvre to conceal the messiah’s true intentions. The Christian authorities worried about this possibility too and arrested Frank and confined him to a monastery!

Now it would be easy to dismiss all this anachronistic medievalism—except for two considerations Both the Sabbateans and the Frankists laid the foundations for modern Judaism’s most successful mystical movement known as Hasidism, which thrives to this day and indeed makes claims to be growing in the 21st century.

But more importantly these movements genuinely did register in their own distorted way revulsion at the Polish Jewish trap in Poland. Abram Leon reports that the 19th century Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz wrote that the Frankists demanded they be given a special territory because “they did not want to exploit the peasants…They preferred to work the land.” Similarly Jacqueline Rose in The Question of Zion records the link between the Sabbateans and the messianic, and hence fanatical, component of modern Zionism.


1 I would like to thank Professor Polonsky for our intensive email discussion as this review was being written in August 2011.