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Hope's Mistakes

Living Together, Living Apart: Rethinking Jewish-Christian Relations in the Middle Ages
By Jonathan Elukin
(Princeton University Press, 193 pp., $24.95) 

ALL HISTORIES have their sorrows,but those of Jewish history are more studied than most. The chronicles of Israel’s sufferings—the groaning under Pharaoh in Exodus, the Lamentations over lost Jerusalem, Isaiah’s consolations for her captivity—have helped the countless faithful of numerous religions explain God’s puzzling tendency to afflict his followers on earth. Monotheistic theodicy was born from these tears of the ancient Hebrews, and it almost drowned in those of more modern ones. So much significance is a heavy responsibility for any history to bear. 

How should historians write about such meaningful sorrows? For an exceedingly long time, the Jewish answer to this question was silence. After the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., Jews scarcely wrote anything that we would recognize as history. With neither kingdoms nor conquests to chronicle, they preferred genres that collapsed the flow of time rather than charted it. When medieval Jews wanted to commemorate martyrdom and persecution, they composed poems full of biblical allusions that speak volumes about their vision of the prophetic past and the messianic future, but tell us almost nothing about the “historical present” of the events themselves. According to some authorities, it was permissible, except on the Sabbath, for Jews to read the “books of the wars” of other peoples, as Maimonides called them; but they wrote none of their own, preferring to focus their collective research efforts in the archive of God’s ancient words.

Increased calamity changed this consensus. The victims of twelfth- and thirteenth-century persecutions seldom numbered more than a few hundred, but the death tolls in the massacres that swept repeatedly across entire regions of Germany in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were orders of magnitude higher. When violence broke out across several of the kingdoms of Spain in the summer of 1391, at least ten thousand Jews perished, and tens of thousands more sought safety in baptismal fonts. Death and conversion were not the only dangers. New practices of expulsion, pioneered by the kings of France (1182, 1306) and England (1290), increasingly threatened these reduced populations in German and Iberian lands. The number of Jews that remained in Spain for Ferdinand and Isabel to expel in 1492 was roughly one-third what it had been a century before. And once the Catholic monarchs convinced their relatives on the thrones of Portugal and Navarre to emulate their pious acts, there was scarcely an openly identified Jew to be found from the rock of Gibraltar to the more eastern reaches of the Holy Roman Empire, excepting a few thousand settled on “short-term visas” in some Italian cities or perched precariously in the handful of German towns that had not yet expelled them. From the standpoint of an observer circa 1530, unaware of the immigrations of later centuries, the history of the Jews in Western Europe seemed more or less to have reached its end.

If pain, as Nietzsche put it, is the best stimulus to memory, then the calamities of the late Middle Ages hurt the Jews into their history. The sixteenth-century survivors of those calamities, now living in North Africa, Italy, Eastern Europe, and the Ottoman Empire, penned the first Jewish chronicles of the European Diaspora. Not surprisingly, they often wrote that history as a relentless series of tragedies, in a style dubbed lachrymose by modern scholars. These were the tears that watered the research field of Diaspora history when it finally sprouted among the enlightened Jews of nineteenth-century Germany. As the field matured, there were some who wrote of a brighter past, of interaction during the long centuries of Jewish life among Christians, of cultural creativity as well as destruction. But the explosion of anti-Semitism in the first half of the twentieth century, and of Zionism in reaction to it, made it almost impossible any longer to imagine such a past. The trajectory of exile looked even more inexorable once it terminated at Auschwitz. After 1948, with the new state of Israel to celebrate, few historians looked for any joy in the old Diaspora.

Jewish nationalism is often called “belated,” in the sense that the Jews colonized and consolidated their state at precisely the time—the second half of the twentieth century— when Western Europe began to condemn colonialism and nationalism. This belatedness has its corollary in the writing of history. During the 1970s and 1980s, historians in Europe and the United States were developing new forms of social and cultural history that were less interested in justifying the power of empire or nation than in “recovering the voices” of the oppressed: women, the poor, the colonized, the enslaved. By shifting the focus of research from domains in which these groups were largely absent (war, politics, and the history of ideas) to others where they were much more visible (field and factory, charnel house and charivari), historians hoped to make these groups active “agents” of history rather than its silent “subjects.”

The general theme of this historical revolution was that power should not be thought of as monopolized by elites, but as dispersed and “contested” across societies, and the discovery of weapons for the weak was one of the revolutionaries’ major goals. American historians of slavery, for example, began to ask questions about slave strategies of resistance, and to stress processes of reciprocal influence and interpenetration as the basis for the formation of cultures both black and white. Historians of European colonialism reversed their emphasis on the projection of imperial power in order to study how the colonized transformed the colonizers, and to demonstrate that the “subaltern” could speak as well as the imperialist.

In Jewish historical writing, however, the fullness of diasporic existence remained largely silent. With significant exceptions—such as Jacob Katz, S.D. Goitein, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi— Jewish historians focused on pre-modern Jews mainly to stress their struggle to maintain their Judaism in the face of oppression from the dominant Christian culture, not to highlight the creative (and ideologically complicating) interaction between minority and majority. Perhaps the powerlessness of exile was too important a foil for muscular Zionism to be cast aside without crisis. That crisis came in the late 1980s, with the first Intifada. More or less simultaneously with this Palestinian revolt, the partisans of a new history began to excavate the foundations of the state of Israel stone by stone. Some of these revisionists—Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, Tom Segev—focused directly on the twentieth-century history of Mandate Palestine and the early Israeli state. But others turned to the prior history of Diaspora Judaism that Zionism had worked so hard to negate.

These scholars assigned a new importance to the score of centuries that Jews spent living as minorities in lands ruled by others. They argued that many central aspects of Judaism—scriptural and ritual practices, social and economic structures—emerged from relationships of imitation and rejection, acculturation and differentiation, with the non-Jewish cultures that surrounded it. Such arguments moved from revisionist heresy to historical orthodoxy with remarkable speed. For the past decade it has been the norm for scholars to discover “agency” in the Diaspora and to establish the “dialogic” nature of Jewish-Christian relations. Others—myself included—have tried to dismantle “teleologies” that point all of European Jewish history toward the Holocaust by demonstrating that in earlier periods violence against Jews was “contingent,” by which they mean that it was neither constant nor inevitable. Still others have told us that persecution, when it did occur, was not so bad as we think. Even the Inquisition, that archetype of infamy since the Enlightenment, has been re-interpreted as relatively benign without raising eyebrows. Clearly the revolution has become establishment. Today the historian eager for novelty must scale heights so imprudent that they are as likely to produce nausea as shock: witness the historian Ariel Toaff’s recent claim that medieval Jews really did ritually murder young Simon of Trent.

THIS SEEMS TO BE the predicament in which Jonathan Elukin’s “rethinking” of Jewish-Christian relations in the Middle Ages finds itself. Its blurbers promise, as blurbers must, a “paradigm shift,” but in fact this “attempt to read medieval Jewish history against the grain” meets so little resistance from the current historical “grain” that it quickly careens out of control. If this book deserves our attention, it is as a symptom of a paradigm’s limits, not as a new call to arms. 

The author is himself a late convert to the revolution. His earlier articles, on traditional subjects such as the hostility of medieval Christians to converts from Judaism and their descendants, focused a revealing light on the ideological structures of Christian anti-Judaism. But the problem, he tells us in his introduction, is that his students kept asking a different question: if everybody hated the Jews so much, how did they survive at all? Their questioning convinced him that the whole field was barking up the wrong tree. “Instead of persecution and suffering, it is more important to understand how and why Jews survived.... What requires recognition and explanation is not the actions of medieval governments or violent groups of Christians ... but the resilience of the modus vivendi forged in the Middle Ages between European Jews and Christians.”

Apart from a faint whiff of zero-sum—shouldn’t we prefer an explanation that accounts for the simultaneous reality of both persecution and coexistence, rather than one that can recognize tolerance only by not recognizing violence?— this is a promising manifesto. We read on anticipating a demonstration of this resilient “modus vivendi,” eager for relief from suffering. Perhaps the cognoscenti will expect something like Joseph Shatzmiller’s Shylock Reconsidered: Jews, Moneylending, and Medieval Society, which mined the archives of southern France in order to argue that moneylending united medieval Jews and Christians as much as it divided them. If so, they will be disappointed. Elukin’s pages contain no new evidence, and they make no scholarly attempt to document the “modus vivendi” whose existence they repeatedly assert. And what of the promise to reveal the “how and why” of Jewish survival? The book scarcely touches on the question. The fact that some Jews did survive seems, for Elukin, to be the only argument that his re-thinking requires.

The centrality of this simple argument explains why a book that claims not to be about persecution actually takes the form of a catalogue of calamities. Its strategy is to re-examine famous episodes of persecution—from the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century to the rise of the Spanish one in 1492— in a softer light. Bishop Severus’s violent conversion of the Jews of Minorca in 418 provides the first example. Elukin sets aside any analysis of the ideas that might have motivated the bishop and his followers, claiming that we cannot know much about Minorcan Christianity. What we can know with greater ease is that Christians and Jews did not hate each other all the time; and that Jews were not the only targets of violence in this unsettled era; and that they understood a good deal about the Christian society in which they lived. Nor were they entirely powerless: their “individual actions ... affected the outcome of the confrontation.” Some even held on to positions of influence after the confrontation, “albeit” at the cost of their Judaism, “as newly converted Christians.” Finally, there is some evidence that the Minorcans did not entirely succeed in getting rid of all their Jews. But even if they did, we should not overstate the consequences, since “the Mediterranean world still offered many safe harbors for Jews.”

ALREADY WE CAN make out a number of the author’s extraordinary presuppositions. I will call the first the monopoly principle: societies that generate many kinds of violence cannot assign a particular significance to violence against Jews. The second is the principle of total destruction: persecution is not historically meaningful unless it is totally effective. The third is the principle of unintelligibility: so long as individuals attempt to make rational sense of their world and strategic choices within it, that world is not defined by persecution. And the fourth premise is that all cultural exchange, no matter how asymmetrical, is virtuous. Even conversion is a sign of cultural resilience.

The rest of Elukin’s chapter applies these principles to the barbarian kingdoms that succeeded Rome. We know from Gregory of Tours’ famous History of the Franks that when the Jews of Clermont were besieged by a mob in their synagogue, Bishop Avitus (c.572-c.594) sent them a message that effected their conversion: “I do not use force nor do I compel you to confess the Son of God.... If you are prepared to believe what I believe, then become one flock, with me as your shepherd. If not, then leave this place.” Elukin’s interpretation of this episode? Avitus “did not demonize Clermont’s Jews but rather offered them membership in a unified city under his protection.” He seems to see only a warm spirit of integration and coexistence in these circumstances. True, those Jews who refused baptism were exiled, but they found refuge in Marseille, proving once again that “there were places that remained open to Jews.”

This threshold for “resilience” seems so low as to be unassailable. Still, the case of Visigothic Spain does pose a challenge, since kings there frequently decreed the baptism of all Jews in the kingdom, exiled those who refused, and expended considerable effort legislating the piety of converts. How does Elukin meet this challenge? He simply finds it “hard to imagine that all Jews in the kingdom either converted or chose exile.” Instead, they surely “grew used to sporadic rhetoric that called for their persecution.” If this rhetoric was sometimes “extreme”—say, in the decree of the country’s assembled king and bishops in 694 that all Jews be enslaved lest they betray Spain to the Muslims—then it must have been “equally unenforceable.” The proof: “Jews survived to become a vibrant part of Islamic society in medieval Spain.” (Never mind the inconvenient fact that many of these “vibrant” Jews were later immigrants to Muslim Spain.) Ergo, this survey of the early Middle Ages concludes, “it would be unfair to the complex nature of [the Jews’] experiences to try to fit their interactions with Christians into a rigid thematic framework.” And then this is promptly followed by just such an attempt: “the common denominator perhaps is a certain resilience and fluidity in how Jews confronted an idiosyncratic Christian antagonism.”

Already we have a full sense of this book’s argument and its method. Neither is particularly novel, but the author pushes both to new extremes in his hunger for hope and for good progressive news. Many works have stressed the importance of acculturation for the adaptive transformation of Jewish culture, but few have gone so far as Elukin, in his chapter called “Cultural Integration in the High Middle Ages,” and presented “the conversion of Jews to Christianity,” whether voluntary or forced, as “another way to understand how Christians made a kind of intellectual space for Jews in their culture.” Where others might see evidence of Christian efforts to eliminate Judaism, Elukin sees “living proof that the barriers between the two faiths could be crossed.”

“The door to integration in Christian society,” Elukin writes, “was still largely open.” It does not matter to him that this “integration” came at the cost of Judaism itself. Nor does it matter that even this minimalist standard for “resilience” was often not met: Christians were frequently deeply suspicious of converts and even of their descendants. Elukin has written eloquently about this subject before, but here he barely mentions it, and then only to put the blame for that suspicion entirely on the shoulders of the converts themselves: “Sometimes those transitions were difficult.... Christians may have become incensed over the arrogance of some converts ... but the search for converts never stopped.”

Such extreme arguments run an unexpected risk: that of banality. The danger is already clear by the time we reach the first great outbreak of anti-Jewish violence in the Middle Ages, the massacres conducted in the Rhineland by partisans of the First Crusade in 1096. Few topics in medieval Jewish history have produced finer scholarship over the past decade: today we know more than ever before about these massacres and their effects on Jewish life and culture in France and Germany, or Ashkenaz. But in their relentless search for resilience, Elukin’s arguments approach the obvious, as when he concludes from the fact that some Jews attempted to secure protection during the massacres by offering bribes to local officials that they therefore “recognize[d] that the bishop and other political leaders were human beings whose motivations were understandable.”

By the time we reach the chapter titled “Violence,” the extreme pressure of the book’s presuppositions has become unbearable. The chapter begins with a restatement of principles: “violence or the fear of violence ... was a constant that both Jews and Christians had to confront,” implying that there were no important differences in the types of violence to which Jews and Christians were vulnerable, or any specific meanings that violence against Jews might have within medieval culture. When Jews did experience violence, what Elukin wants us to remember is their capacity, however limited, for strategic action and rational agency: “they made decisions—when they could—about their safety and collective futures based on what they knew of their societies.” And there is further enlightenment, and consolation, to be found in the fact that the violence they faced was never total. Thousands lost their lives during the massacres of 1298, but “even in the midst of the violence, Jews were not completely abandoned. We have several examples of attempts to protect Jews— even if these were condemned by the chroniclers.”

Of the next and even greater wave of violence in 1316-1318, Elukin wants us to note that “the mania against the Jews had not overtaken everyone,” and that Jews “still relied on their experience of immediate local conditions to make decisions about their best chances of safety.” Similarly he stresses that during the German massacres of tens of thousands of Jews provoked by the arrival of the Black Death in 1348, “some communities ... escaped untouched,” but skips lightly over the fact that the vast majority of them did not. Throughout these pages and those that follow—dedicated to the Spanish massacres of 1391—Elukin takes extreme pains to select evidence that might impart a positive spin to unspeakably grim events. Thus he tells us that, after the plague massacres, Nuremberg “readmitted the Jews, by order of the emperor.” But he does not tell us that this same emperor, Charles IV, had himself licensed the massacres months before they occurred, promising Nuremberg’s town council immunity from prosecution—and much of the victims’ property—when and if the Jews were killed. Likewise Elukin finds much meaning in the choice of some Jews to return to live where others had died: “The violence itself or the memories of that violence were not enough to completely undermine the connection of Jews to these places.... If actions speak louder than words, then we have to take seriously the intentions of Jews who remained engaged with gentile society in fourteenth-century Germany.” Yet many more Jews voted with their feet to leave, to move elsewhere, judging from the centuries it would take for the population of German Jews to reach once more its pre-massacre highs. Should we not take their actions seriously, too? And why ignore the words of medieval Jews, unless it is because they do not agree with our own? Writing his testament in Toledo in 1349, Rabbi Judah ben Asher did not call his native land of Germany a “land of tolerance,” but an eretz gezerah, a “land of persecution.”

EVEN IF ELUKIN’S evidence were not so one-sided and unrepresentative, his argument would still be unconvincing. A simple comparison will make this clear: Nazi Germany, too, had its Schindlers and Bonhoeffers. There, too, “the mania against the Jews had not overtaken everyone.” Many Jews did escape the genocide. As for those who were not so fortunate, we know from survivor literature and from contemporary sociology that there was room for strategic action (including bribery) even in the concentration camps, which had forms of rationality all their own. And tens of thousands of Jews returned to Germany after its defeat, some almost immediately, many others decades later. Should we conclude from all this that the mid-twentieth-century “modus vivendi” between Jews and Christians was resilient, and that this resilience, rather than the Shoah, is what “requires recognition and explanation”?

This comparison is provocative, but it is not beside the point. An important goal for Jewish historians of this generation has been to re-establish the possibility of distinguishing between the Holocaust and other provinces of the past. We now know a great deal that was not lachrymose about Jewish life in the medieval world, and we would like to use that knowledge to relieve the Middle Ages of too easy a responsibility for the horrors of modernity. To that end, many of us have at times deployed arguments like Elukin’s, though seldom with such singlemindedness. What this book unwittingly reveals is that, when pushed to their conclusion, these arguments achieve the opposite effect: they destroy the very possibility of distinction. All suffering looks more or less the same under the darkness of this logic, and we can no longer make out any persecution worthy of the name.

Elukin’s expresses his own desire to break from the gravity of the past in terms borrowed from the German sociologist Hans Freyer. “This is my hope,” he writes, and then cites Freyer’s words: 

The historian restores history to the complex situation which prevailed when it was still in the course of being decided. He makes it into the present once more, reviving its acute alternatives. In the true sense of the word, he makes it happen again, that is, he has it decided again. He dissolves the content, the product, the form of the completed work or the done deed, at the same time appealing to the will, to the living power of decision, out of which these works and deed grow. 

Elukin’s choice of authority is slightly unfortunate. The “living power of decision” that Freyer is advocating here is an expression of the philosophy of Dezisionismus that he shared with Carl Schmitt and other fascist-leaning scholars of his day. It was this same “decisionism” that generated Freyer’s enthusiasm for the Fuhrerprinzip and brought him the presidency of the German Sociological Association after the Nazi assumption of power in 1933. But Elukin is not interested, apparently, in the origins, or the details, of Freyer’s ideas; all he wants from him is the authorization to decide history anew. And never mind that Freyer subjected that authority to the constraint of the past: the historian re-decided the past by resurrecting “the complex situation” as it first presented itself—and what god among us can do that? Elukin wants a more arbitrary power, in which the historian is free to decide which parts of the past shall live and which shall die. 

Nowhere is this arbitrariness clearer than in Elukin’s willful insistence that persecution has no past and no future, no connection to what came before and no impact on what came after—that it is somehow ahistorical. “Violence against Jews has more the character of disconnected outbursts,” he writes. “It is hard to see that these episodes had a long-term impact on the way Jews and Christians treated each other in routine situations.... So many of these episodes depended on the quirks of religiosity of individual rulers or clerics that connecting them creates an arbitrary and deceptive impression of a linked evolution of anti-Jewish sentiment.... [E]xpulsions are not teleologically linked to the preexpulsion experience of Jews....” Only the modus vivendi is resilient, enduring, relevant—historical.

I call this insistence willful because it is held despite evidence and despite contradiction. Consider the many expulsions of Jews, which would seem to be a limit case for such an argument. Do they not destroy the “modus vivendi” and affect the future? The later Middle Ages are too well documented to evade the problem by asserting—as with the Visigoths—that expulsions must have been ineffective or unenforceable. What remains for Elukin is to call them unrepresentative. The expulsions were “quirks.” They were “decisions taken by individual rulers at moments of crisis. King Edward of England, for example ... turned to the Jews to vent his anger....The expulsions did not come in response to a popular call for the Jews’ removal.... What the general population thought about the expulsion it is hard to know.”

It is hard to know what general populations think, but this does not give us license to ignore the knowledge that we do possess. From 1248 on, virtually no English parliament voted its king a tax without first demanding that some steps be taken against the Jews. (The same could be said for Spain in the fourteenth century.) Rebels against English kings expressed similar sentiments more forcefully—from the Magna Carta’s restrained complaints about the king’s use of “his” Jews to Simon of Montfort’s violent attacks against them. And when Edward did finally expel the Jews in 1290, he received from his grateful people in return one of the largest taxes ever granted by the English to a medieval monarch. In short, we have vastly more evidence of “call[s] for the Jews’ removal” than for their being allowed to remain.

IT WOULD BE EASY to mobilize more evidence against Elukin’s arguments, but he would probably consider all of it irrelevant. His claim seems to be that “since we cannot know the experience or thoughts of each individual Jew or Christian,” we cannot generalize about persecution. This is a strange position: if omniscience is a prerequisite for historical generalization, then the historian, like Job, can only tremble and be silent. I might be willing to accept the prerequisite and the silence, if Elukin did so as well. But—and this seems to me a basic contradiction— although he tells us we may not generalize about persecution, he himself generalizes constantly about “tolerance,” as here, in the last pages of his book:

The expulsions of Jews from western European countries seems to have brought [the modus vivendi] to an end.... But simply to say this, too, may be conceding too much to the traditional narrative. Given the alternative reading of the medieval Jewish experience I have proposed, it is hard for me to accept such an explanation or characterization of the expulsions. The sheer variety, conditions, and duration of the expulsions present a picture of chaos and ad hoc solutions rather than any concerted or consistent cultural or political response. The final period of the expulsions cannot be seen, then, as a fundamental break with the past.

Instead, the expulsions are merely an inexplicable interlude before the readmission of the Jews to various parts of western Europe—a re-admission that was itself made possible by the “ongoing habits of a pragmatic tolerance that I have tried to describe for the medieval period....” The return of the Jews in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries was “a likely testament to the memory of an effective modus vivendi in these countries.” It was this “living habit of tolerance” (this is the book’s final sentence) “that provided hope, at least until more modern times, for the future of European Jews.”

With “memory” and “habit” as his springboard, Elukin has leaped over inconvenient centuries and into a more hopeful future. He is careful, of course, not to leap too far, lest he land in “modern times” of deportation and extermination. Thus does a book that inveighs constantly against “arbitrary” and “deceptive” continuities of persecution create equally arbitrary and deceptive continuities of “tolerance” and “hope.” But the word “equally” may be too generous here, given that Elukin makes no attempt to uncover the happy memories that he claims persevered across the centuries that most of Western Europe remained without Jews. Since we are all familiar with less happy ones— with Chaucer’s flashbacks to ritual murder, with Shakespeare’s bloodthirsty usurer—the historian of hope must bring some evidence to the table. In its absence, all we are left with is his willfulness: “it is hard for me to accept...”

Every historical interpretation is an imposition of our will upon the past. Since neither the past nor the present can be captured in all its complexity, narration requires ruthless selection: the recognition of a few voices as significant, and the consigning of untold others to oblivion. But the historian’s selections are subject to different constraints of evidence and argumentation than those of the novelist or the polemicist: otherwise why grant the discipline of history any authority at all? For the sake of insight we should always test the limits of those constraints, but if we overthrow them too carelessly only interpretive anarchy will remain.

All histories have their sorrows, but those of Jewish history are more debated than most, and therefore the risks of anarchy are greater. From Wikipedia’s servers to the presidential lectern in Tehran, the politics of the present fans the struggle over the meaning of Jewish suffering. That struggle is most obvious in the case of the Holocaust, with its industry and its deniers, but the Middle Ages are a battlefield as well. Google “expulsion of the Jews from England” and the first hit after Wikipedia will be a celebratory “history” of 1290. The same is true for other medieval persecutions. In fact, any search on the word “Jew” is so likely to produce hate sites that Google has an automated disclaimer distancing itself from the results. The practice of history is one defense, however frail, against a world in which any interpretation of the past is as good as any other. Since this danger afflicts the history of Judaism more than it does others, perhaps historians of Judaism should be more aware of it. 

Of course I do not mean to reduce Judaism to its tears, or to suggest that revisionism in scholarship should cease—that we should stop rethinking the past or harnessing history for present needs. Not at all. To twist a dictum of Walter Benjamin’s, in order for history to be made vital, we must feed the living with the blood of the past. The question is only whether historians have any special responsibility to the evidentiary body of the past, or whether, like vampires, they may feast at will. 

This article appeared in the February 13, 2008 issue of the magazine.