Abram Leon

The Jewish Question


The Jews in Europe after the Renaissance


A. The Jews in Western Europe after the Renaissance
The Thesis of Sombart.

The discovery of the new world and the tremendous current of exchange that followed upon it sounded the death knell of the old corporative feudal world. Mercantile economy reached a higher stage, smashing the remnants of previous periods and preparing, by the development of manufacture and rural industry the bases of industrial capitalism. The place of the old centers of corporative industry and medieval trade, fallen into decay, was taken over by Antwerp, which became the commercial center of the world for a certain period.

Everywhere, although at different times and in different forms, the decline of the economy producing use values was accompanied by the decay of the economic and social function of the Jews. An important number of the Jews was compelled to leave the countries of Western Europe in order to seek refuge in the countries where capitalism had not yet penetrated, principally in Eastern Europe and in Turkey. Others became assimilated, fused with the Christian population. This assimilation was not always easy. Religious traditions long survived the social situation which had been their foundation. For centuries the Inquisition struggled mercilessly and barbarously against Jewish traditions which persisted among the mass of converts.

The Jews who penetrated into the merchant class acquired a certain notoriety under the name of “new Christians,” principally in America and also at Bordeaux and Antwerp. In the first half of the seventeenth century, all the great sugar plantations in Brazil were in the hands of Jews. By the decree of March 2, 1768, all registers concerning new Christians were destroyed; by the law of March 24, 1773, “new Christians” were made equal before the law with “old Christians.”

In 1730, Jews possessed 115 plantations out of 344 at Surinam. But contrary to previous epochs, the activity of the Jews in America no longer had a special economic character; it was in no ways distinguished from the activity of Christians. The “new Christian” merchant was little different from the “old Christian” merchant. The same was true of the Jewish plantation owner. And this is also the reason why juridical, religious, and political distinctions rapidly disappeared.

In the nineteenth century, the Jews in South America no longer constituted more than a handful. [1] Assimilation of the Jews proceeded just as rapidly in France and in England. The rich merchant Jews of Bordeaux, of whom it was said that they “possessed entire streets and had large trade,” felt themselves completely integrated into the Christian population. “Those who are acquainted with the Portuguese Jews of France, Holland, England, know that they are far from having an unconquerable hatred for all the peoples who surround them, as Mr. Voltaire says, but on the contrary they believe themselves so identified with these peoples that they consider themselves a part of them. Their Portuguese or Spanish origin has become a pure ecclesiastical discipline.” [2] The assimilated Jews of the West acknowledged no relationship with the Jews still living under the conditions of feudal life. “A Jew of London as little resembles a Jew of Constantinople as the latter does a Chinese Mandarin. A Portuguese Jew of Bordeaux and a German Jew of Metz have nothing in common.” “Mr. Voltaire cannot ignore the delicate scruples of the Portuguese and Spanish Jews in not mixing with the Jews of other nations, either by marriage or otherwise.” [3]

Alongside the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English Jews, whose complete assimilation is proceeding slowly and surely, we still find Jews in Western Europe, primarily in Italy and in Germany, who inhabit ghettos and are mostly petty usurers and peddlers. This is a sorry remnant of the former Jewish merchant class. They are reviled, persecuted, subject to innumerable restrictions.

It was on the special basis of the rather important economic role played by the first category of Jews that Sombart presented his famous thesis on “The Jews and Economic Life.” [4] He has himself summarized it in these terms: “The Jews promote the economic flowering of countries and cities in which they settle; they lead the countries and cities which they abandon to economic decay.” “They are the founders of modern capitalism.” “There would be no modern capitalism, no modern culture without the dispersion of the Jews in the countries of the North.” “Israel passes over Europe like the sun: at its coming new life bursts forth; at its going all falls into decay.”

This is the way, in rather poetic fashion as we can see, that Sombart presents his thesis. And here are the proofs adduced in its support:

  1. “The first event to be recalled, an event of world-wide import, is the expulsion of the Jews from Spain (1492) and from Portugal (1495 and 1497). It should never be forgotten that on the day before Columbus set sail from Palos to discover America (August 3, 1492) 300,000 Jews are said to have emigrated from Spain ....”
  2. In the fifteenth century; the Jews were expelled from the most important commercial cities of Germany: Cologne (1424–25), Augsburg (1439–40), Strasbourg (1438), Erfurt (1458), Nuremberg (1498–99), Ulm (1499), Regensburg (1519). In the sixteenth century; the same fate befell them in a number of Italian cities; they were driven out of Sicily in 1492, from Naples in 1540–41, from Genoa and Venice in 1550. Here as well the decline of these cities coincides with the departure of the Jews.
  3. The economic development of Holland at the end of the sixteenth century is marked by a great rise of capitalism. The first Portuguese Marranos settled at Amsterdam in 1593.
  4. The brief flowering of Antwerp as the center of world trade and as a world exchange coincides exactly with the arrival and departure of Marranos.

These arguments, essential to the Sombart thesis, are very easily refuted:

1. It is absurd to see in the simultaneity of the departure of Christopher Columbus “to discover America” and the expulsion of the Spanish Jews a proof of the decline of the countries which they left. “Not only did Spain and Portugal not fall into decline in the sixteenth century; under Charles V and Emanuel, but on the contrary they reached their historical apogee at that time. Even at the beginning of the reign of Philip II, Spain is still the foremost power in Europe and the wealth of Mexico and Peru which flowed to it was immeasurable.” [5]

This first Sombartist proof is based on a crying falsehood.

2. The very figures which he supplies on the redistribution of the Jewish refugees coming from Spain aids in demolishing his thesis. According to him, out of 165,000 exiles, 122,000 or 72 percent emigrated to Turkey and into Moslem countries. Consequently it is there that the “capitalist spirit” of the Jews should have produced the most important effects. Is it necessary to add then, that while we can speak of a certain economic rise in the Turkish empire under Suleiman the Magnificent, that country remained the least accessible to capitalism up to a very recent period, so that the rays of the sun there proved to be ... very cold? It is true that a rather important number of Jews (25,000) settled in Holland, at Hamburg, and in England, but can we concede that the same cause produced diametrically opposite effects?

3. The coincidence which Sombart perceives in the decline of the German cities is easily explained by reversing the causal relation. The ruin of these cities was not provoked by the measures taken against the Jews; these measures were on the contrary the effect of the decline of these cities. On the other hand, the prosperity of other cities was not the result of Jewish immigration but it was the latter which naturally directed itself toward prosperous cities. “It is obvious that the relation of cause and effect is contrary to that presented by Sombart.” [6]

A study of the economic role of the Jews in Italy and Germany at the end of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries fully confirms this viewpoint. It is clear that the pawnshops, the business of Jewish usurers, were endurable so long as the economic situation of these cities was relatively good. Every worsening of the situation rendered the burden of usury more intolerable and the anger of the population vented itself first of all against the Jews.

4. The example of Holland does not, it is true, weaken the thesis of Sombart but neither does it reinforce it. Even if we admit that its prosperity was favored by the arrival of the Marranos, we are not thereby authorized to make it its cause. And how can we explain, if we base ourselves on this criterion, the decline of Holland in the eighteenth century? It appears, moreover, that the economic role of the Jews in Holland is exaggerated. Sayous says, in connection with the Dutch East India Company, whose importance to the prosperity of Holland was decisive: “The Jews have in any case no role whatsoever in the formation of the first genuinely modern stock corporation, the Dutch East India Company; they subscribed barely 0.1 percent of its capital and played no important role in its activity during the ensuing years.” [7]

Is it necessary to continue? Must it be shown that the important economic development of England took place precisely after the expulsion of the Jews? “If the causal relation established by Sombart were true, how explain that in Russia and in Poland, where the southern people from the ‘desert’ have been most numerous for centuries, their influence on the northern peoples produced no economic flowering whatever?” [8]

The theory of Sombart is consequently completely false. [9] Sombart claims that he is portraying the economic role of the Jews, but he does so in a completely impressionistic way, rearranging history to suit his theory. Sombart presents a thesis on the Jews and economic life in general, but deals solely with a very limited part of their history. Sombart builds a theory on the Jews in general and on economic life, but he limits himself to a minority of Western Jews, of Jews on the road to complete assimilation.

In reality, even if the role of the Western Jews had been such as Sombart presents, he would still have had to make an abstraction from it in order to understand the Jewish question in the present period. Without the influx of Eastern Jews into Western Europe in the nineteenth century, the Western Jews would long ago have been absorbed in the surrounding milieu. [10] One more observation regarding the theory of Sombart: If the Jews constituted such an economic boon; if their departure provoked the economic decay of cities and countries, how explain their continuous persecution in the late Middle Ages? Can this be explained by religion? But then, why was the position of the Jews so solid in Western Europe in the early Middle Ages and in Eastern Europe up to the nineteenth century? How explain the prosperity of the Jews for long centuries in the most backward countries of Europe, in Poland, in Lithuania; the powerful protection accorded them by the kings? Can the difference in the situation of the Jews be explained by the difference in the intensity of religious fanaticism? But then how can we concede that religious fanaticism should be most intense precisely in the most developed countries? How can we explain that it was precisely in the nineteenth century that anti-Semitism developed most strongly in Poland?

The question then is to seek the causes for the existence of differences in the intensity of religious fanaticism. And thus we are brought back to the duty of studying economic phenomena. Religion explains anti-Jewish persecutions like a soporific explains sleep. If the Jews had really played the role that Sombart attributes to them, it would be very difficult to understand why the development of capitalism was such a mortal blow to them. [11]

It is consequently inaccurate to regard the Jews as founders of modern capitalism. The Jews certainly contributed to the development of exchange economy in Europe but their specific economic role ends precisely where modern capitalism starts.

B. The Jews in Eastern Europe up to the nineteenth century

At the dawn of the development of industrial capitalism, Western Judaism was on the road to disappearance. The French Revolution, by destroying the last juridical obstacles which stood in the way of assimilation of the Jews, only gave sanction to an already existing situation.

But it is certainly not by chance that at the same time that the Jewish question was being extinguished in the West, it rebounded with redoubled violence in Eastern Europe. In the period when the Jews in Western Europe were being massacred and burned, a large number of Jews had sought refuge in the countries where capitalism had still not penetrated. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the immense majority of Jews inhabited the east of Europe, principally the former territory of the monarchist republic of Poland. In this paradise of a carefree Shlachta (petty nobility), the Jewish commercial class had found a large field of activity. For long centuries, the Jew was a merchant, usurer, publican, steward to the noble, an agent for everything. The small Jewish cities, submerged in a sea of peasant villages, often themselves adjoining the chateaux of the Polish feudal lords, represented exchange economy within a purely feudal society. The Jews were situated, as Marx states, in the pores of Polish society. This situation lasted as long as the social and political organization of Poland remained static. In the eighteenth century, following upon political confusion and economic decay, Polish feudalism found itself fatally stricken. Along with it the secular position of the Jews in Eastern Europe was shaken to its foundations. The Jewish problem, close to vanishing in the West, flared up violently in Eastern Europe. The flame, close to extinction in the West, received renewed vitality from the conflagration which arose in the East. The destruction of the economic position of the Jews in Eastern Europe will have as a consequence a massive emigration of Jews into the world. And everywhere, although in different forms and under different guises, the flood of Jewish immigrants coming from Eastern Europe will revitalize the Jewish problem. It is in this respect that the history of the Jews of Eastern Europe has certainly been the decisive factor in the Jewish question in our epoch.

The commercial relations of the Jews of Eastern Europe, of Bohemia, Poland, and Little Russia, date from the Carolingian era. The trading circuit that the Jews had established during the early Middle Ages between Asia and Europe became extended in this way across the fields of Poland and the plains of the Ukraine. Like their coreligionists, the Radamites, the Eastern Jews exchanged the precious products of Asia, spices and silks, for the raw materials of Europe. They constituted the sole commercial element in a purely agricultural society. In the Carolingian era, the economic regime of all Europe being practically the same, the role of Eastern Judaism was similar to that of Western Judaism. It is only later that their history will enter upon completely different paths.

Accounts of the travels of Ibrahim Ibn Jakob (965) testify to the considerable development of Jewish trade at Prague in the tenth century. The Jews came there from the Far East and from Byzantium, bringing different kinds of precious merchandise and Byzantine money, and there bought wheat, tin, and furs. In a document of 1090, the Jews of Prague are depicted as traders and money changers, possessing large sums of silver and gold; they are depicted as the richest merchants among all peoples. Jewish slave merchants, as well as other Jewish traders coming from the Far East and traversing the frontier in caravans, are also mentioned in documents of 1124 and 1226. The interest rate among the Jewish bankers of Prague, whose operations were very extensive, fluctuated between 108 and 180 percent. [12] The chronicler Gallus states that in 1085, Judith, the wife of Prince Ladislag Herman of Poland, strove to buy back some Christian slaves from Jewish merchants. Excavations undertaken in the past century have helped bring to light the great economic importance of the Jews in Poland in this period. Polish money has been discovered bearing Hebraic characters and dating from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This fact in itself proves that Polish trade was in the hands of the Jews. The Tartar invasions of the thirteenth century must certainly have had some influence on the Russian and Polish Jews, but as early as 1327, there is a privilege conferred by the Polish king, Vladislav Lokietek, involving Hungarian Jewish merchants coming to Kraków. Far from diminishing, Jewish trade in Poland only takes on greater extension in the course of succeeding centuries.

Just as in Western Europe, development of trade went together with an expansion of usury. Here also, the nobility, principal client of the Jewish usurers, strove to obtain restrictions on Jewish usury as against the kings who favored it “for the Jews, in their capacity as slaves of the treasury must always have money ready for our service.” In the sejm of 1347, the nobility, desiring to limit the interest rate which had reached 108 percent, collided with the firm resistance of royalty.

In 1456, King Casimir Jagiello proclaims that in protecting the Jews he is inspired by the principle of tolerance which is imposed upon him by divine law. In 1504, the Polish king, Alexander, declares that he acts towards the Jews as befits “kings and the powerful who distinguish themselves not only by tolerance towards worshippers of the Christian religion but also towards the adherents of other religions.”

Under such auspices, the affairs of Jews could not help but prosper. In the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, Jewish usurers succeeded in taking possession of a portion of the lands belonging to the nobles. In 1389, the Jew Sabetai becomes proprietor of a section of the Cawilowo domain. In 1390, the Kraków Jew Iosman receives the property of Prince Diewiez of Pszeslawic as security. In 1393, the Posen Jew Moschko takes possession of the Ponicz manor. In 1397, the lands of the Abiejesz manor are pledged with the Posen Jew Abraham. These lands of the nobles are allotted to the Jews with complete property rights. Thus, in the last cited example, the noble having attacked the possessions transmitted to Abraham, the tribunal confirms the right of possession of the Jew and punishes the aggressor with a heavy fine. In 1404, the verdict of a tribunal declares that three villages pledged with the Jew Schmerlin of Kraków, are transmitted to him with complete property rights and forever (cum omnibus juribus utilitatibus dominio, etc. in perpetuum).

The most important “bankers” lived in Kraków, residence of the kings. Their principal debtors were in effect the kings, the princes, the voyevode (governors), and the archbishops. Thus Casimir the Great borrowed the enormous sum of 15,000 marks from Jewish bankers. King Louis of Hungary owed the usurer Levko of Kraków 30,000 gulden at one time, 3,000 gulden at another. King Vladislav Jagiello and the queen, Jadwiga, also owed him substantial sums.

Levko was not only a great banker; he was also a wholesale farmer for the kingdom. He leased the mint and coined its money; and the salt mines of Wieliczka and of Bochnia were also farmed out to him. He owned houses at Kraków, as well as a brewery. Just like the great patricians, he was honored with the title of “vir discretus.”

The usury of the great Jewish bankers such as Miesko, Jordan of Posen, and Aron, who succeeded in amassing immense properties and took possession of villages and lands, raised a storm of protest among the nobility. The Statute of Warta (1423) greatly restricted Jewish usury. Thus, in 1432, the Jew Alexander, with whom the villages Dombrowka and Sokolow and a part of their living inventory had been pledged, was forced to return these properties to his debtor by decision of the tribunal, the Statute of Warta having proscribed loans on real property.

The Jews and the kings did not readily resign themselves to this situation. A fierce struggle enabled them to abolish the Statute of Warta. The bankers were able to expand their sphere of operation. Thus, in 1444, the King pledged his palace at Lemberg to the banker Schina.This usurer also had among his clients Prince Szwidrigiella, the voyevoda Chriczka, who had pledged the village of Winiki with him, etc.

But neither did the nobility accept defeat. It returned continuously to the charge and succeeded in forcing the king to promulgate the Statute of Nieszawa in 1454, with harsher provisions than the Statute of Warta. Nevertheless, and this fact is sufficient to show the fundamental difference which existed in this sphere between Poland and Western Europe, the most Draconian laws were not able to end Jewish usury. Starting with 1455, we even witness a rebirth of the banking trade mainly as a result of the immigration of Jews from Moravia and Silesia, as well as from other countries. From 1460 on, the records of Kraków testify to such an extensive revival of usurious transactions that this period is reminiscent of the epoch of Levko and of Schmerlin. The richest banker is a certain Fischel who had married the female banker Raschka of Prague and who furnished funds to the Polish king, Casimir Jagiello, as well as to his sons, the future kings Albrecht and Alexander. Whereas the nobility of Western Europe, thanks to the penetration of exchange economy and to an abundance of money, succeeded in ridding itself everywhere of Jewish usury the persistence of feudal economy in Eastern Europe made the nobility powerless on this terrain. Jewish banking survived all proscriptions.

The backward state of the country also fettered the evolution which we have observed in the countries of Western Europe: the eviction of Jews from commerce and their confinement within usury. The bourgeois class and the cities were only beginning to develop. The struggle of the bourgeoisie against the Jews remained in an embryonic state and did not achieve any decisive results. The artisans, oppressed by Jewish usury, joined ranks with the traders. Here also, the sooner a province developed, the sooner arose conflicts with the Jews. In 1403, at Kraków, and in 1445 at Bochnia, artisans incite massacres of Jews. But the struggles were only episodic and nowhere ended with the elimination of the Jewish element. On the contrary, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, their situation is only strengthened and Jewish commerce continues to flourish.

In the second half of the fourteenth century, we hear of a “syndicate” of three Lemberg Jews, Schlomo, Czewja, and Jacob, formed with a view to furnishing Italian merchandise to the city council of Lemberg. At the beginning of the fifteenth century Jews are provisioners of the royal court. In 1456, the starosta of Kamieniec Podolsky confiscates Oriental merchandise worth six hundred marks from Jewish merchants coming to Poland from the commercial centers of the Black Sea. The Byzantine and Italian Jews of Capha made numerous trips to Poland. The Jew Caleph Judaeus of Capha passed great quantities of Oriental goods through the customhouse of Lemberg. Even after the destruction of the Italian colonies in the Black Sea (1475) the Jews continued to maintain relations with the Orient. From 1467 on, the Jew David of Constantinople regularly supplied Lemberg with Oriental goods. There is even mention of a renewal of the slave trade in Little Russia from 1440 to 1450. Russian law books recount an interesting fact in 1449: A slave belonging to a Jew Mordecai of Galicia having fled, his owner sues in the courts for his return.

The Jewish merchants of Capha and Constantinople came only to the great fairs of Lemberg and Lublin. To these also came the Jews dispersed throughout the Russian and Polish cities and market towns in order to purchase Oriental goods and spread them throughout the districts which they inhabited. These Jewish merchants traveled the roads running from Lemberg and Lublin through Little and Greater Poland up to the Silesian frontier.

The Jews also crossed this frontier and conducted a very lively trade with Bohemia and Germany. Letters from 1588 inform us that hides and furs were brought from Kraków to Prague and that money was loaned at interest and against pledges.

The fair of Lublin served as the commercial meeting place between the Jewish merchants of Poland and of Lithuania. The Jewish merchants exported hides, furs, timber, honey from Lithuania, and at the Lublin fair they bought spices coming from Turkey and manufactured goods originating in Western Europe. Records of the city of Danzig mention Jewish merchants from Lithuania who exported timber, wax, fins, hides, etc., during the period 1423 to 1436.

The position of Lithuanian Judaism was still more favorable than that of the Polish Jews. Until the Union of Lublin (Union of Poland and Lithuania), the Lithuanian Jews enjoyed the same rights as the entire free population. In their hands lay big business, banking, the customhouses, etc. The farming of taxes and customs brought them great wealth. Their clothes glittered with gold and they wore swords just like the gentry.

Records of the Lithuanian chancellery show that in the period from 1463 to 1494 the Jews had leased almost all the customs offices of the Duchy of Lithuania: Bielek, Bryansk, Brchiczin, Grodno, Kiev, Minsk, Novgorod, Zhitomin. Some documents from the years 1488 and 1489 mention certain Jews of Trock and of Kiev as exploiting the Grand Duke’s salt mines. In the same period, we begin to meet Jews in the role of publicans, a profession which in the Polish and Little Russian village goes hand in hand with the trade of usury.

The strengthening of the anarchy of the nobles in Poland necessarily affected the situation of the Jews. In the sixteenth century, their position remains very solid but they pass more and more from royal control to that of the large and small feudal lords. The decline of the royal power makes its protection less effective and the Jews themselves seek less brilliant but surer protectors. King Sigismund complains to the sejm of 1539: “The aristocracy of our kingdom wants to monopolize all the profits of the Jews inhabiting the market towns, villages, and manors. It demands the right to judge them. To that we reply: If the Jews themselves resign the privileges of an autonomous jurisdiction which the kings our forefathers granted them and which have also been confirmed by us, they do in fact abandon our protection, and no longer drawing profit from them, we have no reason whatever to impose our kindnesses on them by force.”

It is obvious that if the Jews now declined these “kindnesses,” it was because royalty no longer had any degree of real power in this country dominated by the nobles.

In the sixteenth century the situation of the Jews became stronger. They received anew all the rights against which attempts had been made in the preceding century. Their economic position improved. The growing power of the nobility (Poland became an electoral kingdom in 1569) deprived them of the protection of the kings, but the feudal lords did everything to stimulate their economic activity. The traders, lenders at interest, stewards of the noble manors, with their inns and breweries, were extremely useful to the feudal lords who passed their time abroad in luxury and idleness. “The small towns located on the estates of the nobility were full of shops, of inns, of eating and drinking places, as well as of artisans. The Jew enjoyed absolute freedom if he only succeeded in ingratiating himself into the favor of his lord or ‘Poritz’.” [13]

The economic situation of the Jews was in general very good but their subordinate position to the nobility sapped the basis of the highly developed Jewish autonomy which had existed in Poland. “Circumstances were such at that time that the Jews of Poland could form a state within a state.” [14]

With their special religious, administrative, and juridical institutions, the Jews constituted a special class there enjoying a special internal autonomy.

A decree of Sigismund August (1551) established the following bases for the autonomy of the Jews of Great Poland: The Jews had the right to choose, upon general agreement among themselves, rabbis and judges who were to administer them. The coercive power of the State could be put at their disposal.

Each Jewish city or market town had a community council. In large centers, the community council consisted of forty members; in small ones, of ten members. The members of this council were elected by a system of double voting.

The activity of the council was very extensive. It had to raise taxes, administer the schools, institutions, decide economic questions, engage in administering justice. The power of each council, called a Kahal, extended to the Jews of the surrounding villages. The councils of the large cities had authority over the small communities. In this way community unions were created, the Galil.

We have already spoken of the Vaad Arba Aratzoth which was the General Assembly of the Jewish councils of Poland (of four countries, Great Poland, Little Poland [Kraków], Podolia [Galicia-Lemberg], and Volhynia), which met at regular intervals and constituted a veritable parliament.

In the seventeenth century the foundations of Jewish autonomy began to rock. This coincided with the worsening of the situation of Polish Judaism as it began to feel the disagreeable effects of the anarchy that Polish feudal society was passing through. The partial change in the situation of the Jews, arising from the lessening of royal authority, had as result the placing of the Jews in greater contact than previously with the great mass of the bonded population. The Jew, becoming the steward of the noble or a publican, was hated by the peasants equally with or even more than the lords, because he was the one who became the principal instrument for their exploitation. This situation soon led to terrible social explosions, above all in the Ukraine, where the authority of the Polish nobility was weaker than in Poland. The existence of vast steppes permitted the formation of Cossack military colonies where fleeing peasants could prepare their hour of vengeance.

“The Jewish steward strove to draw as much as possible from the manors and to exploit the peasant as much as possible. The Little Russian peasant bore a deep hatred for the Polish landed proprietor, in his double role as foreigner and noble. But he hated even more, perhaps, the Jewish steward with whom he was in continuous contact and in whom he saw at one and the same time the detestable representative of the lord and a ‘non-Christian’ who was foreign to him both by his religion and his way of life.” [15]

The tremendous Cossack revolt of Chmielnicki in 1648 results in completely erasing seven hundred Jewish communities from the face of the earth. At the same time the revolt demonstrates the extreme feebleness of the anarchic Polish kingdom and prepares its dismemberment. From 1648 on, Poland never ceases to be the prey to invasions and domestic troubles.

With the end of the old feudal state of things in Poland the privileged position of Judaism is likewise finished. Massacres decimate it; the anarchy which rules the country makes any normal economic activity impossible.

The worsening of the situation of the Jews weakens the old ideological bases of Judaism. Poverty and persecution create a propitious terrain for the development of mysticism. Study of the Kabbala begins to replace that of the Talmud. Messianic movements like that of Sabbatai Zebi take on a certain dimension.

It is also interesting to recall the conversion of Frank and his adherents to Christianity. “The Frankists demanded that they be given a special territory because they did not want to exploit the peasants and live from usury and the exploitation of taverns. They preferred to work the land.” [16]

These movements did not take on very great dimensions because the position of Judaism was not as yet definitely compromised. It is only toward the close of the eighteenth century that Polish feudal society really begins to cave in under the combined blows of internal anarchy, economic decay, and foreign intervention. It is then that the problems of emigration and of passing over to other professions (“productivization”) begin to be posed for Judaism.



1. In the nineteenth century “there were hundreds of Jewish merchants, landed proprietors, and even soldiers scattered throughout the vast republics of what once was Spanish South America, but they now knew hardly anything of the religion of their fathers.” Martin Philippson, Neueste Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes (Leipzig 1907), p. 226.

2. In England “certain Spanish Jews converted to Christianity ... Some families which later became famous throughout the world thus abandoned Judaism: the Disraelis, Ricardos, Aguilars. Other Sephardic families were slowly assimilated by English society.” Heinrich Hirsch Graetz, Histoire Juive, vol. 6, p. 344.

3. Lettres de Quelques Juifs, 5th edition, 1781. Quoted by Sombart, Jews and Modern Capitalism, op. cit., p. 348.

4. See Sombart, Jews and Modern Capitalism, op. cit., chapter 2.

5. Brentano, Die Anfänge des Modernen Kapitalismus, op. cit., p. 163.

6. Brentano, Ibid., p. 165.

7. André Sayous, Les Juifs, Revue Économique Internationale, March 1932, p. 526.

8. Brentano, Die Anfänge des Modernen Kapitalismus, op. cit., pp. 165–66.

9. “Mr. Sombart’s book on the Jews suffers from an endless sequence of serious errors; one might call it the rigorous development of a paradox by a man having the genius for portraying things with a great sweep. Like every paradox, it does not consist solely of false ideas; its part relating to the present period deserves to be read, although it very often deforms the characteristics of the Semitic people. Its historical portion in every case is almost ridiculous ... Modern capitalism was born and first developed at the moment when the Jews, rejected almost everywhere, were in no condition to become its precursors.” Sayous, op. cit., p. 533.

10. See Chapter 6.

11. In history, “the position of the Jews during the Middle Ages may be compared sociologically with that of an Indian caste in a world otherwise free from castes ... Hardly a Jew is found among the creators of the modern economic situation .... This type was Christian and only conceivable in the field of Christianity. The Jewish manufacturer, on the contrary is a modern phenomenon.” Weber, op. cit., pp. 358–60.

12. Schipper, Jewish History, op. cit., vol. 2, pp. 77–81.

13. Graetz, Popular History of the Jews (New York 1919), vol. 5, p. 10.

14. Ibid., vol. 5, p. 28.

15. Graetz.

16. Graetz.


Last updated: 2 August 2020