The Business of Emancipation

The German-Jewish struggle for legal equality and economic prosperity

Introduction

Political freedom and economic prosperity are bound together, at least in German history. Whether one believes that laws frame commercial opportunity or that business interests write the laws, civil rights and economic freedoms are mutually reinforcing. But for German-speaking Jews, the path to legal equality and economic prosperity was a long and winding one.

 

The commercial revolution of the 11th century was a time of increased toleration and prosperity for many European Jews. The growth of trade, however, was halted by the First Crusade (1096-1099), and then reversed by the Bubonic Plague, the worst pandemic known to the world at that time (1347-1351). Wrongly blamed for the outbreak, Jews were subjected to increased political and economic discrimination. By 1500, when population levels recovered and commercial expansion resumed, Jews were forced to the margins of German society, often prevented from residing where they wanted and owning property, and relegated to trades without status.

 

During the Enlightenment in the 18th century, a spirit of toleration began to change attitudes towards Jews. Despite their growing political freedoms and affluence over the last two centuries, the social standing of Jews remained ambiguous. This exhibit follows the German Jews in this dramatic struggle for legal and economic changes. Using economic involvement as a perspective on for the role of Jews in the society, this story shows the path of German-speaking Jews from destitution to prosperity. Through the exploration of various Jewish families and their stories, this exhibit serves as a reminder that the changes were cyclical and moved in both directions – transitioning from a lack of civil rights to social inclusion, and back again to persecution. 

Imperium Romano Germanicum, 1727; Courtesy of David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

Money in a Subsistence Economy

Money in a subsistence economy did not play the role that it does in today’s market economy. The medieval European economy aimed to provide for people’s basic needs, which meant that there was little trade, and most of that took place through barter arrangements. In addition, Christian theology viewed the love of money as the “root of all evil”. Christendom condemned usury as blasphemous, positing that the collection of interest did not involve actual labor, only time.

Moreover, Christian theology identified Jews with money, as a result of Jesus’ criticism of the moneychangers before the Temple, and Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. This association of Jews with money also provided the argument that Jews were unable to distinguish between material and spiritual values.

The advent of capitalism – and the movement of money from the margins to the center of economic activity – transformed older anti-Jewish resentments into new antisemitic myths. Christian associations of Jews with money were rejuvenated by new (mis)identifications of Jews with capitalism. Moreover, as Jews remained a socially distinct group, it was easy enough to mistake those Jews who worked in finance with finance itself.

Ecclesia and Synagoga; Courtesy of Wikipedia

In the portal of Strasbourg Cathedral, the Christian and Jewish faiths are portrayed by two female figures (proud Christianity and blind Judaism). The symbolic statues aptly characterized the social position of Judaism and Jews in Medieval Europe.

Six pfennig (1693). Leo Baeck Institute, 89.140. (recto and verso).  

Jost Liebmann and his wife, Esther Schulhoff Liebmann, were Court Jews. Jost was the court jeweler of Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg (King Frederick I of Prussia), and one of the elders of the Jewish congregation of Berlin.  

Early modern time

Early modern era

Money in a subsistence economy did not play the role that it does in today’s market economy. The medieval European economy aimed to provide for people’s basic needs, which meant that there was little trade, and most of that took place through barter arrangements. In addition, Christian theology viewed the love of money as the “root of all evil”. Christendom condemned usury as blasphemous, positing that the collection of interest did not involve actual labor, only time.

 

Moreover, Christian theology identified Jews with money, as a result of Jesus’ criticism of the moneychangers before the Temple, and Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. This association of Jews with money also provided the argument that Jews were unable to distinguish between material and spiritual values.

 

The advent of capitalism – and the movement of money from the margins to the center of economic activity – transformed older anti-Jewish resentments into new antisemitic myths. Christian associations of Jews with money were rejuvenated by new (mis)identifications of Jews with capitalism. Moreover, as Jews remained a socially distinct group, it was easy enough to mistake those Jews who worked in finance with finance itself.

Ecclesia and Synagoga. Public domain.

In the portal of Strasbourg Cathedral, the Christian and Jewish faiths are portrayed by two female figures (proud Christianity and blind Judaism). The symbolic statues aptly characterized the social position of Judaism and Jews in Medieval Europe.

Six pfennig (1693). Leo Baeck Institute, 89.140. (recto and verso).

Jost Liebmann and his wife, Esther Schulhoff Liebmann, were Court Jews. Jost was the court jeweler of Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg (King Frederick I of Prussia), and one of the elders of the Jewish congregation of Berlin. 

Money in a subsistence economy did not play the role that it does in today’s market economy. The medieval European economy aimed to provide for people’s basic needs, which meant that there was little trade, and most of that took place through barter arrangements. In addition, Christian theology viewed the love of money as the “root of all evil”. Christendom condemned usury as blasphemous, positing that the collection of interest did not involve actual labor, only time.

Moreover, Christian theology identified Jews with money, as a result of Jesus’ criticism of the moneychangers before the Temple, and Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. This association of Jews with money also provided the argument that Jews were unable to distinguish between material and spiritual values.

The advent of capitalism – and the movement of money from the margins to the center of economic activity – transformed older anti-Jewish resentments into new antisemitic myths. Christian associations of Jews with money were rejuvenated by new (mis)identifications of Jews with capitalism. Moreover, as Jews remained a socially distinct group, it was easy enough to mistake those Jews who worked in finance with finance itself.