The common belief that ‘the Jews’ were ‘neither commercially nor intellectually productive’ but had always served ‘as middlemen’ nurtured the ‘rising tide of European anti-Semitism’ in the 20th century.[ii]  The assumption that ‘Jews’ were all the same even crippled the work of scholarly commentators:

Whether the Jews are seen as ‘international bankers’ of the type of the Rothschild, or as miserable peddlars in the image of ‘the old cl’oes Jews’, whether they are described as a Pariavolk by Max Weber or as the epitome of a “marginal trading people” by Howard Becker, the near-unanimity in this respect of proverbial saying and fairy tale, of political pamphlet and scholarly treatise remains impressive.[i]

Why then have ‘they’ been singled out? The better answers to that question are nuanced: ‘(Whereas) the Russians, and Poles and Yugoslavs were decimated (by the Nazis) in the name of racist theories which were less than a century old, the drive to exterminate the Jews sprang from demonological superstitions inherited from the Middle Ages…’ [iii] Cohn also believed in a second, more mundane reason, namely that:

The idea that Jewry is a conspiratorial body, united in the service of evil, intent on thwarting God’s plan for the world, incessantly plotting the ruination of mankind …was born of the conflict between the [Catholic] Church and the Synagogue… (p.17)

He had a third – ‘that when the Jew is ‘demonised’ he is unconsciously seen as a cruel, tyrannical father-figure.’ (p.17 and pp.279-299) That is, Jew-haters were actually striking out at their own fathers whom they feared but couldn’t reach. Three explanations then for attacks on Jews – superstitions, power struggles, and sub-conscious familial baggage – all of them involving fears held by the attackers. In another of his books, ‘The Pursuit of the Millennium’, Cohn wondered whether ‘the Jews’ had contributed to their predicament:

What so sharply distinguished the Jews from the other peoples of the ancient world was their attitude towards history and … towards their own role in history…(The) Jews were alone in combining an uncompromising monotheism with an unshakeable conviction that they were themselves the Chosen People of the one God. (Cohn, 1970, p.19)

Other authors have theorised why ‘the Jews’ might have thought themselves superior: ‘What made (Jacob’s descendants) differ (from Abraham’s other son who became the progenitor of the Arabs) was literacy…The Hebrew nomads used writing to share survival skills among the tribes of kinsmen…Literacy also allowed the Jews to develop a unifying sense of their own history and destiny…(Early) religious commitment to literacy was the secret of continuing Jewish success and the source of consistent envy.’  [iv]

The first known mass actions against ‘the Israelites’ involved their dispersal by the Assyrians in 733bce, and their forced removal to Babylonia by the Romans 150 years later:

            The Babylonian Exile, also called the Babylonian Captivity, was the forced detention       of Jews in Babylonia following the conquest of the kingdom of Judah in 598/7 and          587/6 bce. The exile formally ended in 538 bce, when the Persian conqueror of     Babylonia, Cyrus the Great, gave the Jews permission to return to Palestine.        (Wikipedia, 2017)

This removal had nothing to do with revenge for mis-treatment of a messiah, demoniac superstition or a Christian insistence on conversion. It seems that it was aimed at reducing the likelihood of unrest among Jews and other fractious, subjugated peoples. Pre-Christian Rome had no anti-Jewish policy. Its armies crushed the independent Jewish slate of Judea, but Jews in Rome enjoyed equality under the law. They could execute wills, enter into valid marriages with Romans, exercise the rights of guardianship, and hold office.[v] Later, when Roman armies again invaded Jerusalem, in 630ce ‘Jews were supposedly baptized by force, as punishment for the role they were thought to have played in the fall of the city 16 years earlier; those who fled were banned from coming within three miles of the city.[vi]

Intense rivalries produced many flash points: ‘Christianity flowed along the trade routes but its progress did not go unchallenged…’ During the years of Christian evangelism Judaism was the status quo in parts of central Asia, and it was ‘the Jews’ who took umbrage and actively sought to maintain their dominant position, including by way of mass murder of Christians: (Frankopan, pp.57-58)  

(There) was a systematic effort to assert that Jesus was a false prophet and that his crucifixion was justifiable – in other words, deflecting blame and responsibility away from the Jews…a botched Ethiopian military expedition across the Red Sea in the early 6th century to replace the Jewish ruler with a Christian puppet resulted in vicious reprisals as steps were taken to remove all traces of Christianity from the kingdom (Frankopan, pp.57-59).

            As Christianity gained the upper hand in Europe, worshipers were recruited to convince Jews to convert. Individuals on the Papal throne had the power to go further. The forced wearing of a yellow star to signify ‘Jew’ was one initiative: ‘In 1458 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III proclaimed that Jews were allowed to remain in Frankfurt only if they paid to live in a cramped, gated street on the north-eastern edge of town…’ ‘Jews Lane’, Judengasse, was only a few hundred feet long. In Bologna, the capital of the Roman Church, besieged in the north by Lutherans, Calvinists, etc, ‘Jews’ were living well before 1555. There were 11 synagogues in the city when suddenly their books were burnt on orders of Pope Paul IV and the Inquisition, and in 1558 they were told to confine themselves to a small area, a ghetto. The Papal Bull of 1555 – Cum nimis Absurdum – ordered that Jewish contacts with Christians were to be severely limited, and they were to be confined to the most menial occupations or occupations forbidden to Christians such as money-lending. The Pope justified his actions by arguing that ‘the Jews’ had been condemned by God to ‘eternal slavery for their sin of murdering Jesus and refusing his teachings. Only in 1870, with the Italian conquest of Rome, were Jews fully liberated from the city’s ghetto.’ Up until the Papal States were absorbed, public policy decreed that all Jews wear badges to display their ‘reviled status’ and had no social contact with Christians. They were barred from owning property, from practicing professions, from attending university and from travelling freely.[vii]

From the founding of the Kingdom of Poland in 1025 through to the early years of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth created in 1569, Poland was the most tolerant country in Europe, known as paradisus Iudaeorum (Latin for “Paradise of the Jews”) It became a shelter for persecuted and expelled communities from elsewhere in Europe, particularly from the Catholic countries Spain, Italy and France and, according to some sources, became home to about three-quarters of the world’s Jews by the middle of the 16th century. The Catholic hierarchy sought to treat ‘the Jews’ in Poland as it was doing elsewhere but the secular authorities recognised their value to the economy and protected them as best they could. Contradicting his own assertion that ‘Jewish strategy for survival’ during the Middle Ages ‘was a kind of tenacious passivity’, (pp.115-116) Viorst described the Jewish ‘golden age’ in Catholic Poland: (p.117)

(Nearly a million Jews) tilled the land or worked as village craftsmen or scrambled for wealth in urban commerce…(They) enjoyed a flourishing social, cultural and religious life (all in Yiddish)…Their kehillot [self-governing communities] linked in federations, extended Jewish autonomy to a regional level. Their famous yeshivot [synagogue academies] carried the influence of Polish rabbis to the remote corners of the Jewish world…

It’s hard to see this as passive. Then, he says, Poland’s nobility ‘recruited Jews to be its agents in the (recently conquered) Ukrainian countryside: Together, Catholics and Jews ran a feudal system that imposed on Eastern Orthodoxy a serfdom based on exorbitant rents and taxes.’ In 1648-49, the oppressed Ukrainian peasantry, whipped up by Cossack irregulars ‘into a frenzy against the Jews’, helped to butcher ‘some one hundred thousand’, after which the Cossacks invaded Poland and unleashed ‘a new wave of anti-Semite mayhem.’ Even in this interpretation, ‘the Jews’ were clearly not blameless. They had contributed to the suffering of Orthodox Christians, and the reaction was not aimed at ‘the Jews’ alone since it was the wealth of the oppressors and its accessibility which was the driving force. Nevertheless, the massacres of 1648-49 spurred further large-scale Jewish emigration, this time south and east into the Ottoman Empire where many awaited the coming of a new messiah. After the partition of Poland in 1795 and its destruction as a sovereign state, its Jews were subject to the laws of the partitioning powers, the increasingly anti-semitic Russian Empire, Austro-Hungary and Kingdom of Prussia.[viii] Jewish scholar Katz has recently written that in the period 1717-1750, ‘a new type of Jew was emerging, one who had acquired some western education and had adjusted his behaviour to conform to the standards accepted among gentiles, to the extent that he could now aspire to full membership in their society.’ [ix] He was highlighting the long-standing blanket ban on Jews entering Christian artisanal guilds, a ban carried over into a ‘Masonry’ marked out with Christian crosses and the Christian Bible.  Neither could Jews become Illumines.[x] This approach implies solving the problem was entirely in the hands of the excluded – if they were prepared to make themselves suitable for inclusion their oppressors might stop the violence and discrimination.

People of Jewish faith had long been making their own way in the world, and by-passing formal barriers. Jutte’s The Age of Secrecy (2015) describes a European ‘economy of secrets’ which from the 15th century at least had provided opportunities for Jews to accumulate prestige and material wealth: ‘No other period in European history, neither before nor since, has shown so profound a fascination with secrecy and secret sciences’. [xi] Before the nineteenth century, he argues, secrecy was often viewed positively, and secrets were assets which could be traded. There was a widespread view that ‘the secret [was] absolutely the only means to improving mankind and leading it to the kingdom of virtue and enlightenment.’ This notion, Jutte observes, ‘led to the establishment of Enlightenment-minded secret societies’ such as the Freemasons, the Illuminati and the Rosicrucians.[xii] The Jutte account concentrates on ‘useful knowledge’, including hidden or protected knowledge which could be traded, as opposed to transcendental secrets which could not. The range however was from astrology to warfare, from medicine to banking and commerce, from magic to architecture. Knowledge boundaries were fluid and not yet subject to rule by academies. Practitioners of magic and palm reading might seek enlightenment in laboratories and the intestines of animals. An aptitude in mathematics which had both esoteric and mundane applications was crucial. Jews and Christians alike believed that ‘useful information’ was to be found in Solomonic magic literature – a corpus of traditions which held that the mythical king had been an early professori de secreti – a magus who had mastered magic, alchemy and the natural sciences: ‘For Jews, tracing their own scientific and magical activities back to King Solomon meant ennobling such activities and protecting them against Christian polemics.’ [xiii] Francis Bacon called the central institution of his island utopia, New Atlantis, ‘Salomon’s House’: ‘Bacon was not the only early modern Christian who regarded Solomon as a king whose empire and riches rested on his technological and scientific expertise.’ (Jutte, 2015, p.161) Identification with the Solomonic tradition enhanced a Jew’s status in his/her own community and in the wider world. Individual Jews might be valued for the benefits they brought to an evolving ‘New Science’ driven by a need for military advantage as much as by a thirst for abstract knowledge. One of the first Jews granted admission to the Royal Society was from the Iberian Peninsula, ie a Sephardic Jew. ‘who traded in scientific intelligence’. Emanuel Mendes da Costa was an expert on Chinese Jews ‘among whom not a few Christians hoped to find the untainted original version of the Bible.’ In addition, he had a reputation as a dealer in exotic fossils, a skill in high demand at many of the courts of Europe.

The other side of this is, of course, that a secret’s usefulness can only be assessed when it’s existence is known and tested. Claiming to know a secret which can only be accessed by believers is the basis of shamanism, of all religions and of all sleights-of-hand. Zweig, Casanova’s biographer has listed ‘the elements of the ideal type of eighteenth-century charlatans’:

(His) penchant for exotic oriental clothing, delight in fancy titles, multilingualism, bogus genealogies, his claim to have mysterious connections with ruling elites and secret societies, the ability to provide the most desired goods and services, the aura of mystery. [xiv]

Showmanship and a flair for publicity carried any number of ambitious huckster-scientists across Europe, at least for a time. It was a situation in which the label, ‘Freemasonry’ could wind up being attached to almost anything, and lodges being used for almost any purpose. MK Schuchard, almost alone among English-language scholars, has asserted complex networks connecting the likes of artist and Cabalist William Blake to mystic activist for the Stuarts, Emanuel Swedenborg, to the United Irishmen and to other radical enthusiasts throughout Europe. In other words, ‘Freemasonry’ was a means to ends which were not ‘Freemasonry’ but without a definition who can know. Schuchard’s narrative includes late-18th century lodges of Occult Masonry throughout Europe being used by George III’s sons to oppose his policies, by Count Cagliostro to recruit initiates into his Egyptian Masonry, by anti-slavery reformers and in support of other causes. The Jewish thread is vital to Schuchard’s assertions, as is apparent in this summary by another scholar:

Because Rosicrucian and ‘Cabalistic’ traditions were primarily cultivated in the Jacobite system of Freemasonry, Keith Schuchard claims that these concealed conventicles of ritualistic and political activity were the sources of Jewish involvement in radicalism. Focusing especially on the Jewish convert Lord George Gordon and the mysterious Jewish magician Samuel Falk (she) has vigorously argued for the critical role of Jews and Judaism in the radical politics of the eighteenth century both in England and in western and eastern Europe…and well into the nineteenth.[xv]

Magus, alchemist and Kabbalist Samuel Falk attracted aristocrats from all over Europe to London where he appeared in a flowing robe and with a long beard. According to Jutte: ‘In Freemasonic circles, Falk enjoyed a legendary reputation.’ Schuchard’s ‘imaginative description of the eighteenth century Jewish-Christian international Masonic network’ has been attacked as more like ‘a positive fantasy of modern enthusiasts of multiculturalism than a historical reconstruction’,[xvi]  but this is not a refutation nor proof of an error.

Attraction to Jewish secrets did not necessarily translate into Christian acceptance of Jews, but there did develop what has been labelled a Christian Zionism, a belief that in order that Christians could be assured of redemption, ‘the Jews’ must return to the Holy Land and convert. For a very long time, there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm amongst Jewish people for returning to Palestine. Even making pilgrimage to Jerusalem was very rare up to the 18th century.[xvii] The shifts in attitude did result in Christians adopting the Bible as their own: ‘In the regions of the Reformation, the popular Bible replaced Papal authority as the source of divine truth…Both the Old and the New Testament became characteristically Protestant books. In just one kingdom, however, did the renewed scriptures praise not only the Promised Land but also ‘the treasured people’ chosen to inherit it. Late sixteenth-century England witnessed the appearance of elite educated circles that displayed the first signs of primal proto-nationalism …(The) England that was defending its unique church of truth and the England that had designated itself as conqueror of vast areas merged on the eve of the modern era in the shadow of the Hebrew Bible.’ (Sand, 2014, pp.142-156)

This development is of enormous significance to this review. England fought off spirited incursions by both ‘the Jews’ and ‘the Jesuits’ and adopted a Bible in which Hebrew heroes spoke in contemporary English rather than Latin and provided moral cover for Protestant-favouring legislation. One result of this ideological shift was the Society of Free-Masons. It, the Society, was not intended to be a major player in global politics by its founders but friends and foes made it so by elaborating a part or parts they arbitrarily selected from the whole and which, for a mix of reasons, called ‘Freemasonry.’ Most of these ‘improvements’ occurred outside England in contexts very different to the one into which the Society was launched.

[i] W Cahnman, ‘Introduction: Role and Significance of the Jewish Artisan Class’, in M Wischnitzer, A History of Jewish Crafts and Guilds, Jonathon David, New York, 1965, p.xiii.

[ii] S Baron, ‘Foreword’, in M Wischnitzer, ‘A History of Jewish Crafts and Guilds’, Jonathon David, New York, 1965, p.vii.

[iii] N Cohn, Warrant for Genocide, 1967, pp.11-12..

[iv] M Aarons and J Loftus, The Secret War Against the Jews, Reed, 1994, pp.18-21.

[v] O Slobbe, Die Juden in Deutschland Wahrend des Mittelalters, Leipzig, 1902, p. 2.

[vi] P Frankopan, The Silk Road: A New History of the World, Bloomsbury, 2015, p.71.

[vii] D Kertzer, The Popes Against the Jews, Knopf, 2001, p.11.

[viii] H Rothschild, The Baroness – The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild, Ch 5, Knopf, 2012.

[ix] J Katz, Jews and Freemasons in Europe 1723-1939, Harvard, 1970, Ch 1, quote at p.2.

[x] J Wages and R Markner (eds), ‘The Secret School of Wisdom’, Lewis Masonic, 2016, p.16.

[xi] D Jutte, The Age of Secrecy – Jews, Christians and the Economy of Secrets 1400-1800, Yale UP, 2015, p.viii.

[xii] D Jutte, The Age of Secrecy, Yale UP, 2015, p.18.

[xiii] B Jutte, The Age of Secrecy – Jews, Christian, and the Economy of Secrets 1400-1800, Yale UP, p.160.

[xiv] Quoted in Maciejko, 2011, p.219.

[xv] D Ruderman, The Jewish Enlightenment in an English Key, Princeton UP, 2018, p.156.

[xvi] Maciejko, 2011, p.229.

[xvii] S Sand, The Invention of the Land of Israel, Verso, 2014, p.126.