On Jews and PlaguesAdventures in Jewish Historiography

Andrew Joyce • March 28, 2020

“The libel that Jews were continually plotting to poison the world had particularly tragic results during the Black Death of 1348–49.
Dennis Prager & Joseph Telushkin Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism[1]

“There is no direct link between the massacres and the plague.”
Iris Ritzmann, “The Black Death as a cause of the massacres of Jews: A Myth of Medical History?”[2]

I’ve been fascinated in recent days by Jewish commentary on COVID-19, which ranges from paranoid conspiracy theories about white nationalists to blunt admissions of intense Jewish ethnocentrism. In the first instance, the FBI’s apparently permanent and unironic surveillance of teenage chat sites has resulted in a stern but ludicrous warning that “extreme right-wing groups in the US are telling their members to deliberately spread the deadly new coronavirus to police officers and Jewish people.” Aside from conjuring mental images of ultra-orthodox Jews being chased by coughing skinheads, the ADL has taken to shaking its begging bowl in regards to rumors that Jews created the novel coronavirus in order to sell vaccines and “take advantage of the markets collapse through insider trading.” This petri dish of paranoia coexists with awkward Jewish discussions of the fact that Jewish communities are ideal incubators of disease because, in the words of The Forward, “the density of Jewish social networks across all denominations is almost twice as thick as that of the average American.” Less than a year after New York’s orthodox Jewish communities became epicenters for a resurgence of measles, concerns are already growing that the same communities are going to be a devil’s playground for COVID-19, which has already claimed the lives of two ultra-orthodox Jews in London.

Both inspired and disgusted by this mixture of contemporary disease and paranoia, I thought I’d revisit some historiographical material I prepared several years ago that concerns the same themes. The following essay concerns the putative allegation that Jews caused the Black Death, Jewish apologetic narratives in historiography, and the broader role of myth in Jewish self-understanding.

Accusations of Accusations

Anyone confronting mainstream Jewish historiography for the first time is overwhelmed by the victim paradigm inherent in most scholarship, a key part of which is the idea that Jews have been irrationally scapegoated countless times over many centuries. I’ve previously described the victim paradigm:

Jewish historiography is saturated with allusions to the “unique” status of Jews, who have suffered a “unique” hatred at the hands of successive generations of Europeans. In essence, it is the notion that Jews stand alone in the world as the quintessential “blameless victim.” To allow for any sense of Jewish agency — any argument that Jews may have in some way contributed to anti-Jewish sentiment — is to harm the perpetuation of this paradigm. In this sense, the ‘victim paradigm’ also contributes heavily to the claim for Jewish uniqueness and, as Norman Finkelstein has pointed out, one can clearly see in many examples of Jewish historiography the tendency to focus not so much on the “suffering of Jews” but rather on the simple fact that “Jews suffered.”[3] As a result, the paradigm offers no place to non-Jewish suffering. … The omission of the Jewish contribution to the development of anti-Semitism (be it in a village setting or a national setting), leaves the spotlight burning all the more ferociously on the ‘aggressor.’ Within this context, the blameless victim is free to make the most ghastly accusations, basking in the assurance that his own role, and by extension his own character, is unimpeachable. The word of this untainted, unique, blameless victim is taken as fact — to doubt his account is to be in league with the ‘aggressor.’

Jewish historiography can be interpreted in some ways as little more than a catalog of “accusations of accusations,” to the extent that such works invariably explain historical European behavior, often exaggerated, by positing Europeans as acting on a number of irrational and fanatical beliefs about Jews. This is true of historiographical accounts of almost every historical outbreak of violence against Jews, in which Europeans are presented as indulging in pogroms because of religious fanaticism during the Crusades or putative panics about alleged Jewish ritual murder. Certain fringe elements of European folklore about Jews, such as the idea that male Jews menstruate or that Jews buried their dead with rocks so that they could throw them at Christ in the afterlife, are brought front and center in mainstream historiography and used to explain very complex situations that certainly require a more nuanced understanding.

Arguably, similar results are achieved in more contemporary history through a mainstream scholarship that argues that mass Jewish casualties during World War Two were the result of another alleged European fantasy—that of race science. The actual role of Jews in European society prior to the war can be discarded, and in fact largely has been discarded, in favor of an approach that attributes Jewish deaths to just another manifestation of European irrationality and fanaticism. As stated above, however, making the case that perhaps race science wasn’t irrational, or a fantasy, is tantamount to an admission to being in league with the ‘aggressor’ — something that few or no mainstream academics are willing to do.

The result is a body of historiography that implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, bases its argument on the idea that historical Europeans were profoundly ignorant and superstitious. Such perceptions, of course, live on in the Jewish mind, and one can only interpret aspects of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat (2006), especially its depictions of Eastern Europeans who believe that Jews hatch from eggs and can shape-shift into cockroaches (and can be persuaded to leave by having cash thrown at them), as a reinforcement of Jewish conceptions of their history. A scene depicting Cohen lying in bed, in terror at finding himself in the home of two old Jews, and clutching a cross and a fistful of cash, is intended as the ultimate parody of the historical Christian and his alleged fantasies about Jews — both religious and economic. We are encouraged to laugh alongside Jews at the apparent stupidity of our ancestors.

The Black Death in Jewish Historiography

One of the most oft-repeated of these putatively parody-worthy historical European “canards” is the idea that Jews in some way caused the Black Death (Great Bubonic Plague), an epidemiological disaster that claimed the lives of somewhere between 30% and 60% of the European population in the middle of the fourteenth century. In mainstream Jewish historiography, the most politically useful, and therefore most prominent, aspect of this particular “canard” is the notion that Jews caused the plague by poisoning the wells of Europeans. Thus we are encouraged to see such a belief as a variant on the “Blood Libel” that Jews perform ritual murder of Christians. Added to this basic framework are multiple allusions to Christian suspicions that Jews engaged in well-poisoning out of a desire to wipe out or subjugate Christians and pave the way for Jewish world domination. The underlying message of the focus on such beliefs is therefore the idea that historical Europeans were ignorant (scientifically and morally) and paranoid about Jews to the point of irrationality. Because significant numbers of Jews were set upon and killed during the years when the Black Death was active, such narratives about Europeans contain the additional message that Europeans are dangerous fantasists, and that Jews are their unfortunate and blameless victims.

The problem with historiography like this is that it’s yet another example of taking what were really just fringe beliefs and placing them as the primary motivation for complex and deep-rooted inter-ethnic hostility. The result is a wholesale condemnation of European society. For example, Robert Wistrich, now deceased, was a prominent producer of anti-European histories of anti-Semitism and claimed in one of his most famous works that “The Black Death which raged in Europe between 1347 and 1360 added yet another deadly accusation against the Jews — that of poisoning wells in order to wipe out Christians and establish their domination of the world. There is no doubt that the masses believed this charge.”[4] [emphasis added] The Israeli historian Mordechai Breuer (1918–2007) wrote in one of his seminal essays on “The Black Death and antisemitism” that “the destruction of the Jews in the days of the plague was associated with the well-poisoning libel … There is no doubt that the masses believed all the stories of the atrocities attributed to the Jews.”[5] [emphasis added] The similarity between these phrases, together with certain other textual “coincidences” have always suggested to me that Wistrich basically engaged in a quasi-plagiarism of the volume in which Breuer’s essay appeared (Antisemitism Through the Ages, 1988) for his own Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred, which appeared a few years later (1991). Regardless of such finer points, patterns of mutual reliance, often devoid of reference to verifiable contemporary primary material, are endemic in the Jewish writing of histories of antisemitism. Breuer simply had to assert that it was beyond doubt that “the masses” were beholden to irrational myths, and this was sufficient in itself for Wistrich to repeat.

Mutual referencing over time led to a situation in which the idea that Europeans irrationally blamed Jews for the Black Death is now ubiquitous. Frederic Cople Jaher writes that “Already deemed lethal foes of Christianity, Jews were blamed for causing the Plague by poisoning wells. … Another delusion about Jews that intensified at the time of the Black Death was the charge of a world Jewish conspiracy against Christianity.”[6] An entire chapter of Norman Cantor’s In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made (2001) is devoted to an attempted deconstruction of claims of “The Jewish Conspiracy,” with Cantor arguing that Christians “made scapegoats of the Jews, charged them with spreading the plague by poisoning wells, and unleashed horrific pogroms on them.”[7] Mark Cohen has written that the Black Death “witnessed massive pogroms against the Jews, who were believed to have poisoned wells in an attempt to destroy Christian civilization.”[8] Perhaps the most savage character assassination of the European peoples, however, was carried out by the highly-incentivized non-Jewish historian Gavin Langmuir, who was for obvious reasons a firm favorite in the Jewish establishment. In his extravagantly-praised History, Religion, and Antisemitism (1990), Langmuir opined in relation to the Black Death that:

It would be hard to find a clearer example of irrational scapegoating. … By the late Middle Ages, in order to dispel doubts about their religion and themselves, many Christians were suppressing their capacity for rational empirical thought and irrationally attributing to the realities they denoted as “Jews” unobservable characteristics.[9]

But is any of this true?

The Myth of Irrational European Pogroms

Some of the most recent, cutting-edge historiography from non-Jewish academics continues to chip away at some of the Jewish-led consensus that formed between the 1960s and early 2000s.[10] For example, as the scholar Cordelia Hess has touched upon in her Berghahn-published The Absent Jews (2017), at least some of the historiographical accounts of anti-Jewish massacres alleged to have occurred during the Black Death are now acknowledged as being based on little more than hearsay, unreliable sources, misreadings of verifiable sources, and, to use Hess’s words, “no actual evidence of anti-Jewish pogroms.”[11] In fact, it has now been discovered that some alleged pogroms have been attributed to German towns where there had never been Jewish settlements.[12]

Of course, some violence against Jew did occur, and it occurred right across Europe. But was it motivated by “irrational” ideas about well-poisoning based on little more than fanatical religious bigotry? Contrary to the assertions of the Jewish academics named above, due to a scarcity of contemporary primary sources there is actually no definitive methodology for ascertaining how widespread certain beliefs were among “the masses” in this instance, and certainly nothing that would justify such claims as “there is no doubt the masses believed this charge.” What we do have are a relatively small number of accounts of attacks on Jews from contemporary chroniclers that paint a rather nuanced picture of what really occurred. Take, for example, the following extract from the records of the chronicler Conrad von Megenburg:

In many wells, bags filled with poison were found, and a countless number of Jews were massacred in the Rhineland, in Franconia, and in all the German countries. In truth, I do not know whether certain Jews had done this. Had it been thus, assuredly the evil would have been worse. But I know, on the other hand, that no German city had so many Jews as Vienna, and so many of them there succumbed to the plague that they were obliged to enlarge their cemetery greatly and to buy two more buildings. They would have been very stupid to poison themselves. … But I do not wish to whitewash the wickedness of the Jews.

What stands out here is von Megenburg’s scepticism. My own interpretation of the third sentence, assuming “the evil” to be the massacres and not the act of poisoning, is that if definitive proof had been found against certain Jews in regards to the bags of poison that had in fact been found in “many wells,” then the violence would “have been much worse,” and this would indicate the violence itself was at least not solely rooted in the accusation of well-poisoning, since some doubt was evidently present among those who carried out the killings. Alternately, if “the evil” being referred to was the act of poisoning, this account would suggest the author believed there was a possibility of two different events occurring — both a plague of undetermined cause, and a mass poisoning campaign orchestrated by Jews.[13] Whether Jews did or did not place bags of poison in European wells strikes me as entirely beside the point. If they did not, the question remains as to why someone would accuse them of it, or frame them for it, and Borat-like ignorance and religious hostility is simply insufficient to contextualize and explain this behavior. If some Jews did engage in the poisoning of wells, and we certainly know that it was not uncommon for medieval Jewish communities to possess their own private wells and water supply within their walled districts, this doesn’t detract from our current knowledge about the origins, nature, and spread of bubonic plague, and we would be left with certain other questions about the nature of this inter-ethnic hostility.

The question remaining is why some Jews were attacked and killed during the Black Death. Here, again, modern scholarship is reversing some of the received wisdoms of older Jewish historiography and casting doubt on some long-held assumptions. The German scholar Iris Ritzmann, for example, has argued that “there is no direct link between the massacres and the plague,” and has suggested that a much deeper undercurrent of socio-economic friction between Jews and Christians merely found expression during a time of heightened social anxiety. Ritzmann has gone as far as to argue that relations were so bad that massacres may have occurred even without the plague as a trigger event.[14] Mordechai Breuer concedes that “none of the traditional motifs” of religious anti-Semitism feature in the minutes of the interrogations of the Jews accused during the Black Death, adding “at most, they came up in connection with distant rumors about the matter.”[15] There were almost no attempts to convert the Jews, and Breuer further adds, quite contrary to some of his other assertions, that “the attackers had no intention whatever of forcing the Jews to change their faith and this was not the focus of what was happening.”

What, then, was happening?

Again, in contrast to his overall conclusion and blanket accusations against the historical European masses, Breuer is forced to concede in the middle of his own study that “an analysis of what occurred during the days of the plague indicates that social, economic, and political factors were of much greater import in fanning the flame of antisemitism than is generally understood.” Most of the aggressors during the Black Death were craftsmen and artisans who had been lent money by Jews “at usurious rates of interest.”[16]
These craftsmen, essentially the middle class of their day, resented the formation of a mercantile alliance between the aristocracy and the merchant class that exploited their labor and suppressed the prices of their goods. Moreover, underpinning this alliance was a system of Jewish loans that upset the natural order they were used to. Rather predictably, anti-Jewish violence was ruthlessly suppressed by urban elites everywhere because these elites were tightly connected to Jewish finance. Documents still survive from Cologne, Freiburg, Basel, Heilbronn, Strasbourg, and Erfurt showing that city councils interpreted all anti-Jewish actions as a more general attack upon the elite status quo. Breuer comments that “by the beginning of 1349 it was clear that a number of city councils wished to suppress the popular uprising from fear that the mobs might oust them.” The European “masses” described in Jewish historiography were in fact divided into factions, each with its own particular interests, and genuine adherence to “irrational” notions of well-poisoning was of minimal import. The bottom line was that Jews were regarded as having a negative effect on the social, economic, and political fabric of the nation, and not without cause.

Conclusion

One wonders if, decades or centuries from now, Jewish historians will lament the persistence of antisemitism by explaining that Europeans once “irrationally” blamed the Jews for COVID-19. As evidence, perhaps they’ll point to some excerpts from 8chan and argue that this was the belief of “the masses.” Here I’m employing a caricature of sorts, but one not totally detached from precedent. Many decades of Jewish effort have gone into pushing the idea that our ancestors were unsophisticated Borat-like brutes who subjected the Jews to countless irrational massacres. And, although modern scholarship is chipping at the edges of this edifice, new discoveries and arguments remain far from the mainstream. One persists in seeking immunity to the contrivances of Jews and plagues.

Notes

[1] Prager, D. & Telushkin, J, Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 85.

[2] Ritzmann I. [The Black Death as a cause of the massacres of Jews: A Myth of Medical History?] Medizin, Gesellschaft, und Geschichte : Jahrbuch des Instituts fur Geschichte der Medizin der Robert Bosch Stiftung. 1998 ;17:101-130.

[3] Finkelstein, N. ‘The Holocaust Industry,’ Index on Censorship, 29:2, 120-130, p.124

[4] Wistrich, R. Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred (London: Thames Methuen, 1991), 32

[5] Breuer, M. “The Black Death and antisemitism,” in Almog, S. 1988. Antisemitism through the ages. Oxford, England: Published for the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, by Pergamon Press, 140-1.

[6] Jaher, F. A Scapegoat in the New Wilderness: The Origins and Rise of Antisemitism in America (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1994), 68.

[7] Cantor, N. In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 152.

[8] Cohen, M. R. Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 169.

[9] Langmuir, G. I. (1990). History, Religion, and Antisemitism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 301-2.

[10] The work of the late John Doyle Klier on the mythic elements of the Russian pogroms is almost certainly without peer in this regard.

[11] Hess, C. The Absent Jews: Kurt Forstreuter and the Historiography of Medieval Prussia (New York: Berghahn, 2007, 204.

[12] Ibid.

[13] For a more contemporary parallel one might point to the post-war plot by Israelis to poison the German water supply that was only abandoned when it was disrupted by British authorities.

[14] Ritzmann I. [The Black Death as a cause of the massacres of Jews: A Myth of Medical History?] Medizin, Gesellschaft, und Geschichte : Jahrbuch des Instituts fur Geschichte der Medizin der Robert Bosch Stiftung. 1998 ;17:101-130.

[15] Breuer, “The Black Death and antisemitism,” 144.

[16] Ibid., 145.