With the election of President Trump, a man named Jared Kushner is gaining prominence. Jared is Trump’s son-in-law. He is also Trump’s advisor, thus making him one step removed from the most important man in the world. Jared is also Jewish.
The advent of a Jew so close to ultimate power is something that has received mixed reactions. Some Jews, like Harry Maryles over at Emes Ve-Emunah, are elated. There are also the usual rumblings about Jews close to power being bad for the Jews, as anything bad that happens may be blamed on the Jew. There have also been ludicrous accusation that Trump is a Jew-hater, and that Kushner “turned his back” on Judaism by association.
Whatever the case, this gives us the opportunity to talk about a fascinating part of Jewish history: The Court Jew. The Court Jew, in the narrower sense, refers to the influential Jews who were favorites in the courts of emperors and princes in the Holy Roman Empire (Germany and Austria) from the 16th century up until the age of Napoleon (in the time period in which it was scarcely an empire). Court Jews were the bankers and advisors of these monarchs and nobles, attaching themselves to various courts, where they attempted to garner favor for themselves and for the Jews as a whole. They personally benefited from the arrangement, being given more privileges in where they could live and how they could do business. Being a Court Jew was a tenuous job, though; the Jews could fall our favor for any number of reasons, losing his status, money or even life.
More broadly a Court Jew could refer to any Jew, at any given time or place, who managed to attach himself to or insert himself in, the court of a prince. The Jew hoped to procure advantages for himself and his brethren, in exchange for money in various forms. Courts, then as now, were places of tremendous intrigue and a Prince could use the Jew as a sycophant who was a useful whipping-boy or as a clear-eyed, clever, truthful advisor in a den of myopic, scheming flatterers, or even both at once. Generally it was a quite impossible for a Jew to attain high rank or nobility status, thus ensuring that the Jew could be trusted as someone that would never covet ultimate power for himself. (In this respect, Court Jews were like the court eunuchs, who, in places like China and the Ottoman Empire, never sat on the throne, but had power in the throne room.)
Here is a varied list of some important Court Jews throughout history:
The Prophet Daniel was exiled to Babylonia in the reign of King Jehoiakim, as outlined in the book of Daniel. There he served Nebuchadnezzar in court, and, following the Babylonian king’ death in 562 BC, served the subsequent rulers. Babylonia fell to the Persians in 539 BC, and Daniel then gave his loyalty to his new overlords, of whom Darius the Mede was king. It was not just loyalty that Daniel gave to his gentile lords–Daniel interpreted their dreams, famously predicting, in one instance, the four great empires (which, according to standard Jewish [and Christian] views, are: Babylonia, Medo-Persia, Greek, and Roman) that would dominate the (known) world. As is usual with Court Jews, Daniel drew the ire of the courtiers of the king, who convinced the king to outlaw requesting anything from God (or man). Uncowed, Daniel continued praying, whereupon he found himself thrown to the lions. His miraculous survival brought Daniel honors anew.
Jordanis Lewko was a banker to the kings of Poland in the 1300’s. He owned real estate, lent money, and administered salt mines and a mint, becoming very rich. He also managed to get the job being the tax-collector for Archbishop Bodzenta. He drew the ire of the townsmen and nobles, to the extent that Clemens of Kuzow lodged a complain with Pope Boniface IX.
Lippold was Court Jew to Joachim II (1535-1571). He was given power to collect taxes from the Jews of Brandenburg, as well being made mint master. He personally borrowed heavily with no intention of repayment, charged Jews and Christians alike a 54% interest rate on loans, and generally went on stealing and doing other things that added little to his popularity. When his master died in 1571, he was imprisoned and put on trial. In addition to his real crimes, he was charged with sorcery and poisoning his late master, Joachim II. To his credit, it should be said that he refused baptism and was executed in 1573. This noble display, however, was of little solace to the Jews of Brandenburg who were expelled thereafter.
Abraham Aaron Lichtenstadt served the Jewish people in various courts, attempting to accrue benefits and right to the Jews. He managed to convince Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor from 1658-1705, to rescind an order expelling Jews from the Plana area. This was some achievement, as Leopold I did not like Jews. Lichtenstadt himself managed to fall victim to intrigue from fellow Jews who accused of him legal wrongdoings, and was imprisoned and put on trial. Ultimately, he triumphed: he was restored to his position and his denouncers were imprisoned. He died thereafter in 1702.
Israel Honig (1724-1808) was the first Austrian Jew to become ennobled, receiving the title Edler von Honigsberg. This was in recognition to efforts during the Seven Years War, when he held the imperial army provision contracts. The second Austrian Jew to be ennobled was Joachim Edler von Popper. They both made much of their money in the tobacco industry, thanks to special earmarked contracts from an monopoly-holding emperor. Prior to this, any Jew who was eligible to be ennobled needed to first convert to Christianity.
Henry Morgenthau was born in New York in the year 1891. He rose to become an early backer of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was the only Jew in FDR’s cabinet, serving as Secretary of the Treasury for almost twelve years. During the War he was active in the aiding of the Jews in Europe, exposing to FDR the State Department’s insipid disposition as regards Europe’s Jews. Morgenthau was involved in the Saint Louis saga, which was the famous ship of Europe-fleeing Jews that had made its way to Cuba, where the ship lay unwanted, its Jewish passengers denied permission to disembark. Morgenthau got involved, suggesting to Secretary of State Cordell Hull that the Jews be sent temporarily to the Virgin Islands. Hull refused, and the Jews were sent back to Europe, where a significant number died in the Holocaust. During and after the War, Morgenthau was at the forefront of an effort by certain prominent Americans who advocated a “harsh peace” with Germany. Morgenthau wanted to de-industrialize Germany and turn it into a agricultural society or, to use Joseph Goebbels phrase, a “potato field”. Morgenthau plan had been leaked to the press towards the end of the war, and Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda for Nazi Germany, used the intended punishment for Germany to motivate the Germans to resist the Allied armies. The plan, and fact that Germans had exploited Morgenthau plan, begat criticism both inside Roosevelt’s administration, and outside, by such people as Thomas Dewey, Republican nominee for president in 1944. When Truman succeeded Roosevelt as president, Morgenthau, who lost his friend and protector, resigned. The plan was not implemented, and Germany (West Germany) would not be punished as severely as he had hoped.