Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe
Wayne State University Press, 2020.
“Jewish scholars have deliberately disregarded some of the source materials I mine in this book, out of fear of its implications for the image of the Jews, and as part of a long tradition of apologetics. Indeed, I was advised by some colleagues not to pursue the subject.”
Ephraim Shoham-Steiner, 2021.
Thus begins Ephraim Shoham-Steiner’s Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe— a clear and remarkable enunciation of the sanitized, curated, and paranoid nature of Jewish historiography. The above statement illustrates that, while Europeans and their history have long been open to every group libel and accusation, the writing of Jewish history has always been a careful, censored, self-conscious process, designed in large part to portray Jews in a positive light or, at the very least, in such a way as to bleach out all transgressions. Arguably, Jews also engage in such activity as a form of self-deception, leading to a commonplace self-image of innocence and high self-esteem—which in turn fuels higher levels of ethnocentrism. David Sclar, in reviewing Shoham-Steiner’s text for the Jewish Book Council, comments that “contemporary Jews do not generally view their ancestors as criminals. Jewish memory, shaped by images of Eastern European shtetls and the wounds of the Holocaust, conjures a past filled with meek Jews surviving vile accusations, crusaders, and expulsions.” Jewish historiography is thus less a relating of some historical truths than the presentation of a doctored image of the past. In other words, it is propaganda. Only in rare exceptions, such as Shoham-Steiner’s interesting text, do we get to see behind the curtain, and what we find there is generally disruptive to the image of the Jews we are used to.
Overturning the Lachrymose Narrative of the Jewish Past
The starting point of Jews and Medieval Crime is that Jewish historiography has been painstakingly focused on apologetic responses to historical accusations and indictments against the Jews. This isn’t an entirely new position, and Miri Rubin, in her introduction to Gentile Tales (Yale, 1999), made a rather memorable comment on the ubiquitous “tedious type of prose littered with disclaimers such as ‘it was alleged’ or ‘the Jews were unjustly accused.’” The expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, for example, was in large part linked to their activity in coin-clipping (shaving the circumference of coins made of precious metals), and thus fraud and the debasement of the currency. In Jewish historiographical treatments of the expulsion, however, one often finds one of two tedious, disclaimer-filled explanatory strategies. The first is to suggest that Jews were not involved in coin-clipping and that this malicious accusation was manufactured for reasons of politics and bigotry. The second is to admit that Jews were indeed coin-clipping, but to argue that they did it only on a small scale and were forced into this criminal activity through prejudicial taxes and economic distress. Both strategies deny Jewish agency, and deny a “Jewish criminality” as such. Shoham-Steiner, however, points out that there were certainly cases in Europe where Jews engaged in coin-clipping in the absence of economic pressures, pointing out references to the felony in the Lemberg (Lviv) edition of the responsa of the thirteenth-century decisor Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg.
As Shoham-Steiner states, “Jewish crime was not just a figment of the medieval mind and its anti-Jewish biases. As such, it is a social phenomenon that needs to be addressed by historians.” One of the main obstacles to acknowledging Jewish agency is what Salo Baron called the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” Shoham-Steiner points out that this involved a
widespread way of writing Jewish history that paints the medieval Jewish experience in bleak colors, focusing on legal, economic, and social discrimination against the Jews and highlighting the persecution, pogroms, and blood libels they suffered from. Baron argued that the template used by Jewish historians was that of “the history of suffering and scholarship,” a phrase coined by his teacher, Heinrich Zvi Graetz. Acknowledging the existence of Jewish crime and a Jewish underworld would undercut the lachrymose agenda. Crime exemplifies empowerment and vitality, contradicting the bleak picture of a subdued and disempowered minority.
One of the more important observations found in Shoham-Steiner’s text is that Jews constituted a privileged elite, and these privileges extended to the area of crime and punishment. A common punishment for thieves in medieval Europe was trial by ordeal, most often involving the passing of the hand through flames. Shoham-Steiner points out that “immunity from trial by ordeal was one of the most important privileges obtained by Jews from the Carolingian regime in the ninth century.” Shoham-Steiner discusses one case in which a gentile thief acted at the behest of a Jewish crime lord named Shimon, but declined to name Shimon when he was caught and legal proceedings began. Shoham-Steiner comments that
when it came to the law of the land and the long arm of the authorities, the Jewish instigators and the gentile thieves did not stand on equal ground. … The gentile thief’s capitulation to Shimon’s intimidation was probably a product of his understanding that Jews with Shimon’s affluence and social standing would be favoured by authorities and their illegal activity ignored or overlooked, while [the gentile’s] illegal actions would cause him harm.
It seems a commonplace of Jewish history and contemporary life that Jews tend to be over-represented in financial crime. Despite lackluster Jewish apologetics on this issue (Abraham Foxman’s Jews and Money: Story of a Stereotype being a particularly risible example) white-collar crime and a drive for wealth accumulation has been well-established by empirical academic studies as the most prominent feature of the Jewish criminal profile. In 1971 A. Menachem of the Berkeley School of Criminology published a study in Issues in Criminology titled “Criminality Among Jews: An Overview.” Menachem argued that “the Jewish crime rate tends to be higher than that of non-Jews and other religious groups for white-collar offenses, that is, commercial or commercially related crimes, such as fraud, fraudulent bankruptcy, and embezzlement.” In 1988, Yale University’s Stanton Wheeler published “White-Collar Crimes and Criminals” for the Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository. Among Wheeler’s findings were that while Protestants and Catholics were under-represented among white-collar criminals relative to their share of the population, Jews were over-represented to a very large degree (2% of the population, 15.2% of white-collar convictions). Wheeler states that “It would be a fair summary of our data to say that, demographically speaking, white-collar offenders are predominantly middle-aged white males with an over-representation of Jews.” While Stanton’s statistics are enlightening in themselves, a more detailed picture emerges in David Weisburd’s Yale-published Crimes of the Middle Classes: White-Collar Offenders in the Federal Courts (1991). Here Weisburd informs us that although Jews comprise only around 2% of the United States population, they contribute at least 9% of lower category white-collar crimes (bank embezzlement, tax fraud and bank fraud), at least 15% of moderate category white-collar crimes (mail fraud, false claims, and bribery), and at least 33% of high category white-collar crimes (antitrust and securities fraud).
It’s really not all that surprising then that Shoham-Steiner finds fraud to be one of the most prominent Jewish criminal categories of the medieval period. Shoham-Steiner relies heavily on rabbinic responsa (case law) in order to flesh out his analysis of Jewish criminal activity, and this often involves “reading between the lines” of rabbinic injunctions. He points out that many of the regulations contained within Sefer Hasidim, a thirteenth-century collection of ethical, ascetic, and mystical teachings of the Ashkenazi Jews, take “as a given that Jews habitually dealt in stolen goods and traded in them regularly; implicitly, it permitted Jews to buy, sell, or accept as collateral goods without reference to their provenance, as long as they were not objects of religious significance.” This last proviso was included not as a form of deference to the sensibilities of the host population, but as a matter of Jewish communal security. Shoham-Steiner argues that it was thought “extremely dangerous” for Jews to trade in such items because “gentiles were likely to believe that the objects were obtained not for commercial purposes but for acts of religious desecration, mockery or sorcery. Such dealings thus put not only the trafficker but the entire community in danger.”
Aside from the trade in stolen goods, there are examples in the text also of common fraud, such as the selling by Jews of “silver” objects to gentiles that were later discovered to be composed primarily of copper. Shoham-Steiner refers to the late-fifteenth-century ethical codes and communal regulations of the Jews of Candia (modern Heraklion in Crete), arguing that “the language suggests that Candian Jews were indeed stealing from, defrauding, and lying to gentiles, creating animosity towards the community.” As David Sclar points out, the text “eradicates any notion that the Jewish minority had neither the wherewithal nor the inclination to engage in illicit activities.”
A particularly interesting section of the book contains some information on Jewish involvement in occultism during the period. One of the common accusations of the medieval period against the Jews was that of ritual murder, as well as host desecration and other crimes of a specifically anti-Christian or quasi-demonic character. The common rejoinder is to rely on a notion of Jewish piety, and to stress there is no place in the Judaism for such dark machinations. Shoham-Steiner, however, makes interesting reference to Hebrew books of spells, including one from early fifteenth-century Italy. One spell in the book instructs thieves on how to use body parts and magic in order to carry out a successful theft:
And the thieves that go from one house to another take the hand of the dead with them. Once they enter a house they can place it in the middle of the room, and this way it causes everyone in the house to shiver and to fall asleep. And they take four burning candles and they throw diamond dust on the candles. Then they place the candles in the four corners of the house and it seems to the house dwellers that the house is rolling and moving. And when the thieves wish, they take the hand of the dead and place it on the heart of the owner of the house and they ask him where he has hidden the keys to the gold and the silver hidden in the house and he tells them about all his belongings.
Shoham-Steiner includes a substantial chapter on Jewish sex crime, especially prostitution. In one case, a Jewish cantor was accused of stalking a woman he apparently claimed to believe was a prostitute. In any case, there have been a number of significant historical incidents where anti-Jewish attacks by gentile populations have been provoked by Jewish sex crimes, illicit behavior, and a general tendency among Jews to cause a deterioration in the sexual morals of the surrounding culture. In his Cornell-published The Sephardic Frontier: The Reconquista and the Jewish Community in Medieval Iberia Jonathan Ray comments that “sexual permissiveness in general, and relations with non-Jews in particular, were often cited by Jewish reformers as the cause for communal instability and anti-Jewish attacks by Christians.” Ray also cites cases where Jewish religious figures were proven to have engaged in sexual activities with prostitutes and young boys.
Many of the ritual murder stories from the period, of course, have sex crime subtexts, since many of the young boys alleged to have been murdered by Jews were found naked as well as wounded. There were indeed cases during the period where Jews had violently attacked Christians in acts of genital mutilation. Paola Tartakoff in Conversion, Circumcision, and Ritual Murder in Medieval Europe points out that in England in 1202 “a Christian named Robert of Sutton accused a Jew from Bedford named Bonefand of having ‘wickedly had [Robert’s nephew Richard] emasculated,’ and thereby caused him to die.” The case may have been an act of punitive castration, which was common in the period, but it nevertheless illustrates Jewish agency in committing acts of violence.
Jews are well-documented in the contemporary record as having been users of gentile prostitutes, pimps, and as brothel owners. However, as with other categories of crime, Jews enjoyed privileged and protected status. Shoham-Steiner is forced once more to rely on interpretations of the unmentioned in rabbinic responsa, rather than the direct archival record, but what he infers is a broad swathe of Jewish sex crime, both inside the Jewish communities of medieval Europe and also Jewish criminal activity directed against Europeans. This is broadly in keeping with the findings of Trevor Dean in his Cambridge-published Crime and Justice in Late Medieval Italy, in which he states that, “the prosecution of Jews for sexual offences was was quite rare — fewer than a dozen cases have been found across two hundred years of Perugia’s history — though it is claimed that the statements of rabbis, preachers, and moralists of both religions suggest much greater frequency.”
As suggested by my references to earlier published works, Ephraim Shoham-Steiner’s text is not entirely original in its pointing to historical Jewish criminality, but it is certainly noteworthy for the directness of its focus. Texts like these are important for a number of reasons. First, books published in the academic mainstream by respected publishing houses carry some weight, and it is a rare and welcome event that a book focusing on negative aspects of the Jewish past should see the light of day under their imprint. Second, the content of such books is crucial to a developed understanding of Jewish influence in the past and present. Key themes such as the privileged and protected status of the Jews, the censored nature of discussions about Jews and their past, and empirically proven instances of negative Jewish behaviors are invaluable in terms of overturning entrenched concepts of Jewish innocence and Jewish victimhood. Third, they are important in crystallizing our understanding of Jewish behavior in the present. The Jewish relationship to financial crime, for example, is not a matter of stereotypes but a trajectory of significant historical pedigree. Jewish financial crime is not a figment of a bigoted imagination, but runs deep into the earliest origins of the Jewish community in Europe.
As Shoham-Steiner makes clear, Jews “were indeed stealing from, defrauding, and lying to gentiles.”
 A. Menachem, “Criminality Among Jews: An Overview,” Issues in Criminality, Volume 6, Issue 2, (Summer 1971), pp.1-39.
 D. Weisburg, Crimes of the Middle Classes: White-Collar Offenders in the Federal Courts (Yale University Press, 1991), p.72
 J. Ray, The Sephardic Frontier: The Reconquista and the Jewish Community in Medieval Iberia, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), 172.
 P. Tartakoff, Conversion, Circumcision, and Ritual Murder in Medieval Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), 55.
 T. Dean Crime and Justice in Late Medieval Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 149.