Conference Report on the Workshop „Jewish Diplomacy and Welfare“

International Workshop

Jewish Diplomacy and Welfare: Intersections and Transformations

in the Early Modern and Modern Period 

April 10–12, 2016

Venue: Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG), Mainz, and Museum Judengasse, Frankfurt a.M.

Shtadlanut (intercession) is generally perceived as a Jewish political practice or as Jewish diplomacy. It was often closely connected with “righteous” and charitable activities (tzedakah) within the Jewish community. Whereas the Jewish welfare system and charitable activities were already highly developed in the medieval times, shtadlanut had its first heydays in the early modern period. In Western and Central Europe wealthy Jewish court factors and in Eastern European communities the shtadlan (Jewish representative) became integral parts of the Jewish communal and inter-communal structures. During the 19th and early 20th century, both shtadlanut and tzedakah changed fundamentally. While Jews were offered emancipation, which demanded certain degrees of inclusion, acculturation and sometimes even assimilation, Jewish intercession and solidarity seemed to remain important due to an incomplete integration and increasing anti-Semitism.

Thus, the workshop took a fresh look at the traditional understanding of shtadlanut and tzedakah and examined how both ideas and practices were interrelated and changed over time. Consequently, the workshop addressed the following questions: How did Jews represent and negotiate their interests and “otherness” in different societies? Why and how could they receive special cultural, economic, and legal status from the early modern period up to the 20th century? How influential were the concept and practice of tzedakah in Jewish political traditions? And finally, how have intercession and welfare been adapted in the course of the modern era?

The keynote of NOAM ZOHAR (Bar Ilan) opened the workshop at the newly renovated Museum Judengasse in Frankfurt am Main. In his lecture, Zohar discussed selected passages from the Talmud, Midrashim, and also rabbinical responsa from the Middle Ages, and traced back Jewish political thinking to the beginning of the Jewish diaspora. His inter-textual approach revealed a long durée perspective on the subject of a Jewish political tradition that included perceptions and ideas of authority and membership but also morals of charity and welfare.

The first workshop day opened with a panel on “Authority and Tranregional Solidarity”. YARON BEN-NAEH (Jerusalem) discussed the role of the “Sultan’s Jews” in the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 19th centuries at the imperial Ottoman court of Istanbul. BEN-NAEH drew parallels between these privileged Jewish doctors, merchants, and bankers to their Western counterparts, the court Jews (“Hofjuden”). According to BEN-NAEH, the Jews at the Sultan’s court represented and lobbied for the interests of the local and imperial Jewish community on an external level and were active in communal welfare on an internal one. BEN-NAEH demonstrated how the dual responsibility and power became heavily intertwined, e.g. in the case of the collections of money (halukkah) for the Jews in the Holy Land, which were also used for personal business credits and transfer payments. The second speaker MICHAEL K. SILBER (Jerusalem) examined Diego D’Aguilar (Moses Lopes Pereira) and his network across Europe. In 1726, D’Aguilar came from Portugal to the imperial city of Vienna to gain the state monopoly of tobacco. Almost three decades D’Aguilar resided in Austria and used his position of power to influence the Viennese court. He became known as one of the main intercessors who mainly mobilized the Italian Jewish communities against Maria Theresa’s decree of expulsion of the Jews in Prague in 1744/45.

In the second session on “Jewish Networks of Solidarity and Charity” TIRTSAH LEVIE BERNFELD (Amsterdam) gave a new insight into the refined welfare system of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam in the early modern period. In her talk she examined the Cativos organization, which was controlled by the Portuguese Jewish community and distributed money in order to help Jews and Conversos. LEVIE BERNFELD discussed its underlying network and also local welfare institutions of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam and demonstrated how communal relief work was connected to international crises of that time. In his paper, ADAM TELLER (Providence) examined the organization of trans-regional philanthropic networks in the Mediterranean and Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. TELLER studied the cross-cultural trade networks such as the Venetian Society for the Ransom of Captives and the Constantinople Officials of Jerusalem, the Sephardi emissaries for the offertories in order to support the Jewish population in the Land of Israel, and perceived their philanthropic character as a blueprint for later developments of modern relief agencies.

The third panel “Charity and Politics” opened with a talk by FRANÇOIS GUESNET (London) who investigated Jewish intercession in the Holy Roman Empire and Poland Lithuania in the 16th and 18th century. In his comparative analysis he used the case studies of Josel of Rosheim and Jewish leaders of Poland Lithuania in order to demonstrate how practices of Jewish self-perception and intercession were highly shaped by the legal and constitutional contexts and the inner-communal role of leadership. SHAUL STAMPFER (Jerusalem) argued in his paper that Jewish diplomacy in the early modern period was based on five factors: The state context, diplomatic relations and preceding contacts, the possible achievements of Jewish intercession, the economic meaning of discrimination, and situations when Jewish advocacy was absent. Thus, STAMPFER analyzed the pushke (home charity box) as a major element in Jewish politics and communal as well as family welfare.

In the first session of the second day entitled “Community, Welfare, and Family Politics” JOSHUA TEPLITSKY (Stony Brook) discussed two important components of Jewish political culture in pre-modern Central Europe: The family networks and the role of books and libraries. By focusing on the life and career of rabbi David Oppenheim from Prague TEPLITSKY showed how politics, diplomacy, and welfare evolved in the 17th and 18th century in the German lands and were based on favors and personal interests as well as gifts, such as books. MIRJAM THULIN (Mainz) addressed in her paper Maria Theresa’s expulsion decree for the Jews of Prague 1744/45 and Wolf Wertheimer’s intervention against it. THULIN showed how Wertheimer’s oscillation between the Viennese and Bavarian courts characterized his intercession. Moreover, she demonstrated how historians made Wertheimer’s actions an emblem of Jewish diplomacy and welfare, thus also linked the pre-modern and modern era.

Consequently the last panel dealt with “The Transformations of Intercession and Charity” in the 19th and early 20th century. In his paper, YOCHAI BEN-GHEDALIA (Jerusalem) discussed new modes of Jewish philanthropy in the late 19th century that were not limited to the local but operated in greater transnational contexts. BEN-GHEDALIA argued that these developments gave birth to the rise and empowerment respectively of individual philanthropists who were concerned with an inner-Jewish advocacy. BJOERN SIEGEL (Hamburg) examined the life of Joseph Ritter von Wertheimer and his specific understanding of international solidarity. For von Wertheimer, religion and knowledge were the basis of such a concept and led to his greatest achievement, the foundation of the Jewish Alliance of Vienna (IAzW). This newly established organization founded schools and relief programs for the Jews in Eastern Europe and implemented Wertheimer’s international solidarity. In his lecture ELI LEDERHENDLER (Jerusalem) linked the workshop to the American context. By presenting the cases of Benjamin Peixotto, Jacob Schiff, and Louis Marshall, LEDERHENDLER showed that these advocates who acted on behalf of the American Jewish community had no clear mandate but used the beginning of large-scale political mobilization in the late 19th and early 20th century for their Jewish and philanthropic acts.

The workshop finished with a concluding discussion with ELI LEDERHENDLER (Jerusalem) and MICHAEL WALZER (Princeton) who joined the group via Skype. WALZER stated that up until the 19th century mainly wealthy Jews took over the functions of intercessors and benefactors. In the modern era wealth continued to play a role, however, did not exclusively dominated the discussions. Shtadlanut came e.g. under fire by the Zionist movement at the beginning of the 20th century which demonstrated how newly emerging political ideas changed traditional concepts and ideas. WALZER argued that a Jewish political tradition had existed through times and spaces, but was shaped by the different situations and state structures which Jews experienced and lived in. Shtadlanut and tzedakah were and still are two fundamental components of such a political tradition, but – as ELI LEDERHENDLER (Jerusalem) stated – the functions of both, shtadlanut and tzedakah, became specialized and divided in the modern era.

In all discussions it became clear that long before “diplomacy” as a word and concept existed, related practices already existed and ensured mediation and intercession, the strategic representation of interests as well as political negotiations by individuals, collectives, and minorities. These practices of negotiating and intervening existed in various societies, and they were also part of the Jewish culture. In the early modern period, shtadlanut and tzedakah were in the hands of the small Jewish leadership of oligarchs, officials (parnassim), rabbis and scholars. Over the course of the 19th century, shtadlanut and tzedakah became gradually institutionalized and politicized in modern organizations and institutions; predominately in Europe and the United States. The papers of the workshop showed that an approach, which focused on the actual actors – persons as well as institutions – is central to engage with Jewish diplomacy and welfare. It would be important to widen the perspective in the future and adopt a comparative view on Jewish intercession and welfare, for example in the different parts of Europe, the Americas, and in the Islamic sphere.

For the program of the workshop, please go here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *