Why the Jews of Frankfurt and elsewhere?

Frankfurt city map 1628, showing the curved Judengasse. (Wikipedia) On this date in history Germans attacked Jews. Not for the first time and not for the last. Nor is it just Germans. What’s going on here?

The specific incident I have in mind was the August 23 expulsion of the Jews of Frankfurt following an attack on the Frankfurt “Judengasse” or “Jews’ alley” during the “Fettmilch Rising” of 1614. This uprising named for its leader Vinz Fettmilch was, of course, the boiling over of a simmering quarrel between the local guilds and the hoity-toity “Patricians” running Frankfurt and, apparently, running it rather badly.

As you can see, this has nothing to do with Jews. So let’s go get them.

In 1613 the patricians had granted the Fettmilchians or whatever they were called more power in urban affairs. What the guilds wanted was cheaper grain and cheaper money and of course restrictions on Jews. There were over 450 Jewish families and well I mean obviously that… uh… that… Besides, the Jews were moneylenders and of course everyone wants there to be money to borrow but it’s an outrage when you’re meant to pay it back as you promised.

Arguably I digress. The point is that when the guilds got more rights in the affairs of Frankfurt it included discovering that the city government had, of all things, been spending beyond its means and quietly piling up debts. In the process it had misappropriated the Jewish Tax. Why those no good Jews, they let money unfairly taken from them be misspent by the people who unfairly took it. Out with them.

Literally. The mob attacked the ghetto on August 22, drove off the defenders at its barricades after several hours’ fighting, forced the inhabitants into the local cemetery, plundered and wrecked their houses and then forced them to leave the city.

If there’s a bright side to this story, it’s that the Holy Roman Emperor was mighty displeased with Fettmilch and his supporters for all sorts of reasons like open revolt and arrested 39 people including Fettmilch. But they were also charged for persecuting Jews and on February 28 of 1616 Fettmilch and six others were executed while the Jews were escorted back into Frankfurt by imperial soldiers and an Imperial Eagle was erected over the ghetto gate with the inscription “Protected by the Roman Imperial Majesty and the Holy Empire”. And the Jews rebuilt the synagogue, restored the cemetery (desecrated, of course) and had a “Purim Vinz” to celebrate having survived yet another murderous unprovoked attack.

That was the good news. Oh, along with the fact that many Christians actually sided with the Jews, helping make this incident one of the last German pogroms (Frankfurt alone had seen two serious ones, in 1241 and 1349). Until the 20th century, of course. Which brings me to the bad news.

The Jews never got the compensation they were promised for their losses. New regulations were issued for Frankfurt that at least gave the Jews more or less permanent residence but limited the community to 500 families, with just 12 marriages allowed a year (any Christian could marry if they proved they had enough money to feed a family), and granted Jews the same business rights as other non-Christians which was pretty much none. Except Jews got to run wholesale businesses to annoy wealthy traders. But they couldn’t be or call themselves citizens and they had to pay extra taxes. And while Jewish codes were gradually softened they remained in place until the 19th century because…

Because what? Anti-Semitism is so familiar that even while deploring it, as all decent people do, we tend to take it for granted as a kind of loathsome background noise to life. But why? What had the Jews of Frankfurt ever done?

I mean, doubtless some individual Jews were wretched. People are like that. Doubtless there were thieves, wife-beaters, drunks and layabouts in the community as there are anywhere. But no more than among the Gentiles. Very probably less, if only because of the danger of giving any provocation to such neighbours. The Jews were not numerous, they were productive non-citizens, they paid their excessive taxes. But they didn’t get civic equality until 1864 and Frankfurt was only the second city to grant it. And within 70 years the Nazis were at their throats with significant public support.

What exactly was the problem? What is the source of this incredibly persistent, virulent hatred, egregious even by normal human standards of intolerance, that is erupting in the form of BDS and elsewhere in our own day?

There’s a question to ponder uncomfortably on August 23… and every day.