Court Jews & Politicians

Jews had no real state of their own for more than 1900 years. Nevertheless, individual Jews managed to carve out niches of influence within the upper echelons of Muslim and Christian society. Invariably this resulted from their commercial acumen, medical skill or access to the ruler.

The template for the Court Jew is nearly as old as the Jews themselves. Joseph became chief marshal in the court of Pharaoh. Mordechai succeeded the wicked Haman as vizier to Ahasuerus, the King of Persia.

Yehuda Ha-Nasi (c.135-220) was a confidante of Roman Antonine Emperors.

Dahina, a Berber Jewess, led the fight against Muslims in North Africa. Later, Jews became faithful allies to the first Ummayad Caliph, Mu’awiya.

In 797 Isaac the Jew represented Caliph Harun al-Rashid in negotiations with Charlemagne (Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire). Between 880 and 930 the jahbadhiyya (wealthy Jewish bankers) gained enormous influence with the Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad.

In Spain c. 950, Hisdai ibn Shaprut was appointed counsellor to the Caliph Abd al-Rahman III. The Cordoban commentator, poet and nagid (chief) of the Jewish community, Samuel ha-Nagid (Ismail ibn Nagrela, b. 993) was Granada’s vizier and military commander for 20 years.

The formerly anti-Jewish Christian rulers of Spainalso came to rely on Jews. Joseph ibn Ferruziel, called Cidellus, advised King Alfonso VI of Castille. Alfonso VII made Judah ibn Ezra commander of Calatrava in 1147. Several Marannos (crypto-Jews) became politicians, such as Thomas de Souza, first governor of the Portuguese colony of Brazil in 1549. Daniel Rodriguez founded the Balkan port of Split at Venice’s behest.

In 1577 the Hapsburg Emperor Rudolph II appointed a Prague merchant, Marcus Meisel, as Europe’s first modern court Jew. Meisel advised Rudolph, financed wars against Turkey and built amenities for Jews throughout Europe. Samuel Oppenheimer (1630-1703) created a dynasty of court Jews. Yet the fate of one descendant, known as ‘Jew Suss’, shows the precarious nature of their power. Suss lost his patron, was charged with subversion and hanged.

Life was more secure for Court Jews under Ottoman rule. Don Joseph Nasi became a pivotal figure at the 16th century Porte. He was made Duke of Naxos. His wife, Dona Gracia, facilitated the return of Jews to Tiberias. Saleh Sassoon of Baghdad was chief treasurer to the pashas (provincial governors) from 1781 to 1817.

Several baptised Jews achieved success in 19th century Europe. Benjamin Disraeli was Conservative Prime Minister of Britain in 1868 and 1874-80. As civil society progressed, Jews entered politics in their own right. These included Adolphe-Isaac Cremieux, Justice Minister and leader of France’s 1848 Revolution; Walter Rathenau, Foreign Minister in Germany’s Weimar Republic; Leon Blum, first Socialist Premier of France (1936-7); many early Bolsheviks; and Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State in the 1970s.

The political experience Jews gained in gentile courts and assemblies prepared them for self-rule in 20th century Israel. Yet they learnt the most valuable lessons within their own Jewish autarchies.