Jews, having been accused of killing Christ, were generally perceived as criminals and murderers in medieval and early modern Europe. Prejudiced Christians claimed they engaged in ritual murder and sought to defraud and impoverish their non-Jewish neighbors.
“While these accusations were, for the most part, unfounded, in other cases the accusations were not altogether baseless,” writes the Israeli historian Ephraim Shoham-Steiner in his esoteric yet revealing book, Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe, published by Wayne State University Press.
Citing an example, he points to the hundreds of Jews in Britain in the late 13th century who were accused of debasing and devaluing the currency by means of coin clipping. “Many confessed under torture and were subsequently hanged,” says Shoham-Steiner, who teaches medieval Jewish history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
In his introduction, he issues an important disclaimer. His book is not a history of Jews and crime during that period because the known sources for such an endeavor are inadequate. “We simply do not have the figures and the facts,” he explains. “There is no registry of Jewish involvement in criminal actions, nor are there court records, or even lists of sentences handed down by tribunals.”
His objective is to uncover the way “crimes of a violent, economic and sexual nature are depicted in medieval literary works, primarily rabbinic sources, but also other medieval narratives.”
By doing so, he adds, he gleans information about what crimes were committed, to what extent the perpetrators knew they were beaching norms, and how the transgressors were treated by their respective communities.
At a time when poverty was rampant and the vast majority of people lived at the subsistence level, the theft of food, produce and livestock was the most common crime. Yet the burglary of homes and businesses was also common.
Some Jews resorted to indirect violence in cases of debt collection and the enforcement of financial settlements. “When debtors did not accept the authority of the Jewish court, creditors were known to hire non-Jewish ruffians to rough up a defaulter,” he says.
Turning to a far different felony, Shoham-Steiner cites a case in 14th century Spain during which two Jews, Yitzhak and Avraham, were caught breaking into a synagogue in Zaragoza with the intent of stealing the silver ornaments on Torah scrolls.
Dealing with a crime of a sexual nature, he tells of a Spanish cantor who violated a local law by using the services of a Christian prostitute.
Jewish community leaders sought to dissuade Jews from preying on Christians due to the “collateral damage” it might cause. “From the eleventh century onward, Jewish communal authorities, as well as ethical writers, did all they could to keep Jews from transgressing against non-Jews,” says Shoham-Steiner. “The very fact that such a great effort was made means that such acts were serious and real concerns.”
On the other hand, Jews who caused serious injury to their fellow Jews were expected by rabbis to express contrition and submit to punishment and penance. “Only in the most extreme cases were perpetrators excommunicated.”
In medieval Jewish communities, Jews who informed on Jews to Christian authorities were in breach of custom. “It was a Jew’s duty to other Jews … not to air dirty linen outside and not to place fellow Jews the mercy of gentiles,” he says.
When he began his research, he assumed that the bulk of Jewish criminals were from the lower strata of society. In fact, they hailed “from all walks of life, from the most distinguished and affluent to the most disenfranchised.”
More importantly, he learned that there were fewer Jewish than Christian criminals proportionately speaking.
“My findings show that, among Jews, outright criminals acts, such as theft, robbery and extortion, were the exception rather than the rule. It was not at all uncommon for merchants, both Jews and gentiles, to act in the grey areas in attempts, for example, to evade taxes, wriggle out of contracts, or market goods that they knew were stolen.”
Has anything really changed since then? It’s doubtful. Jewish criminals, now as back then, tend to gravitate toward white-collar crime.