Dangerous Liaisons: Modern Scholars and Medieval Relations Between Jews and Christians

In the spring of 1942—which, as Mel Brooks noted, was “winter for Poland and France”—Salo Baron published a boldly revisionist article on “The Jewish Factor in Medieval Civilization,” based on his recently delivered presidential address to the American Academy for Jewish Research (AAJR). Baron, who was born in western Galicia in 1895, had earned his rabbinical ordination and various doctorates in Vienna, and served as the Miller Professor of Jewish History, Literature, and Institutions at Columbia University beginning in 1930. Although he was famously familiar with every period of Jewish history, Baron chose to devote his lecture to the Jews of medieval Europe with a somewhat startling thesis. “Any comparison with the legislation of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy,” he asserted, “will reveal that we are maligning the Middle Ages when we call the Nuremberg Laws a reversion to the medieval status.” He stressed that “medieval Jewry, much as it suffered from disabilities and contempt, still was a privileged minority in every country where it was tolerated at all.”

Salo Baron

Salo Baron speaking at The Jewish Theological Seminary in the 1940s. (Courtesy of the Ratner Center Archives at The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary.)

These comments, as Robert Liberles noted in his 1995 biography of Baron, Salo Wittmayer Baron: Architect of Jewish History, continued Baron’s famous critique of the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history” that he had first expressed in his influential 1928 essay “Ghetto and Emancipation” and broadly translated into practice in his three-volume A Social and Religious History of the Jews, published in 1937. There he had written that “the widespread belief that Jewish life in medieval Europe consisted in an uninterrupted series of migrations and suffering, of disabilities and degradation, is to be relegated to the realm of misconception,” adding that the Middle Ages were not “as dark for the Jews, in comparison with the rest of the population, as is still widely believed.”

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About the Author

Elliott Horowitz is a visiting professor of Jewish studies at Johns Hopkins University and co-editor of The Jewish Quarterly Review.


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