Review: Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe

Jewish scholars have deliberately disregarded some of the source materials I mine in this book, out of fear of its implications for the image of the Jews, and as part of a long tradition of apologetics. Indeed, I was advised by some colleagues not to pursue the subject. Ephraim Shoham-Steiner, 2021.

Thus begins Ephraim Shoham-Steiner’s Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe— a clear and remarkable enunciation of the sanitized, curated, and paranoid nature of Jewish historiography. The above statement illustrates that, while Europeans and their history have long been open to every group libel and accusation, the writing of Jewish history has always been a careful, censored, self-conscious process, designed in large part to portray Jews in a positive light or, at the very least, in such a way as to bleach out all transgressions. Arguably, Jews also engage in such activity as a form of self-deception, leading to a commonplace self-image of innocence and high self-esteem—which in turn fuels higher levels of ethnocentrism. David Sclar, in reviewing Shoham-Steiner’s text for the Jewish Book Council, comments that “con­tem­po­rary Jews do not gen­er­al­ly view their ances­tors as crim­i­nals. Jew­ish mem­o­ry, shaped by images of East­ern Euro­pean shtetls and the wounds of the Holo­caust, con­jures a past filled with meek Jews sur­viv­ing vile accu­sa­tions, cru­saders, and expul­sions.” Jewish historiography is thus less a relating of some historical truths than the presentation of a doctored image of the past. In other words, it is propaganda. Only in rare exceptions, such as Shoham-Steiner’s interesting text, do we get to see behind the curtain, and what we find there is generally disruptive to the image of the Jews we are used to.

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