The Beginnings of Ashkenaz

While the term “Ashkenazi” today refers to Jews whose ancestors hail from Central and Eastern Europe, Ashkenaz was originally medieval Jews’ word for Germany. The first Ashkenazim established communities in the Rhineland and northern France around the year 900, and their distinctive customs tended to be similar to those of Jews in the Land of Israel, as opposed to the Babylonian customs and liturgy that dominated in North Africa and Spain. But where did these Jews come from? Tamar Marvin explains:

Earlier [scholarly] consensus, still widely accepted though at times modified, proposes that the earliest substrate of Ashkenazi Jews originated in Byzantine southern Italy, an amenable proposition in several ways: this cultural arena, being part of Byzantine lands, had been closely tied in antiquity with the Land of Israel when it too was under Byzantine control. This would explain Eretz-Yisraeli customs in Ashkenaz. In addition, the Rhine River, a major migration route, and the Rhineland Valley, the center of early Ashkenaz, lie north of Italy, making a migration pattern through Italy plausible. Indeed, we see a number of early Ashkenazi figures with names that sound Greek, i.e. plausibly originating in Greek-speaking southern Italy (such as the Kalonymos family), or Italianate-Latinate.

Whereas Jews living in Islamic lands were largely present at the time of the Muslim conquests, or else were immigrants from within the empire, Jews admitted to Christian territories, especially those of northern Europe, were immigrants from outside, at first, mostly merchants. They were granted conditional charters of settlement by royal or Church officials.

These documents, of which we possess a small but not insignificant number, reveal several key facts in relation to the establishment of Jewish life in the Latin West. First, they are . . . conditional: they stipulate terms of legal residence, as well as granting privileges. Inherently, such a charter may be revoked at any time, making Jewish life legally precarious; eventually, rights of settlement would be cancelled throughout Ashkenaz by local, then mass-scale, orders of expulsion.

Read more at Stories from Jewish History

More about: Ashkenazi Jewry, Jewish history

Israel Can’t Stake Its Fate on “Ironclad” Promises from Allies

Israeli tanks reportedly reached the center of the Gazan city of Rafah yesterday, suggesting that the campaign there is progressing swiftly. And despite repeatedly warning Jerusalem not to undertake an operation in Rafah, Washington has not indicated any displeasure, nor is it following through on its threat to withhold arms. Even after an IDF airstrike led to the deaths of Gazan civilians on Sunday night, the White House refrained from outright condemnation.

What caused this apparent American change of heart is unclear. But the temporary suspension of arms shipments, the threat of a complete embargo if Israel continued the war, and comments like the president’s assertion in February that the Israeli military response has been “over the top” all call into question the reliability of Joe Biden’s earlier promises of an “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security. Douglas Feith and Ze’ev Jabotinsky write:

There’s a lesson here: the promises of foreign officials are never entirely trustworthy. Moreover, those officials cannot always be counted on to protect even their own country’s interests, let alone those of others.

Israelis, like Americans, often have excessive faith in the trustworthiness of promises from abroad. This applies to arms-control and peacekeeping arrangements, diplomatic accords, mutual-defense agreements, and membership in multilateral organizations. There can be value in such things—and countries do have interests in their reputations for reliability—but one should be realistic. Commitments from foreign powers are never “ironclad.”

Israel should, of course, maintain and cultivate connections with the United States and other powers. But Zionism is, in essence, about the Jewish people taking responsibility for their own fate.

Read more at JNS

More about: Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship