When I happen to tell new acquaintances that I have to keep my Christianity a secret from some family members, they are confused. Are these family members observant, religious Jews? No. Then why would they care that I changed religions?
From my grandfather’s book on Jewish history in Europe, I learned that early after the destruction of the Temple and the exile, there were some Jewish farmers in Western Europe – most of them essentially former Roman slaves who ended up becoming something like sharecroppers. Then the feudal system was developed, which was based on a Christian view of society and founded on vassals taking Christian oaths of loyalty to their feudal lords. Under this system, in which owning and using land was tied to being a Christian, there was no place for Jews, and they were no longer able to own land.
So Jews had to either accept baptism or abandon their land and turn to other professions. For much of the rest of their history in Europe Jews could not own land – they always had to pay rent to Gentiles, who owned the land they lived on. This was the case first in Western Europe and then in the Russian Empire; I believe that in Russia this was the case until the Bolshevik revolution.
Why not let Jews own land? What is the logic behind preventing someone from owning land if they are willing to pay for it? Besides mere discrimination, it seems to me that this has something to do with the fact that, historically, land is deeply tied to peoplehood; it is a good to be bought and sold, yes, but it is also the thing that makes a group of individuals or families a people. With Europe newly understood as Christendom – the land of the Christian people – a people that was not Christian could not be allowed to own land.
If land is such an essential prerequisite of peoplehood, how did the Jews remain a people while being stripped of their land for so many centuries? It seems to me that the Jewish faith became the equivalent of land for them: the common foothold, the thing that profoundly connects a people regardless of differences in personalities or interests or ideas – and, for every people beside the Jews, regardless even of differences in religious belief.
Two conclusions follow from the above, which pertain to the question posed at the beginning of this post. First, I believe that the fact that until modern times European nations prevented Jews from owning land insofar as they were non-Christians (since baptized Jews could own land) cemented the connection between religion and peoplehood. If a Jew becomes a Christian, he or she officially states an intention to become part of another people. It’s not, in a sense, about religion, or even about the fact that Jews were mistreated in the name of Christ throughout European history (though that certainly doesn’t help); it’s that Christians are a different tribe, and to join them is to abandon family.
Second, individuals who consider themselves part of a people generally find themselves connected by two distinct threads: first, and most basic and immutable, is land and heritage, and second is religion, or other shared belief system. A crucial difference between the Jews and everyone else, then, is that for the Jew one of these things plays the role of both. A Frenchman can be either a Catholic or a Protestant; the latter might have gotten him in trouble with neighbors a few centuries ago, but it would not have made him any less French. But a Jew cannot be either a Jew or a Christian (though I’ll argue in a later post that the existence of Israel can change that): there is no equivalent of “Frenchness” to connect him to the other members of his people while sustaining his change of religion. A Jew might live in France but he is never French; if he were, his ancestors would have owned French land generations ago.