One of the more interesting phenomena in Western history, and a tradition that holds in the Islamic world as well as the United States, is the matter of the court Jew. One of the characteristic survival strategies of the Jews throughout history has been the preservation of survival and national well-being for the Jewish peoples in various multi-national states through the cultivation of rulers. The court knowledge gained by such court Jews allowed Jewish interests to be defended by someone who knew how to deal with people in charge and how to be heard and how to avoid some of the threats, at least, that came from anti-Semitism within the larger society. Given the fact that anti-Semitism has been a widespread phenomena throughout the world up to the present day around the world, it is unsurprising that such a strategy would be maintained even in places (like the United States) where it might not be thought to be as obvious as it would be in other places.
While this has not been a fail-safe strategy, it has been successful enough that it has been adopted for centuries and it has been in evidence enough for us to recognize some of the patterns involved. For example, the presence of a court Jew in the time of the American Civil War allowed for Jews to defend themselves from an anti-Semitic general order relating to smuggling from General Grant in Vicksburg that seems to have had something to do with some shady business dealings that Grant’s father was involved in. The fallout from this matter, which was deftly handled by Lincoln, led to Grant himself finding it necessary to overcome his own anti-Semitism and become a very pro-Jewish president himself. Even in case where court Jews are unable to push leaders hard enough, as in the failure of the United States to open itself up to larger numbers of refugees from Nazi Germany in the period before the start of World War II, their efforts demonstrate a general concern among Jewish elites for the well-being of their brethren. Furthermore, the respect that is given to court Jews allows others enough time to recognize when conditions are getting grim and alternative strategies for survival and freedom are needed.
The presence of court Jews therefore provides a way of determining the nature of the times in which people live by an indirect means. Given the need of a court Jew to be able to appeal to those who are in charge, the sort of people who become court Jews can help us determine the nature of the times in which they live. Where rulers can be appealed to through scholarship and sound rhetoric, we may expect to find immensely philosophical and intelligent and humane court Jews, such as biblical characters like Daniel and Mordecai or the justly famous Maimonides during the Middle Ages. On the other hand, in more decadent and corrupt ages, we get court Jews like Jeffrey Epstein. It is important to remember that the quality of the court Jew does not reflect on the quality of the Jewish population of a given nation as a whole, which as might be expected has a broad degree of diversity in terms of its opinions and worldviews and levels of moral conduct. The quality of the court Jew, though, does reflect on the quality of the court and of the political elites that have to be dealt with. While the desire for safety and peace and freedom of worship and respect for property rights and economic prosperity remain constant for the Jewish people (and many other peoples), how those are to be secured requires a shrewd understanding of the quality of the people in charge who must be appealed to. It does the Jewish people no good to send a scoundrel to deal with noble rulers or to send a moral philosopher to deal with corrupt grifters, and so the court Jew is chosen in such a way as to reflect the age and to be most successful given the circumstances that exist in a given place and time.
At least to my knowledge, it has been rare to see court Jews discussed as a general historical phenomenon. Individual court Jews have occasionally entered the historical narrative, most commonly in Jewish history (as one might expect) but sometimes in more general historical studies geared at a wider audience. Similarly, survey histories of the Jewish people throughout the world and in the United States have discussed court Jews from time to time as part of the general narrative. Yet at least to my knowledge and observation it has been very rare to see more systematic studies on the overall history of the court Jew and how the identity of such people changes over time given aging and death and the change of political culture within the host nation. Perhaps there has been a strategic reason for the avoidance of writing at such length about such matters, given that the success of court Jews might be hindered by too broad a knowledge of their identity and how they operate and how the Jews have thought it necessary for their interests to be defended by a succession of insiders who use their institutional knowledge and commitment to the well-being of their people to good effect. Given the high degree of fear and loathing that the cultural and political power of Jews has encouraged throughout human history on the part of the masses of many nations, it might have been thought wise on the part of Jewish political historians to simply maintain a discreet silence about the training and selection and activities of the court Jew, and few others would think to write about the subject at all.