Aaron of Lincoln shows us the uncertain legacy of success

There is a long history of Jewish success leading to a powerful and bitter backlash in the years afterwards


MUNICH, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 15: Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during a panel talk at the 2020 Munich Security Conference (MSC) on February 15, 2020 in Munich, Germany. The annual conference brings together global political, security and business leaders to discuss pressing issues, which this year include climate change, the US commitment to NATO and the spread of disinformation campaigns. (Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images)

March 12, 2021 15:39

Many terrible events in Jewish history are memorialised. But 16 March is unique. On this day in 1190, one-hundred and fifty Jews were massacred at the site of Clifford’s Tower in York, with most committing suicide rather than fall into the hands of the attacking mob.

The manner of these deaths sets this event apart from others where Jews have been violently killed (the Roman siege of Masada is possibly the only comparable episode). Though what also makes the York massacre unique is that it was an unintended consequence of the business operations of one Jewish man. We know him as Aaron of Lincoln, and it is said he was wealthier than his monarch, King Henry ll of England.

For any age, Aaron stands as an unparalleled entrepreneur. His activities give us pause to reflect on how the massacre came about, and on the perils and challenges of high-level Jewish achievement.

Aaron’s business interests spanned commodities, property, building finance for monasteries and some of England’s great cathedrals, including Lincoln Cathedral, and financing wars of noblemen and kings. Remarkably, he also headed an organisation constituted by the whole Jewish community — estimated at 3000 to 5000 individuals — one role of which was to be the King’s financial agents.

When Aaron died in 1189 many of his loans remained outstanding. By law, the money passed to Henry ll. But with Aaron’s affairs so extensive, it took a dedicated department of England’s Exchequer (known as Aaron’s Exchequer) fifteen years to conclude.

Richard Malebisse sought to exploit the Exchequer’s slowness by destroying records of loans he had taken from Aaron or his associates. He brutally set about finding these records’ location, mistakenly believing an agent of Aaron possessed them. In the process, Malebisse and his men forced baptism on several Jews and murdered others. Those able to evade the assault took refuge in the wooden keep at York castle (Clifford’s tower, a stone structure, was constructed later) but Malebisse set fire to it. Realising they had no shelter against the growing inferno, and if they attempted escape would be viciously murdered, dying by their own hand seemed the only option.

Some records were eventually tracked to York Minster, where Malebisse burnt them. However, loan records belonged to the King while Jews, as his financial agents, were under royal protection. For Henry ll, Malebisse’s actions were a personal attack. He would later be punished with heavy fines and land confiscation. That Malebisse could even contemplate such an assault, however, is indicative of the beginning of the end for the small Jewish community in England.

One hundred years later in 1290 Edward l would formally expel the remaining Jews.

The power structure in 12th century England made the outcome inevitable. The Jews were caught between the twin factions of Church and King. The Church cast the usurious (interest charging) Jews as the Devil’s servants — if the Jews were not for a Christian God, they must be for the Devil, a useful foil for the population’s periodic angst and underlying much antisemitism of the day. Henry ll needed the Jews as a funding resource and to take the brunt of resentment as financial agents when collecting fines and tolls. Aaron’s widespread activities thus helped solidify Henry’s economic position. And, conveniently, any Jewish failure could attract blame by either faction.

The York massacre, as with many attacks on medieval Jewry, was fuelled by such vested interests as well as mindless barbarism, religious fanaticism and greed. But the event also forces us to consider the impact of other Jews, like Aaron, attaining incredible success. Clearly, high-level achievement resonates beyond the individual, generating a powerful legacy.

It is striking, therefore, how Aaron’s precarious success parallels that of the biblical figure of Joseph. Plucked from prison and elevated to Viceroy, Joseph’s dreams were made real and used for changing Egypt’s economy. As Torah passages relate, from organising stores of grain to buying up land on Pharaoh’s behalf — a type of sale and leaseback exercise — Joseph became a central actor.

Yet, like Henry ll, Pharaoh’s motives would be similar in using an outsider to effect change — including offsetting potential blame. And with a priesthood functioning with a purpose comparable to the medieval Church, Joseph must have made enemies when the status quo was altered. As Aaron would experience over a millennium later, Joseph, though protected, was caught in a power dynamic with his position never completely secure. And when he died, his ideas about economic reform died with him. In the power vacuum he left, the old order, seeing personal gain once more in their sights, would advise Pharaoh how essential it was to revert to the past ways of running the country. Indeed, what Joseph represented was now spurned. As the Torah states, “A new king arose over Egypt with no knowledge of Joseph” (Shemot 1:8). Instead, slavery was likely deemed a tried and tested economic necessity and centuries of bondage ensued for the Israelites.

Extreme success, it seems, is connected to an extreme legacy. Though great dreams needn’t end in death or slavery. In recent times, Paul Reichmann dreamed of majestic spires rising heavenward. His developments would change the skylines of Toronto, New York and London, creating a powerful commercial and architectural legacy. But eventually dreams clashed with the perils of business, bankrupting his company, Olympia & York. Reichmann would never recover his elite professional position. At the same time, his orthodox Judaism remained unchanged.

Loss of Jewish identity, however, is the price often paid for business success; especially amongst the following generations. The factories of Glaxo founder Joseph Nathan stopped work for Shabbat, but he worried about his children’s faith. In a letter accompanying his will, he wrote, ‘…it is a blessing to have been born a Jew. Be proud of your birthright and all men will respect you.’ His sons’ observance might have weakened but their values underpinned the saving of countless babies’ lives in the early 20th century through developing a powdered milk industry. Glaxo was also first to synthesise vitamin D.

Perils are not always direct. Renaissance Technologies founder Jim Simons is thought to be the developer of the first effective automated asset trading system. Philanthropy held particular attraction. But his former partner, Bob Mercer, used his wealth for changing the American political landscape. Mercer became involved with the alt-right and was a major donor to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Such an impact couldn’t have been predicted yet it dramatically influenced world events.

Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg are at the forefront of social media, a technology clearly here to stay. But it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it connects people as never before. On the other, that very facility allows abuse, with bullies, misogynists, conspiracists, and antisemites, provided access to millions of people.

Jewish entrepreneurs in this space must balance free speech, eradicating incitement against Jews and others, remembering lessons of Jewish history, and avoiding commercial suicide. Decisions are undeniably perilous but have to be made even if, as the Online Harms Bill reflects, prodding is necessary.

For those at the forefront, the legacy consists of an impact (on that individual, those nearest, the Jewish community and society), and a cost (to those same elements). For Aaron and Joseph, the gloss of astounding success masked their underlying powerlessness. Having little real control, history unfolded with those closest suffering unbearably: death, slavery, and destruction. Indeed, these men’s success and wealth evaporated once they died.

These days, entrepreneurial power structures are fairly benevolent, allowing businesspeople control in how they make their mark. No bad thing as striving for success is central to the human condition. But self-interest, business hurdles and societal challenges still constitute perils, a balance of which determines whether an entrepreneurial impact is truly worth the cost.

The life of Aaron of Lincoln is emblematic of how great success has uncertain impact and cost. The challenge is in ensuring that the legacy of such success is positive for everyone concerned.


Dr Jonathan Myers CPsychol is an organisational psychologist and director of Psychonomics




March 12, 2021 15:39

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