On December 18, 1744, Maria Theresa, queen of Austria and archduchess of Hungary and Bohemia, signed an edict ordering the expulsion of all Jews, first from Prague – which they had to depart by the end of January 1745 – and then, by June, from all her hereditary dominions, that is, from Moravia and Bohemia.
Maria Theresa began with a profound hatred of Jews, about whom she would write, in 1777, "I know of no greater plague than this race, which on account of its deceit, usury and avarice is driving my subjects into beggary.” Additionally, she was prey to rumors that Prague’s Jews had sided with the Prussians, and against her, during the city’s occupation in the summer of 1744, during the course of the War of the Austrian Succession. After the Habsburgs reconquered the city that November, anti-Jewish riots broke out there, with 20 Jews killed and Jewish homes and businesses destroyed. These facts, combined with pressure on her by Prague’s burghers to subject the city’s Jews to greater restrictions (though not specifically to banish them), may have been behind the decision.
The following day, on December 19, the Jewish leaders of Prague called on members of their community, which was one of Europe’s largest and most important, to begin a campaign of fasting and prayer. At the same time, they sent out appeals for help to their Jewish brethren in Vienna, London, Amsterdam, Venice and Frankfurt, among other places, asking for their intercession at the royal court in Vienna. They described the suffering that having to leave their homes in the very heart of winter would cause, and suggested trying to have the order postponed rather than canceled altogether. They also asked the recipients to send the letter to additional Jewish centers, so that by early January, word of the threat faced by Prague’s Jews had arrived at dozens of other cities. Court Jews and business leaders across Europe were pulling all the strings at their disposal to get monarchs, bishops – even the pope – to intercede on behalf of the Prague community. As a result, the queen was inundated with appeals from the king of Denmark, the Ottoman court, the British lord chancellor, the senate of Venice, and many others, all explaining how devastating the expulsion would be, not just for its Jewish victims, but to the welfare of the empire.
As it turned out, however, Maria Theresa was then in the final stages of one of her many pregnancies. She was incommunicado at this point, and by the time the messages reached her, the expulsion had already taken place. What could still be averted, however, was the additional banishment from Bohemia and Moravia. At the same time, the queen was lobbying to have her husband, Francis Stephen, elected as Holy Roman emperor. As Prof. Shlomo Avineri explained in a 2005 journal article on the subject, three of the European officials who had made appeals on behalf of Prague’s Jews to the queen were among the seven electors who were empowered to choose the new emperor, so Maria Theresa was especially sensitive to their argument. And indeed, the additional expulsion act was canceled. Four years later, the Jews who had been forced to leave Prague were also permitted to return – though they had to take on the burden of a new “Toleration Tax.”
Avineri points to the breadth and the efficiency of the campaign for Prague’s Jews as signaling a new, modern era in Jewish diplomacy. The fact that so many of the rulers approached for help responded positively, he writes, “suggests by itself how the position of Jews in European society was changing: Even when vulnerable and under threat of expulsion from one city, Jews could still respond by mobilizing an international network of connections based on a deeply felt solidarity.”
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