“in the past thousand years one out of every two Jews born into the world has been murdered.”
Background: Centuries of persecution have sensitized Diaspora Jewry to the potential for danger in times of social stress. The 1929 Great Depression ignited embers of resentment that would feed the crematoria of Auschwitz. And the 2009 Great Recession returned Western antisemitism to levels reportedly not seen since the Holocaust. In the Middle Ages the Black Plague intensified in a people already highly superstitious paranoia regarding the hand of Satan in their misfortunes. And “the Jews,” were believed his instrument of their misfortune.
Christians imagined Satan a living presence in the world. He was lurking in shadows, hiding behind trees in wait. The John gospel described “the Jews” as Satan’s children, antichrists and agents of his malevolence. In times of poor weather, poor harvest it was “the Jews.” When plague arrived in Europe, “the Jews” were responsible for its spread. If a child went missing he was kidnapped by, “the Jews.”
Anti-Jewish Persecution divides roughly into two periods. Before the year 1000 physical violence was mostly random, individual-on-individual assault and murder. The pre-millennium was characterized by torah burnings, Church-ordered “Jew clothing” and badges, ghettoes. In general the sought after “solution” to the Jewish Problem involved fulfilling scripture by conversion, not murder. But following the disappointment of Jesus failing expectations of the Second Coming at the year 1000, anti-Jewish persecution became increasingly organized, focused and intense. Massacres grew more common and entire Jewish communities were destroyed by fire and sword.
The first recorded massacre targeted the Jewish community of Orlean in 1009 followed within three years by massacres of Jews in Rouen and Limoges. Rome’s Jews were massacred in 1012 and, as if things could not worsened for Rome’s Jews, the remnant were burned alive in 1021. By 1063 massacres spread to Spain and, in 1065, Lorraine’s Jewish community was massacred.
Between the Orlean massacre of 1009 and the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws of 1935 Irving Borowski, in his Forward to Father Edward Flannery’s 1965 book, The Anguish of the Jews writes that,
“in the past thousand years one out of every two Jews born into the world has been murdered.”
According to other historians Borowski’s estimate is conservative, the number of Jews murdered between those dates (and this before the Holocaust); one study suggests that, had Jews not confronted persecution over the past two-thousand years the number living today would have been at least that of the population of the British Isles!
German woodcut showing an alleged host desecration. In the first panel the hosts are stolen; in the second the hosts bleed when pierced by a Jew; in the third the Jews are arrested; and in the fourth they are burned alive. (Wikipedia)
Beginning in the eleventh century Europe entered a period of radical social, economic and political change. Kingdoms emerged and the population multiplied. Cities, once located only along the Mediterranean coast, now appeared inland, connected by river and road.
Usury, forbidden to Christians by the Church, was necessary to finance the expansion. Forbidden to own or even work the land; shut out from most trades and crafts, those Jews capable became, by default, Europe’s bankers while most continued to live in poverty, surfs to the land owners. It also fell on Jews, already identified with “money,” to collect taxes and rent for their masters, a position that made Jews a lightning rod for resentment otherwise inspired by the landowners.
Expulsion of Jews (1100 - 1600), Wikipedia
While the niche of “usury” provided some Jews a livelihood, serving as “money lender” to the wealthy was not without danger. Borrowing by the Church and aristocracy meant that these institutions also accumulated debt. And the fastest way to erase debt, it turned our, was to just be rid of the Jews. The year 1100 began a five-hundred year-long period of expulsions that not only erased debt, but provided the ruler with the accumulated wealth of the community unable to carry or forced to leave all property behind.
And when the need for capital to fund wars development or war arose again the Jews would be welcomed back and the cycle would repeat. In general, Jewish communities expelled from southern Europe would resettle in North Africa, while Poland was the destination from Central Europe (Grosser, Paul E. & Halperin, Edwin G., The Causes and Effects of Anti-Semitism, 1978, p.103)
Until now the discussion has focused on the “local” level, Jews as chattel of their feudal lords, at mercy of their equally enslaved and bitter Christian neighbors. But the Church still faced the Jewish Problem, of Judaism and Jews surviving in the “messianic” age. According Church policy based on Augustine’s formulation “the Jews” were to be preserved as “witness” to Christian “truth,” to be “encouraged” to convert and enjoy the benefits of Christianity. But with few exceptions most Jews chose not to “volunteer,” resisted “forced” conversion even in the face of persecution. How “encourage” Jews to convert?
“The Dark Ages added three new techniques to anti-Semitic practices. One that had a great historical impact is the designation of those who refused to submit to forced baptism as enemies of the state and therefore liable for the death penalty. The second, while having less of an historical effect seems more horrible in its immediate impact, was the forcible taking of Jewish children and raising them in Christian homes or monasteries. The third was the establishment of local annual public insults of the Jewish population usually during the Easter season.” (Grosser and Halperin, p.96)
As it turned out “forced baptism,” regardless the degree of sincerity on the part of the convert, provided poor security. And for good reason: such conversions are unreliable, are therefore suspect. Converts, and even their children and grandchildren, came under suspicion by the Inquisition. Converts and their progeny generations-removed were tortured until confessing insincerity and rewarded for their “confession” by being burned at the stake.
Early solutions by torture and fire
"Crusader attacks on Jews throughout the Rhineland that spring (1096) amounted to... Europe''s rehearsal for the extermination of the Jews."
The High Middle Ages was a period in which church influence within Europe expanded north and later pushed back against the Islamic expansion in the south. It was also a time that advanced new approaches to solving Christianity’s Jewish Problem.
“During the first 700 years of Christendom, Jewish communities in Europe are rarely placed in direct physical danger. But the situation changes when, in 1095, Pope Urbanus calls for a crusade to liberate Jerusalem [actually, Constantinople; Jerusalem was apparently an afterthought] from the hands of the Muslims… On their way to Jerusalem, the crusaders leave a track of death and destruction behind in the Jewish communities along the Rhine and Danube. "Because," as they exclaim, "why should we attack the unbelievers in the Holy Land, and leave the infidels in our midst undisturbed?”
Over a period of two centuries, from 1096 to 1270, there ten crusades were launched, two of which were “children’s crusades.” As the crusaders set off on their quest their first victims were Jewish communities on the road to the “Holy Land.”
In 1095 Pope Urban II proposed the Crusade to liberated Holy Land. The second part of his speech is less familiar, but has a strangely modern sound to it reminiscent of Hitler’s reason for launching WWII, Germany’s need for ,lebensräume:
"This land which you inhabit, shut in on all sides by the seas and surrounded by the mountain peaks, is too narrow for your large population; nor does it abound in wealth; and it furnishes scarcely food enough for its cultivators. Hence it is that you murder one another… Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulchre; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves. That land which as the Scripture says ‘floweth with milk and honey''"
And so, in the year 1096, the first of the ten crusades set off to liberate the Holy Land. Whatever the true motivation, the impact of the crusades on Europe’s Jewish communities was devastating.
During the first Crusade alone tens of thousands of Jews met their deaths by sword, fire and drowning. “In Regensburg Jews were thrown into the Danube,” described as a “baptism” to save their souls before dying.
“As the soldiers passed through Europe on the way to the Holy Land, large numbers of Jews were challenged: "Christ-killers, embrace the Cross or die!" 12,000 Jews in the Rhine Valley alone were killed in the first Crusade. This [pattern of murder would continue] for eight additional crusades until the 9th in 1272.”
On May 25, 1096, some 800 Jews were murdered in Worms, Germany while many others chose suicide rather than subject their families to torture, rape and murder at the hands of the crusaders. In Mainz, Cologne, Prague and many other cities, thousands were killed and their possessions plundered. Thus began the long period of persecution, expulsion and murder which only began to ease, if temporarily, with the gradual secularization of Europe beginning in the 17th century.
The sack of Jerusalem, in 1099 was led by Godfrey of Bouillon at the head of one of the pope’s armies. On departing for the Holy Land he had sworn,
“to go on this journey only after avenging the blood of the crucified one by shedding Jewish blood and completely eradicating any trace of those bearing the name ‘Jew.’”
On arriving in Palestine in 1099 his troops breached the walls of Jerusalem, captured the city and,
“forced all of the Jews of Jerusalem into a central synagogue and set it on fire. Those who tried to escape were forced back into the burning building.”
Several descriptions of crusader atrocities have survived the most famous known as The Mainz Anonymous:
“I shall begin the narrative or past persecution-may the Lord protect us and all of Israel from future persecution... this evil befell Israel:
“The errant ones [the Crusaders] gathered, the nobles and the commoners from all provinces, until they were as numerous as the sands of the sea. A proclamation was issued: "Whosoever kills a Jew will receive pardon for all his sins.
“On the New Moon of Sivan, the wicked Emicho, may his bones be ground to dust between iron millstones, arrived outside the city with a mighty horde of errant ones and peasants… He was the chief of all our oppressors. He showed no mercy to the aged or youths, or maidens, babes, or sucklings-not even the sick; and he made the people of the Lord like dust to be trodden underfoot, killing their young men by the sword and disemboweling their pregnant women.
“They encamped outside the city for two days. The leaders of the community now said: "Let us send him money and give him letters of safe conduct, so that the communities along the route will honor him. Perhaps the Lord will intercede in His abundant grace." For they had already given away their money, ''"giving the bishop, the count, his officers and servants, and the burghers [bribes]… to aid them [the Jews]. But it was of no avail whatever.”
In the year 1211 a group of 300 Jews fled to Eretz Israel from England and France. Eight years later they too were murdered at the hands of the Fifth Crusade.
The Crusades marked a shift in anti-Jewish persecution. For centuries previously anti-Judaism had been encouraged by the elites. With the eleventh century “the atrocities committed against the Jews sprang from the people,” (Antisemitism, Causes and Effects, p.120). And it was the people, peasants neighboring Jewish communities who, out of religion-based intolerance, fear and superstition turned on the Jews during the years of the Black Plague.
The Black Death arrived in Europe from the Orient by way of 14th Century traders. By the time it ran its course fully one-third of Europe’s population was dead. Although the plague did not distinguish Jew from Christian, suspicion fell on the Jews spreading the plague by poisoning Christian wells (Grosser and Halpern, p.127):
“the people and local leaders of Switzerland, France and Germany accused Jews of poisoning wells. Most were burnt alive… in 1215 Pope Innocent III … passed [an edict that would inspire] Nazi Germany in the 20th century – Jews were required to wear a yellow badge at all times.”
Burning of Jews during the Black Death epidemic, 1349
In Strasbourg, a city not yet touched by the plague, 900 Jews were gathered together and burned alive.
“The period of the Black Death is extremely important to the history and development of anti-Semitism. As the plague killed thousands, an explanation for it developed that has had repercussions for the Jews down to the present. A myth was invented that said an international Jewish conspiracy aimed at the extermination of Christians was the cause of the plague. The Jewish leadership in Spain allegedly directed Jewish communities through Europe to poison wells and caused the sickness and death.”(Grosser and Halperin, p.132)
Five hundred years later that myth would inspire The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Blood libels represent one of the more grotesque popular myths invented by Medieval Christians. According to this myth pre-pubescent youths were kidnapped from their homes, tied up or nailed to a cross by way of mocking the Christian Eucharist. They were then supposedly stabbed in imitation of the wounds scripture describes as suffered by Jesus on the cross. As the boy was dying his blood was supposedly collected as an ingredient in the baking of Passover matzo.
"In Spain in 1491 Spanish inquisitors forced Jews to confess that they had killed a Christian child… No missing child was ever reported that would correspond to this child and corroborate the tale… elicited from the victims by the holy inquisitors under torture, by suggestion (for example, "Confess that on this date you did do X"). It is likely that the blood libel was well known by this time.
“The libel of La Guardia occurred on the eve of the expulsion from Spain. Conversos were tortured till they confessed that with the knowledge of the chief rabbi the Jews had assembled in a cave, crucified a child, abused him and cursed him as was done to Jesus. The crucifixion motif explained why blood libels occurred at the time of Passover.”
Simon of Trent, supposedly murdered in this fashion in 1475, was canonized by Pope Sixtus V in 1588 giving rise to a cult that continues to survive even today. Although officially disbanded in 1965 by Pope Paul VI, but the cult apparently continues and may be accessed on Catholic organization internet sites.
As with the myth of rabbis plotting mayhem for Christians survives into the present in the Protocols, so does the Blood Libel survive. The most celebrated modern blood libel involved Menahem Beilis, a Russian Jew arrested on July 21, 1911 for the murder and mutilation of a Ukrainian youth. Acquitted after two years in jail, the peasant making the charge eventually admitted that his accusations were based on tutoring by the police.
And one year after the liberation of Auschwitz, of the more than 24,000 Jewish residents of pre-war Kielce, Poland, 200 survivors returning to their homes faced a pogrom inspired by… a blood libel. Thirty-five were murdered along with two Jews who just happened to be passing through the city by train.