Ted Thornton
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Persecution of the Jews in Europe

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See also Professor Paul Halsall's Internet Jewish History Sourcebook

See also "Wars of Words and Images."

While anti-Semitism, broadly speaking, may go all the way back to the Egyptian historian Manetho, anti-Jewish polemics by Christians began in the Patristic period (end of first century through the eighth). Here you mainly find the argument that the Church has replaced Israel and the Jews as God’s people:  "The Jews, because of their stiff-necked rejection of the Christ, have in turn been rejected by God. The mantle has passed from Jew to Christian. Christians are the new 'chosen people.' The Church is the New Israel. '"

Propaganda turned to actual repression during the principate of Constantine (d. 337), who appointed bishops as civil servants, judges, administrators, and bureaucrats. Christianity became  wedded to the secular power of Rome.

As you consider the record of Christian dealings with Jews throughout the Middle Ages and down to the birth of Zionism at the end of the nineteenth century, keep in mind that many of the events mentioned below were done legally:  that is, they were sanctioned by civil authority or religious authority and often both.

305 In Elvira, a Spanish town in Andalusia near Granada, the first known laws of any church council against Jews appeared. Christian women were forbidden to marry Jews unless the Jew first converted to Christianity. Jews were forbidden to extend hospitality to Christians. Jews could not keep Christian concubines and were  forbidden to bless the fields of Christians.

312 Constantine became emperor and converted to Christianity. Christianity could  now be practiced openly and was officially tolerated for the first time.

391  The Edict of Theodosius declared that Christianity was to be the only legal religion in the Roman Empire.

589  In Christian Spain, the Third Council of Toledo ordered that children born of marriage between Jews and Christians be baptized by force. A policy of forced conversion of all Jews was initiated. Thousands fled. Thousands of others converted.

614  Chosroes II and his Persian (Sasanid) troops overran Palestine slaughtering thousands of Christians and destroying churches. The Jews supported the invaders in defiance of the emperor, Heraclius, who had previously ordered all Jews to be baptized.

629 Heraclius ousted the Persians and took bloody revenge upon the Jews.

680 In Spain, the Christian King Ewig ordered every Jew to be converted or face expulsion.

694 In Spain, the Christian King Egica accused Jews of treason. Property was  confiscated, Jews were declared slaves, and were forbidden to practice their faith. It was decreed that their children be taken from them at age seven and be raised as Christians by tutors.

711 The Umayyad conquest of Spain began. Islam reached India (Indus river). Christian decrees against the Jews in Spain (see 305, 589, 680, 694) were reversed by the Muslim conquerors. Jews living in the region were invited by the Arabs to join in the creation of what became one of the highest achieving and tolerant cultures of the Middle Ages. (See Umayyad Spain for more)

848 In Bordeaux (France), Jews were accused of betraying the city to the invading Danes. In Toulouse on Easter, a Jew was publicly slapped in the face by the bishop as punishment for his people’s betrayal of Jesus to the Romans. This had been a customary part of Easter observances in Toulouse for some years.

876 In Sens, southeast of Paris, Jews were expelled from the city.

1095 Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade to liberate Christian holy places from the Muslim "infidels."  The following year, large numbers of peasants with some knights among them with the vanguard led by Walter the Penniless made their way toward Jerusalem massacring Jews in the Rhineland as they went. Eight hundred Jews perished in Worms. More than a thousand Jews died in Mainz and were buried in mass graves.  In all, five thousand Jews were killed in the Rhineland. Walter’s army was stopped by Muslim forces in Dorylaeum in Asia Minor, but two other armies following him continued on toward Jerusalem, which they reached in 1099.

1171 The Jews of Blois (north central France) were accused of ritual murder, charged with slaying Christians (usually infants) to obtain blood for their Passover feasts.  Jews were rumored among Christians to be inhuman, born of the devil, and in need of drinking human blood in order to retain human appearance. (Similar accusations were leveled against Jews in Norwich, England in 1144). On May 26, 1171, all 33 Jews in Blois, men, women, and children, were  burned at the stake.

1190 A mob of English crusaders attacked the Jews of York. The Jews took refuge in the castle, then committed mass suicide. About the same time, Jews were officially designated slaves of the English king, Richard I, "the Lion Hearted" (1189-1199).  Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) applauded the new decree.

1215 The same year  the Magna Carta was signed in England, the Fourth Lateran Council (named after the Lateran Palace in Rome where it was held) was called by Pope Innocent III.  He was instrumental in the formation of the Inquisitions. Jews and Moslems were ordered to wear distinctive clothing to set them apart from Christians. Jews were forbidden to hold public office.

1227 In Narbonne, all Jews were required to wear oval badges, and were forbidden to leave their homes during the Christian holy week.

1232 In Provence, the books of Maimonides (1135-1204), one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages, were burned. (more on Maimonides)

1240 On June 25 in Paris, the Talmud was put on trial (this was the same city where a pig could be tried for murder). The accuser was Nicholas Donin, a Jewish convert to Christianity. The Talmud was condemned. On Friday, June 6, 1242, twenty four wagon loads of Jewish books were burned. The Jews smuggled in other copies. In 1248, there was another trial. Again the Talmud was condemned. Again the books were burned.

1290 Five thousand Jews were expelled from England and were taken in by French dukes.

1291 An army of 1,600 European peasant crusaders sent by Pope Nicholas IV landed at Akko and began massacring the inhabitants, Christians as well as Muslims and Jews.

1348  As the "Black Death" raged in  Europe, in Germany Jews were accused of causing the plague by poisoning wells. Six thousand Jews were massacred in Mainz, and in Strasbourg, two thousand Jews were burned to death on a wooden scaffold built over a huge pit.

1394 Jews were expelled from France and wandered into Spain.

1469 The marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon to Isabella of Castille united the two chief kingdoms of Spain. Mass expulsions of Jews from Spain began. Also beginning at this time, Muslims were forcibly converted to Christianity (the conversos). Muslims, and Jews, too, fled or were arrested by the Inquisition.

1483 Tomas de Torquemada was appointed head of the Spanish Inquisition. In his twelve years in office, 13,000 Jewish converts to Christianity accused of practicing their original faith in secret were burned. The last burning occurred on October 27, 1765 in Portugal (the victim was a Jew).

1492  The same year Queen Isabella funded Columbus’ journey to America, Christians captured Granada. On March 31, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella signed an edict expelling Jews and Muslims from Spain. 100,000 to 200,000 wandered into North Africa while others found refuge in Ottoman domains. This marked the end of Arab civilization in Spain.

1543 Martin Luther published a pamphlet entitled On Jews and Their Lies. This was a period when Europe was especially rife with anti-Jewish sentiment. Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, from France in 1394, and from Spain in 1492. In addition, the inquisitions had been busy purging various quarters of their Jews, Muslims, witches, and other "heretics." Jews in particular had been singled out by superstitious European peasantry as practitioners of witchcraft and sorcery, poisoners of wells, blighters of crops, and eaters of Christian babies. The ecclesiastical authorities did little to stem these lies and in some cases actually promoted them.

Luther added fuel to the fire by asking the question, "What shall we do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews?" Here are some of his suggestions:

"’First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or  knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blasphemy of his Son and of his Christians.’" (Martin Luther,  Luther’s Works, trans. by Martin H. Bertram (Philadelphia, 1971), 288).

Luther went on to recommend that the houses of Jews be, "’razed and destroyed,’" the Talmud be taken away from them, and that Germany should, "’emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., compute with them how much their usury has extorted from us, divide this amicably, but then eject them forever from the country.'" (ibid, 272)

1553 In August, Pope Julius III (1550-1555) condemned the Talmud. One month later on Rosh Hashanah, a mountain of Jewish books was burned. In July 1555, the pope ordered Jews of the papal states into ghettos. Jews were forbidden to own property and were compelled to wear yellow hats. By 1612, all the Jews of Tuscany, Padua, Verona, and Mantua had been herded into ghettos. Their gates were locked at night by Christian gatekeepers whose salaries the Jewish internees were required to pay.

1648 The Chmielnicki Uprising broke out, a rebellion of Ukrainian Cossacks against their Polish overlords and the Polish Jews who functioned as tax collectors for these overlords. The uprising was led by Bogdan Chmielnicki. A letter written during the period recounts the capture of some towns by the Cossacks:

"’They slaughtered eight hundred noblemen together with their wives and children as well as seven hundred Jews, also with wives and children. Some were cut to pieces, others were ordered to dig graves into which Jewish women and children were thrown and buried alive. Jews were given rifles and ordered to kill one another ‘" (Chaim Potok, Wanderings (New York, 1978), 445)

1694 - 1778   Life of Voltaire: French philosopher and champion of the Enlightenment. His views of Jews were less enlightened:

"’They are all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts, just as the Bretons and The Germans are born with blond hair. I would not be in the least bit surprised if these people would not some day become deadly to the human race.’"

Voltaire went on to condemn Jews for "’their stubbornness, their new superstitions, and their hallowed usury.’" Addressing the Jews directly, Voltaire wrote, "’You have surpassed all nations in impertinent fables, in bad conduct, and in barbarism. You deserve to be punished, for this is your destiny. ‘" (Potok, Wanderings (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1978) 482-483) (Voltaire had public views about Islam, too. See his play of 1741)

ca. 1840 Russia began imposing restrictions on Jews. Pogroms (mass violent attacks on Jews) broke out in the 1880s.

1879  The neologism "anti-Semitism" was coined by a German writer and hater of Jews named Wilhelm Marrih in an attempt to replace the word Judenhass ("Jew-hatred") with a more "scientific" term.  His intent was to sanitize and otherwise dress up discourse devoted to defaming Jews. (more)

1881   Pogroms (riots against Jews) in Russia sparked the first wave of Jewish immigration into Palestine.

1882 First Jewish Aliyah ("ascent") into Palestine.

1886   In France, Edouard Drumont published his book Jewish France, in which he argued that the influence of Jews on France had been destructive. Drumont called for the ejection of the Jews from the country and the division of Jewish property. Anti-Semitic rallies followed.

1894  The "Dreyfus Affair" erupted in France. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish military officer, was charged with espionage. He was court-martialed and, on the basis of false documents forged by a fellow officer and political pressure fueled by the intense anti-Semitism in France at the time, he was convicted and sentenced to Devil’s Island for life. From 1897 through 1899, there was a great public outcry in France demanding that this injustice be undone and the real spy, whom it was suspected the General Staff was concealing, be brought to trial. The fellow officer who had falsely accused Dreyfus had meanwhile committed suicide in prison. A new trial for Dreyfus in 1899 resulted in a second conviction, but his sentence was reduced and the President pardoned him. In 1906, he was finally exonerated. The term "intellectual" entered common usage at this time: used by those who thought Dreyfus was guilty as a term of scorn to discredit those who were arguing that he was innocent. It was the Dreyfus Affair that led Herzl to conclude that only a separate Jewish nation could guarantee Jewish safety.

1896  In the same year Marconi patented his wireless, Theodor Herzl, a journalist and playwright from Vienna, published The Jewish State which called for a Jewish national homeland. The Dreyfus Affair together with the rise to prominence of the anti-Semitic Mayor of Vienna - Karl Lueger - had convinced Herzl that a separate Jewish nation was the only guarantee of Jewish safety. See  Roots of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

1897  The First Zionist Conference was held in Basel, led by the founder of the movement, Theodor Herzl. In response to renewed, virulent anti-Jewish persecution, especially in Russia, Herzl called for a free state for Jews in Palestine. It was the Dreyfus Affair that led Herzl to conclude that only a separate Jewish nation could guarantee Jewish safety. Herzl intended a secular, nationalist movement, not a religious one, and initially many religious Jews opposed him.  Herzl's call went out during a period of intensive European colonial activity in the Middle East and Africa.

Zionism had its religious advocates, too (see also). ("Zion": Heb. "Height": the name of the mountain in Jerusalem upon which stood a Jebusite fortress conquered by King David, who ruled 1000-961 BCE. By extension, "Zion" became one of the names for Jerusalem itself, and, by further extension, a name for all the territory associated with ancient Israel and Judah) The vision of restoring Zion had been active among Puritan and evangelical Christians in Europe as well as among Jews.  Two English Puritans, Joanna and Ebenezer Cartwright, petitioned the British and Dutch governments in the mid 1600s to become "the first and the readiest to transport Izraell's sons and daughters in their ships to the Land promised by their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for an everlasting Inheritance." Puritans believed that the second coming of the Messiah could occur only after the Jews had been restored to Zion. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Britain's Lord Palmerston extended British consular protection to Jews living in Palestine and promoted the idea of a Jewish Palestine as a way of propping up the crumbling Ottoman Empire. (See David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (New York: Henry Holt, 1989), 268ff.)

In his diaries, Zionism's founder Theodor Herzl took a hard stance toward the Arabs. In an entry written in 1895, he said, "'We shall have to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employments in our own country. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discretely and circumspectly.'" (quoted by Edward Said, The Question of Palestine (New York: Vintage Books, 1992, 13))

ca. 1900  The Protocols of the Elders of Zion appeared in print in Russia for the first time.  This was an anti-Semitic treatise believed to have been composed by members of the Russian Secret Police in Paris during the last few years of the nineteenth century.  The Protocols argued that a worldwide conspiracy existed  among Jewish leaders to set Christian nations against one another and dominate the world. As H.H. Ben-Sasson explains, "The authors took a pamphlet by a French lawyer, Maurice Joly, which had appeared in the 1860s and was directed against Napoleon III, leaving it almost untouched and substituting the leaders of world Jewry as the object of the attack."  (H.H. Ben-Sasson (ed.), A History of the Jewish People (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1976), 981) The treatise circulated widely in Russia, Germany, France, the United States (where it inspired a series of anti-Semitic articles in the 1920s in a weekly owned by Henry Ford).

1902  The Mizrachi ("religious center") movement, a religious Zionist organization, was founded in Vilnius, Lithuania.  More on religious Zionism.

1935   On September 15, the Nuremberg Laws were enacted in Germany. Jews were legally stripped of citizenship. Germans and Jews were forbidden to intermarry. Intercourse between Jews and Aryans was punishable by death. The rationale was to prevent "racial pollution" of Aryan peoples (it is worth remembering that anthropologists tell us that by the Neolithic period (20,000-2,000 B.C.E.) there was no pure Aryan race or racial purity of any other kind).

1938  On November 9, "Kristalnacht" ("night of broken glass") marked the beginning of the Holocaust (below). There were actually two consecutive nights of Nazi violence against Jewish shops and businesses in German cities.

1945  Germany surrendered to the allies bringing the European theatre of World War II to a close. Allied armies liberating the POW and concentration camps confirmed what many had feared: that for years the Nazis had engaged in the mass extermination of European Jews according to a plan designed to eliminate "inferior" races. Six million Jews (1.5 million of whom were children) were killed between 1933 and 1945, an event called simply, the "Holocaust," from the Hebrew word ola ("burnt offering"). Two thirds of European Jewry (one third of all Jews worldwide) were annihilated.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, defamation of Jews found new expressions in the Muslim world. Consider Egypt. (See also remarks by Egypt's Sheikh Tantawi in 2002, and remarks by Malaysia's Mahathir Mohammed in October, 2003.)

Final Note:  

In sum, conclusions Jews have drawn from their history of living in the West over the past two thousand years include the following:

  1. The holocaust was no accident, but the logical outcome of the two thousand years of history that  preceded it. Hitler did nothing really new. Only the scale was different.

  2. Jews could never again feel secure in Europe (or really anywhere else), only in a state of their own. For many years after Israel was founded in 1948, recruits to the Israeli army were sworn in atop the mountain fortress of Masada beside the Dead Sea at dawn where Jewish rebels against Rome had taken their last stand in 73 C.E.  There they pledged that  "Masada will never fall again."

See also "Wars of Words and Images."

Roots of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

World Religions Home Page

 

Last Revised: December 13, 2006