Over the centuries Diaspora Jews have learned to anticipate danger in times of social stress. The 1929 Great Depression ignited the embers that would result in 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 heightened paranoia and superstition. Christians blamed “the Jews,” described as Satan’s children for spreading the plague by poisoning Christian wells.
During the first three centuries of Christianity relations between Christians and Jews were fairly relaxed; it was not uncommon for the communities to exchange presents, even intermarry. All that changed with the turn of the millennium.
As the year 1000 approached Christians were convinced that the millennium that the millennium would finally fulfill the long anticipated return of Jesus, the Parousia. At the failure of the Kingdom of Heaven to materialize excitement turned into despair, which was turned on “the Jews”
[For a visual history of antisemitism from the 4th
to the 21st
century visit David Turner’s Antisemitism in Art
The approach of the first year of the new millennium, the year 1000, brought with it great anticipation, followed by deep disappoint at the failure of Parousia
, the long-awaited return of Jesus. Disappointment turned to despair as Europe entered a centuries-long period of social stress made worse by natural catastrophes from hurricane to plague. Anxiety fed superstition as a frightened and helpless continent sought an explanation for nature gone wild, forces outside human control. Satan, considered a living force on earth and long a factor of Christian belief, was blamed. And the Jews, described in Christian scripture as Satan’s children
and agents of the antichrist, were believed his instrument of their suffering.
Religion-based anti-Jewish persecution divides fairly neatly into two periods. Before the year 1000 Jews were subjected to persecution, but assault and murder were random and individual. The pre-millennium was a period more characterized by torah burnings and proscribed “Jew clothing” and/or badges. The goal was to fulfill scripture by converting, not murdering the Jews. But following the failed return of Jesus anti-Jewish persecution became increasingly organized, targeted entire Jewish communities. Massacres grew more common and, with the Inquisition, a new, pre-“scientific” way of distinguishing Jews from Christians surfaced: limpieza de sangre
, or “purity of blood
Orlean in 1009 was the site of the first recorded Jewish massacre, followed in 1012 with massacres in Rouen, Limoges and Rome. In 1021 Jews were burned alive in Rome and spread to Spain in 1063. In 1065 the Jews of Lorraine were massacred. This was one year before the First Crusade.
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)
From the Orlean massacre in 1009 and Germany’s Nuremberg Laws of 1933 estimates of the number of Jews murdered for having been born Jewish is upwards of ten million. Irving Borowski, in his Forward to Father Edward Flannery’s 1965 book, The Anguish of the Jews
notes that, “in the past thousand years “one out of every two Jews
born into the world has been murdered.”
Beginning in the eleventh century, Europe entered a period of radical social, economic and political change. Kingdoms emerged and Europe’s population grew dramatically. Cities, once located mostly along the Mediterranean, now increasingly began to appear inland connected by river and road. By the 15th century the Church would face its first significant challenge to its authority, the Protestant Reformation.
Usury, forbidden by the Church, was need to fund the expansion, and Capital was needed to finance the expansion. Forbidden to own or work the land, shut out from most trades and crafts, the Jews were, by default, made Europe’s bankers, and collectors of rent and taxes for the land owners. For the peasants, destitute and forced to surrender their meager wealth as rent and taxes, the representatives, not the owners, became the target of their anger.
Borrowing by the Church and aristocracy meant that the accumulation of debt, and the easiest way to eliminate the debt was to be rid of the debtors. So began the period of Jewish expulsions beginning in the twelfth century. The two better known expulsions were from England in 1290, and Spain in 1492. Jews expelled from the southern regions generally settled 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)
Recent writings in this Series:
3. Foundations of antisemitism: the Origins of Christianity
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