Origins of Anti-Semitism II
Jude Wanniski
November 16, 1999


Earlier this month, I decided to run out in three installments the discussion of anti-Semitism's early origins in the 11th century. I am relying upon Volume IV of Will Durant's Story of Civilization: The Age of Faith, published in 1951. I was surprised after the first installment to get e-mails from Jewish fellows who wondered why I was doing this. I'm doing it because I think not many Americans know much about the subject, except the misinformed view that Jesus was crucified 2000 years ago by the Jews. In fact, Jesus was a Jew and was crucified under authority of Rome, although he might have been saved from death if the Jewish Establishment -- the Sanhedrin -- at the time had decided to side with him instead of withdrawing its support at a crucial moment. As we learn from Durant, though, Jesus was not without serious support from ordinary Jews, who were with him in his final hours. There was anti-Jewish feeling even prior to the spread of Christianity, but it did not reach serious proportions until the first millennium. Economics was at the center of this phenomenon, but religion was the excuse. As we approach the second millennium, there is suddenly a great deal of discussion about "anti-Semitism," emanating from the Jewish community in the United States. It is almost as if there is racial memory of how European Jews as a people were often blamed for economic distress in the Middle Ages, because they dominated the financial world -- as they do now. This was the result of prohibitions against charging usurious rates of interest by Christians and Muslims in that period of history, coupled with prohibitions against Jewish holdings of land.

The most intense persecution of Jews in history occurred with the Holocaust more than a half century ago, with origins in the economic distress in Germany following WWI and the Great Depression. Jews were demonized as being sub-human. The "final solution" of the Nazis was aimed at wiping them from the face of the earth. It is useful to go back in time and realize the idea of a "final solution" goes back a thousand years. In a way, Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura got me thinking about all this in his recent Playboy interview, when he took a poke at "organized religion." This followed attacks on Pope Pius XII by various Jewish political commentators -- Richard Cohen of the Washington Post being the most acerbic -- for assertions of being sympathetic to Adolf Hitler, perhaps even the "final solution." As we will see in this excerpt, which picks up where the last ended, the Popes of the Middle Ages were always trying to save Jews from persecution, but were overwhelmed by secular forces determined to gain resources at the expense of Jewish bankers.

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There were some lucid intervals in this madness. Ignoring state and Church laws that forbade it, Christians and Jews often mingled in friendship, sometimes in marriage, above all in Spain and southern France. Christian and Jewish scholars collaborated -- Michael Scot with Anatoli, Dante with Immanuel. Christians made gifts to synagogues; and in Worms a Jewish park was maintained through a legacy from a Christian woman. In Lyons the market day was changed from Saturday to Sunday for the convenience of the Jews. Secular governments, finding the Jews an asset in commerce and finance, gave them a vacillating protection; and in several cases where a state restricted the public movements of Jews, or expelled them from its territory, it was because it could no longer safeguard them from intolerance and violence.

The attitude of the Church in these matters varied with place and time. In Italy she protected the Jews as "guardians of the Law" of the Old Testament, and as living witnesses to the historicity of the Scriptures and to "the wrath of God." But periodically Church councils, often with excellent intentions, and seldom with general authority, added to the tribulations of Jewish life. The Theodosian Code (439), the Council of Clermont (535), and the Council of Toledo (589) forbade the appointment of Jews to positions in which they could impose penalties upon Christians. The council of Orléans (538) ordered Jews to stay indoors in Holy Week, probably for their protection, and prohibited their employment in any public office. The Third Council of the Lateran (1179) forbade Christian midwives or nurses to minister to Jews; and the Council of Béziers (1246) condemned the employment of Jewish physicians by Christians. The Council of Avignon (1209) retaliated Jewish laws of cleanliness by enjoining "Jews and harlots" from touching bread or fruit exposed for sale; it renewed Church laws against the hiring of Christian servants by Jews; and it warned the faithful not to exchange services with Jews, but to avoid them as a pollution. Several councils declared null the marriage of a Christian with a Jew. In 1222 a deacon was burned at the stake for accepting conversion to Judaism and marrying a Jewess. In 1234 a Jewish widow was refused her dower on the ground that her husband had been converted to Christianity, thereby voiding their marriage. The Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215), arguing that "at times through error Christians have relations with the women of Jews or Saracens, and Jews or Saracens with Christian women," ruled "that Jews and Saracens of both sexes in every Christian province and at all times shall be marked off in the eyes of the public from other people through the character of their dress": after their twelfth year they were to wear a distinctive color -- the men on their hats or mantles, the women on their veils. This was in part a retaliation against older and similar laws of Moslems against Christians and Jews. The character of the badge was determined locally by state governments or provincial Church councils; ordinarily it was a wheel or circle of yellow cloth, some three inches in diameter, sewn prominently upon the clothing. The decree was enforced in England in 1218, in France in 1219, in Hungary in 1279; it was only sporadically carried out in Spain, Italy, and Germany before the fifteenth century, when Nicholas of Cusa and San Giovanni da Capistrano campaigned for its full observance. In 1219 the Jews of Castile threatened to leave the country en masse if the decree should be enforced, and the ecclesiastical authorities consented to its revocation. Jewish physicians, scholars, financiers, and travelers were often exempted from the decree. Its observance declined after the sixteenth century, and ended with the French Revolution.

By and large, the popes were the most tolerant prelates in Christendom. Gregory I, though so zealous for the spread of the faith, forbade the compulsory conversion of Jews, and maintained their rights of Roman citizenship in lands under his rule. When bishops in Terracina and Palermo appropriated synagogues for Christian use, Gregory compelled them to make full restitution. To the bishop of Naples he wrote: "Do not allow the Jews to be molested in the performance of their services. Let them have full liberty to observe and keep all their festivals and holydays, as both they and their fathers have done for so long." Gregory VII urged Christian rulers to obey conciliar decrees against the appointment of Jews. When Eugenius III came to Paris in 1145, and went in pomp to the cathedral, which was then in the Jewish quarter, the Jews sent a delegation to present him with the Torah, or scroll of the Law; he blessed them, they went home happy, and the Pope ate a paschal lamb with the king. Alexander III was friendly to Jews, and employed one to manage his finances. Innocent III led the Fourth Lateran Council in its demand for a Jewish badge, and laid down the principle that all Jews were doomed to perpetual servitude because they had crucified Jesus. In a softer mood he reiterated papal injunctions against forcible conversions, and added: "No Christian shall do the Jews any personal injury...or deprive them of their possessions...or disturb them during the celebration of their festivals...or extort money from them by threatening to exhume their dead." Gregory IX, founder of the Inquisition, exempted the Jews from its operation or jurisdiction except when they tried to Judaize Christians, or attacked Christianity, or reverted to Judaism after conversion to Christianity; and in 1235 he issued a bull denouncing mob violence against Jews. Innocent IV (1247) repudiated the legend of the ritual murder of Christian children by Jews:

Certain of the clergy and princes, nobles and great lords...have falsely devised godless plans against the Jews, unjustly depriving them of their property by force, and appropriating it to themselves; they falsely charge them with dividing among them on the Passover the heart of a murdered boy....In fact, in their malice, they ascribe to Jews every murder, wherever it chance to occur. And on the ground of these and other fabrications, they are filled with rage against them, rob them...oppress them by starvation, imprisonment, torture, and other sufferings, sometimes even condemning them to death; so that the Jews, though living under Christian princes, are in worse plight than were their ancestors under the Pharaohs. They are driven to leave in despair the land in which their fathers have dwelt since the memory of man. Since it is our pleasure that they shall not be distressed, we ordain that you behave toward them in a friendly and kind manner. Whenever any unjust attacks upon them come under your notice, redress their injuries, and do not suffer them to be visited in the future by similar tribulations.

This noble appeal was widely ignored. In 1272 Gregory X had to repeat its denunciation of the ritual murder legend; and to give his words force he ruled that thereafter the testimony of a Christian against a Jew should not be accepted unless confirmed by a Jew. The issuance of similar bulls by later popes till 1763 attests both the humanity of the popes and the persistence of the evil. That the popes were sincere is indicated by the comparative security of the Jews, and their relative freedom from persecution, in the Papal States. Expelled from so many countries at one time or another, they were never expelled from Rome or from papal Avignon. "Had it not been for the Catholic Church," writes a learned Jewish historian, "the Jews would not have survived the Middle Ages in Christian Europe."

Before the Crusades the active persecution of Jews in medieval Europe was sporadic. The Byzantine emperors continued for two centuries the oppressive policies of Justinian toward the Jews. Heraclius (628) banished them from Jerusalem in retaliation for their aid to Persia, and did all he could to exterminate them. Leo the Isaurian sought to disprove the rumor that he was Jewish by a decree (723) giving Byzantine Jews a choice between Christianity or banishment. Some submitted; some burned themselves to death in their synagogues rather than yield. Basil I (867-86) resumed the campaign to enforce baptism upon the Jews; and Constantine VII (912-59) required from Jews in Christian courts a humiliating form of oath -- more Judaico -- which continued in use in Europe till the nineteenth century.

When, in 1095, Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade, some Christians thought it desirable to kill the Jews of Europe before proceeding so far to fight Turks in Jerusalem. Godfrey of Bouillon, having accepted the leadership of the crusade, announced that he would avenge the blood of Jesus upon the Jews, and would leave not one of them alive; and his companions proclaimed their intention to kill all Jews who would not accept Christianity. A monk further aroused Christian ardor by declaring that an inscription found on the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem made the conversion of all Jews a moral obligation of all Christians. The Crusaders planned to move south along the Rhine, where lay the richest settlements in northern Europe. The German Jews had played a leading part in the development of Rhenish commerce, and had behaved with a restraint and piety that had won the respect of Christian laity and clergy alike. Bishop Rüdiger of Speyer was on cordial terms with the Jews of his district, and gave them a charter guaranteeing their autonomy and security. In 1095 the Emperor Henry IV issued a similar charter for all the Jews of his realm. Upon these peaceful Jewish congregations the news of the crusade, its proposed route, and the threats of its leaders, broke with paralyzing terror. The rabbis proclaimed several days of fasting and prayer.

Arrived at Speyer, the Crusaders dragged eleven Jews into a church, and ordered them to accept baptism; refusing, the eleven were slain (May 3, 1096). Other Jews of the city took refuge with Bishop Johannsen, who not only protected them but caused the execution of certain Crusaders who had shared in the murders at the church. As some Crusaders neared Trier, its Jews appealed to Bishop Egilbert; he offered protection on condition of baptism. Most of the Jews consented; but several women killed their children and threw themselves into the Moselle (June 1, 1096). At Mainz Archbishop Ruthard hid 1300 Jews in his cellars; Crusaders forced their way in, and killed 1014; the Bishop was able to save a few by concealing them in the cathedral (May 27, 1096). Four Mainz Jews accepted baptism, but committed suicide soon afterward. As the Crusaders approached Cologne, the Christians hid the Jews in their homes; the mob burned down the Jewish quarter, and killed the few Jews upon whom they could lay their hands. Bishop Hermann, at great danger to himself, secretly conveyed the Jews from their Christian hiding places to Christian homes in the country; the pilgrims discovered the maneuver, hunted their prey in the villages, and killed every Jew they found (June, 1096). In two of these villages 200 Jews were slain; in four others the Jews, surrounded by the mob, killed one another rather than be baptized. Mothers delivered of infants during these attacks slew them at birth. At Worms Bishop Allebranches received such of the Jews as he could into his palace, and saved them; upon the rest the Crusaders fell with the savagery of anonymity, killing many, and then plundering and burning the homes of the Jews; here many Jews committed suicide rather than repudiate their faith. Seven days later a crowd besieged the episcopal residence; the Bishop told the Jews that he could no longer hold back the mob, and advised them to accept baptism. The Jews asked to be left alone for a while; when the Bishop returned he found that nearly all of them had killed one another. The besiegers broke in and slew the rest; all in all, some 800 Jews died in this pogrom at Worms (August 20, 1096). Similar scenes occurred at Metz, Regensburg, and Prague.

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(We shall continue with part three of this excerpt in the near future. JW)