Cover Story

Judaism persecuted

Issue: "All in the family," March 2, 2002

Only 10 years after the Edict of Milan some Christian leaders began using their new governmental power to give their position the advantage. In 325 the Council of Nicea, along with formulating the classic Nicene Creed, restricted the political and religious rights of Jews. In 337 legislation in the eastern half of the Empire forbade Jews from owning slaves, Christians and Jews from intermarrying, and women from converting to Judaism.

During the following centuries some localities went further. Alexandria, Egypt, expelled Jews in 411, and Minorca, Spain, in 418 gave its Jewish inhabitants a choice of "conversion" or expulsion. (Conversion is in quotation marks because true conversion is based on belief, not any specific actions, and belief cannot be forced; the Roman Catholic Church, however, came to believe that baptism was efficacious regardless of belief.) In 576 and 582 the Franks, who controlled much of what is now France, and in 613 the Visigoths, who ruled much of what is now Spain, also ordered Jews within their territories to "convert" or leave.

Jews responded predictably in 712 by helping Muslim invaders conquer Spain. In other parts of Europe restrictive legislation arose over the next several centuries, with Jewish families pushed from place to place and often leading lives that anticipated the last three of Thomas Hobbes's famous adjectives: nasty, brutish, and short. But those lives did not fit the first two adjectives, solitary and poor, because communities (including ones newly planted in France) often developed strong bonds. Jews worked at whatever urban trades were allowed to them, and a few usually became moneylenders, since the church did not allow Christians to compete with them.

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Those moneylenders sometimes became rich. Jewish economic success led to jealousy and covetousness among the nominally Christian, who sought opportunities to steal. The great opportunity arose after Pope Urban II in 1095 called for a crusade to retake Jerusalem. As participants in the First Crusade headed toward Palestine, some killed along the way up to 10,000 Jews from communities in northern France and along the Rhine (about one-fourth to one-third of the Jewish population of the area). Other crusades brought similar destruction, and popes sometimes offered an incentive for Crusade participation: All debts of Crusaders to Jews were canceled.

Roman Catholic doctrinal changes also contributed to increased tensions. In 1215 the fourth Lateran Council, a major church conference in Rome, established the doctrine of transubstantiation, within which the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper were seen as Christ's flesh and blood. Over the next several centuries angry priests and mob leaders repeatedly claimed that Jews desecrated wafers (seen literally as Christ's flesh) so they could persecute Jesus again. The Lateran Council also decreed that Jews should wear a special badge to differentiate them from the general population.

Other new charges and legends spread. The "blood libel" accusation-that Jews needed to kill Christian children in order to use their blood in Passover rituals-first appeared in 1144 in Norwich, England, and resurfaced throughout the 1200s. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II investigated the charge and found it without merit, but it remained popular among those seeking a cause for mob action (as in Germany in 1298). Around 1220 an Italian wrote of meeting a Jew who had hit and insulted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was thus condemned to wander the world for all time and receive insults and beatings. That legend of the Wandering Jew spread throughout Europe and was retold in hundreds of publications, with settings frequently altered.

New charges in the 1300s made life harder for many Jews in Western Europe. In 1321 French Jews supposedly encouraged lepers to poison wells used by Christians. King Philip the Tall acknowledged the Jews' innocence, but only after about 5,000 Jews were killed-and the following year King Charles IV expelled those who had survived. That was only a prelude to the Black Death riots of 1348-1349, when Germans and others accused Jews of causing the bubonic plague by poisoning wells. Pope Clement VI said the Jews were innocent, but many Jewish communities already hurt by disease were wiped out by assault. Basle residents, for example, burned 600 Jews at the stake and expelled the city's other Jews, converting the synagogue into a church and destroying the Jewish cemetery.

Jews for a time had a refuge in Muslim Spain, but Catholic rioters in Seville, Valencia, and other cities murdered thousands of Spanish Jews in 1391, and pressed others to be baptized to save their lives. Over time it became clear that many conversos-those baptized under pressure-and their children were continuing to practice Judaism. In 1481 Spain's Queen Isabella agreed with papal authorities on the need for an Inquisition to root out conversos who still practiced Judaism. From 1486 to 1490 about 5,000 conversos went on trial: 150 "crypto-Jews" were burned at the stake, usually after torture-generated confessions. Some wealthy individuals whose lives were spared had their property confiscated, with proceeds used for financing voyages of exploration.


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