Antisemitism: A History

Twelfth Century: Proliferation of the Blood Libel, Increasing Restrictions, the Talmud on Trial

One of the most pernicious and enduring conspiracy theories created against Jews is the blood libel, the accusation that Jews use the blood of gentiles in the preparation of matzah (unleavened bread), for human sacrifice, or for other rituals. While the origins of the blood libel are traceable to biblical times, the conspiracy became ingrained across Europe beginning in the twelfth century and would continue for hundreds of years. Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of AntiSemitism (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, 2012), 83.

The first recorded reference to the blood libel dates to 1144 in Norwich, England. A Christian boy named William was found dead in the forest outside of Norwich during the week of Easter, which coincided with the Passover holiday. Larry Domnitch, “Passover and Blood Libels,” My Jewish Learning, accessed September 23, 2019, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/blood-libels/. His family accused Jews of murdering the child because of their hatred for Christianity. The charge went largely unheeded, however, until a monk named Thomas of Monmouth raised the issue in 1149. Thomas claimed he had received a deathbed confession from a witness to the crime, testimony from William’s aunt, and an account from a Jewish-born monk who claimed he and every other Jew in England knew that William would be sacrificed on Good Friday. Thomas went on to claim that Jews had used William to re-enact the crucifixion of Jesus. News of young William’s death then spread through England and blaming Jews for Christian losses became ingrained in the propaganda used to recruit soldiers to the Crusades. William’s grave in Norwich became a pilgrimage site as Thomas sought to have William canonized. Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of AntiSemitism (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, 2012), 75-80.

The blood libel continued to spread throughout Europe and was usually spurred by the disappearance of a young child. Accusations of ritual murder against Jews again spiked in 1235, when Jews in the German town of Fulda were accused of murdering five Christian children for their blood on Christmas Day. Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of AntiSemitism (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, 2012), 83-85. More claims that Jews were using the blood of Christian children in their rituals began to surface and spread. Accusations that Jews were re-enacting the crucifixion led to a proliferation of charges around the Easter holiday, which typically coincides with the Jewish holiday of Passover. By the fourteenth century, the blood libel had become intertwined with Passover and the accusation that Jews were using blood in the preparation of matzah. Larry Domnitch, “Passover and Blood Libels,” My Jewish Learning, accessed September 26, 2019, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/blood-libels/.

Spurred by persistent accusations that Jews were draining Christian blood, Emperor Frederick I issued a 1236 edict absolving Jews of the blood libel and noting that Jewish religious texts forbid the consumption of blood, whether it be human or animal. Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of AntiSemitism (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, 2012), 83-85. In the 1270s, Pope Gregory X called for the end of the blood libel and accusations of ritual murder against the Jews. Brian Tierney, The Middle Ages: Sources of Medieval History sixth edition, revised, Vol 1 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999), 259-260. Despite these actions, the blood libel has remained a consistent accusation against the Jewish people. In 1475 in the Italian city of Trent, authorities arrested and tortured Jews into confessing to the murder of a missing child, Simon. John-Paul Pagano, “Blood Libel: The Conspiracy Theory That Jews Are ‘Anti-Human,’” National Review, September 23, 2019, https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/09/blood-libel-anti-semitism-conspiracy-theory/. As later sections will discuss, the blood libel resurfaced in the nineteenth century in the Arab world and has continued since then as a recurring accusation.

By the twelfth century, the Catholic Church had become a powerful political entity and the arbiter of law across Europe. The feudal kingdoms that developed after the fall of the western Roman Empire pledged fealty to the Catholic Church. Church doctrine and edicts influenced the behavior of the monarchs of England, France, and Spain. This was also a unique period in Jewish history, where proselytization flourished, leading Christian leaders to fear that Jews were trying to steer Christians away from the faith. In 1120, Pope Calixtus II issued a papal bull protecting Jews and their rights to practice their faith so long as they did not try to “subvert the Christian faith.” Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of AntiSemitism (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, 2012), 87-89. Mainstream Judaism has since widely abandoned proselytization of gentiles.

The Church cemented its authority in 1215 when Pope Innocent III convened the Fourth Lateran Council. The ecumenical council defined the Catholic hierarchy, deciding that ultimate authority rested with the pope and then the patriarchs of—in order—Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The council also addressed rights and expectations required of Jews and Muslims. Notably, it required Jews and Muslims to wear distinctive clothing to distinguish themselves from Christians, another antisemitic marker that has been used throughout history. Henri Leclercq, “Fourth Lateran Council (1215),” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 9 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910), accessed September 23, 2019, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09018a.htm.

The Church has issued several decrees across the centuries forcing Jews to physically distinguish themselves. In 1257, Jews in Rome were again forced to wear identifiable Jewish badges. “Rome,” Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, accessed September 20, 2019, https://dbs.bh.org.il/place/rome. Jews living in Muslim-ruled lands had also been required to wear distinctive clothing or markers. In 1555, for example, Pope Paul IV decreed that all Jewish men should wear yellow hats, while women were forced to wear yellow scarves. “Rome,” Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, accessed September 20, 2019, https://dbs.bh.org.il/place/rome. The Nazis would later emulate this practice when they forced Jews to sew yellow stars on their clothing and reside in ghettos.

Also, in the twelfth century, the Church began to attack Jewish ritualistic and legalistic traditions, using biblical text as justification. In the Book of Matthew in the New Testament, Jesus scolded rabbis for raising their traditions above the authority of the Written Law (i.e., the Torah):

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? ... So for the sake of your tradition you make void the word of God….” Matthew 15:1-3 (New Revised Standard Version).

The tradition Jesus referred to here is the Oral Law (Torah she-be`al peh, or “Torah that is upon the mouth”), which Judaism holds was given by God alongside the Torah in order to explain the written laws found within it. For example, in Deuteronomy Moses instructs the Jews to perform kosher slaughter but the Torah does not elaborate on the exact methods. The explanation of how to carry out the practice (“shechita” in Hebrew) is found in the Oral Law. According to the editors of the Stone Edition ArtScroll Series Chumash (the printed collection of the Five Books of Moses), the in-depth explanations within the Oral Law are to prevent deliberate and accidental misinterpretations of the Torah. Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz, eds., The Chumash (New York: Mesorah Publications Ltd., 2006), xxiii.

The Oral Law was canonized in the form of the Talmud beginning in the second century C.E. The Talmud is divided between two different works: the Mishnah—legal rulings expounding on laws given in the Torah—and the Gemara—a legal companion of sorts that includes rabbinical commentaries, debate, and rulings on various sections of the Mishnah.

The contents of the Talmud have historically been a source of antisemitic conspiracy theories and allegations that Jewish scripture dehumanizes non-Jews and permits Jews to cheat gentiles. The Talmud remained a source of mystery for Christian leaders until the thirteenth century, when the Catholic Church put the Talmud on trial in what became known as the Disputation of Paris of 1240.

The Trial of the Talmud began with a Jewish convert to Christianity who not only renounced his faith, but seemingly sought revenge against it. In 1236, French Jewish apostate Nicholas Donin traveled to Rome and denounced the Talmud before Pope Gregory IX. Donin had several years earlier been excommunicated from his community in La Rochelle, France, and subsequently converted to the Franciscan Order. He argued before the pope that the Talmud negatively portrayed the Virgin Mary and denounced the divinity of Jesus. In response, Gregory issued an order to religious leaders and the kings of France, Spain, Portugal, and England to seize all copies of the Talmud. David B. Green, “This Day in Jewish History 1242: France Burns All Known Copies of the Talmud,” Haaretz (Tel Aviv), June 17, 2013, https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-1242-all-talmuds-in-paris-are-burned-1.5281064;
Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of AntiSemitism (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves, 2012), 90-91.

This order was largely ignored except in France. King Louis IX ordered a public debate on the Talmud, with Donin representing the prosecution and four of France’s leading rabbis—including the rabbi who had initially excommunicated Donin—defending the tome. This disputation took place between May and June of 1240 and, unsurprisingly, resulted in victory for the Church’s prosecution of the Talmud and Donin’s accusations. On June 6, 1242, Louis ordered all copies of the Talmud in France to be collected and destroyed. More than 24 wagonloads of books—an estimated 10,000 volumes of the Talmud—were burned on June 17. David B. Green, “This Day in Jewish History 1242: France Burns All Known Copies of the Talmud,” Haaretz (Tel Aviv), June 17, 2013, https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-1242-all-talmuds-in-paris-are-burned-1.5281064;
Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of AntiSemitism (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves, 2012), 90-91;
William Nicholls, Christian AntiSemitism: A History of Hate (Northvale: Jason Aronson Inc., 1993), 244-245.
Given that the printing press had yet to be invented, this represented the destruction of thousands of hours of work producing the handwritten manuscripts. David B. Green, “This Day in Jewish History 1242: France Burns All Known Copies of the Talmud,” Haaretz (Tel Aviv), June 17, 2013, https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-1242-all-talmuds-in-paris-are-burned-1.5281064;
William Nicholls, Christian AntiSemitism: A History of Hate (Northvale: Jason Aronson Inc., 1993), 244-245.

The success of France’s Disputation of the Talmud, in combination with the historic blood libel, caused Europeans to increasingly view Jews with suspicion. This eventually led to the evolution of the classic blood libel into accusations of various secret Jewish conspiracies against gentiles.

Such conspiracies spread rapidly across Europe in the fourteenth century as Europeans panicked in the face of the bubonic plague that was racing across the continent. Between 1347 and 1350, the plague—a.k.a. the Black Death because of the swelled black marks left on victims—killed between one-third and two-thirds of Europe’s population, approximately 20 million to 25 million people, though the exact number remains unknown. Religious authorities viewed the plague as divine punishment, which led to widespread prayers and fasting among Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike in the Middle East. The plague had the opposite effect in Europe, however, where Christians condemned Jews as being responsible for the disease. Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of AntiSemitism (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves, 2012), 93-98;
Michael Omer-Man, “This Week in History: The Jews of Basel Are Burnt,” Jerusalem Post, January 14, 2011, https://www.jpost.com/Features/In-Thespotlight/This-Week-in-History-The-Jews-of-Basel-are-burnt.

There are two predominant theories as to why Jews became popular scapegoats for the plague in Europe. Jews were, of course, affected by the plague as well but not at as high a rate in the beginning. Historians attribute this to the outbreak striking in the weeks before Passover, when Jews were removing grain from their homes, leaving little food for the rats that were spreading the plague. Donald C. McNeil Jr., “Finding a Scapegoat When Epidemics Strike,” New York Times, August 31, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/01/health/01plague.html. The truth about how the plague was being spread was unknown to the masses at the time, however, and people saw only that Jews were not being infected at rates similar to Christians. The other theory is related to the role of Jews in fourteenth-century Europe. Jews were excluded from many professions and largely were involved in finance and moneylending because Christianity officially viewed charging interest as sinful. Though not all Jews were moneylenders, Jews dominated the profession because it was one of the few available to them. And that earned them scorn by poor Europeans who found themselves in debt to Jewish lenders charging high interest rates on behalf of European nobility. These factors led to the proliferation of desperate accusations that Jews were poisoning wells and causing the outbreak, particularly in the areas now comprising Germany, France, and Switzerland. Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of AntiSemitism (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves, 2012), 93-101;
Michael Omer-Man, “This Week in History: The Jews of Basel Are Burnt,” Jerusalem Post, January 14, 2011, https://www.jpost.com/Features/In-Thespotlight/This-Week-in-History-The-Jews-of-Basel-are-burnt.

In July 1348, Pope Clement VI issued two papal bulls absolving the Jews of responsibility for the plague, pointing out that they were also dying from the disease. He wrote that anyone accusing Jews of causing the plague “had been seduced by that liar, the devil.” David B. Green, “This Day in Jewish History 1348: Jews Aren't Behind the Black Death, Pope Clarifies,” Haaretz (Tel Aviv), July 6, 2016, https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-1348-jews-aren-t-behind-the-black-death-pope-clarifies-1.5405782. Nonetheless, this failed to calm the masses who were looking for any relief and, of course, the source of their misery. The blood libel originally accused Jews of using Christian blood for their religious practices out of deviousness and a hatred of gentiles. The fourteenth century ushered in an evolution of the blood libel that accused Jews of poisoning entire Christian communities rather than kidnapping individual Christians.

This led to violent retaliation against European Jews. In the Swiss cities of Bern and Zofingen, Jews were tortured into confessing that they had poisoned the waters. On January 9, 1349, the people of the city of Basel rounded up the city’s Jews and burned 600 Jewish adults alive. Basel then passed a decree forbidding Jews from entering the city for 200 years. Just over a month later, on February 14, authorities in Strasbourg, along the French-German border, arrested all Jews and burned them on platforms in the city. Those who were willing to convert were spared, but in all some 2,000 Jews were murdered. Strasbourg also banned Jews from entering the city for 100 years. Both cities’ banishments were repealed a few decades later. Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of AntiSemitism (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves, 2012), 93-98;
Michael Omer-Man, “This Week in History: The Jews of Basel Are Burnt,” Jerusalem Post, January 14, 2011, https://www.jpost.com/Features/In-Thespotlight/This-Week-in-History-The-Jews-of-Basel-are-burnt;
David B. Green, “This Day in Jewish History 1349: A Valentine's Day Massacre in Alzace,” Haaretz (Tel Aviv), February 14, 2013, https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-1349-a-valentine-s-day-massacre-1.5229805.
Other massacres of Jews followed in Germany and around Europe. Donald C. McNeil Jr., “Finding a Scapegoat When Epidemics Strike,” New York Times, August 31, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/01/health/01plague.html.

Contemporaneously, a group of Christians known as the flagellants began traveling from town to town, praying and publicly flagellating themselves in order to earn God’s mercy. The group traveled for 33 ½ days to coincide with Jesus’s age at the time of his crucifixion. And where the flagellants traveled, anti-Jewish violence followed, including more forced confessions under torture and violent retaliations against Jewish communities. Some historians estimate that mob violence destroyed approximately 200 Jewish communities, both large and small, during the Black Death. Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of AntiSemitism (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves, 2012), 97;
Donald C. McNeil Jr., “Finding a Scapegoat When Epidemics Strike,” New York Times, August 31, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/01/health/01plague.html.

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