Anti-Semitism begins in Europe

Part of the countdown to the First Crusade…

Before the year 1000, there’s no clear evidence of anti-Jewish actions. A small community of Jews had settled along the Rhine River in Roman days; there were some other small historic communities in parts of Roman France. Most of Europe’s Jews before the turn of the millenium were merchants, though some were farmers and wine-makers.

A particular group of merchants are known to history as Radhanites. Their home base in Europe was in the Rhone Valley; they traveled back and forth to China, at times by way of the Jewish-convert Khazar kingdom on the Black Sea. (It’s possible that contact with Jewish traders encouraged the Khazar king to learn more and then convert.) Some of their routes used the sea, but going to China invariably entailed a long overland journey. The Radhanites were remarkable for being able to speak most of the languages along the way, including Slavic and Persian. They carried European furs and slaves eastward, returning with spices. Before 1000, they were the main spice suppliers to the Carolingian kings.

As we’ve seen, the region of Europe and Asia was destabilized in the late 900s. The Abbasid Caliphate was nearly gone: North Africa became Sunni fundamentalist; Egypt became Shi’ite evangelical; Persia was filled with Turkic nomads. China was not stable after the Tang dynasty fell. And just before the Kievans converted to Orthodox Christianity, they sacked the Jewish kingdom of Khazaria. For a while, even skilled Jewish merchants could not work the Silk Road. During the 11th century, the price of spices shot up. French and German kings had no good reason to protect Jews now that they weren’t spice sellers.

When (1009) the crazy Fatimid Sultan al-Hakim of Egypt tore down the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Christian world was shocked. Al-Hakim ordered all non-Muslim places, both monastery and synagogue, torn down. But somehow, as word spread, Jews became connected with the destruction. Rumors spread saying that the Jews had incited Fatimid demolitions. “Anti-semitism” is a modern word, and it’s clumsy at times because Arabs are “Semites” but are not included in it. Back at that time, they were: Jews and Arabs were viewed as very similar. They were all “Levantine” and Saracens.

King Robert II in Paris and Duke Richard II of Normandy began formal oppressions of their Jewish populations. They began by insisting on conversion, but of course when conversion was refused, they started killing (many despairing Jews killed themselves, often by drowning). A Jewish scholar in Normandy was able, with difficulty, to journey to Rome and appeal directly to the Pope for relief, which the Pope provided as possible. But it was never safe to be Jewish in France again. In Spain, as the kingdom of Andalusia splintered into taifas, the Christian kings who sacked frontier towns did not distinguish between Jew and Muslim. Jews were seen as collaborators, spies, and foreign. Popes never supported Jewish persecution, but it continued.

During this same century, one of the greatest Talmud scholars ever lived in Troyes, France. Troyes was the site of large international trading fairs several times a year. Perhaps it was a safer place since Jews had an economic role in the fairs, or perhaps Rashi just managed to squeeze his lifetime in between persecutions. It helped that Troyes was well outside Normandy.

I can’t imagine that it was any fun to be a Jew in Sicily or southern Italy when the Normans invaded there. The Norman worldview was deeply anti-Jewish. The Jews had cultivated scholarship, diplomacy, languages and merchant skills to survive in the post-Roman world. Norman lords despised all of these skills.  In the last essay I described their partial conversion; their Viking attitudes and Odin-cult bloodlust took many centuries to wear down. They didn’t value literacy; they were the first European aristocracy to scorn earning money through work and especially through trade (as opposed to blackmail, which they favored). They were culturally allergic to Jews. Even without rumors about Jews inciting demolition of churches, the international ascendancy of Normans was bound to be bad news for Jewry.

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