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Crusades and disputations

When was killing Jews a “Christian” duty?

This Saturday at 2:30pm (British Summer Time) I am again a guest , along with Palestinian Christian Dr. Salim Munayer, on the Premier Radio Unbelievable? Programme, discussing the Jewishness of Jesus. You can hear it or download the podcast at www.premierchristianradio.com/unbelievable

In 1095, Pope Urban II called for Christians throughout Western Europe to travel to the "Holy Land" to rescue the holy places from the Muslims. The result was the First Crusade, the first installment of eight expeditions that sent thousands of innocent people to an early grave, but achieved little for its organisers and did nothing for the cause of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

You have already read what these Crusaders did to the Jews (and Muslims) of Jerusalem, but this was just a climax to a bloody and cursed expedition. They felt that it was their sacred duty to kill some "Christ-killers" before they left for the Holy Land, so Peter the Hermit and his untrained peasant army killed hundreds of Jews in the Rhineland before leaving for the First Crusade. At about the same time, another crusader, Count Emich of Leiningen, systematically attacked the Jewish communities in the German cities. On May 3rd 1096 the Jews of Speyer, in the Rhineland, were massacred by French and German Crusaders. In Worms, Jews hiding from the Crusaders in the Bishop's palace were mercilessly hunted and eventually committed suicide (Kiddush HaShem) rather than being put to death by the "Christians". Near Mainz 1014 Jews, including children, were slaughtered.

Emich believed that slaughtering the infidels who lived amongst Christians was a primary religious duty. He gave the Jews two options: baptism or death. While some submitted to baptism, most Jews chose Kiddush HaShem. Emich and his men killed thousands of Jewish men, women and children and all traces of Jewish culture in these cities, the synagogues, the Torah and the Talmud scrolls, were completely destroyed. The outcome was that at least 10,000 Jews of an estimated population of about 20,000-30,000 were murdered in 1096 as the first Crusade got started.

European nations in turn decided that the best way to deal with the "Jewish problem" was to get rid of them and let someone else deal with them. So, during these years Jews found themselves ping-ponged across Europe. They were expelled from England in 1290, from France in 1306, from Germany in the 1350s, from Spain in 1492, from Portugal in 1496 and from the Papal States in 1569.

As a result of these mass expulsions, the centres of Jewish life shifted from Western Europe and Germany to Turkey and then to Poland and Russia.

But where they were needed, Jews were tolerated. Living as they did at the margins of society, Jews performed economic functions that were vital to trade and commerce. Where they were permitted to participate in the larger society, Jews thrived. During the Middle Ages in Spain, before their expulsion in 1492, Jewish philosophers, physicians, poets, and writers were among the leaders of a rich cultural and intellectual life shared with Muslims and Christians.

For centuries, individual Christians and Jews had engaged in debates over the truths and merits of their respective religions. The more or less amiable tenor and informal setting of these encounters changed in 1239 when Church leaders began staging public "disputations." Taking place before large audiences, often with Kings and popes in attendance, they featured Jewish scholars forced to defend Judaism's holy books against claims made by Christians. Many of the Catholic debaters - supposedly well-versed in Torah and Talmud - were converted Jews. Moreover, the Christian establishment set the ground rules: by definition, Christian theology would always be upheld as the ultimate revealed truth.

On January 7, 1413, the apostate Jew known as Geronimo de Santa Fe challenged leading Jewish scholars in Spain to disprove that specific Biblical and Talmudic passages pointed to Jesus as the true Messiah. Outside the church where the "debate" took place, frenzied mobs demonstrated their hatred of Jews, the people whom they believed had murdered Jesus. Inside, the Jewish debaters attempted to point out how Geronimo had misinterpreted the cited passages, but Church officials frequently silenced them. As in all forced debates, the Tortosa Disputation's outcome was never in doubt: Judaism's defenders could never be declared the victors, however good their arguments were.

As an option to death or banishment, a Jew could always "convert" to Christianity. Unlike in the early Church, when the transition was relatively painless and straightforward, in fifteenth-century Spain it was a different story. These converts were known as Conversos or Marranos ("swine"). It didn't really matter how deep their new Christian convictions were, they were still hated on account of their racial origins. Here are examples of the formal declarations these Marranos had to make:

"I do here and now renounce every rite and observance of the Jewish religion, detesting all its most solemn ceremonies and tenets that in former days I kept and held ... I renounce the whole worship of the Hebrews, circumcision, all its legalisms, unleavened bread, Passover, the sacrificing of lambs, the feast of Weeks, Jubilees, Trumpets, Atonement, Tabernacles, and all other Hebrew feasts, their sacrifices, prayers ..... in one word, I renounce absolutely everything Jewish ..."

Steve Maltz

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book Outcast Nation )

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