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Martin Luther and the Jews

Why did Martin Luther turn against the Jews?

"No-one escapes the Spanish Inquisition!" was the catch-phrase of a particularly surreal Monty Python sketch on television. This was no joke, because no-one did escape the Spanish Inquisition; no-one escaped from the Grand Inquisitor, Tomas de Torquemada.

Set up to stamp out "heresies" in general, the Inquisition came down heavily, not so much on the Jewish population in general, but on the Marranos, the Jewish Christians. It was said that "the Devil never devised a more effective instrument of Jewish scorn and hatred of the name of Christ than the Inquisition."

The mildest penalty imposed on Marranos was the seizure of their property, followed by the public humiliation of being paraded through the streets wearing a yellow shirt emblazoned with crosses that came only to the waist, leaving the lower body uncovered. They were then flogged at the church door. A sliding scale of punishments continued up to burning at the stake, performed as a public spectacle called an auto-da-fe ("act of faith"). If the condemned recanted and kissed the cross, they were mercifully strangled before the fire was set. If they recanted they were burned with a quick-burning seasoned wood, but if they refused to kiss the cross they were burned with slow-burning green wood.

In 1490 there was a show-trial, the LaGuardia trial. This involved eight Jews and Marranos, who were accused of having crucified a Christian child. No victim was ever identified and no body was ever found, yet all eight were convicted, on the strength of their confessions which were obtained through torture. They were burned at the stake.

So, given the unspeakable historical track record of the Church in the treatment of Jews, it is no wonder that the Jewish people, on the whole, reject Christianity unreservedly. Yet, the actions of these "Christians" had little, or nothing to do with the words of Jesus. In looking at their motives one must consider such things as pride, hate, jealousy, greed, ignorance and just about every other base emotion known to man. But, above all, it is the curse of the anti-Semitism virus, whatever its cause, that has infected the hearts and minds of people, encouraging them in their actions, just as a cold virus inevitably produces sore throats and runny noses.

But wait, I can hear the sound of hoof-beats in the distance. Is it the cavalry, coming to rescue the Jews from the madness that surrounds them? The World is changing. A new movement, the Reformation, sweeps through Europe, promising liberation from the ignorance and tyranny of the Catholic Church. The key figure in this movement is Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran Church.

Luther makes a bold proclamation. "Let's start reading our Bibles", he says. (The cavalry approaches nearer, salvation is surely close at hand?). He reads his Bible and discovers that Jesus was Jewish. He writes a pamphlet, That Jesus Christ was born a Jew (1523), which affirms the Jewish descent of Jesus. (The horses are so close now ...) He denounces the wickedness of Popes and priests in their attitude to Jews (even closer, I can see the whites of their eyes ...) He advocates a loving attitude to them, to win them to Christianity. But ...

Twenty years later. He was near the end of his life. He'd achieved much, founded a Church, helped found a major religious movement.

But very few Jews had converted to Christianity!

Martin Luther's love turned to hate. He changed his attitude towards Jews (the cavalry has long since disbanded and gone home). He became hostile to them and issued a new set of pamphlets, one of them titled On the Jews and their Lies (1543). Within these writings we can read words he used to describe these people he once wrote so favourably about: "venomous ... thieves ... disgusting vermin ... a pestilence and misfortune for our country ... children of the devil ."

He proposed the following remedies:

1). Set fire to their synagogues.
2). Homes should be broken down and destroyed.
3). Deprive them of their sacred books.
4). Rabbis should be forbidden to teach.
5). Passport and travelling privileges should be withdrawn.
6). Stop them from money lending (although it was the only 'acceptable' trade for them).

His conclusion was this: "To sum up, dear princes and nobles who have Jews in your domains, if this advice of mine does not suit you, then find a better one so that you may all be free of this insufferable devilish burden - The Jews."

"Find a better one?"

These were prophetic words indeed, particularly when we consider the legacy of this German preacher. In "Mein Kampf", a book that needs no introduction, we read that Luther was one of Hitler's heroes. These words were finally renounced by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but not until 1994.

Steve Maltz

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

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