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Were the Crusades Anti-Semitic? | Vince Ryan | IgnatiusInsight.com

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Popular historical works are frequent recipients of academic sniping and snootiness. Envious of the broad readership of these works, certain professional historians will usually dismiss these books outright--and often rightfully so, for these histories are regularly riddled with errors. An even bigger problem, however, is the widespread effect that these popular narratives have on the historical consciousness of the reading public.

One popular error is the claim that the Jewish massacres during the Crusades foreshadowed the Nazi Holocaust. Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, the duo behind a widely viewed and wildly inaccurate A&E Crusades documentary, hold that the Jewish pogroms witnessed the systematic persecution and elimination of the Hebrew minority, much like the Holocaust of the twentieth century. Arno Mayer makes explicit the connection hinted at by Jones and Ereira: "There is no denying the striking homologies between the slaughter of the Jews accompanying the original crusades and the extermination of the Jews attendant on Operation Barbarossa."

In his controversial study, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, James Carroll concurs with such assessments, describing these attacks as "Europe's rehearsal for the extermination of Jews that would not conform." However, the Carroll interpretation adds a new twist, for the author sees the Crusades as inherently anti-Semitic. The attacks upon the Jews were a natural outgrowth of the new movement. [1]

A Call to Arms

To assess the claims of these popular works, a closer examination of the Jewish pogroms during the First Crusade is in order. At the Council of Clermont in 1095, Urban II called for an armed expedition to the East to aid fellow Christians and liberate Jerusalem, promising the remission of sins for any participant. It is likely that the pope himself did not anticipate the overwhelming response to his call. Crusading bands arose throughout Christendom and many clerics took it upon themselves to preach the crusade. The problem was that these unsanctioned recruiters would sometimes put their own spin on the nature of the ensuing expedition, imbuing it with radical elements that might have severe repercussions. In this case, radical preachers contributed to the outbreak of the Rhineland pogroms.

The image of the Jew as Christ-killer was a staple of popular belief long before the events of 1096, intermittently provoking violent acts of "retribution" against Hebrew communities in Europe. When the call was made for a crusade to free the Holy Land from Muslim rule, some Christians wondered why they should not rid Europe of unbelievers before trekking east. The Chronicle of Solomon bar Simson captures this sentiment:
Now it came to pass that as they passed through the towns where the Jews dwelled, they said to one another: "Look now, we are going a long way to seek out the profane shrine and to avenge ourselves on the Ishmaelites, when here, in our very midst, are the Jews--they whose forefathers murdered and crucified him for no reason. Let us avenge ourselves on them . . . [2]
Inflammatory preaching, though, was not the sole seed that produced the massacres. The pogroms were motivated by a combination of vendetta and greed. Jewish communities were abundant in northern Germany. Financing a crusading expedition could be a costly venture. The lure of Jewish riches was a temptation for many of these would-be crusaders--but not only for those heading to Palestine. The chronicles are quite explicit in emphasizing the complicity of many burghers in the attacked cities. The Mainz Anonymous Chronicle recounts how whenever the crusaders would arrive at a city "the local burghers would harass us, for they were at one with them in their intention to destroy vine and root all along their way to Jerusalem." [3] In fact, the assistance of the burghers was critical to the slaughter of the Jews in Mainz, for they unlocked the city gates for the crusaders.

Secular and ecclesiastical leaders had encouraged Jewish migration to northern Germany during the tenth and eleventh centuries, believing that they would enhance the economic prestige of their respective cities. To entice them, lords and bishops often offered benefits such as a high degree of self-rule. These privileges ignited the jealousy of the Christian burghers, their financial competitors in the communities. The economic envy of the burghers was undoubtedly augmented by the inflammatory rhetoric of the anti-Jewish crusading bands.

Why Only in the Rhineland?

And yet, if this sort of anti-Semitic outlook was inherent to the movement, as some argue, why did the pogroms occur only in the Rhineland? In fact, the pogroms were not due to an intrinsic anti-Jewish attitude among crusaders, but at least partly due to the breakdown in secular authority in the region. The Investiture Contest of the 1070s had seriously weakened royal authority in the region, while current aristocratic rebellion further hampered the power of the German crown at the local level. The monarch had guaranteed Jewish protection, but with the recent political developments Henry IV was unable to quell the pogroms. Whereas the Holocaust succeeded because it was promoted and implemented by the Nazi state, the 1096s attacks occurred because the authority of the state (the crown) had been weakened.

In the spring of 1096 several crusading bands made their way through the Rhineland, the most notorious of which was led by Count Emicho of Leiningen. In Speyer, the bishop was able to shelter the Jews from the crusaders. Only eleven lost their lives. In the subsequent cities, resistance was much weaker. The local prelates tried to protect the Jewish communities but they succumbed to the pressure of the anti-Jewish forces. Massacres occurred in Worms, Trier, Mainz, and Cologne. The attackers offered the Jews the option of conversion. Few opted for this, choosing suicide or martyrdom instead. The Chronicle of Solomon bar Simson gives a vivid description of the carnage in Mainz:
The enemy arose against them, killing little children and women, youth and old men--all on one day. The priests were not accorded honor nor the elders grace; the enemy showed no mercy for babes and sucklings, no pity for women about to give birth. [4]
The pogroms of 1096 were perversions of crusading zeal; they were definitely not the normal response. Emicho's contingent and the other anti-Jewish crusading bands did not comprise the major armies, which advanced east in the summer of that year. The anti-Jewish crusaders either dissolved after perpetrating these heinous acts or were destroyed during their march through Hungary. Robert Chazan, one of the foremost scholars on the medieval Jewish experience --particularly the massacres of 1096--believes that "the combination of radical thinking and weak discipline accounts for both the eventual failures of these bands and their anti-Jewish excesses." [5]

A Telling Silence

Most Christian sources for our information on the First Crusade are silent about the pogroms. If anti-Jewish activity was inherent to or championed by the crusading movement, it would stand to reason that these writers would include it in their histories. Albert of Aachen, one of the few Christian chroniclers to mention the Rhineland massacres, describes the perpetrators negatively, commenting how they rose "in a spirit of cruelty against the Jewish people scattered throughout these cities and slaughtered them without mercy." As Robert Chazan reminds us, "Most crusaders, including those who savored the victory in Jerusalem in 1099, made no connection between crusading and the Jews and thus indulged in no anti-Jewish attacks." [6]

Some proponents who hold that the Crusades were inherently anti-Semitic or who draw parallels to the Holocaust, have cited the experience of the Jews in Palestine after the conquests of the First Crusade. The slaughter that erupted after the Christian capture of Jerusalem in 1099 is highlighted to support their outlook. After a five-week siege, the crusaders successfully stormed the Holy City and killed every occupant inside, including the Jews who assisted the Muslims in defending Jerusalem. Many fled to the synagogue and met their end when crusaders set fire to the building. That the Jews were singled out in the butchering is hard to prove --for all the inhabitants were slaughtered indiscriminately. Aware of these arguments, the noted Crusades historian Jonathan Riley-Smith has recently said, "We know it to be a myth that the crusaders targeted the Jewish community in Jerusalem." [7] The Hebrew populations of Acre, Hebron, and Haifa met with a fate similar to the community in Jerusalem. Again, the brutality was the result of the resistance by these cities to the crusader forces--not because there were Jews in these places. Such tactics were brutal, but typical of both Muslim and Christian armies in the region. The Jewish communities in Tyre and Ascalon, on the other hand, were not harmed when these cities were taken since the leaders chose surrender instead of resistance.

In fact, the Jews of Palestine were treated well by their new overlords. Continuing the prior Muslim practice, the Latins required the Jews, along with other non-Christian inhabitants, to pay a religious tax. Jews were barred only from residing in Jerusalem itself. Moreover, the crusaders did not employ dress regulations like the Muslims had or the Fourth Lateran Council recommended. Ironically, the success of the First Crusade actually facilitated wide scale Jewish migration from Europe to the East. Most importantly, there were no anti-Jewish pogroms in the Levant during almost two hundred years of crusader rule. While life in the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem was certainly no utopia for the Jews, these examples contradict the notion that the Crusades were inherently anti-Semitic. The evidence indicates that the Latin rulers in the Levant were more lenient than their European counterparts, and in some instances, than the previous Muslim rulers (who were well known for their tolerance). When Jews were on the receiving end of crusader brutality--as at Jerusalem in 1099 or Acre in 1104--it was within the context of total warfare directed at the resisting population as a whole, of which the Jews were a minor element. [8]

A Facile and Fallacious Link

The evidence firmly contradicts the charges that violent anti-Semitism was ingrained in the crusading movement, yet contrary claims persist. The Mayer interpretation is representative of those who try to make tidy, direct links between these historical events. In this case, the Holocaust is the central event and the pogroms of 1096 are cited as activities that foreshadowed it and paved the way for the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s. This is sheer historical reductionism. The Jones/Ereira view is an even more blatant example of this flaw. The work as a whole seeks to relate the Crusades to the dynamics and intricacies of the present situation in the Holy Land, forcing the authors to make naïve, anachronistic, or inaccurate statements about the impact of medieval events. [9] Certainly the most ridiculous of these is that the Crusades are the cause of current Islamic fanaticism. [10]

From a Catholic perspective, the Carroll book is probably the most intriguing. It is indicative of some recent historical assessments by "progressive" Catholics who desire to justify their criticisms of or dissent from Church teaching by writing exposes of Church misconduct over the past two thousand years. [11] In Carroll's case, he argues that there has been an inherent anti-Semitism present in Catholicism since the time of Constantine. The Crusades are just one manifestation of this intolerance.

Bypassing the problem of that general thesis for the sake of our present discussion, let us consider the faulty use of terminology in both the Carroll outlook and the "First Holocaust" camp, namely, the confusion of anti-Judaism with anti-Semitism. The latter is a nineteenth century ideology rooted in racial theory. Edith Stein was sent to Auschwitz because of her Jewish heritage. That she was a practicing Catholic was of no consequence to the Nazis. Her Jewish "flaw" could only be rectified through annihilation. Anti-Judaism, on the other hand, encompasses discrimination or persecution directed against Jews on the basis of their religious distinction. Those behind the 1096 assaults offered their victims the option of conversion. Many Jews in Regensburg converted and were not harmed. The majority in the other cities did not and suffered atrocious consequences.

The Rhineland massacres resulted from the mixture of various factors: anti-Judaism in distorted crusading zeal by radical, poorly disciplined bands combined with local burgher hostility and the weakness of higher authorities in the region. To be sure, the heritage of medieval anti-Judaism was critical to the acceptance of nineteenth century anti-Semitism. However, efforts to link directly the 1096 pogroms to the Holocaust ignore the specifics that enabled the former to occur or the motivations that propelled the latter.
The charge that the Crusades produced widespread anti-Judaism or were by their nature anti-Jewish has, as we have seen, little basis in historical fact. Furthermore, the claim that the Crusades were a rehearsal for the anti-Semitic genocide of the Holocaust is without foundation. Those who promote such a view do so to further their agendas, ideologies, and book sales.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2002 issue of Catholic Dossier.


[1] Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Crusades (New York: Facts on File Inc., 1995), p. 28; Arno Mayer, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The"Final Solution" in History (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), p. 226; James Carroll, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), p. 248.

[2] "The Chronicle of Solomon bar Simson," in Shlomo Eidelberg, The Jews and the Crusaders: The Hebrew Chronicles of the First and Second Crusades (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977), p. 22.

[3] "Mainz Anonymous" in Eidelberg, p. 100.

[4] "The Chronicle of Solomon bar Simson," p. 34.

5 Robert Chazan, In the Year 1096: the First Crusade and the Jews (Philadelphia: Jerusalem Publication Society, 1996), p. 55.

[6] August C. Krey, The First Crusade: the Accounts of Eye-Witnesses and Participants (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1921), p. 54; Chazan, p. 24.

[7] Jonathan Riley-Smith, "Rethinking the Crusades," First Things (March 2000), pp. 20-23.

[8] Details concerning the Jewish experience under crusader rule can be found in many of the works by the late Israeli scholar Joshua Prawer. For the most thorough examination see his The History of the Jews in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).

[9] No doubt to capitalize on recent events, Doubleday has reissued Karen Armstrong's Holy War: the Crusades and their Impact on Today's World--a work with the same flawed goal as Jones and Ereira but with less preposterous assertions.

[10] Jones and Ereira, p. 240.

[11] Gary Will's Papal Sin is another prominent example that falls in this category.

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Vincent Ryan, a doctoral candidate in medieval history at Saint Louis University, has presented papers on various aspects of the Fourth Crusade at the International Medieval Congress and the Midwest Medieval History Conference.

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