From medieval times to the Modernists (The surprise stories of anti Jewish prejudice)

What can any of us do in response to the newer challenges - of anti-Semitism today? I would simply start by saying please open your heart or mind to what Jewish people themselves say needs to change. All too often in recent years, Jews warning journalists, politicians and others about anti Jewish prejudice have been accused of playing political games, of effectively 'crying wolf'. 

Dark surprises from Jewish history

I’m not one for surprises, not often anyhow. I like things to feel familiar, to have plans, to plan ahead with a sense of predictability. Above all, I like to feel rooted.

Occasionally, you can be surprised by things you learn from history. As part of my spring season of blog-posts on the joys and complications of my Jewish heritage and identity, I’m sharing some of these surprises.

In this blog-post, I’m not touching on surprises about my identity – although I have touched on these with one of my previous posts.

Instead I’m uncovering some of the surprises I’ve learnt about, or I have been reminded of, in the past year. There’s a common thread, sadly. They’re shocking, some of these ‘surprises’, focused as they are on anti-Jewish prejudice and bigotry.

Why am I focusing on any of this, you might ask? Such grim topics and events – we hardly have the headspace, I hear you (possibly) saying. Because if you’re a keen follower of my blog, you’ll know I am a big believer that we need to learn from our history. And boy, is history a good guide for what’s going on in some parts of the world.

Anti-Semitism is on the rise

A range of sources, from hate crime statistics in Great Britain, stats in the US, rising anti-Semitism reported in Germany, through to sources in Spain, covering a recent anti-Semitic rally, suggest anti-Jewish prejudice still exists, even today. It doesn’t just exist. Multiple sources suggest this ancient hatred is again on the rise.

This is relevant, however grim, because it’s causing pain to people today.

In Germany, for example. Germany. Think about that. In 2020-21, the number of anti-Semitic hate crimes were recorded at their highest level since German police started collecting data on “politically motivated criminality” twenty years before, in 2001.

In the US, the anti Defamation League (ADL) highlights 2019-20 figures for anti Semitic assaults and incidents tracking higher than at any time since their stats started getting collected in 1979.

It’s not just history, I’d argue – anti Semitism has one of the oldest histories because it still has such force today.

That’s why David Baddiel, the author who has recently written a polemic on the contemporary Jewish experience in Great Britain, was not wrong to warn small ‘l’-liberals that something rotten needs examining, and that’s the blasé attitude that has crept in about anti-Jewish sentiment in recent years. An attitude that Jews Don’t Count. They must.

From the medieval to the moderns

In this blog-post, I randomly select six examples, what I’m referring to as ‘did you know…?’ examples, of ‘surprising’ facts and historical events I’ve learnt about or been reminded of this past year. Some may not appear quite like facts, they might be opinions about people’s anti-Semitism, but do please follow links where I have included them, so if you wish, you can examine any available evidence for yourself.

From medieval times to modern times, I shine a spotlight on places and people where to one extent or other, anti Jewish prejudice has rotted away, in a country’s politics, or in a famous person’s imagination or fertile mind.

The many facets of anti Semitism

These ‘dark surprises’ are not presented in chronological order. They’re by no means uniform in terms of illustrating the scale, severity or seriousness of anti-Semitism (they couldn’t be, the examples are deliberately random and describe very different facets of historical anti-Semitism, from pogroms, to chattering bourgeois snobbery).

I’m not making a case here that anti-Jewish prejudice is any worse than any other form of prejudice or bigotry. This is not a competition. Another side-note: I don’t mention Israel a great deal. The State of Israel was founded in 1948 and this history of anti Semitism dates back to the Blood Libels of Medieval England and the Crusades. Jews do not face – have not historically faced – prejudice simply because there’s a tiny country in the Middle East that was founded 70 years ago.

This post is about anti-Semitism in its varied manifestations, not why anti-Semitism peaks at various points in history, or how Zionism is perceived (by some) to blame for these peaks. And it goes without saying, there are many wonderful, redemptive stories – blissfully happy stories – where Jews have done marvellous things, and non-Jews have done marvellous things too. Forgive me. That’s not the focus of this blog-post.

Here goes…

(1) Did you know…? (The Spanish inquisition meant Jews didn’t return til the 1800s)

…That although the Spanish Inquisition led to the expulsion of Jews in Spain from 1492, the fear of the Inquisition, which was annulled in 1834, lingered over Spanish society. This meant the first synagogue (Midrás Abarbanel) to open in Madrid since the Inquisition only opened in 1917? Over 400 years, then, where Jewish worship was strictly prohibited in Spain.

..Worse, did you know, this synagogue in Madrid had to shut in 1939, due to Franco’s regime and the Civil War? The building is now home to a fairly fancy opticians’. I only came across this history because I ordered my contact lenses there last week and took in my wonky spectacles. These needed to be repaired after I sat on them by mistake!

After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, ‘there was a long historical parenthesis’, states Radio Sefarad.com, during which Jews were unable to live in Spain. It’s only in recent years, that the Spanish State – and the Portuguese, too – have taken steps to open citizenship for descendants of those expelled Jews. Good for them.

(2) Did you know…? (Roald Dahl wasn’t always cuddly, he accepted Hitler’s anti Semitism)

…Did you know that in an interview with the British magazine New Statesman, popular author of children’s books, Roald Dahl, stated “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews,” he said. “I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”

A few months before his death in 1990, Dahl stated outright that he was anti-Semitic in an interview with The Independent.

After claiming that Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon was “hushed up in the newspapers because they are primarily Jewish-owned,” he went on to say, “It’s the same old thing: we all know about Jews and the rest of it. There aren’t any non-Jewish publishers anywhere, they control the media—jolly clever thing to do…”. You can read more here in Time magazine about the rather obscure 2020 apology from Roald Dahl’s estate.

I should add, Dahl had politically incorrect and, some argue, bigoted views, about a whole range of things. Some say his depictions of the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were fuelled by his anti-Black racism. I should also add I loved – and still – do love his stories, despite his objectionable personal behaviour and views.

(3) Did you know…? (Jews were rounded up in York and Lincoln and hundreds killed)

…One of the worst anti-Semitic massacres of the Middle Ages took place in York, England in 1190. The city’s entire Jewish community was trapped by an angry mob inside the tower of York Castle. Many members of the community chose to commit suicide rather than be murdered or forcibly baptised by the attackers. 150 Jews were killed and York’s total Jewish population was eradicated.

English Heritage states that after the Norman Conquest of 1066, a number of Jews came to England from Rouen in France. The early Norman kings needed to borrow money to build castles and secure their kingdom, but money-lending was forbidden to Christians. It was, however, permitted to Jews. These French-speaking Jews were protected by the Crown, and in time established communities in most of the principal cities of England.

English Heritage goes on to say hostility grew towards the Jewish population in England. This was in part due to public disagreements in theology between Jewish scholars and Christian churchmen. In the mid-12th century several vicious stories were spread accusing Jews of murdering Christian children. Such slanders, now known as the ‘Blood Libel’, strengthened anti-Semitic sentiment in England.

Historic UK adds that similar attacks to the one in York occurred in the towns of Colchester, Thetford, Ospringe, and Lincoln. While their houses were ransacked, the Jews of Lincoln managed to save themselves by taking refuge in the city’s castle. On March 7, 1190, attacks in Stamford, Lincolnshire killed many Jews, and on March 18, 57 Jews were massacred in Bury St. Edmonds. However, the bloodiest of the pogroms took place from the 16th to the 17th of March 1190, in the city of York. The story wasn’t over, however. Do read on til section (6) further below to learn what happened next…

(4) Did you know…? (DH Lawrence, TS Eliot, even Virginia Woolf – were not guilt-free)

We are all products of our time. Unless we’re not. Unless we stand up against racism and other types of popular bigotry. I make no apology here for mentioning some of the great Modernist writers, poets and literary giants. Their work will stand the test of time. There’s so much to admire in their writing. That doesn’t mean they weren’t guilty of the odd anti Semitic pronouncement or three.

Incidentally, there’s a whole other blog one could write on Shakespeare, Marlowe and Charles Dickens: whether their Merchant of Venice, (Shylock); Barabas in the Jew of Malta; and Fagin in Oliver Twist, were sympathetic or hate-filled representations of 16th – 19th century Jewish archetypes.

Literary giants, but flawed all the same

But sticking for now with early 20th century literary giants, how often do English Literature, Literary Criticism, poetry and other courses on creative writing highlight DH Lawrence, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, and even Virginia Woolf’s occasional diversion into anti-Jewish prejudice?

DH Lawrence, quite an enigma by all accounts, may have been adopting one of his character’s perspectives, but it wasn’t at all obvious when he narrated the novella, The Captain’s Doll, and chose to write about “…the many Jews of the wrong sort and the wrong shape.” Shall we give him the benefit of the doubt? Well, perhaps. He was writing in the 1920s, and whether he was freely sharing his omniscient views in his text, or simply channelling what a character of his at that time might think, all the same he does seem quite focused on Jews who pretend to be something they’re not – a classic trope.

There’s many things that could be said on the anti Semitic undertones of some TS Eliot poems. The problem, as Anthony Julius writes eloquently, is that too little of it was considered noteworthy enough to be said out loud. Critics in awe of The Wasteland and other seminal poems feared the knock-on impacts for Eliot’s legacy and reputation if readers were to dwell too much on his lines about Jews squatting (Gerontion, 1920), and Jewesses with ‘murderous paws’ (Sweeney Among the Nightingales, 1920) .

Early on in his witty polemic, Jews Don’t Count, David Baddiel calls out the BBC for celebrating New Year 2017 with Jeremy Irons reading almost all TS Eliot’s poetry, including lines from two poems that are particularly offensive. Good for Baddiel calling the BBC out. Bravo, Baddiel, full stop.

Too few have called TS Eliot out. Well, he was the author of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. ‘Such a good sort.’ Just a bit anti-Jewish!

Virginia Woolf, that leading modernist, was married to a Jew and mostly wrote sympathetically or indifferently about the Jews who featured in her work. But a notebook covering three months of the novelist Virginia Woolf’s life in her twenties was found in the early 2000s. And it contained an anti-Jewish diatribe.

In a 2003 article, The Sydney Morning Herald states the “extracts highlight the acuteness and vision of Woolf’s style when she was a struggling 27-year-old unpublished writer. However, they also controversially underline her snobbery and early anti-Semitism.” In a sketch headed Jews, she writes of Mrs Loeb: “A fat Jewess, aged 56 (she tells her age to ingratiate herself), coarsely skinned, with drooping eyes and tumbled hair … Her food, of course, swam in oil and was nasty.”

It was quite hard to avoid being anti-Semitic, one might conclude. Mmm…

(5) Did you know? (The French had an Inquisition well before the Spanish did)

Last year during lockdown I lived in the south west of France. The region has a fascinating medieval Jewish history. And when I say ‘fascinating’, I mean dark and depressing.
The (relatively) hidden history of Jews in ‘La France Profonde‘ – deepest, most provincial France – really ought to be taught more than it is. It came to my attention when I visited the crumbling edifice of a synagogue in small town, Peyrusse-le-Roc. It turns out at least two centuries before the Spanish Inquisition, Jews were being expelled, recalled and expelled again in the heartland of the French Kingdom.

The forgotten Inquisition

The so-called ‘French Inquisition’ has received comparatively little attention but is essential for the study of French-Jewish history and of relations with the medieval Church. In fact, in many ways, there is surprisingly little that separates how the Jews were treated in the ‘French Inqusition’ and the later Iberian Inquisition, for which – scholars argue – the French example was an archetype.
The treatment of the Jews could be contrasted, or compared, (to take a more modern spin) with growing support in the South Western region for Le Rassemblement Nationale, Marine Le Pen’s “modernised” political movement – recently victors in the municipal elections in Perpignan. And the party apparently now leads in polls for the first round of the French Presidential elections, scheduled to take place a year from now. 

Wikipedia explains that the Jews of France suffered during the First Crusade (1096), when the crusaders are stated, for example, to have shut up the Jews of Rouen (there’s Rouen, again – see section 3 above) in a church and to have murdered them without distinction of age or sex, sparing only those who accepted baptism. According to a Hebrew document, the Jews throughout France were at that time in great fear, and wrote to their brothers in the Rhine countries making known to them their terror and asking them to fast and pray. In the Rhineland, thousands of Jews were killed by the crusaders (see German Crusade, 1096).

Wikipedia continues: The First Crusade led to nearly a century of accusations (blood libel) against the Jews, many of whom were burned or attacked in France. Immediately after the coronation of Philip Augustus on 14 March 1181, the King ordered the Jews arrested on a Saturday, in all their synagogues, and despoiled of their money and their investments. In the following April 1182, he published an edict of expulsion, but according the Jews a delay of three months for the sale of their personal property. How nice of him.

Immovable property, however, such as houses, fields, vines, barns, and wine-presses, he confiscated. The Jews attempted to win over the nobles to their side, but in vain. In July they were compelled to leave the royal domains of France; their synagogues were converted into churches. These successive measures were simply expedients to fill the royal coffers. The goods confiscated by the king were at once converted into cash.

The significance today

Recent news is just as concerning. I was disturbed by the 2020 estimate that 10-16% of French Jewish voters, and particularly those who apparently fear Islamism, now vote for National Rally under Marine Le Pen, whereas next to no one Jewish voted for her father. Marine Le Pen has in fact seized on the community’s anxiety, telling Jews they will want to vote for her because she would serve as their “best shield” against radical Islam. This carries significant symbolic weight for Rassemblement Nationale, even though the actual votes this translates into are negligible.
Moissac was the town that in World War Two saw hundreds of locals shield 500 Jewish children earning it the recognition of Yad Vashem who participated in the town’s inauguration of its ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ square. Sadly, newly elected Mayor, Lopez, has been on record dismissing figures on antisemitism in France presented in the French parliament, taunting Jews with having a “persecution complex”. These are troubling signs in this corner of Midi-Pyrénees, where Jean Moulin led the Resistance, but further ago in history in the 1300s, (as in the 1940s), Jews were targeted for persecution.

(6) Did you know? (The Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and only allowed to return 350+ years later under Oliver Cromwell)

The BBC highlighted that 2006 marked the 350th anniversary of one of the most remarkable turning points in English history: the readmission of Jewish people to England in 1656, after they had been banned from the country some 366 years earlier. Their surprising ally in this was Oliver Cromwell. Much of the text below is from the BBC:

Background to the expulsion

Jews have been living in England since Roman and Anglo-Saxon times, but they did not become an organised community until William the Conqueror arrived in 1066. He encouraged Jewish merchants and artisans to move from northern France to England.

Over the next few centuries Jews faced increasing persecution until, in 1290, they were banished altogether.

Blood libel

Pointing scribes

In 1144, Jews in Norwich were accused of a ritual murder. A rumour sprung up that a Christian child had been kidnapped by Jews, tied to a cross and stabbed in the head to simulate Jesus’ crown of thorns.

While the Norwich account did not contain the accusation that the child’s blood was drained and was then ritually drunk at the festival of Passover, and so does not constitute the full blood libel, it is a story of the same type and is generally seen as the entry point into England of such accusations.

The rumour was false – for one thing, the Jewish Torah forbids the eating and drinking of any form of blood. The accusation was enough to get Jewish leaders in the town executed.

The other main charge that early 11th-century Christians levelled at Jews was that of host desecration. The host is the wafer used during Christian communion; England was Catholic at this time and to Catholics the host is literally Jesus’s flesh, so mistreating it was an incredibly serious thing to do.

Jews were variously accused of stabbing the host wafer with pins, stepping on it, stabbing it with a knife until Jesus’ blood flowed out and nailing it in a symbolic re-enactment of the crucifixion.

Jews were also accused by their Christian neighbours of poisoning wells and spreading the plague. Each fresh claim gave rise to new massacres.

Accusations of blood sacrifice continued in the 12th and 13th centuries:

  • 1181 – accusations were made in Bury, St Edmunds, Suffolk
  • 1183 – accusations were made in Bristol
  • 1192 – accusations were made in Winchester
  • 1244 – London Jews were accused of ritual murder

Hebrew script - or is it?

In 1247, Pope Innocent IV ordered a study into the charges brought against the Jews. The investigation found no evidence to justify their persecution. The Jewish community was vindicated by four more Popes but accusations, trials and executions continued to rise.

Banishment

The Jews were banished from England by Edward I. His motivation was partly financial: once they were banished, their possessions became property of the crown. And it’s the Jews who throughout history who have been accused of greediness, holding their money close! I wonder why some Jews decided to hold their money close!!

England was short of money and illegal coin-clipping was on the rise. The Jews became Edward’s scapegoat. He banned them from usury (money-lending at interest) in 1275. In 1278 there were widespread arrests of Jewish men; many were hanged and 600 imprisoned in the Tower of London.

In 1290 Edward banished the Jews outright. He issued writs to the sheriffs of all English counties ordering them to enforce his Edict of Expulsion, a decree which required all Jews to be expelled from the country by All Saints’ Day (1st November) that year.

They were only allowed to carry with them their portable property. Apart from a few exceptions, houses and properties were passed to the king.

This made England the first European country to expel Jews, and they remained banned for 366 years. Some Jews stayed in England by hiding their identity and religion but the majority settled in France and Germany.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that Jews were allowed back to Britain.

Readmission

It was Oliver Cromwell who orchestrated the Jews’ return after he came to power. He was influenced in this by Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam, the Jewish ambassador to the Gentiles. On 31 October 1655, Cromwell submitted a seven-point petition to the Council of State calling for Jews to return to Britain.

Cromwell met with resistance at the Whitehall Conference in December that year but resolved to authorise an unofficial readmission.

At that time, the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community had been expelled from Spain. Many exiled Jews headed to Amsterdam, helping to turn it into one of the world’s busiest ports. Cromwell saw that the return of the Jews would bring great financial benefits to England.

In 1656 Cromwell made a verbal promise, backed by the Council of State, to allow Jews to return to Britain and practise their faith freely.

As a result, Jews from Holland, Spain and Portugal came to Britain. They became more and more integrated into British society. One of the oldest active synagogues in the East End of London was established by the community’s Iberian (Sephardic) Jews.

For a time, England was one of the most religiously tolerant countries in Europe. But it wasn’t until 1858 that English Jews received formal emancipation.


Resources and questions

Anti-Semitism isn’t easy to either write about, or read about, and if you’ve made it to end, well done and thank you.

There are additional resources, which may prove to be of interest at the Jewish Museum in London, the archives of which deal brilliantly with medieval anti Semitism in England. They ran an excellent exhibition a couple of years ago, called ‘Jews, Money, Myth’ – do check out their resources if you have a moment. 

What can any of us do in response to the newer challenges – of anti-Semitism today? I would simply start by saying please open your heart or mind to what Jewish people themselves say needs to change. All too often in recent years, Jews warning journalists, politicians and others about anti Jewish prejudice have been accused of playing political games, of effectively ‘crying wolf’. It’s been a painful period.

There are many other forms of bigotry which are also on the rise, Islamophobia, and racism against East Asian and South East Asian people. All forms of prejudice and racism must be confronted, challenged anew.

I repeat – the stories presented in this blog-post are dark stories, but they’re not the only stories out there. And I make no claims that anti Semitism is worse, or in any way comparable – for good or bad – with any other historic or contemporary phenomenon.

But please do note…

Anti-Semitism is again on the rise… 

If you are interested in reading more of Andrew's blogs and other published work, do take a look here.