Thursday, May 15, 2008

Jews and the Crusades

I’m sure you’ve heard about the rampant persecutions of Jews during the Crusades, that these armed pilgrimages were anti-Semitic ventures, in practice, if not in proclamation. This is a common misconception; the truth is somewhat more complex than the current notion that Christian history is one long orgy of hate and violence.

When Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade, commoners and lords gathered into large bands and armies as they prepared for the long journey to the Holy Land. Some of these had ulterior motives for joining the grand spectacle, and one such desire was utilizing the Crusade as an excuse to attack Jews. However, it’s important to keep several pertinent facts in mind when assessing these events:

1. The primary purposes of the Crusade were the liberation of the Holy Land, aiding the Byzantines, and hopefully reuniting the Eastern and Western churches. Killing, robbing, or roughing up Jews never was part of the equation.

2. The bands that mistreated Jews were rogue elements within the Crusade movement, no more representative of the Crusade’s intentions than white supremacists are spokesmen for American domestic social policy (Robert Byrd being an exception who proves the rule, of course).

3. The Pope offered explicit and public condemnation of those who persecuted Jews. He even sent emissaries to the groups-in-question, in an attempt at dissuading them from their nefarious deeds. Furthermore, he excommunicated some of the ringleaders.

4. Many local bishops in areas under attack opened their homes and took the Jews in, protecting and hiding them. Sometimes this worked; just as often, their pursuers discovered their locations, raided the sanctuaries, and dragged them out into the streets, where they enacted the robberies and murders with which we’re so familiar.

Given the above information, the First Crusade (1095-1099) hardly sounds like a genocidal undertaking. No organized, widespread attempt at eradicating Jews on the part of Europeans ever occurred in the Crusades.

As for Jerusalem, many popular treatments of the subject inform us that the Crusaders came to the city and “liberated” it by slaughtering its citizenry, including innocent Jews. Two points bear mentioning, here:

First, imaginative authors have exaggerated the number killed in the slaughter, even going so far as stating that the streets ran with blood to the depths of horses’ bridles. This is patent nonsense; such “rivers of blood” would have required the deaths of everyone living in the entire region, much less the population of Jerusalem, itself. The slaughter happened, but not on the scale depicted by anti-Western, anti-Christian, or sensationalistic authors.

Second, viewing past events through a modern prism becomes problematic for someone interested in historical accuracy. In the Medieval world of warfare, besieged cities that surrendered early in the fighting, having inflicted light casualties, received merciful treatment once the gates opened. Conversely, cities that put up a stiff resistance and made the siege costly for the conquering army were considered fair game by the besiegers, once the walls were breached. The prevalent attitude was that everything in the city belonged to the victors—including the people, themselves. Our modern sensibilities cringe from such perceived barbarity, but our feelings hold little relevance when discussing the minds of people far removed from us in time. Whether or not you find the outlook morally virtuous or repugnant, it was an accepted convention of the time and place.

What does this have to do with the Jews? It’s simple really: the Crusaders saw them as combatants, since they aided in the city’s defense. To them, people who manned the walls and used anti-siege tactics against them, who took up arms and killed their soldiers, were far from innocent. What percentage of the Jews took part in the defense remains unknown to us, but historical sources suggest that a significant number participated. They received treatment equal to that of the city’s Muslim defenders. It’s also worth noting that some Jews escaped, or were ransomed; the slaughter was far from total.

None of the above should be taken as excusing or dismissing evil behavior. Rather, it is an explanation of what actually happened, with an emphasis on truth, not myth.

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