Medieval (Prime Divider)

Antisemitism in Prime Divider Society: Medieval Latin Christendom

We are now in a position to understand the basic elements of medieval hostility to Jews in Western Europe. Medievalists have suggested the distinction between anti-Judaism, a normal if regrettable dislike of Jews and Judaism, from anti-semitism, a pathological distortion in which Jews and Judaism become demonized into super- or sub-human forces of evil. One of the more interesting elements of both forms of hatred of Jews concerns the manner in which such people use Jewish self-criticism against them. One could take a passage from John Chrysostom and one from Jeremiah and, by changing a few terms, have virtually indistinguishable tirades against Israel. But Jeremiah chastises to improve, and Chrysostom denounces to destroy. The distorted use of Jewish self-criticism in the hands of people who project blame from their own cultures onto the Jews constitutes perhaps the single most corrosive element in Jewish-gentile relations, something that pervades the discussion of the Israeli-Arab conflict today, a moral failing that lies at the heart of Antisemitism.

In the period from the 4th century onwards, when Christians served as the ideologues for prime divider societies (Rome and its “successor” kingdoms), Jews had to be officially humiliated in order to keep the right socio-political “order”. Their disgrace underlined the honor of Christianity and the Christian God, whom, according to Christian authorities, the Jews not only denied, but had killed. Their disgrace served as a witness to the superiority of Christianity, as one more proof of triumphalist Christianity – we are right because we have supreme power. Ironically, for a religion that started out enunciating the most pacific and non-authoritarian principles (e.g., Sermon on the Mount), Christianity’s attitude towards Jews had shifted entirely to the world of the dominating imperative: the strong did what they could and the weak suffered what they must. And, of course, having betrayed their very founding values, these Christians found it necessary to project their sins onto the Jews: As they repressed and even killed their own prophets, Christians accused the Jews (who had canonized their prophets), of their own sins. By exculpating the Romans and inculpating the Jews in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death, the Christians were able to turn their messiah into the quintessential prophet killed by the Jews. And the same Christians who vilified the Jews for killing their prophets, attacked their own prophets as heretics. Christians in their hatred of Jews created a mobius strip of self-criticism and projection, constructed around the power to enforce the latter and avoid the former.

The chimerical and paranoid quality of anti-semitism, however, from the time of the first blood libels in the mid-12th century, to the Nazi holocaust of the mid-20th, marks off European culture as exceptional in the history of Jewish-gentile relations. The reason for such a distressing mutation in the history of hatred stems not from some innate viciousness of the European soul, but from the counter-intuitive phenomenon that Europe in this period, was developing the most extensive commitments to the principles of civil society in the history of sovereign nations. The hatred accompanied the move towards civil society like the toxic wake of a transforming culture. It is the quintessence of the anti-modern.

Most of this hostility expressed itself in religious terms. In the early 11th century we have the earliest rumors of an international Jewish conspiracy to destroy Christendom, in the mid-12th, we have the first blood libel, and by the late 12th, we have the notion that the Jews knew that Jesus was God and killed him on purpose. Nothing serves to arouse anger more than the sense that the pain one feels was inflicted intentionally. But behind this cultivated anger lay a social concern. The Jews not only killed Christ, not only kill little Christian boys and bake their matzah with his blood. They also undermine the prime divider that privileged the Christian clergy and the lay aristocracy; they also empower commoners who play by the rules of the market, who think for themselves, who reject the Church for its idolatry and its claims to monopoly on the media of salvation. Their very existence undermines the creedal system that empowers ecclesiastical Christianity – the divinity of Christ, the transubstantiation of the Eucharist, clerical control of the text and interpretation of the Bible, and beyond that, the segnieurial system of the prime divider, where aristocrats (potentes) have privileges and manual laborers (impotentes) serve their masters in poverty and powerlessness. Medieval anti-semitism arises within the framework of prime divider societies, where the elites find the very existence of autonomous Jews a threat to their dominion.

A second, and closely related issue informed this tragic dialectic, namely Christian apocalyptic expectations. As we have seen above, one of the Jewish scenarios for the messianic age represents the spread of civil society to all the nations of the world. Christian apocalyptic expectation had given this moral vision of the dismantling of prime divider societies a particular creedal twist – at the same time as they “converted” to peaceful societies, they also converted to Christianity, and among these conversions, the last and most triumphant would be that of the Jews. As a result, in times when Christians waxed apocalyptic – that is, when they anticipated the imminence of the messianic era – they often grew increasingly enthusiastic about both the moral values of civil society (“love thy neighbor [even thine enemy] as thyself”; act peacefully towards all men) and about their philo-Judaism. They fully expected that the Jews would convert to the true faith as a result of their open-hearted affection. In the upswing of enthusiastic hope, this apocalyptic dimension intensified the contribution of these groups both to philo-Judaism and to civil society. But in the (inevitable) downswing after the failure of the Jews to convert and Jesus to reappear, the Christian disappointment sharpened the sense of rejection by the Jews, leading to a kind of apocalyptic scapegoating in which the failure of the Jews to convert had prevented Jesus from returning. This pattern played out most clearly in the career of Luther, who started by urging a friendly and conciliatory attitude towards Jews (after all, they had rejected the same “false” Christianity that he had), and ended with some of the most vicious and virulent denunciations of their stiff-necked wickedness.

Whenever we see Jews given the choice between conversion or death (e.g., the “First” Crusade. Black Death), an act which every formal piece of Christian theology since Augustine condemned, we should suspect that we are dealing with the latter phase of a process in which apocalyptic urgency had moved from voluntary conversion to warfare with the forces of Antichrist. The Jews at this point had the choice either to side with Christian good, or, failing that, to be exterminated as agents of Antichrist. The dominating imperative had mutated into the paranoid imperative: “exterminate or be exterminated.” This shift from the transformative apocalypticism of philo-Judaism, with its strong contributions to civil society (“those who bless you I will bless”) to catastrophic and violent apocalypticism, with its tendencies towards authoritarian, even totalitarian state actions (crusades, inquisition, witch hunts, reigns of terror) define the outer extremes of a fruitful if tragic interaction between Jews and gentiles in Christian and post-Christian Europe.

The outstanding characteristic of anti-Jewish polemic in Europe from about 1000 onwards, is that it never ceases to mutate, to grow more virulent, a pattern which we now observe on a global scale. If the exceptional and exceptionally favorable conditions of the 11th century, in which both Jews and Christians of Western Europe developed thriving communities, especially in the nascent islands of civil society of that time – the urban communes – led to the backlash of Crusading violence, the backlash of Crusading violence led to the blood libel. Here, in a classic tale of guilty projection, Christians looked at the Jewish communities whose members they had slaughtered and imagined that they must be planning the kinds of vengeance that these Christians would exact (had exacted for the killing of their Lord). If they could not do it openly, they must be doing it secretly, in a bloodthirsty ritual that reverses everything that the Bible teaches both Christians and Jews about blood.

Thus the blood libel allows the scapegoater to strip the Jew of his moral and ethical commitments, to systematically transform all the evidence of the Jews’ civic commitments to discourse rather than violence, to respect for the rights of the stranger, of the animal, or all living creatures whose soul is in their blood, and turn it into evidence of malevolence, hypocritical scheming, and demonic hatred. Its popularity at times of anxiety can overwhelm a society’s judgment. As late in the game as 1893, Ehad Ha’am, describing the prevailing attitude of gentiles when the Jews denied the blood libel, wrote: “Is it possible that the whole world is wrong and the Jews are right?”

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