The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Perspectives on Racism:
Anti-Semitism in Canada
Realities, Remedies & Implications for Anti-Racism
Dr. Karen Mock

Anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages

Repetitive cycles of pogroms, expulsions, and massacres throughout the ages continued to isolate Jews, making them increasingly fearful and suspicious of the Christian world that surrounded them, and forcing them to cling even more strongly to their faith for survival. The Crusaders massacred tens of thousands. England expelled them in 1290 and France in 1306, with many German towns shortly following suit. They were slaughtered in retaliation for their rumoured causing of the Black Death in Europe, and there were countless burnings at the stake for alleged ritual murders.

In spite of forced conversions in Spain, the killings continued there because of suspicions of 'bad blood' and of the secret practice of Judaism. The Inquisition saw thousands burned at the stake or abused, imprisoned, and stripped of their property ('More than one pyre blazed; and the blood sacrifices of the Inquisition are without number' [Schoeps 1963: 36]). Spain and Portugal expelled all Jews in 1492 under penalty of death. Some were welcomed in Turkey and Italy.

Continued persecutions and expulsions from Germany and other western European countries meant that the only safe havens for Jews were Poland, Lithuania, Galicia, and the Ukraine, until the Ukrainian Cossacks ravaged Poland and destroyed seven hundred Jewish communities in 1648. The surviving remnants found their way back to some of the western European countries, including Germany, where they lived under lock and key in walled ghettos. Those who did not go to the cities remained impoverished in small farming villages in Eastern Europe.

Enforced segregation strengthened Jewish solidarity and devotion to religious study, but it isolated Jews from the larger society and made them objects of ridicule. They were no longer feared as a danger to Christian society, but were demeaned in art and literature, reviled in sermons, and mocked in public. Locked up in ghettos and isolated in rural towns, they were closed off from the effects of sweeping political, cultural, and religious changes that brought Europe into the modern era between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.

Moreover, Martin Luther and his followers continued to preach a virulent anti-Semitism. It is not surprising that the first-large scale Nazi pogrom - 'Kristallnacht' in November 1938 'was performed in honour of the anniversary of Luther's birthday' (Hay 1950:169). The widespread use of the printing press contributed to the flooding of Europe with anti-Semitic pamphlets and books.

So-called enlightened philosophers advocated equal rights for all people, but advised Jews to abandon their customs and merge with the Christian majority. Voltaire, an avowed Jew-hater, wrote that they were the 'enemies of mankind' and were fully deserving of all the persecutions and massacres that came their way. Nevertheless, the Enlightenment was ultimately beneficial for Jews. Its emphasis on equal rights, and the French and American revolutions, led to the Jews' emancipation from the ghettos to take their part as 'equals' in European society.


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