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1000 – 1500

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  • From 1000 to about 1100 the Jewish Diaspora communities in Moslem lands and in western Europe were relatively peaceful and prosperous. In Spain under the Cordova Caliphate (929-1031), the Jewish, Moslem, and Christian communities coexisted peacefully, with fruitful cultural exchanges. This brief period was later called, “The Jewish Golden Age in Spain.” With the rise of the Fatimid Caliphate in North Africa, Egypt became the center of Moslem power in the Middle East, and similarly the Jewish communities in Egypt and Tunisia grew in influence. Although Jewish academies had been established in Spain, Egypt, and Tunisia, the academies in Babylonia remained the ultimate authorities on questions of law, and the accumulated responsa from Babylonia formed the basis for systematizing Halakha. The Jewish community in Italy was an important conduit for transmission of the Talmud throughout Europe. Jewish communities expanded in the Rhineland and eastern France. Rashi (1040-1105) in eastern France produced commentaries on Talmud and Torah which continue to be considered authoritative.
  • The tranquility of the Jewish community in Spain was short-lived. In 1066, Jews in Granada were massacred by Moslem neighbors. The Christian reconquest of Spain began to meet success with the capture of Toledo in 1085 and Valencia in 1094. In 1090, the Almoravids, a fundamentalist Moslem sect from Morocco, conquered Moslem Spain and destroyed the Jewish community of Granada. In 1147, the Almoravids were supplanted by the Almohads, an even stricter sect, which initiated persecution and even massacres of the Jews. Maimonides (1134-1204) emigrated from Spain to Egypt in 1168, where “Mishneh Torah” (1180) and “Guide to the Perplexed” (1190) were written.
  • With the position of the Roman Catholic Church in western Europe solidified by prevailing over Arianism, the situation of the Jewish communities began to deteriorate. Church policy, which became common practice in much of western Europe, was to place the Jews in a position of social and legal inferiority. Jews were forbidden to convert Christians, to intermarry with Christians, to own slaves or to own land, to improve old synagogues or to build new ones. On the other hand, Church doctrine and numerous papal edicts stipulated protection of Jews from physical harm, forced conversion, and loss of any of their remaining rights. While the Church as dominator of the Jews was a position clearly understood and acted upon by the populace, the Church as protector of the Jews seemed to many Christians (including clergy) to be contradictory or merely theoretical. Since decrees of the pope were not universally honored, protection of Jewish communities depended upon the benevolence of individual princes and bishops, who, in effect, thought of themselves as owning “their Jews.” Jews fared better in lands without strong central authority, such as Italy and Germany, rather than in France and (later) Spain, where nationwide laws could be more readily enforced.
  • In the Middle East, the Seljuk Turks, a warlike Asian tribe that converted to Islam in the 10th century, captured Baghdad in 1054 and Israel in 1071 from the Abbasid Caliphate, and defeated the Byzantine Empire in 1077 to control most of Anatolia. The Byzantine Emperor appealed to the pope for assistance in fighting the Seljuks, and the pope used as a rallying cry the Seljuk control of the Holy Land, citing the desecration of Christian sites and harassment of Christian pilgrims. In 1095, Pope Urban II issued a challenge to western Christian kings and nobles to join in a war to liberate the Holy Land from the infidels. The pope’s challenge was amazingly successful, as many of the powerful and adventurous knights in western Christendom accepted the pope’s call. In addition to the promise of eternal salvation, the incentive for the Crusaders was the possibility of plunder or even a kingdom in the rich East. It was the first and probably last time that all western European nations were united in one enterprise.
  • The first response to the pope’s call for a Holy War was not by the flower of knightly Christendom but by an undisciplined rabble of vagrants and dispossessed common people from all of west Europe, who decided that the infidels at hand, the Jews, should be the first targets of a Crusade. Without warning, they attacked and ravaged many of the Jewish communities in the Rhineland, massacring the inhabitants wherever they could. The results of the unprovoked attacks illustrated the futility of reliance by the Jews on their local “protectors.” The Rhineland Jewish communities were essentially rebuilt in about 20 years, but the permanent damage was the recognition by the Jews of their precarious situation in Christian territories, and the recognition by Christians that an attack on local Jews under the banner of a “Crusade” was likely to be tacitly permitted by local Church or ruling authorities. Since additional Crusades were proclaimed almost continuously for about 150 years, the opportunities for attack on the local Jews multiplied. In addition, Church councils in 1179 and 1215 increased official hostility to Jews and prescribed distinctive dress for Jews. One of the last Crusades, against the Albigensians (1208-1224), a heretic Christian sect (Cathars) in southern France, stamped out the heresy with great loss of life, but left the Church with the uneasy feeling that there might be remaining secret Cathars who were posing as Catholics. As a result, the Inquisition was initiated in 1231 to root out secret Cathars. The Office of Inquisition remained in force and was subsequently directed at Jewish conversos in Spain starting in 1478.
  • The first Crusade (1096-1099) was the most successful of the several Crusades against the Moslems. Anatolia was restored to the Byzantine Empire in 1096, and the Holy Land was captured from the Seljuks in 1099, with extraordinary massacres of Moslems and Jews. The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was established by the Crusaders. In 1187 Saladin, a highly cultivated Moslem Kurd, defeated the Crusaders and restored Moslem control of Israel. The Saladin dynasty ruled Egypt and Israel until 1250, when the Mamluks achieved power in Egypt and established a sultanate. The Mamluks, who adopted Islam, were descended from slaves imported into Egypt from the Balkan area to serve in the army. Noted for fighting prowess but not for interest in civilized arts, the Mamluks defeated the Mongols at Nazareth in 1250 and in 1291 captured Acre, the last remaining Crusader outpost in the Holy Land. The Mamluks instituted particularly harsh treatment of Jews and Christians and virtually eliminated all Jewish presence in Israel.
  • The situation of Jews in western Europe deteriorated in the 13th and 14th centuries. Jews were massacred in York, England, in 1190 (“the rebellion of the debtors”) and expelled from England in 1290. A public disputation organized in 1240 by the king of France in which Jews were compelled to defend against the charge of blasphemy, was followed in 1242 by burning of Talmudim in Paris. Blood libel accusations surfaced frequently. The Black Death of 1348, which killed about one-third of the population, was universally blamed on poisoning of the wells by the Jews and followed by devastation of Jewish communities in Germany and elsewhere. [A recent study showed that those German communities which attacked the Jews as responsible for the plague of 1348 were most likely to commit violent anti-Semitic acts in the 1920’s and to embrace actively the Nazi anti-Semitic program after 1933.] The Jews were expelled from France in 1394, with confiscation of their property by the king. Merchant activity was closed to the Jews in western Europe, resulting in increase in credit activity (money lending). Jewish living quarters became segregated throughout Europe, and the Jewish population in western Europe was greatly reduced. Despite the setbacks, the scattered Jewish communities remained in frequent contact with each other, assisted by their high level of literacy. The standard of scholarship remained high as exemplified by the Tosafists, several of whom were grandchildren of Rashi. A compilation of laws by Jacob ben Asher became the basis for “Shulhan Arukh” of Joseph Karo (1570).
  • The authority of the Roman Pope was severely compromised during the 14th century, eliminating any effective intercession by the pope on behalf of the safety of the Jews. From 1305 to 1378, a schism in the Church resulted in one pope in Avignon, France, and a rival pope in Rome (“the Babylonian captivity of the Papacy”). From 1378 to 1416, the “Great Schism of Western Christianity,” there were several rival claimants to the Papacy. Translations of the Bible appeared, leading to challenges of the monopoly claimed by the Church on doctrinal matters. In 1419, Jan Hus, an early reformer, was burned at the stake. His execution led to the Hussite Wars in Bohemia (1419-1434), in which the reformist Hussites were defeated. The disarray in the papacy followed by the menace of the Hussite movement resulted in a reactionary movement within the Church which proved to be dangerous to Jewish life throughout Europe.
  • In the midst of the unrelenting attacks on the European Jewish communities, one positive event occurred: In 1343 Casimir the Great of Poland invited Jews to emigrate to Poland. At that time and for several hundred years, Poland was the most powerful country in eastern Europe. Jews principally from Germany began to migrate to Poland, eventually establishing Poland as the center of Jewish civilization in Europe and propagating the German Jewish spoken language, Yiddish, throughout Jewish communities in central and eastern Europe.
  • Ottoman Turks supplanted the Seljuks in leadership of the Turks in the 13th century. In 1299 the Ottoman Turks captured much of Anatolia from the Byzantines. They crossed the Hellespont and dominated the Balkans after the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The Byzantine Empire was reduced to a small territory surrounding Constantinople. In 1453 the Ottomans captured Constantinople, eliminating the last remnant of the Roman Empire. Moscow, proclaimed “The Third Rome,” became the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
  • In Spain from the 12th century Jews began to migrate north to Christian territories to escape the deadly Almoravid and Almohad regimes. Christian sovereigns initially welcomed Jews for their skills as merchants, financial experts, and craftsmen, plus the fact that they had no foreign allegiance. The situation of the Jews in Christian Spain during the 12th century was better than in any other area of Europe. In the 13th century, as the Christians captured more territory, clerics, particularly Dominicans, applied the restrictive measures of the Church Council of 1215 to the Spanish Jews. Starting in 1242 Jews were forced to listen to conversion sermons in synagogues. In 1263, a public dispute was arranged between Nachmanides and the Dominicans, in which Nachmanides held his own but was then forced to emigrate to Israel. By 1264 all Spain except Granada was under Catholic rule. As in the rest of Europe, the Black Death of 1348 was blamed on well poisoning by the Jews. In 1390 a cleric-inspired riot ended in a massacre of Jews in Seville and many other locations in Iberia, despite attempts by civil authorities to maintain order. Then a phenomenon occurred, unique in Jewish history to that point. Large numbers of Spanish Jews, estimated at 30% to 50% of the Jewish population, saved their lives and livelihoods by converting to Catholicism (“conversos”). Many conversos remained in positions of authority, and many were suspected of maintaining Judaism in secret. In 1449 an ordinance in Toledo specified that no conversos could hold public office, the first instance of discrimination against Jews by race rather than by religion. In 1478 the Inquisition was instituted in Spain to root out secret Jews among the conversos. In 1492, with the capture of Granada, the last Moslem city in Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella were persuaded by the Grand Inquisitor to expel all Jews from Spain as the only way to prevent backsliding by conversos (and as an opportunity for confiscating Jewish wealth). Most of the expelled Jews went to Portugal, but under pressure from Spain many converted in a mass ceremony and the remainder were expelled from Portugal in 1497.