COMMENTARY: A summer of hatred spawned centuries of grief

c. 1996 Religion News Service

(Rabbi Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.)

(RNS)-Sometimes we can pinpoint a moment in history when the world was forever changed. Such a moment occurred 900 years ago, in May and June, 1096. Something terrible happened then in Europe that still affects the way Jews, Christians and Muslims relate to one another.

In that long-ago summer, Christian Crusaders in the Rhineland and France were on their way to Jerusalem to wrest control of the Holy City from the"infidel"Muslims. Along the way, the Crusaders (the word comes from the Latin for"cross") murdered thousands of Jews who refused to convert to Christianity.

When the Crusaders finally reached Jerusalem in July 1099, they drove the Jews of the city into a synagogue and burned them alive. Jews still shudder when they hear the names of Richard the Lion-hearted and Godfrey de Bouillon. In lore and literature of the Crusades, such knights were cast as chivalrous to damsels in distress. But they also were killers.

This summer of hatred was what some historians call a"watershed"event that marked a radical departure for European Christianity. Bloodshed is the more appropriate term for the first large-scale attacks upon Muslims and Jews, all carried out in the name of God.

During the first thousand years of Christianity, Jews frequently faced discrimination and prejudice. However, Judaism was virtually the only faith tolerated in Europe at a time when pagan religions were vanquished by a politically triumphant Christianity.

Eugene J. Fisher, an American Catholic scholar who specializes in Christian-Jewish relations, has said that after 1096 everything changed between Christians and Jews:"The theology of Christian teaching became increasingly negative toward Judaism, and the treatment of Jews more demeaning,"he writes."Most of the crimes and anti-Semitic themes we associate with Christian mistreatment of Jews had their origins after, not before this great bloodletting"of the First Crusades."It was as if Christians tried to rationalize the murders by scapegoating the victims,"Fisher continues."Christians turned a whole people, the Jews, into a fantasized monster, an evil demon whose destruction became justified as a sort of self-defense." Despite the efforts of some popes and bishops to halt or blunt the attacks of the Crusaders, the tragic events of 1096 were followed by repeated assaults: expulsion of Jews from France in 1182; from Britain in 1290; from Bavaria in 1276; from Spain in 1492; and from Portugal in 1496. There were ugly ritual murder charges. ("The Jews killed our Lord, and they kill our Christian children now and add their blood to the baking of Passover matzah.") This vicious lie, known as the"blood libel,"began in England and over the centuries spread throughout the continent as far as Russia and Ukraine.

Precious, handwritten copies of the Talmud, Judaism's great post-biblical legal and moral code, were burned in Paris in the 12th century. Anti-Jewish passion plays began being performed in 13th-century Germany. The first"ghetto,"an Italian term drawn from the name of an iron foundry where Jews were required to live, was created in Venice in 1516. Forced conversions became widespread in Europe. Jews were burned at the stake because they refused to convert to Christianity.

In time, Jews became identified in the minds of many Christians as allies of the devil. The"satanization"of Jews provided justification for continuous acts of brutality.

When bubonic plague struck Europe in the 14th century, Jews were accused of causing the dreaded"black death"by poisoning the wells. And for centuries, European Jewish communities were assaulted by mobs of Christians during Holy Week. These attacks, known as"pogroms,"often took place on Good Friday because of the belief that the Jews had willfully killed one of their own, Jesus of Nazareth.

Today, many Christian and Jewish scholars believe this tragic record of anti-Jewish teachings and actions had enormous influence upon Nazi ideology and the Holocaust.

Clearly, the legacy of hatred that began in 1096 was on the minds of church leaders at the Second Vatican Council in Rome in 1965 when, as Fisher writes, the world's Catholic bishops"took up the theological issues of the ancient `teaching of contempt' and dismissed them for the rubbish they were." The bishops declared:"What happened in Jesus' passion cannot be blamed on all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today. ... The Jews must not be presented as rejected or cursed by God as if this followed from Sacred Scriptures." The bishops' historic pronouncement came too late for the Jewish victims of the past nine centuries. But it could help this generation and all who follow to eradicate the poisonous teachings and stereotypes that took root 900 years ago. It is never too late to do good.