the Church found Muslim control of Christian holy places in Eretz Israel intolerable, especially when reports came from Jerusalem of
harassment of Christians visiting the holy sites. As such, in 1095 Pope Urban
II called for an army of Christians to conquer Eretz Israel from its
Muslim rulers. Indeed, that Christians viewed Islam as a threat was hardly new.
In the Eighth Century, for example, Muslims captured Spain and made inroads
into France, before being defeated by Charles Martel's Frankish army. Slowly,
the Christians fought back, beginning the reconquest of Spain. When the
legendary Spaniard El Cid retook the important Spanish city of Valencia from
the Muslims, the Christian world was greatly encouraged, feeling that the time
was ripe to strike at the Muslim world.
In addition, the Church saw as its mission spreading Christian rule,
which they termed the "Kingdom of G‑d," over the heathen infidel.
On a more secular level, the
possibility of attaining great wealth through conquest was a strong attraction.
Northwestern Europe had been devastated by bad harvests in the autumn of 1095,
and the crusading impulse rescued many serfs and landowners from desperate
economic straits. The population had markedly increased in the previous
century, and a spirit of restlessness took hold among the masses. Many people
were tantalized by the prospect of adventure, riches, and being part of
something great and noble.
Political considerations also played
a major role in the Pope calling for a Crusade. There were disputes between the
Pope and secular rulers regarding the limits of the Church's authority. Princes
and tribes also often fought among themselves. Therefore, a campaign – a
crusade -- against a common enemy would unite the warring peoples of Europe
under the Pope's rule, thereby unifying the Eastern and Western Churches.
Although the Pope viewed the
Crusades as a campaign led by a professional, well-trained army, the excursion
rapidly evolved into a mass movement, with an estimated 100,000 people dropping
everything to join. As a proportion of the European population, a comparable
response today would be well over a million people "taking the
cross," as it was known. In addition, the Church provided a further
incentive by promising that whoever took part in the endeavor would earn a
special place in heaven. From that moment, participants were known as
Crusaders, after the French word for the crosses affixed to their garments.
The First Crusade started out from
France in 1095. In order to remain in the good graces of the Crusaders, French
Jews supplied funds and food for the journey. However, when some of the
Crusaders reached Germany, their mood changed drastically. Among many Crusaders
the feeling grew rapidly that before they attacked the heathens in far-off
Palestine, there were infidels much closer to home with whom they should
In May, 1096, in a period of four
weeks frenzied bands of Crusaders struck the Jewish communities of Speyer,
Worms, Mainz, and Cologne. The Jews were offered the option of conversion to
Christianity or death; the vast majority chose the path of Kiddush HaShem, sanctification of G‑d's name. Rather than submit to
forced conversion, in many cases Jews killed their wives and children, and then
themselves. In the words of one of the Kinnos
recited on Tisha B'Av: "Who
can see it and not cry/As the child is slaughtered, the father recites the Shema/ Has such been seen or heard
before?" Estimates of the toll taken on the Jewish communities range from
3,000 to 10,000 deaths.
These heroic martyrs have been
immortalized in Jewish history as saintly people who reached the highest
spiritual levels. In the Selichos service
for the eve of Rosh HaShanah, Jews implore G‑d to remember those who sacrificed
their lives: "The bloods of fathers and sons touched, the bloods of
merciful women and their children touched, the bloods of brothers and sisters
mixed, the bloods of grooms and brides, wise men and wise women, pious men and
pious women, elderly men and women, young men and women, all mingled. O land,
do not conceal their blood!"
Undaunted, unstoppable, the
Crusaders conquered Eretz Israel,reaching Jerusalem in 1099. Once there,
they gathered all the Jews of Jerusalem into the central synagogue and set it
afire. Other Jews, who had climbed to the roof of Al-Aksa mosque on the Temple
Mount, were caught and beheaded. The Crusader leader, Godfrey of Bouillon, wrote
to the Pope, “If you want to know what has been done with the enemy found in
Jerusalem...our people had their vile blood up to the knees of their horses.”
After this victory, the Crusaders retained control of Jerusalem for close to
Although compared to later tragedies
the loss of Jewish life was relatively small, with the main devastation
occurring in but four Rhineland towns, the First Crusade has generally been
regarded by Jews as a disaster of epic proportions. The period of counting the Omer, between Pesach and Shavuos, when
the massacres occurred, became fixed in Jewish law as a time for mourning. A
prayer commemorating the martyrs, Av
HaRachamim, was added to the Sabbath morning services and is recited
weekly, except on joyous occasions. Several Kinnos
were composed remembering these events and became part of the Tisha B'Av service. There are several
reasons why the First Crusade has been given such prominence, while other,
seemingly far greater tragedies have not:
The four towns destroyed were major
Torah centers of Ashkenazic Jewry. Although Jews resettled and rebuilt these
communities, and Ashkenazic Torah centers flourished, the greatness of these
cities’ martyred scholars was lost forever – a theme that appears prominently
in the Kinnos.
The Crusades set a dangerous
precedent -- the rise of organized, popular, anti-Jewish uprisings. Although
both the Pope and the local authorities were generally opposed to the
Crusaders’ excesses in Germany, these leaders’ hostility to Jews caused them to
remain apathetic to Jewish suffering, thus they generally did not intervene.
After the First Crusade, instances of mob persecution occurred regularly.
Therefore, the Crusades can be seen as the source for much of subsequent
Christian persecution. In keeping with the traditional Jewish viewpoint, that
the beginning of a tragedy is noted, the events of the Crusades are
As the events of the Crusades and
the victory in Jerusalem renewed religious fervor everywhere, among the masses Christian
consciousness became greatly heightened. In this new religious climate,
traditional anti-Jewish teachings became magnified -- and were augmented by new
beliefs regarding Jews.
In contrast to previous anti-Jewish
outbreaks, in which the primary aim was plunder, the Crusades introduced a new
element to Christian anti-Jewish assaults: the ideology of total annihilation.
In the words of the historian Salo
“The trail of blood and smoldering
ruins left behind in the Jewish communities from France to Palestine…for the
first time brought home to the Jewish people, its foes and friends, the utter
instability of the Jewish position in the western world…from the First Crusade
on, anti-Jewish persecutions exercised a dangerously contagious appeal, which
in periods of great emotional stress degenerated into mass psychosis
transcending national boundaries."
The Second Crusade began in 1146,
and struck Jews in France and Germany, including some of the towns destroyed in
the First Crusade. A monk named Rudolph told the Crusaders that it was their
duty first to kill the Jews at home before proceeding to Palestine. St.
Bernard, the Crusade’s official preacher,
(assigned that role by the Pope), tried to stop the killings by citing
the Church's traditional view that the Jews must be preserved until the return
of Yeshu, when they will supposedly serve as witnesses to their own crimes.
Although many Jews were killed, compared to the First Crusade, the loss of life
in the Second Crusade was far less extensive.
The Third Crusade, launched in
1189-90, greatly affected the Jews of England. Jews had first arrived in
England in 1066 with William the Conqueror from northern France. The new
community thus had had a comparatively artificial origin, and possessed a remarkable
homogeneity, being composed almost entirely of financiers and their dependents.
A type of late medieval Jewry in composition and occupation, the English
community was also typical because of its close subjection to royal control.
While the community originated in
the main in northern France, of which it was a cultural, linguistic, and
economic offshoot, a minority came from Germany, Italy, and Spain – with one or
two coming from Russia and the Muslim countries. By the mid-12th Century, Jewish communities were found in most of the greater
English cities, Lincoln, Winchester, York, Oxford, Norwich, and Bristol.
Nevertheless, the London community was always the most important.
In the course of the 12th Century, however,
anti-Jewish feeling began to infect the country. In 1130, London’s Jews were
fined the then-enormous sum of 22,000 pounds because one of them had supposedly
killed a sick man. The world’s first recorded blood libel took place at Norwich
in 1144, and was imitated at Gloucester in 1168. (The horrendous anti-Jewish
tactic was then exported outside England.) In 1188, a tax of one-fourth the
value of its movable property was levied upon all London Jewry. According to
the rough contemporary estimate, the amount raised was 60,000 pounds, compared
to 70,000 pounds raised from the general population.
While the English Jewish community was not large, numbering perhaps
several thousand at most, its financial importance was out of proportion to its
numbers. As they did elsewhere, British Jews specialized in money lending,
dispensing vast sums to ordinary people, noblemen, even the Crown. Aaron of
Lincoln (c. 1125–1186) was the greatest English capitalist of his day, whose
financial aid made possible the completion of several English monasteries, abbeys,
and secular buildings. On Aaron’s death, the Exchequer set up a special
department to deal with his property and credits.
In 1189, a crowd attacked a delegation of Jews attending the
coronation of Richard the Lionheart at Westminster Abbey in London. From there,
pogroms broke out in London and spread through many towns. In the city of York,
for example, 150 Jews barricaded themselves in a castle known as Clifford's
Tower and valiantly resisted the mob. On the Sabbath before Pesach, the Jews, realizing their
situation was hopeless, heeded the advice of their spiritual leader, the Tosafist RabbiYom Tov of Joigny, and
committed mass suicide. When the frenzied crowd scaled the fortress later that
day, they discovered seven Jews who had hid -- and massacred them. (In 1981,
during excavations for a parking lot, an ancient Jewish cemetery was discovered
in York, and the bodies were reburied elsewhere.) The jubilant crowd then
burned the records of the considerable debts owned to the Jews. Although there
is no reliable source for the custom, Jews traditionally have not lived in
York, or even spent a night there, since the massacre. Clifford's Tower still
stands, and a plaque commemorates the horrific event that took place there.