Persecution: Jewish Experience

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The related terms religious persecution and martyrdom are difficult to define rigorously. The notion of religious persecution cannot be confined simply to assaults on religious ritual and belief; the intertwining of religion with every facet of premodern existence sometimes made attacks on religious life an outlet for economic, social, and political grievances and sometimes diverted religious antipathy into economic, social, and political channels. The ambiguity of religious animosity and violence complicates the definition of martyrdom as well, forcing religious communities to examine and reexamine specific claims on behalf of those reputed to have chosen death in response to religious persecution and in testimony to the truth of their faith.

Religious Persecution in the History of Judaism

Biblical literature shows some instances of religious persecution, usually set in a political context. Thus the Philistine capture of the Ark of the Covenant and the Babylonian razing of the Jerusalem Temple both represent, in essence, politically motivated attacks on religious institutions and symbols. The biblical Book of Daniel presents two purported incidents of more purely religious persecution. In chapter 3, King Nebuchadnezzar is alleged to have erected a golden statue and ordered all his officials to prostrate themselves before it. Three Jewish lads were reported to the king for having contravened his royal order. As punishment, they were thrown into a blazing furnace, from which they miraculously emerged alive. Impressed by both their steadfastness and their salvation, the king was supposed to have prohibited any blasphemy of the God of the three young men. In chapter 6 a similar incident is told of Daniel, with the same outcome.

During the period of Hellenistic hegemony in the Near East, there was considerable tension between Jews and their neighbors, and this expressed itself in both political and religious terms. Particularly striking is the story of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV and his prohibition of basic Jewish religious practices. A group powerfully devoted to the fulfillment of covenantal law rose in rebellion against the effort to limit Jewish religious practice and belief. Modern scholarship has raised serious questions concerning these alleged Antiochene injunctions, which it has found totally at variance with Hellenistic custom. As an alternative, some scholars have proposed an essentially political motive for the decrees, a parallel to the earlier Philistine and Babylonian assaults on Judaism. A similarly political attack on Judaism is reflected in the Roman burning of the Second Temple in 70 ce. By this time there was already a strong tradition of Greco-Roman animus toward Jews and Judaism. Nonetheless, the policy of the Roman authorities at the close of the Great War basically reflects a desire to suppress the political rebellion that had broken out in Palestine, not to deliver a death blow to the Jewish religious faith. Similar considerations motivated the Hadrianic decrees at the close of the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132135 ce. Disturbed by ongoing Jewish unrest in Palestine, the Romans decided to quell permanently the rebelliousness of these Jews by attacking its seeming wellspring, Judaism.

With the emergence of Christianity as the authoritative religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century and Islam as the ruling faith of a vast state in the seventh century, persecution of the Jews and Judaism took a decidedly new turn. Both these religions ultimately negated in theory the legitimacy of all other faiths, although each carved out a theoretical and practical status of limited tolerance for the other monotheisms, including Judaism. In many ways the situation of the Jews in the Muslim world was somewhat better than in medieval Christendom. Critical factors accounting for this difference included the ethnic and religious heterogeneity of the Muslim world, the size and antiquity of the Jewish communities within the orbit of Islam, the absence of any unique role for the Jews in the development of Islam, and the absence of any potent anti-Jewish symbolism at the core of the religion. There was, to be sure, occasional persecution of the Jews; sometimes this occurred at the official level, as with the Almohad rulers of North Africa and Spain during the mid-twelfth century, and sometimes at the popular level, as with the uprising in Granada in 1066, triggered by popular resentment of the Ibn Nagrela family of Jewish viziers. As the Muslim world increasingly lost the impressive vitality it had exhibited during the early centuries of the Middle Ages, the situation of its Jewish minority deteriorated, and instances of governmental persecution and popular violence multiplied.

It was in the medieval Christian world, however, that persecution of the Jews and Judaism was especially notable. Two factors in particular account for this prominence: (1) the central place of Jews in the Christian drama of crucifixion and resurrection, and (2) the relative newness and smallness of the Jewish communities in mostalthough not allareas of medieval Christendom. At the official level, Judaism was in theory a tolerated faith, although its practice was limited in order to ensure the well-being of the ruling religion. Occasionally, concern with the impact of Judaism upon the spiritual health of Christendom could lead to persecution of the Jews or could be used to justify such persecution. Thus, for example, Christian persecution of Jews emerged in the early eleventh century from anxiety over the appearance of purported heresy in northern Europe and at the end of the fifteenth century from dismay over the alleged backsliding of New Christians in Spain to their original Jewish faith. In both situations Jews were viewed as contributors to the perceived dangers and were forced into conversion or exile.

In medieval Christendom popular persecution was the more common form of anti-Jewish behavior. Anti-Jewish animosities often developed within large-scale socioeconomic upheavals. During the First Crusade spiritual exhilaration produced powerful anti-Jewish sentiment in certain fringe bands of the crusading masses. The result was a set of devastating attacks on a number of the main centers of nascent German Jewry. During the last decade of the thirteenth century and the first decade of the fourteenth, powerful social discontent in Germany unleashed wide-ranging assaults against a series of Jewish communities. The hysteria occasioned by the uncontrollable Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century once again produced massive anti-Jewish violence, as did social and religious ferment in Spain in 1391. During the mid-seventeenth century the popular uprising of Ukrainian peasants against their Polish overlords occasioned repeated massacres in the Jewish communities of the area. In all these instances, long-nurtured stereotypes of Jewish enmity and malevolence served as the backdrop for the explosion of popular violence. The imagery of Jewish malevolence, rooted in the New Testament account of the Crucifixion, was embellished during the Middle Ages with notions of ritual murder, Jewish use of Christian blood, Host desecration, and the poisoning of wells. At points of religious exhilaration or social unrest, such imagery served alternately as the spark or the rationale for popular persecution of the Jews.

With the breakdown of the corporate premodern society and with the increasing restriction of the role of religion in modern Western civilization, the older patterns of religious persecution have generally given way. To be sure, there has been little sign of diminishing anti-Jewish hostility or anti-Jewish violence, but its religious nature is even more difficult to identify than heretofore. New definitions of Jewishness have emerged, and with them anti-Jewish activity has taken on an enhanced political, economic, social, and ethnic cast. The late-nineteenth-century racial definition of Jewishness produced the new term anti-Semitism for anti-Jewish attitudes and behavior. Those inclined to see anti-Semitism as a new phenomenon and to remove traditional Christian thinking from association with this new phenomenon have coined the term anti-Judaism as a foil. Debate has raged as to the Christian roots of anti-Semitism.

The seeming ubiquity of anti-Jewish violence has led to the conceptualization of the Jewish past as one long sequence of persecution and suffering. This perception emerged in the medieval Jewish polemical confrontation with Christianity, as Jewish polemicists insisted that Isaiah's suffering servant figure prefigured the travails of the Jewish people, in the process negating Christian claims for Jesus as fulfillment of this pivotal prophesy. At the close of the Middle Ages a number of Jewish authors organized narrative portraits of the Jewish past in terms of suffering intended to lead to eventual redemption. These views were secularized by the distinguished nineteenth-century Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz (18171891), who conceptualized the Jewish past in terms of suffering and the capacity to rise above suffering through the life of the mind. Modern Zionist historiography accepted the notion of suffering as the leitmotif of the Jewish past but rejected the valorization of such suffering. The young Salo Baron (1895-1989), embarking in the 1920s on his career as a major historian of the Jewish people, attacked what he called the "lachrymose conception of Jewish history," arguing that the Jewish past constitutes a rich, variegated, and creative saga. The eruption of the Holocaust did much to rehabilitate the earlier sense of the Jewish past as a vale of tears.

Martyrdom in the History of Judaism

In Jewish tradition the notion of martyrdom has been expressed in the commandment of qiddush ha-shem, the requirement to sanctify the divine name. This commandment has broad meaning, as seen in Leviticus 22:3133: "You shall faithfully observe my commandments: I am the Lord. You shall not profane my holy name, that I might be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite peopleI the Lord who sanctify you, I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God, I the Lord." Sanctification of the divine name could be and has been interpreted as any noble action undertaken out of commitment to the divine will and thus reflecting glory upon the God of Israel. Not surprisingly, however, a more restricted meaning of qiddush ha-shem has developed as well: it has been applied in particular to those who give up their most precious possessionlife itselfout of this sense of submission to God's will, and who thus serve as ringing testimony to the reality and truth of their deity.

The Hebrew Bible certainly features the importance of submission to the divine will, as seen in Abraham's response to the command that he sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, in Moses' acceptance of God's call, and in repeated prophetic acquiescence to divinely imposed missions. Generally, however, this steadfastness involves the suppression of internal psychological blocks to the divine will; only rarely does it require the overcoming of external pressures, most notably with the two incidents recounted in the Book of Daniel. The Antiochene persecution, whatever its motivations may have been, produced a Jewish response of martyrological resistance to the external threat and created a set of figures whose deeds were subsequently retold as paradigms of heroic human behavior. The war of 66 to 70 ce elicited a similar sense of martyrdom, a desire to reject uncompromisingly the reimposition of Roman rule. Perhaps out of an awareness of the heavily political motivations on both sides, subsequent Jewish sources by and large overlooked this group of militant resisters and relegated the heroism of Masada to a position of relative neglect.

Entirely different was the response to the resistance against the Hadrianic persecution of the late 130s ce. Here the essentials of Jewish religious life were at stake, and the resisters were at the center of the Jewish community. The martyrdom of ʿAqivaʾ ben Yosef and his associates was accorded a major place in the Jewish liturgy and undoubtedly served to encourage succeeding generations of Jews to undertake, when required, the same commitment. Jewish law eventually codified the essentials of martyrdom by specifying key issues on which there could be no compromise.

R[abbi] Yohanan said in the name of R[abbi] Shimʿon ben Yehotsadaq: "By a majority vote it was resolved in the upper chambers of the house of Nithza in Lydda that, for every [other] law of the Torah, if a man is commanded: 'Transgress and suffer not death,' he may transgress and not suffer death, excepting idolatry, incest, and murder." (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 74a)

This important statement limits the number of infringements upon Jewish law for which life is to be sacrificed. At the same time, it strongly reaffirms the basic principle of qiddush ha-shem when the infringement is major.

The persecutions cited here all reflect an assault on Judaism out of essentially political motivations. It is only with the development of Christianity and Islam and their rise to positions of political authority that the stage was set for direct confrontation between militant monotheistic faiths. In this regard the Jewish martyrdoms during the First Crusade assume special significance. The Crusader assaults of 1096 were couched in almost purely religious terms; there were no political aspects to this persecution, and socioeconomic issues were distinctly secondary. At their core the attacks on Rhineland Jewry were triggered by a radical desire to rid the world of all infidels. This was not, of course, the papal view of the crusade; it was, however, the yearning that animated the fringe bands of German Crusaders. The Jewish communities that suddenly found themselves under assault were spiritually as intense as their attackers. The result was a remarkable Jewish willingness to perish in defiance of Christian pressure and in testimony to the truth of the Jewish faith. The following utterance, imputed to the martyrs of Mainz on the verge of their deaths, captures the intensity of the periodthe conviction of the absolute truth of Judaism; the sense that their actions represent qiddush ha-shem, a means of sanctifying the divine name in this world; and the resultant certainty of rich celestial reward:

Ultimately one must not question the qualities of the Holy One, blessed be he, who gave us his Torah and commanded that we be put to death and be killed for the unity of his sacred name. Fortunate are we if we do his will and fortunate are all who are killed and slaughtered and die for the unity of his name. Not only do they merit the world to come and sit in the quarter of the righteous pillars of the world, but they exchange a world of darkness for a world of light, a world of pain for a world of joy, a transitory world for an eternal world. (Chazan, 1987, p. 237)

The martyrs of 1096 created a compelling set of symbols to sustain themselves in the face of the terrible test imposed upon them. These included a sense of identification with the great hero figures of the Jewish past, such as Abraham, Daniel and his companions, and ʿAqivaʾ ben Yosef and his associates; recollection of the divinely ordained sacrificial system with the conviction that God had called upon these martyrs to offer themselves up as surrogate sacrifices on a new-style altar; introduction of rituals of purity to underscore the sanctity of the acts they were about to undertake; and lavish descriptions of the celestial glories awaiting those who died on behalf of the divine name.

As the medieval synthesis disintegrated, religious persecution seemingly declined, and with it the possibility of martyrdom. Whether animosity and persecution grounded in prior religious thinking has in fact disappeared is a matter of deep dispute. What is clear is that the victims of modern anti-Semitism have not often been in a position to exercise choice in rejecting or accepting death. While choice seems to have been a critical factor in earlier notions of martydom, the martyr's mantle has nonetheless been accorded to the victims of the Holocaust out of a sense that they too died as a result of their Jewish identity.

See Also

Anti-Semitism; Holocaust, The, article on History; Marranos; Suffering.


A useful general history of the Jews is Salo W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 2d ed., 18 vols. (New York, 19521983); Baron's footnotes are invaluable guides to major topics in Jewish history. The multivolume study by Léon Poliakov, The History of Anti-Semitism, translated by Richard Howard, 4 vols. (New York, 19651985). Studies of specific persecutions include, for the Antiochene persecution, Victor Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (Philadelphia, Pa., 1959); for the persecution of 1096, Robert Chazan, European Jewry and the First Crusade (Berkeley, Calif., 1987); for that of 1391, Yitzhak F. Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, Pa., 19611966); for that of 16481649, Bernard D. Weinryb, The Jews of Poland (Philadelphia, Pa., 1972). The studies of Tcherikover, Chazan, Baer, and Weinryb all analyze patterns of Jewish response to persecution along with their descriptions of the oppression itself. Shalom Spiegel's The Last Trial (New York, 1967) is a brilliant study of the imagery of testing and submission to divine will throughout Jewish history. Depictions of Nazi persecution and modern Jewish martyrdom abound. See especially Lucy S. Dawidowicz's The War against the Jews, 19331945 (New York, 1975); Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews, rev. and enl. ed., 3 vols. (New York, 1985); Alan Mintz's Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature (New York, 1984); and David G. Roskies's Against the Apocalypse (Cambridge, Mass., 1984).

Robert Chazan (1987 and 2005)