Were the Crusades Anti-Semitic? | Vince Ryan | IgnatiusInsight.com
Were the Crusades Anti-Semitic? | Vince Ryan | IgnatiusInsight.com
Popular historical works are frequent recipients of academic
sniping and snootiness. Envious of the broad readership of these works, certain
professional historians will usually dismiss these books outright--and often
rightfully so, for these histories are regularly riddled with errors. An even
bigger problem, however, is the widespread effect that these popular narratives
have on the historical consciousness of the reading public.
One popular error is the claim that the Jewish massacres
during the Crusades foreshadowed the Nazi Holocaust. Terry Jones and Alan
Ereira, the duo behind a widely viewed and wildly inaccurate A&E Crusades
documentary, hold that the Jewish pogroms witnessed the systematic persecution
and elimination of the Hebrew minority, much like the Holocaust of the
twentieth century. Arno Mayer makes explicit the connection hinted at by Jones
and Ereira: "There is no denying the striking homologies between the slaughter
of the Jews accompanying the original crusades and the extermination of the
Jews attendant on Operation Barbarossa."
In his controversial study, Constantine's Sword: The
Church and the Jews, James Carroll concurs
with such assessments, describing these attacks as "Europe's rehearsal for the
extermination of Jews that would not conform." However, the Carroll
interpretation adds a new twist, for the author sees the Crusades as inherently
anti-Semitic. The attacks upon the Jews were a natural outgrowth of the new
A Call to Arms
To assess the claims of these popular works, a closer
examination of the Jewish pogroms during the First Crusade is in order. At the
Council of Clermont in 1095, Urban II called for an armed expedition to the
East to aid fellow Christians and liberate Jerusalem, promising the remission
of sins for any participant. It is likely that the pope himself did not
anticipate the overwhelming response to his call. Crusading bands arose
throughout Christendom and many clerics took it upon themselves to preach the
crusade. The problem was that these unsanctioned recruiters would sometimes put
their own spin on the nature of the ensuing expedition, imbuing it with radical
elements that might have severe repercussions. In this case, radical preachers
contributed to the outbreak of the Rhineland pogroms.
The image of the Jew as Christ-killer was a staple of
popular belief long before the events of 1096, intermittently provoking violent
acts of "retribution" against Hebrew communities in Europe. When the call was
made for a crusade to free the Holy Land from Muslim rule, some Christians
wondered why they should not rid Europe of unbelievers before trekking east.
The Chronicle of Solomon bar Simson
captures this sentiment:
Now it came to pass that as they
passed through the towns where the Jews dwelled, they said to one another:
"Look now, we are going a long way to seek out the profane shrine and to avenge
ourselves on the Ishmaelites, when here, in our very midst, are the Jews--they
whose forefathers murdered and crucified him for no reason. Let us avenge
ourselves on them . . . 
Inflammatory preaching, though, was not the sole seed that
produced the massacres. The pogroms were motivated by a combination of vendetta
and greed. Jewish communities were abundant in northern Germany. Financing a
crusading expedition could be a costly venture. The lure of Jewish riches was a
temptation for many of these would-be crusaders--but not only for those heading
to Palestine. The chronicles are quite explicit in emphasizing the complicity
of many burghers in the attacked cities. The Mainz Anonymous Chronicle recounts
how whenever the crusaders would arrive at a city "the local burghers would
harass us, for they were at one with them in their intention to destroy vine
and root all along their way to Jerusalem."  In fact, the assistance of the
burghers was critical to the slaughter of the Jews in Mainz, for they unlocked
the city gates for the crusaders.
Secular and ecclesiastical leaders had encouraged Jewish
migration to northern Germany during the tenth and eleventh centuries,
believing that they would enhance the economic prestige of their respective
cities. To entice them, lords and bishops often offered benefits such as a high
degree of self-rule. These privileges ignited the jealousy of the Christian
burghers, their financial competitors in the communities. The economic envy of
the burghers was undoubtedly augmented by the inflammatory rhetoric of the
anti-Jewish crusading bands.
Why Only in the Rhineland?
And yet, if this sort of anti-Semitic outlook was inherent
to the movement, as some argue, why did the pogroms occur only in the
Rhineland? In fact, the pogroms were not due to an intrinsic anti-Jewish
attitude among crusaders, but at least partly due to the breakdown in secular
authority in the region. The Investiture Contest of the 1070s had seriously
weakened royal authority in the region, while current aristocratic rebellion
further hampered the power of the German crown at the local level. The monarch
had guaranteed Jewish protection, but with the recent political developments
Henry IV was unable to quell the pogroms. Whereas the Holocaust succeeded
because it was promoted and implemented by the Nazi state, the 1096s attacks
occurred because the authority of the state (the crown) had been weakened.
In the spring of 1096 several crusading bands made their way
through the Rhineland, the most notorious of which was led by Count Emicho of
Leiningen. In Speyer, the bishop was able to shelter the Jews from the
crusaders. Only eleven lost their lives. In the subsequent cities, resistance
was much weaker. The local prelates tried to protect the Jewish communities but
they succumbed to the pressure of the anti-Jewish forces. Massacres occurred in
Worms, Trier, Mainz, and Cologne. The attackers offered the Jews the option of
conversion. Few opted for this, choosing suicide or martyrdom instead. The
Chronicle of Solomon bar Simson gives a vivid description of the carnage in
The enemy arose against them,
killing little children and women, youth and old men--all on one day. The
priests were not accorded honor nor the elders grace; the enemy showed no mercy
for babes and sucklings, no pity for women about to give birth. 
The pogroms of 1096 were perversions of crusading zeal; they
were definitely not the normal response. Emicho's contingent and the other
anti-Jewish crusading bands did not comprise the major armies, which advanced
east in the summer of that year. The anti-Jewish crusaders either dissolved
after perpetrating these heinous acts or were destroyed during their march
through Hungary. Robert Chazan, one of the foremost scholars on the medieval
Jewish experience --particularly the massacres of 1096--believes that "the
combination of radical thinking and weak discipline accounts for both the
eventual failures of these bands and their anti-Jewish excesses." 
A Telling Silence
Most Christian sources for our information on the First
Crusade are silent about the pogroms. If anti-Jewish activity was inherent to
or championed by the crusading movement, it would stand to reason that these
writers would include it in their histories. Albert of Aachen, one of the few
Christian chroniclers to mention the Rhineland massacres, describes the perpetrators
negatively, commenting how they rose "in a spirit of cruelty against the Jewish
people scattered throughout these cities and slaughtered them without mercy."
As Robert Chazan reminds us, "Most crusaders, including those who savored the
victory in Jerusalem in 1099, made no connection between crusading and the Jews
and thus indulged in no anti-Jewish attacks." 
Some proponents who hold that the Crusades were inherently
anti-Semitic or who draw parallels to the Holocaust, have cited the experience
of the Jews in Palestine after the conquests of the First Crusade. The
slaughter that erupted after the Christian capture of Jerusalem in 1099 is
highlighted to support their outlook. After a five-week siege, the crusaders
successfully stormed the Holy City and killed every occupant inside, including
the Jews who assisted the Muslims in defending Jerusalem. Many fled to the
synagogue and met their end when crusaders set fire to the building. That the
Jews were singled out in the butchering is hard to prove --for all the
inhabitants were slaughtered indiscriminately. Aware of these arguments, the
noted Crusades historian Jonathan Riley-Smith has recently said, "We know it to
be a myth that the crusaders targeted the Jewish community in Jerusalem." 
The Hebrew populations of Acre, Hebron, and Haifa met with a fate similar to
the community in Jerusalem. Again, the brutality was the result of the
resistance by these cities to the crusader forces--not because there were Jews
in these places. Such tactics were brutal, but typical of both Muslim and
Christian armies in the region. The Jewish communities in Tyre and Ascalon, on
the other hand, were not harmed when these cities were taken since the leaders
chose surrender instead of resistance.
In fact, the Jews of Palestine were treated well by their
new overlords. Continuing the prior Muslim practice, the Latins required the
Jews, along with other non-Christian inhabitants, to pay a religious tax. Jews
were barred only from residing in Jerusalem itself. Moreover, the crusaders did
not employ dress regulations like the Muslims had or the Fourth Lateran Council
recommended. Ironically, the success of the First Crusade actually facilitated
wide scale Jewish migration from Europe to the East. Most importantly, there
were no anti-Jewish pogroms in the Levant during almost two hundred years of
crusader rule. While life in the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem was certainly no
utopia for the Jews, these examples contradict the notion that the Crusades
were inherently anti-Semitic. The evidence indicates that the Latin rulers in
the Levant were more lenient than their European counterparts, and in some
instances, than the previous Muslim rulers (who were well known for their
tolerance). When Jews were on the receiving end of crusader brutality--as at
Jerusalem in 1099 or Acre in 1104--it was within the context of total warfare
directed at the resisting population as a whole, of which the Jews were a minor
A Facile and Fallacious Link
The evidence firmly contradicts the charges that violent
anti-Semitism was ingrained in the crusading movement, yet contrary claims
persist. The Mayer interpretation is representative of those who try to make
tidy, direct links between these historical events. In this case, the Holocaust
is the central event and the pogroms of 1096 are cited as activities that
foreshadowed it and paved the way for the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s. This
is sheer historical reductionism. The Jones/Ereira view is an even more blatant
example of this flaw. The work as a whole seeks to relate the Crusades to the
dynamics and intricacies of the present situation in the Holy Land, forcing the
authors to make naïve, anachronistic, or inaccurate statements about the impact
of medieval events.  Certainly the most ridiculous of these is that the
Crusades are the cause of current Islamic fanaticism. 
From a Catholic perspective, the Carroll book is probably
the most intriguing. It is indicative of some recent historical assessments by
"progressive" Catholics who desire to justify their criticisms of or dissent
from Church teaching by writing exposes of Church misconduct over the past two
thousand years.  In Carroll's case, he argues that there has been an
inherent anti-Semitism present in Catholicism since the time of Constantine.
The Crusades are just one manifestation of this intolerance.
Bypassing the problem of that general thesis for the sake of
our present discussion, let us consider the faulty use of terminology in both
the Carroll outlook and the "First Holocaust" camp, namely, the confusion of
anti-Judaism with anti-Semitism. The latter is a nineteenth century ideology
rooted in racial theory. Edith Stein was sent to Auschwitz because of her
Jewish heritage. That she was a practicing Catholic was of no consequence to
the Nazis. Her Jewish "flaw" could only be rectified through annihilation.
Anti-Judaism, on the other hand, encompasses discrimination or persecution
directed against Jews on the basis of their religious distinction. Those behind
the 1096 assaults offered their victims the option of conversion. Many Jews in
Regensburg converted and were not harmed. The majority in the other cities did
not and suffered atrocious consequences.
The Rhineland massacres resulted from the mixture of various
factors: anti-Judaism in distorted crusading zeal by radical, poorly
disciplined bands combined with local burgher hostility and the weakness of
higher authorities in the region. To be sure, the heritage of medieval
anti-Judaism was critical to the acceptance of nineteenth century
anti-Semitism. However, efforts to link directly the 1096 pogroms to the
Holocaust ignore the specifics that enabled the former to occur or the
motivations that propelled the latter.
The charge that the Crusades produced widespread
anti-Judaism or were by their nature anti-Jewish has, as we have seen, little
basis in historical fact. Furthermore, the claim that the Crusades were a
rehearsal for the anti-Semitic genocide of the Holocaust is without foundation.
Those who promote such a view do so to further their agendas, ideologies, and
This article originally appeared in the January/February
2002 issue of Catholic Dossier.
 Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Crusades (New York: Facts on File Inc., 1995), p. 28; Arno
Mayer, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The"Final Solution" in History (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), p. 226; James
Carroll, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), p. 248.
 "The Chronicle of Solomon bar Simson," in Shlomo
Eidelberg, The Jews and the Crusaders: The Hebrew Chronicles of the First
and Second Crusades (Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press, 1977), p. 22.
 "Mainz Anonymous" in Eidelberg, p. 100.
 "The Chronicle of Solomon bar Simson," p. 34.
5 Robert Chazan, In the Year 1096: the First Crusade and
the Jews (Philadelphia: Jerusalem
Publication Society, 1996), p. 55.
 August C. Krey, The First Crusade: the Accounts of
Eye-Witnesses and Participants (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1921), p. 54; Chazan, p. 24.
 Jonathan Riley-Smith, "Rethinking the Crusades," First
Things (March 2000), pp. 20-23.
 Details concerning the Jewish experience under crusader
rule can be found in many of the works by the late Israeli scholar Joshua
Prawer. For the most thorough examination see his The History of the Jews in
the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1988).
 No doubt to capitalize on recent events, Doubleday has
reissued Karen Armstrong's Holy War: the Crusades and their Impact on
Today's World--a work with the same flawed
goal as Jones and Ereira but with less preposterous assertions.
 Jones and Ereira, p. 240.
 Gary Will's Papal Sin is another prominent example that falls in this category.
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Vincent Ryan, a doctoral candidate in medieval history at Saint Louis
University, has presented papers on various aspects of the Fourth Crusade
at the International Medieval Congress and the Midwest Medieval History
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