“A man of two worlds: West and East, intelligently at ease in both but at peace with neither.”

Islam and the Problem of Israel: Apercu of Jewish History in the Christian West Prior to the Emancipation

From Chapter 2: “Apercu of Jewish History in the Christian West Prior to the Emancipation” in Ismail Raji al Faruqi, “Islam and the Problem of Israel”, Islamic Council of Europe (1980)

The Christians understood, or misunderstood, the career of Jesus as one of a god sent down to earth to suffer the most ignominious death as an atonement and oblation for the sins of man. In consequence, they reinterpreted the whole history of the Jews as a propadeutic for this great event. If there is to be a crucifixion of a god, there had to be a historical situation in which a savior-god could be expected, accused to be the false savior, and then crucified. There had to be a religion, Judaism, which develops so as to reach the fossilized state of literal legalism, in which rabbis had plunged their faith in the “fullness of time,” and into the context of which the god to be crucified could enact his reform and be prosecuted and condemned in the process. The whole of the Jewish past and present was reduced to the status of an instrument, complex and winding, but still an instrument, for the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus.

The Christians did not, in the main, reject or chastise the Jews on account of that pre-crucifixion history. On the contrary, they adopted it wholesale as their own and, through eisegesis, interpreted it as the gradual unfolding of the divine purpose in history. This adoption however broke down at the very crux of that history. The vilification, calumniation, false accusation, condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus, the Christians could not perceive as steps necessary for consummation of the divine drama. Their conscience could not absolve the Jews for their active instrumentality in these events. Instead of thanking them for their role, as the logic of their claim would require, they indicted them with the supreme sin, that of deicide. As they remembered the passion of Jesus at every Easter — indeed at every mass and communion, at the mere sight of the ubiquitous crucifixes which stood ever-ready to remind them of the death of their savior-god – their hearts seethed with hatred and resentment for the Jews as evil perpetrators of deicide.

Had the Jews all converted to Christianity, the Christian conscience would have been satisfied to ascribe deicide to a people that once was. The Christians would have vented their vengeance and resentment against beings present only in their imagination. But as it turned out, the Jews continued to exist, to reject the Christians’ claim concerning Jesus — nay, to denounce Jesus as an impostor. Obviously, their existence as Jews was a blaring challenge to the Christian claim that Jesus was Messiah and God. Their survival was for the Christians a constant and living reminder of the passion of Christ.
Two more elements pressured the Christian mind to jump from the living Jewish presence as a reminder of Christ’s passion, to indicting that presence as itself guilty of that hideous crime. The first was supplied by scripture which reported that the prosecutors of Jesus acknowledged the indictment of Jesus as their deliberate work and accepted responsibility for it (Matthew 27:1,12, 20, 22). It reported them as willing and ready to assume that responsibility then, in their own persons, as well as on behalf of all their future generations (Matthew 27:25). The Jews may deny that they have ever rendered such confession. Since the source is Christian, another prior element in the Christian mind must have made such futuristic indictment possible. That is the Christian doctrine of vicariousness of guilt, of suffering and of merit. Vicariousness is absolutely essential to the Christian faith. First, the sin of Adam, it is claimed, has passed to all his descendants and his guilt has vicariously become theirs, in the flesh. All men are necessarily and universally sinful, fallen and guilty; and no effort or moral striving on their part will ever save any of them. Original sin, Christianity holds, is in the flesh, innate and in¬evitable. Because it is so, it took God Himself to pull man out of his predicament of doom. That is why God had to send His only son to ransom man from this necessary despair. Ta’ala Allahu ‘amma yasifun (Glorified be Allah above their descriptions of Him)!

Secondly, the suffering of Jesus is vicarious too. As agony and merit, it too passes mysteriously from Jesus to all men. Because Jesus died on the cross, so their argument claims, this or that Christian man living two thousand years later is personally deserving of Jesus’ merit; for that merit has passed vicariously to him. It took a mind governed by such category of vicariousness on the moral level to jump to the conclusion that the contemporary Jewish neighbor is personally guilty of deicide, of rejection of Christ, of continuing “perfidy,” as the contemporary Christian is personally saved, because he has personally deserved the merit Jesus had incurred in his atonement.

Indeed, it was the Pope himself who assumed official responsibility for protecting the Jew as a specie of satanicness, a living example of perfidy and unfaith, an archetype of the deicidal crime, as an antichrist. He established a special quarter for the Jews in Rome as a kind of horror museum in which to keep and show off these specimens of ungodliness for the enlightenment and education of the Christian community.

The list of social, legal and religious incapacities of the Jews of Christian Europe was long, and practically every Christian monarch added to it. Its highlights are that the Jews may not employ Christians, own Christian slaves, disinherit their children who convert to Christianity; that they must convert to Christianity if they marry a Christian; that they shall be ruled by Roman law rather than Torahic law; that they shall not criticise Christian doctrine nor give evidence against Christians; that they shall not celebrate Jewish feasts, practice circumcision, refrain from eating pork; that they must submit to baptism and refrain from reading the Torah in Hebrew or listening to its interpretation by their rabbis; that Jews shall refrain from practicing their customs, from preparing unleavened bread; that they be punished if they work on Sunday and not on Saturday; that they should marry according to Christian custom; that their children be brought up by Christian teachers; that Jews must pay special taxes, not appear in public between Holy Thursday and Easter, not hold any public office, not practice medicine on the Christians, etc. etc. Justinian ordered all Jews to be forced to listen to Christian teaching, their synagogues destroyed, and he prohibited them to read the Mishnah. Indeed, he prohibited the Jew under penalty of death “to raise his impious voice to contradict the evident purpose of God… the resurrection … the judgment … the work of God”.1

The Jews lived under such conditions in Europe for nearly two millenia. Often, they were banished from their cities for no crime other than being Jewish or for practicing Judaism. Following the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, they were forcefully evicted from those countries or baptized and counted as Christians. They were also evicted from Britain and were not readmitted until Oliver Cromwell, though with great restrictions to their civil rights. When the Crusades were launched, the Christian armies fell upon the Jewish population of every Christian city on their way, robbing, terrorizing and slaughtering them as helpless prey while the monarchs and lords of the land looked on.
Naturally, there was no one to receive them except the Muslim World. The Jews of Spain poured into North Africa where they found their fellow Jews free and prospering. They were admitted on equal par with the Muslims banished from Spain. Muslim countries from Morocco to Egypt did their utmost to welcome and rehabilitate these refugees from Christendom. To this day there are whole villages in North Africa composed of the descendants of these refugees, Muslim and Jewish.

Under such limitations, it was natural that the Jews of Europe would at least live together in the same quarter to provide themselves with a measure of security. Since they were prohibited to employ Christians, agriculture was impossible for them; and so was public office. They had to make a living in trade and moneylending and, where possible, in medicine, pharmacy, astronomy and “magic.” Individually, the Jew was an outlaw whenever he ventured outside of his ghetto. He was an un-citizen because the king or government of the land never recognized him as individual. Only as a member of his ghetto community did he exist legally, or did he pay any taxes. To an ignorant and superstitious people as the Europeans were in the Middle Ages, the Jew’s medical practice, astronomy and other sciences which they preserved from antiquity or learned from the Muslims, were regarded by the Christians as “black magic.” Their money-lending operation was abominable usury. Since the ghetto could not grow in area, the natural increase of population aggravated the health hazards and made the situation still more repulsing. Extortion, secret dealings, blackmail, pawnbrokerage and moneylending, persecutive and repressive measures which could be lifted only through bribery, blackmail or prostitution, made the quality of human life in the ghetto sordid and ugly.

The religious base of this Christian hatred was only to be reinforced by the Jews’ success as pawnbrokers, traders and moneylenders. The Jews quickly became the moneyed middle class of Christian cities, living parasitically on the production or consumption of Christians. Naturally, their wealth was envied, often forcefully confiscated, but they managed on the whole to emerge from every crisis stronger and richer. Many a pope and many a prince dealt with them, borrowed their money, used their trade connections or benefited from their medical knowledge. The Jew’s contacts with the gentiles increased noticeably as the cities grew and trade and communications developed. As early as the Renaissance, these contacts with Christians were to influence and help Europeanise the Jews, as the diaries and letters of Rabbi Leon da Modena testify. However, many Jews could not resist the temptation to migrate to the Muslim World, if migration were at all possible. More often the only way out of their misery was conversion to the faith of their enemies.

Those that resisted the temptation to convert and persisted in their Judaism, became still more attached to their faith and to one another in the process. From their terrible fate, the Jews derived a great advantage, namely, increase in communal awareness which diaspora conditions had first nearly dissipated. Christian persecution, denial of civil rights and incarceration within the bounds of the ghettos, could not but help reinforce the Jews’ ethnic solidarity. The local governments did not deal with the Jews singly, as legal persons, but collectively. In consequence, Jewish rabbis acquired increased authority, and set up among themselves the essential rudiments of a ghetto government, of public and social services. Thus a sort of “state within the state” gradually emerged, the former assuming responsibility for enforcement of Jewish law and representation of Jews before the officials of the latter. Taxes were imposed upon the Jews as a collective and the rabbis took upon themselves to portion out the levy among individuals. This arrangement consolidated and buttressed their authority and disciplined the individual Jew into communal loyalty. Outside the collective, the individual Jew was by and large an outlaw whom any powerful Christian could legitimately overcome, kill or dispossess of his property. Any false accusation of blasphemy or of merely following a Jewish custom could only bring up the Christian neighborhood or countryside against him.

Envy for the Jews’ accumulated wealth, or for his secret wisdom and knowledge, was not only common, but the rule. However it may have contributed to the Christian’s hatred for and persecution of the Jews, it cannot serve as explanation of the Western phenomenon of anti-Semitism. Religious hatred is certainly prior and it, rather than envy, is the source which constantly replenished the Christians’ resentment. What the Christians took to be ultimate reality or God was not only denied, but declared an “impostor.” What they regarded as summum bonum or salvation was scoffed at as hallucination. The ignominous crucifixion of their “God” was declared fully deserved by a pretender who denied the holiness of “the Law.” Moreover, the Christians had a mind bent on sacramentalism and vicariousness, naive enough to believe the Church’s claims for ontological passage of guilt, suffering and merit. It would seem as if all the ingredients were there to produce the most violent religious hatred; for Christian consciousness to vent itself against the only helpless scapegoat in their midst.

  1. E. A. Synan, The Popes and the Jews in the Middle Ages. New York, Macmillan, 1965, p. 17ff[back]