In 2001, approximately 100 tombstones in the Beth Hamedrash Hagodal/Beth Jacob Jewish Cemetery in McKees Rocks were toppled. The FBI treated the incident at the site founded in 1869 as a hate crime.
By Jamie Wiggan
More than 600 years before the advent of the Third Reich, 800 Jews were massacred in Germany on July 24, 1298 amid a wave of anti-Semitism that swept through Europe in the late middle ages.
Here in Pittsburgh, the assassination of 11 Jewish worshippers inside Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018 shattered any illusions that anti-Jewish hatred died out with the close of World War II and the Nazi party. But to properly understand the anti-Semitism of today, we need to look back, far beyond the invention of assault rifles and gas chambers, to the murky beginnings of recorded history.
Jewish accounts, shared by Christians, place the origin of their religious and ethnic identiy at Israel’s divinely-orchestrated exodus after centuries of slavery in Egypt.
“I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” Yahweh declares in the first of the Ten Commandments laid out in the book of Exodus.
Having purportedly taken place more than a millennium prior to the birth of Christ, a lack of surviving evidence makes the particular details of Israel’s slavery and exodus from Egypt a matter of faith, but in either case the account is central to Jewish identity through the ages.
Thereafter historical records become more reliable, tracing out a history of further subjection, first under the Assyrians, then the Babylonians and finally the Romans.
By the reign of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus Caesar (27 B.C. – 14 A.D.), small Jewish communities had sprung up all over the Mediterranean world, including the Roman capital.
After the sack of Rome in 410 B.C. and the subsequent demise of the Roman Empire, Jewish merchants slowly moved across the European continent, settling in modern-day France, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands.
Initially their talents as craftsmen and financiers were welcomed, and in many territories Jews were offered legal protection to freely live and worship.
The Catholic Church, the predominant political force of medieval Europe, prohibited Christians from lending money for a return on interest, but many provinces passed laws granting exceptions to Jews. Coming inevitably to dominate the financial sector, many Jews accumulated great wealth, sparking jealousy and resentment among their powerful debtors — often knights and rulers.
By the time of the 12th century, growing anti-Semitism led to the circulation of fabricated stories about Jewish ritual infanticide.
Over the next few centuries, pockets of anti-Semitic fury erupted across Europe in a reactionary movement known as “blood libel.” Initially, the Church attempted to protect Jews from these instances of merciless violence, but it slowly lapsed into complicity.
The manic anti-Semitism whipped up by blood libel allegations spilled into other questionable charges.
In a particularly gruesome episode known as the Rindfleisch massacres — taken from the name of a mob leader behind the violence — Jewish populations in 146 towns were slaughtered in response to charges brought against a group of Jews in Roettingen, Germany said to have desecrated a communion host in the spring of 1298.
The bloodthirsty uprisings that followed are unsympathetically recorded in the Nuremberg Chronicle, an attempt at world history published in 1453:
“The Jews, who had multiplied in many places, were burned in the first year of emperor Albert at Nuremberg, Würtzburg, Rotenburg, and many other places, because of their evil deeds. Sparing no one of this unhappy race on account of sex or age, several thousand are said to have perished except for the children who had been baptized.”
European anti-Semitism softened slightly over the following centuries, and many countries that had formerly exiled Jewish inhabitants began to readmit them, including France in 1675 and England in 1650.
The familiar horrors of the holocaust are rooted in Europe’s less known anti-Semitic history.
Policies like funneling all Jews into segregated “ghettos” and requiring them to wear identifying badges were first implemented in the Middle Ages.
By the 19th century, the religious conflicts that previously dominated European affairs were giving way to national tensions, which, in 1914, erupted into the first world war.
Strengthening national identities fostered in turn increasing ideas about racial superiority, often propped up by pseudo-science. The Jewish race became the new focus of anti-Semitism in place of the Jewish religion.
Within this context, Adolf Hitler envisioned a world order with Germans on top, “lesser races” below and Jews removed altogether removed from the picture. Gaining urgency as World War II dragged on, Hitler tasked Schutzstaffel (SS) leader Heinrich Himmler with engineering a system to efficiently vanquish the entire Jewish population of German-occupied territory.
The allies managed to force a German surrender before Himmler could complete his task, but not before several million Jews were gassed and burned under his orders.
• Circa 1300: Hebrew tradition maintains a mass of Jewish slaves are divinely led out of Egypt into the land of Canaan after more than 400 years of captivity.
• 726-22: Assyrian King Shalmaneser V ransacks the Israeli city of Samaria, enslaving and deporting much of its populace.
• 597: Jerusalem falls to Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, who takes many of the inhabitants captive.
• 70: Future Roman emperor Titus lays siege to Jerusalem, destroying the temple and much of the city.
• 476: The Western Roman Empire officially falls when Emperor Romulus Augustulus is deposed by a German king. Jews begin to spread into Northern and Western Europe.
• 1066: First Jews settle in England at the behest of new King William I of Normandy.
• 1215: The Lateran Council forbids Christians from living with or trading with Jews.
• 1247: Pope Innocent IV circulates a letter to French bishops urging refrain from rising Jewish persecutions.
• 1290 English Edict of Expulsion—Parliament agrees to levy tax in response to Jewish expulsion.
• 1298: Approximately 800 Jews living in the town of Würzburg, Germany are slaughtered July 24 during the Rindfleisch massacres.
• 1306: King Phillip IV quietly expels Jews from France under unknown circumstances. They were readmitted again by Phillip’s successor Louis in 1315.
• 1394: After years of ambiguity, Charles VI banishes all Jews from French territory.
• 1915: Leo Frank, a prominent Jewish businessman is falsely accused of murder and lynched in Atlanta, Ga.
• 1945: 15-year-old diarist Anne Frank dies of starvation and exhaustion in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. From 1942-44 Frank and her family lived within a secret annex apartment in the Netherlands until raided by Nazi officers.
• 1942: Nazi government issues “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question” detailing plans to exterminate the entire Jewish populace.
• 2018: An anti-Semitic gunman killed 11 Jewish worshipers and wounded six more at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Sto-Rox graduate Timothy Matson was among the law enforcement officers called to the scene, where he was critically wounded while pursuing the assailant.