[Vision2020] Hate Speech: The Words that Killed Medieval Jews

Nicholas Gier ngier006 at gmail.com
Fri Dec 11 11:08:41 PST 2015

I appended one of the 109 comments, among them being "Isn't hate speech
against Muslims the equivalent of yelling 'Fire' in a crowded theater?"

I've written about this sea-change to violence in Christian theology in my
review of Rita Brock's and Rebecca Ann Parker's book *Saving Paradise* at

The Words That Killed Medieval Jews

By SARA LIPTON DEC. 11, 2015 *The New York Times*

Do harsh words lead to violent acts? At a moment when hate speech seems to
be proliferating, it’s a question worth asking.

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch recently expressed worry that heated
anti-Muslim political rhetoric would spark an increase in attacks against
Muslims. Some claim that last month’s mass shooting in Colorado Springs was
provoked by Carly Fiorina’s assertion that Planned Parenthood was
“harvesting baby parts”; Mrs. Fiorina countered that language could not be
held responsible for the deeds of a “deranged” man. Similar debates have
been occasioned by the beating of a homeless Hispanic man in Boston,
allegedly inspired by Donald J. Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, and by
the shooting deaths of police officers in California, Texas and Illinois,
which some have attributed to anti-police sentiment expressed at Black
Lives Matter protests.

No historian can claim to have insight into the motives of living
individuals. But history does show that a heightening of rhetoric against a
certain group can incite violence against that group, even when no violence
is called for. When a group is labeled hostile and brutal, its members are
more likely to be treated with hostility and brutality. Visual images are
particularly powerful, spurring actions that may well be unintended by the
images’ creators.

The experience of Jews in medieval Europe offers a sobering example.
Official Christian theology and policy toward Jews remained largely
unchanged in the Middle Ages. Over roughly 1,000 years, Christianity
condemned the major tenets of Judaism and held “the Jews” responsible for
the death of Jesus. But the terms in which these ideas were expressed
changed radically.

Before about 1100, Christian devotions focused on Christ’s divine nature
and triumph over death. Images of the crucifixion showed Jesus alive and
healthy on the cross. For this reason, his killers were not major focuses
in Christian thought. No anti-Jewish polemics were composed during these
centuries; artworks portrayed his executioners not as Jews, but as Roman
soldiers (which was more historically accurate) or as yokels. Though there
are scattered records of anti-Jewish episodes like forced conversions, we
find no consistent pattern of anti-Jewish violence.

In the decades around 1100, a shift in the focus of Christian veneration
brought Jews to the fore. In an effort to spur compassion among Christian
worshipers, preachers and artists began to dwell in vivid detail on
Christ’s pain. Christ morphed from triumphant divine judge to suffering
human savior. A parallel tactic, designed to foster a sense of Christian
unity, was to emphasize the cruelty of his supposed tormentors, the Jews.

Partly out of identification with this newly vulnerable Christ, partly in
response to recent Turkish military successes, and partly because an
internal reform movement was questioning fundamentals of faith, Christians
began to see themselves as threatened, too.

In 1084 the pope wrote that Christianity “has fallen under the scorn, not
only of the Devil, but of Jews, Saracens, and pagans.” The “Goad of Love*,”*
a retelling of the crucifixion that is considered the first anti-Jewish
Passion treatise, was written around 1155-80. It describes Jews as consumed
with sadism and blood lust. They were seen as enemies not only of Christ,
but also of living Christians; it was at this time that Jews began to be
accused of ritually sacrificing Christian children.

Ferocious anti-Jewish rhetoric began to permeate sermons, plays and
polemical texts. Jews were labeled demonic and greedy. In one diatribe, the
head of the most influential monastery in Christendom thundered at the
Jews: “Why are you not called brute animals? Why not beasts?” Images began
to portray Jews as hooknosed caricatures of evil.

The first records of large-scale anti-Jewish violence coincide with this
rhetorical shift. Although the pope who preached the First Crusade had
called only for an “armed pilgrimage” to retake Jerusalem from Muslims, the
first victims of the Crusade were not the Turkish rulers of Jerusalem but
Jewish residents of the German Rhineland.

Contemporary accounts record the crusaders asking why, if they were
traveling to a distant land to “kill and to subjugate all those kingdoms
that do not believe in the Crucified,” they should not also attack “the
Jews, who killed and crucified him?”

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Jews were massacred in towns where they had
peacefully resided for generations. At no point did Christian authorities
promote or consent to the violence. Christian theology, which applied the
Psalm verse “Slay them not” to Jews, and insisted that Jews were not to be
killed for their religion, had not changed. Clerics were at a loss to
explain the attacks. A churchman from a nearby town attributed the
massacres to “some error of mind.”

But not all the Rhineland killers were crazy. The crusaders set out in the
Easter season. Both crusade and Easter preaching stirred up rage about the
crucifixion and fear of hostile and threatening enemies. It is hardly
surprising that armed and belligerent bands turned such rhetoric into
anti-Jewish action.

For the rest of the Middle Ages, this pattern was repeated: Preaching about
the crusades, proclamations of Jewish “enmity” or unsubstantiated
anti-Jewish accusations were followed by outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence,
which the same shocked authorities that had aroused Christians’ passions
were then unable to restrain. We see this in the Rhineland during the
Second Crusade (1146), in England during the Third Crusade (1190), in
Franconia in 1298, in many locales following the Black Death in 1348, and
in Iberia in 1391. Sometimes the perpetrators were zealous holy warriors,
sometimes they were opportunistic business rivals, sometimes they were
parents grieving for children lost to accident or crime, or fearful of the
ravages of a new disease.

Some may well have been insane. But sane or deranged, they did not pick
their victims in a vacuum. It was repeated and dehumanizing excoriation
that led those medieval Christians to attack people who had long been their

Today’s purveyors of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-police and
anti-abortion rhetoric and imagery may not for a moment intend to provoke
violence against Muslims, immigrants, police officers and health care
providers. But in the light of history, they should not be shocked when
that violence comes to pass.

Sara Lipton
<http://www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/history/people/faculty/lipton.html>, a
professor of history at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, is
the author of “Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish

Comment: Ms. Lipton makes a very insightful point, which I also made in my
book Six Million Crucifixions, How Christian Teachings About Jews Paved the
Road to the Holocaust. There's no question that the demonization and
dehumanization process that Jews were subjected to led to violence and
eventually to genocide. Indeed, those two elements are the common
denominator of all genocides, including of course the Holocaust but also
Darfur, Rwanda, Armenia, Yugoslavia and all others. Even though hate speed
does not axiomatically lead to murder or violence, it is a key component
and the key differentiator between a random act of violence, and those
perpetrated on a mass scale.

Hate Speech is clearly defined. Curtailing Hate Speech is not equivalent to
curtailing freedom of speech. And even if for the sake of argument we said
it was, limiting freedom of speech would be a good thing when you take into
account the consequences of allowing anyone to say anything about other
people or peoples.


A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they
shall never sit in.

-Greek proverb

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.
Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance
from another. This immaturity is self- imposed when its cause lies not in
lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without
guidance from another. Sapere Aude! ‘Have courage to use your own
understand-ing!—that is the motto of enlightenment.

--Immanuel Kant
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