For the Jewish people throughout history, violence, oppression and mistreatment has painted their historical narrative. The past few days our eyes have been opened by some of the most well respected lecturers in Jewish cultural and literary history who have come in to educate to us.
Historically, the Jewish diaspora into Europe and throughout Asia created small pockets or enclaves of Jewish settlements alongside Christian and Muslim communities. These small pockets were characterised by communities of people that largely stood out from the local populations. This was because the Jewish faith and customs singled Jewish people out as different – they ate differently according to kosher laws, they practiced Judaism and their lingua franca was distinct, with the development of Yiddish sometime around the 9th or 10th centuries.
Obviously, when you stand out in stark contrast to the rest of a red-necked, partially inbred society where it was fair game to marry your cousins, eyes are going to be raised. It wasn’t long before the Jewish communities found themselves at the start of a long period of ostracism within the greater society. Moreover, this ostracism was only aided by institutions such as the Catholic Church. St Augustine himself promoted the mistreatment of Jews but encouraged people to refrain from killing them. Indeed, the early church encouraged the humiliation of the Jews so that they might convert to Christianity and embrace Jesus.
Some of the forms of humiliation and ostracism these communities faced ranged from the forced ghettoisation of the communities through to legal measures being put in place to ensure that the Jewish people were kept separate (or safe, or both – see Pope Paul IV). Some of these legal measures included bans on Jewish people from owning land, inter-marrying, or working in professions primarily held by the locals of an area. Ironically, banned from agricultural work the Jewish community were forced into mercantilism, tax collection and money lending to survive. This is turn led to many of the superstitions and generalisations that have negatively affected the community over the last millennium.
At a more sinister level, superstitions surrounding the Jewish religious observances began to be raised. In Europe especially, the insidious myth known as the ‘blood libel’ resulted in pogroms against the Jewish communities. Blood libel was the belief that Jewish communities would capture and kill Christian children and use their blood in religious ceremonies, particularly during the Jewish celebration of Passover. Retaliation for suspected blood libel was harsh and more often than not, without trail. Throughout the middle ages and beyond, hundreds – if not thousands – of Jewish people were routinely beaten, lynched, hanged or burnt to death as a direct result of this fear and hatred.
Following these dark periods of time, the next significant change for the Jewish peoples occurred in the industrial revolution. Suddenly, with increased urbanisation, Jewish merchants found that their businesses started to prosper. With a cultural tradition of being multi-lingual, self-sufficient and well-traveled (through constant relocation to more favourable conditions), Jews found themselves becoming upwardly mobile within the developing middle classes. Yet, by the time of the early 20th Century, despite their contributions to science, music and literature, Jewish people were still subjected to ridicule, sanctioned humiliation, and persecution.
This persecution changed when the Nazi Party came to power in 1933. The major change instigated by the Germans was the concept of the Jewish peoples as a distinct ethnicity. This new way of thinking had serious repercussions. No longer able to ‘fix’ their evil ways and convert to Christianity, Jewish people were tainted by the inescapable nature of their own blood. This dramatically changed the way Nazi propaganda addressed the stereotypical Jew. Now the Jews began to be portrayed as a parasite among the population and that any marriage to a Jew could only result in the poisoning of the German master race.
It was these prejudices that the Nazi party preyed upon, exaxerbated, and used to implement the Final Solution, the state sanctioned and systematic execution of the Jewish peoples throughout Europe and Asia.