The first Crusade was proclaimed by Pope Urban II in 1095, sending thousands of men (and some women) east through German lands toward the “Holy Land,” then under the rule of Muslims. Along the way, through the Rhineland and eastward, crusaders and townspeople massacred the Jews of these areas, leaving smouldering ghettos and mutilated bodies behind as they pressed forward to do God’s will.
We know about some of these because we have memorbuchen, martyrologies written some years after the events of the Crusades, in which tales were recounted of the deaths by crusader sword. Sadly, many also died at the hands of fellow Jews who killed their families and died by their own hands rather than accept conversion.
The reverberations of those massacres were felt long after the soldiers had gone, leaving grieving survivors behind to rebuild and propelling thousands more into Poland and Russia, where they were more welcome, if still vulnerable.
In Spain, where Jews had lived for centuries in relative amity with both Christian and Muslim neighbours, the ascent of Isabella and Ferdinand spelled the end of Sepharad. The Jews of Spain were hustled out of the country or forced to convert, creating a migrant population of Sephardi Jews who, ironically, often found havens in both Catholic Italy and the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
The fate of Spanish Jewry led, as Gershom Sholem argued in his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, to the development of a closely constructed mystical universe propagated in Safed.
We today live in the shadow of the greatest massacre in our people’s history.
Every year, new facets of this catastrophe are revealed. Individual stories of survivors are legion. Shelves of research abound. Memorial services in our communities are annual events. Centres for the study of the Holocaust are dedicated to teaching the lessons of its inception, implementation and outcome: millions dead, whole populations destroyed and remnants scattered.
The themes of “Never again” and antiracism are prominent.
Now a question: should we, dare we, claim that the State of Israel is one outcome of that enormity? Earlier catastrophes had no such outcome, nor would the idea of a Jewish state ever been contemplated by their survivors, short of the coming of the Messiah.
Yet there it is, deep inside us, the memory of the deepest horror of our age and the brightest accomplishment within the space of a few decades.
What are we to make of the 20th century, with these bookends to Jewish life, one blood-stained and the other seemingly redemptive?
Brushing aside those who deny the Holocaust or minimize its realities, we certainly should memorialize and teach it, or else what good can come of so much suffering? The memories of the survivors are precious, and we have done well to preserve them, as soon only their printed and recorded words will remain. Even in this, we are fortunate, as past tragedies have not had similar authorities.
But the “lessons of the Holocaust” must not be trivial. We have to teach that while some individual actions mattered for good, most people and governments, including our own, turned away or actively participated. And some individuals were both heroes and villains, a bit of each depending on the circumstance. There must be nuance in what we teach.
As for Israel, is it a miracle or a human-created opportunity? Surely, six million deaths don’t lead inevitably to a Jewish state. The issue is fraught. However, we can take heart from the recent speech by new MK Ruth Calderon (a student of the late Rabbi David Hartman), whose love of state and Torah are manifest. Her vision sounds like a gift that can move Israel in a new and inclusive direction.
She aspires to “bring about a situation in which Torah study is the heritage of all Israel, in which the Torah is accessible to all who wish to study it, in which all citizens of Israel take part in Torah study as well as in military and civil service. Together we will build this home and avoid disappointment.”
She longs for “a day when the state’s resources are distributed fairly and equally to every Torah scholar, man or woman, based on the quality of their study, not on their communal affiliation.”
Her “aspiration,” as she calls it, brings hope of a brighter day, one that can make us worthy descendants of the lost communities of Europe.