CST Blog

Antisemitism: Norwich to Westminster & 800 years

23 June 2011

Tonight, BBC 2 will show a documentary entitled, "History Cold Case: The Bodies in the Well". It concerns the remains of 17 skeletons found at the bottom of a medieval well in Norwich.

The skeletons date from the 12th or 13th centuries and were found in 2004 during construction works. 11 of the 17 skeletons are of children aged two to 15. Five of seven skeletons subjected to detailed testing show they are likely to be members of a single Jewish family.  

The exact reason for the deaths of these medieval Norwich Jews is unknown, but the broken child skeletons were found on top of the broken adult ones. This would suggest that they were forcibly thrown in, rather than committed suicide.

Why were they thrown in?

We have no way of knowing. The BBC news website page timeline includes this:

1066: The Norman Conquests open the way to Jewish immigation. The monarchy needs to borrow money and Christians are forbidden to lend money at interest. London, Lincoln and York become centres for substantial Jewish populations.

1100s: Resentment against the Jewish community grows over their perceived wealth and belief they killed Jesus. The "blood libels" - Jews are accused of the ritual murder of Christian children.

1190: Many Jewish people massacred in York. In Norwich they flee to the city's castle for refuge. Those who stay in their homes are butchered.

1230s: Executions in Norwich after an allegation a Christian child was kidnapped.

So, there are basically three suggestions: Jews are rich, Jews killed Jesus, Jews kidnap and kill Christian children for "ritual murder" (particularly The Blood Libel, killing Christians to use their blood, or organs, for religious purpose).

Of course, these suggestions do not exist separate from one another. Instead, each myth and each hatred fuels, feeds and legitimises the other. It is not as if 12th century secular anti-capitalists were declaring the Jews to be innocent of having killed Jesus, but guilty of leeching off everyone from the lowliest peasant to the King.

Then again, not everything is myth. Jews did indeed collect taxes, and they were amongst the financiers to the King. Yes, we can explain this by reference to the historical and religious circumstances by which Jews were led to play the role of tax collectors, or could guarantee cross-national trade and finance: but an antisemite would most probably discern the history as exposing the underlying anti-social, inauthentic and parasitical nature of Jews and Jewishness.

And so, how are we to categorise these tragic Jewish victims in Norwich? Are we, for example, to assume that if they were murdered for being rich, that they may, indeed have been rich: and that this makes their death less antisemitic, or at least more understandable than if they had been murdered for the entirely fake charge of Blood Libel?

At the very least, some serious contextualisation is required. These murders sit within a medieval anti-Jewish European Christian world that sporadically reached genocidal proportions over the time of the Crusades. (No need to shlep to the Holy Land when you can murder Christ-killers and the Devil's servants right here in Europe.) 

With the passage of centuries, all of the above is, I hope, easy to agree upon. The murders are easy to recoil against and to condemn. Nobody will stop to quibble over just how many of the victims were indeed filthy rich Jews exploiting the sweat of the peasantry and the authentic English wealth of the King. 

From all of this, what lessons can be learnt for the current day? 

On one simple level, we have an obvious sobering reminder that when the fictional antisemitic Borat character sings, "Throw the Jew down the well", he does so based upon a brutal reality that is well known to his astute creator, Sacha Baron Cohen.

On a deeper level, there may be details here for Jews to learn about medieval Jewish victims of antisemitism, but it is surely the anti-Israel brigade that has most to learn: if, that is, their opposition to antisemitism amounts to anything more than lighting candles at Holocaust memorials. They may come wielding copies of the Guardian rather than a pitchfork, but they would do well to understand antisemitism and, in particular, to show some respect for why Jews fear antisemitism within (or arising from) the current anti-Israel mood.

For example, the playwright Caryl Churchill, would do well to understand what the Blood Libel is and why Jews felt it was evoked by her play Seven Jewish Children. (As explained here by me and my colleague Dave Rich at Comment is Free, with reference to the Guardian's promotion and illustration of the play.)

Likewise, the cartoonist Dave Brown, and his publishers at the Independent would do well to understand what the Blood Libel is and why Jews felt it was evoked by his cartoon of Ariel Sharon biting the head off a child.  

(Iranian state) Press TV's website has featured charges startlingly reminiscent of the Blood Libel.

And, Jenny Tonge did herself no favours when saying that there should be an inquiry to clear Israel of stealing organs from Haiti earthquake victims.    

And then, there is this week's Blood Libel controversy, concerning the planned UK visit of Raed Salah, leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel. He is accused of having made a speech referencing the Blood Libel, in East Jerusalem in 2007. The case has been widely publicised, but when raised in the UK context, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign have strongly refuted the claims. Meanwhile, the Islamist lobby group, MEMO, have also strongly denied the accusations, whilst threatening legal action and making a host of disgusting characterisations against the complainants. (Analysed previously here on CST Blog.)

Read More