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As if the Jews had no Lord: Anti-Jewish Riots in Castile and Aragons, 1391

Benjamin GampelFilmed at Limmud Conference 2016

The most devastating attacks on the Jews of medieval Christian Europe took place in the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon during ten months from June 1391 to April 1392, and left a trail of deaths, forced conversions, and communal destruction.  Many were the motives for these assaults, and diverse were the participants. While the rioters’ success cannot be easily explained, the intervention of those who pledged to protect the Jews was ineffective.  While these rulers believed it their mandate to protect the Jews, they did not see the Jews’ safety as their highest priority.  Aragonese royal authorities, when they looked back over the months of riots, bitterly conceded that it appeared “as if the Jews had no lord.” That the safety of a minority people cannot be assured is not simply a banality of Jewish history, but a truth about the fate of all people and of all groups whose security is dependent on others.  However sincere the intentions of the majority society and the assurances of its leaders, to protect those who are reliant upon them, the security of a minority community is ultimately, for them, not a matter of paramount importance.

Benjamin Gampel, the Dina and Eli Field Family Chair in Jewish History at The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, specializes in the history of the Jews of the medieval and early modern world. For his first book, The Last Jews on Iberian Soil, Dr. Gampel – who earned his doctorate from Columbia University, spent almost a year in Spain, researching in the local archives. He also has edited Crisis and Creativity in the Sephardic World. Dr. Gampel returned to the Spanish archives, and has just completed Anti-Jewish Riots in the Crown of Aragon and the Royal Response, 1391-1392, which treats the riots and forced conversions of 1391 in the Iberian peninsula. This book was awarded the 2016 National Jewish Book Council’s Nahum M. Sarna Memorial Award in Scholarship.

Truly an energetic scholar and teacher, Dr. Gampel is among a small group of educators dedicated to bringing the history of the Jews to a wide public audience.

One of the most famous events in the annals of Jewish history, in the history of our people, is a very sad occurrence. One of the most repercussive, tragic moments in the history of Jewry. It was on March 31st of 1492 in the city of Grenada, newly captured by Muslims, Ferdinand and Isabella, the kind and queen of Aragon and Castile expelled the Jews from their kingdom. Frankly, this is one of the most famous events of Jewish history and it made its mark for good reason. These Jews of Castile and Aragon, these Sephardic Jews, they were prosperous, they were culturally vital, they were religiously creative. This Jewish community, the pride of the Jewish world now suffered as other medieval Jewish communities did, of being banished from their land. What is less known is that a century before this tragic event, in the years of 1391 and 1392, anti-Jewish riots had broken out in these kingdoms. Jews were massacred starting in Seville of June of 1391, the riots continued a week later in Cordoba, a month later in Toledo, later that year in Burgos. The riots, the riots against the Jews did not respect boarders. An explosion of anti-Jewish hatred in the city of Valencia under the crown of Aragon in July travelled up the coast wreaking havoc. Jews massacred in Barcelona in August, on the island of Majorca. The riots continued throughout the crown of Aragon until April of 1392.

Thousands of Jews perished in retrospect the most horrible anti-Jewish violence that had ever occurred in medieval Christian Europe. Over the last number of years I have sought mightily to recreate these events. Off I went to Spain and found contemporary documents written in Latin, Aragonese and in Catalan and slowly together with the help of those documents that I needed to decipher I was able to recreate the path of the riots. I was able to understand who was complicit in this murder. Frankly all the classes of Spanish society. I was able to understand why this combination of economic jealousy and Christian theological hatred all merged together to cause the destruction of the Jews. But it wasn’t only the murder of Jews that caught my attention and it wasn’t only the destruction of Jewish communities it was also the forced conversion of thousands of Sephardic Jews. It was some story, a tragic story, a horrifying story. But a story that those of us who read and study Jewish history are sadly not surprised to hear about. But my research took me also in an unexpected direction. Most of the materials which I had found from which I was able to recreate the riots, most of the material came from letters that the King of Aragon, the Queen of Aragon, the Duke – the man who would be king following his brother- it was their letters, daily letters, which helped me recreate the riots. But it also allowed me a window into another dimension of this terribly tragic event. The king, the queen, the royal family, they were the ones who felt responsible for the Jewish community. They were the Jews allies, perhaps at times their friends. They were the ones committed to the Jews safety and not always for altruistic reasons, most of the time not, but rather for financial considerations. King Juan knew that the Jewish community was essential to his rule. Queen Yolande understood deeply and wisely that the funds rendered by the Jewish community were the ones who allowed her courts to function. And the Duke Martin he understood as well growing up in the house of his father Peter, alongside his brother Juan, how central the Jews were to all their lives. By reading the letters I had an opportunity to chart on a daily basis what the royal family did about the riots. Upset they were, horrified – yes, angered – without doubt, but often when we think about tragedies we also think about those who are the protectors of those who are vulnerable and their protection cannot be considered successful simply by expressions of anger, of empathy. What I began to see was that for the king and the queen and the duke, yes they were devoted to saving the Jews and to helping them but the Jews were not their highest priority. Yes a tragedy King Juan balanced many items that came across his desk and some that we would consider frivolous. A document that wonders whether he should travel immediately to Valencia to help the Jews for after all his royal falconer had not provided him with hunting birds and if he left his court then he may not take possession of these birds for weeks more. Queen Yolande who I said knew well that the economics of her court was dependent upon the vitality of the Jewish community, was pregnant with an heir to the throne of the crown of Aragon and I could chart her health and I could see when doctors where sent to her, when she took to her bed, that at the moments when she was out of circulation letters on behalf of the Jews ceased as well. And the Duke Martin, he in the city of Valencia when the riots began, ah! But in Valencia to raise money for an expedition to Sicily, the Duke Martin understood almost immediately that he would not be able to stop the depredations or the murder or the destruction, except if he would encourage the Jews to travel to the baptismal font. He was dedicated to pacify the environment to make it possible for his expedition to get underway.

What I wrote has haunted me. The king and queen in January of 1392 write, somewhat ruefully, having observed all of the destruction, they said the Jews were treated and I quote, “como los Judeos no habian senor” As if the Jews have no lord. We are their lord. And yet it made no difference. The city fathers of Valencia, the city where the riots broke out in the crown of Aragon where Jews were massacred, hundreds, they write the next day, oh they quote from the bible. They quote from the psalms. The second half of Psalm 127, the opening verse. They quote from The Vulgate,  “Nisi Dominous custodierit civitatem frustra vigilat qui custodit eam”. In Hebrew, “Im Adonai lo ishmoa ir shav shakad shomea”. If god, the Lord doesn’t watch over the city the watchman simply does his work in vein. For the city fathers of Valencia, the Jews had no lord. No one was looking out for Jewish lives. And the Jews, what about the Jews? What was their perspective on the lords? Oh we know they engaged in diplomatic activities but one young man living in the Kingdom of Aragon in the little village called Al Kanith writes, “kimat istir Hashem panav mimeno”, “It appears, it seems as if our Lord, G-d has blocked his countenance from us”. The implications of my finding for the history of the Jew, the Jews are a minority; they are destined to be a minority people. Even as a state, they are a minority in a sea of nations. Who are the Jews protectors? The lords? The Lord? Who are their protectors? And for all groups, for all groups dependent on the good wishes and kindnesses of others, on all of us, where do they lie? Where does their security lie on our priority list? A sad state of affairs for all of those who are dependent on others.

Thank you.

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