The arrival of Rabbi Dr Elisheva Salamo to serve the Liberal Jewish community of York is wonderful news, not just for the city’s Jewish community, but for the whole city of York. It will mark the closure of 800 years in which the Jewish community felt unwelcome in a city which early in 1190 witnessed one of the most violent and appalling acts of antisemitic violence and murder in British history.
By the late 12th century, York had largely recovered economically from the equally appalling and brutal Harrying of the North by England’s post-conquest Norman rulers and was prospering again, as it had in Anglo-Viking times, as a great port, manufacturing, and trading centre. Vital to the success of the medieval city was its Jewish community, moneylenders and financiers, who provided the banking and financial services York’s merchants depended on. About 20 families lived in the Coneygate area of the city. They had their own burial ground just outside the city walls.
The horrors of 12th century disinformation
But something which is all too familiar to those of us who live in the 21st century was about to occur, even without the dubious benefits of the internet and social media. ‘False facts’ were deliberately circulated to the ignorant and naïve local population in the city about supposed atrocities committed by Jews and Muslims, mainly to justify Richard I’s murderous and buccaneering Crusades. These apocryphal stories included Jews allegedly killing Christian children and consuming their blood for religious rituals.
On 16 March 1190, five rich local Norman landowners, whose estates had been plundered from previous Anglo-Viking owners during the Harrying of the North, and who all owed money to Jewish financiers, exploited these rumours among the local community to whip up hatred and instigate attacks on the Jewish houses and businesses in Coneygate. Terrified, the whole community fled from their homes to take sanctuary in Clifford’s Tower, the keep of York Castle, at that time still a wooden structure, though heavily fortified.
The mob, infuriated, set fire to the tower. Most members of the community, rather than being burned alive or falling into the hands of the mob, committed collective suicide, fathers killing their own wives and children, until the last man alive was killed by the Rabbi. A small minority who agreed to convert to Christianity were allowed to leave the burning castle but were murdered by the mob as soon as they stepped outside.
It was little consolation to the victims that later the five miscreant landowners were still ordered to pay their debts – presumably to relatives of the murdered families in other cities.
The return of the diaspora
Yet by 1218, such was the need for their services by the city’s traders, Jewish moneylenders with their families were invited back live in the city, to enjoy specially protected status, free of persecution. This ended however in 1280 when another notoriously antisemitic monarch, Edward I, banned all Jews from England, not just York.
It took several centuries before Jewish people felt able to live in a city that had murdered their ancestors. Indeed, there was a belief that the city had been placed under a harem or censure which forbade Jews to live or sleep within its walls.
By the late 19th century there was a small Jewish community now living in the city, but their synagogue, which was established in 1886 in a building which still stands in Aldwark, finally closed in 1974.
In the last few years more people of Jewish faith and heritage have gradually returned to York, to what is now a modern liberal and dynamic European city, with tolerant attitudes and humane values at its heart. It wears its rich and complex history with pride, but a small plaque by the grass mound of the castle where the tragedy occurred, still records those events of over 800 years ago.
A heinous chronicle
York is not unique in having dark shadows within its past. The wealth of cities such as Bristol, Liverpool and Lancaster came from profits from the vile practice of slavery. The Industrial Revolution which people all over the North are so proud of and celebrate as a symbol of a once ‘Great’ Britain, owed much to the huge boost in capital investment in new railways, mines, factories, engineering works and mills, which came from eyewatering sums of compensation paid to former slave owners.
Even more significant perhaps, the subsequent success of those industries was largely based on ruthless human exploitation. This was enforced, by the bayonet and the rifle, on huge populations within British colonies in Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Whole communities saw their own local manufacturing industries closed down but were forced to export raw material cheaply and buy imported British manufactured goods. They were also heavily taxed by the occupiers to pay for the armies that occupied their land. Victorian scientists even misused Darwin’s theories to suggest people of different skin colour to their own were of ‘inferior’ races.
But racism goes even deeper than that. Antisemitic tropes are deeply embedded in much high and popular culture, from the writings of Richard Wagner to G K Chesterton, or even feelgood children’s author Roald Dahl.
The necessity of eternal vigilance
Mankind’s inhumanity takes many forms. Xenophobia – hatred of the foreigner or anyone deemed to be different from ourselves – is like a cancer within the body politic, which never entirely vanishes, but soon resurfaces as and when economic circumstances allow. Populist politicians, of which Adolf Hitler was a notorious example, have an uncanny instinct to exploit such irrational fears for personal political gain, including using dog-whistle innuendos.
Nigel Farage pointing at a poster showing lines of immigrants of colour, helped achieve Brexit, whilst Boris Johnson’s “piccaninny” and “letter box” jokes appealed in the same insidious way. Donald Trump’s incendiary ravings encourage others to break boundaries to new forms of insidious racism, now, arguably hidden behind the phrase ‘anti-woke’. Even to this day, various antisemitic conspiracy theories circulate, surfacing within the dark recesses of social media, a poison within the collective bloodstream of our consciousness.
It is worth remembering the origin of the word ‘woke’ – to be awake to racism, antisemitism, bigotry, hatred.
Small victories worthy of great celebration
Only education, and being constantly alert, can counter what might best be described as neo-fascism, of which antisemitism fulfils an integral part. But as the terrible events in York in 1190 reveal all too clearly, fascism was there in human behaviour and consciousness long before Hitler and Mussolini.
So the fact that within Yorkshire’s historic capital there is now a 200-strong Liberal Jewish community, who have now appointed Rabbi Elisheva as their spiritual leader, is an important milestone to help atone and forgive the dark events of the past. This is a small victory, for decency, for humanity, for people of all and indeed of no faiths.
Something, in these dark times, for all of us who love York and Yorkshire, to celebrate.