President Barack Obama caused quite the controversy at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015 when he discussed extremism in religion and then proceeded to make comparisons between the Christian Crusades, Inquisition and ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The president’s comments on Christianity, where he stated “terrible deeds” … were committed “in the name of Christ” has caused a backlash in the press and social media. Historians however, believe the president’s comparison is nothing more than political motivation to gain support for the fight against the terrorist group, and a possible increased military intervention. Today’s Christian world wants to deny it but medieval Christianity was barbaric, especially towards Europe’s Jews, where through from the crusades to the Spanish expulsion of 1492, mass massacres, pillaging, forced conversions, expulsions and even beheadings were the norm all done “in the name of Christ.”
President Barack Obama caused an uproar when he compared medieval Christianity with ISIS, but he was right during the Crusades and Inquisition era Christians were barbaric in their treatment of Jews, Feb. 5, 2015
President Obama in his National Prayer Breakfast speech wanted to highlight extremism in religion, and how it has been seen in the past. Obama asked, “So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends? Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.” Obama discussed the role of faith and religion in “public life,” “As people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who’ve tried to distort our religion – any religion – for their own nihilistic ends.”
The president caused most the uproar from comparing extremist elements in Christianity to ISIS and Islamic extremism, “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” Obama still harshly criticized ISIS calling them “a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.” The White House was shocked by the response to the president speech; a senior advisor told the New York Times anonymously, “What he wanted to do is take on perversions of religions that are out there. He wanted to make the point that this isn’t the first time we’ve seen faith perverted and it won’t be the last.”
Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg who has repeatedly quoted the doyen of middle east and Islam history Bernard Lewis again evoked Lewis in critic of Obama. Lewis explained that, “The Crusades could more accurately be described as a limited, belated and, in the last analysis, ineffectual response to the jihad – a failed attempt to recover by a Christian holy war what had been lost to a Muslim holy war.” The crusades began in 1095 after Pope Urban II put a call for Christians to recapture holy sites in the Holy Land particularly Jerusalem from the Turkish Muslims who had capture and controlled the area. Although at first successful in their goal of recapturing Jerusalem in 1099, en route they left a path of destruction, attacks and expulsions killing Jews in Europe and then massacred Muslims in the Islamic Empire, who vowed Jihad (Holy War) in retaliation. There were more crusades until 1291 when the Turks captured Acre and reclaimed all the territory Christians had gained in Palestine and Syria. There were a total of six crusades and a number of smaller ones.
Historians are commenting that Obama had his history all wrong in the speech. Thomas Asbridge, a reader in medieval history at the University of London who is also their director of the Center for the Study of Islam and the West told ABC News that Obama’s comparison is “grounded in the manipulation and misrepresentation of historical evidence.” Thomas Madden, a professor of history at the University of St. Louis also spoke to ABC News commenting on what he perceives as the president’s scant knowledge of history. Maddden pointed out, “I don’t think the president knows very much about the crusades. He seems to be casting them as an example of a distortion of Christianity and trying to compare that to what he sees as a distortion of Islam in the actions of ISIS. The initial goal of the Crusades was to give back lands to Christians that been conquered, due to Muslim conquests.”
With the entire firestorm against President Obama for his comparison, the main problem with his historical argument was the lack of examples to explain his point. The president should have focused on the “terrible deeds” in the Crusades and later the Inquisition against Europe’s Jews and then specifically the Jews of Spain. Medieval Christianity’s most barbaric behavior was geared towards the Europe’s Jews. During the three crusades, Jews suffered terribly from crusaders on their way to Palestine. Historian Robert Chazan ,who is a Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University and the author of European Jewry and the First Crusade explained the reason behind this barbarism was “animosity toward Jews that developed in some crusader circles out of the traditional Christian motif of Jewish guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus.”
Even Madden writing in “A Concise History of the Crusades” acknowledges the carnage against Jews in Europe and then in Palestine, “The lure of Jewish riches distracted some from their original purposes. Protected by the German crown and local lords, Jews were abundant in the thriving cities along the Rhine. They became a rich target for avaricious crusaders.” Maddens also indicates, “The most infamous of the anti-Jewish crusade leaders was Count Emicho of Leniningen,” who headed the attacks on the Jews during the First Crusade.
In the First Crusade Jews were massacred along the Rhine, specifically Worms, Mainz, and Cologne. According to Chazan, “A potent coalition of crusaders and burghers assaulted the major Rhineland Jewish communities of Worms, Mainz, and Cologne, wiping out these three great centers of early Ashkenazic Jewish life. Although the attacks of 1096 were localized and the bulk of early Ashkenazic Jewry survived unscathed, the ferocity of the assaults, the devastation that they wrought in those three Rhineland cities, and the remarkable Jewish responses combined to make the events of 1096 both disquieting and memorable.”
Jews not only faced Christian brutality on route to the holy land, Jews fought alongside Muslims, and experienced the Christian crisaders’ war wrath. Many Jews were massacred in Jerusalem as a result, as Madden writes, “The Jews assembled in their synagogue, and the Franks burned it over their heads.” While David Rausch, a Professor of Church History and Judaic Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary writes, The crusaders “[circled] the screaming, flame-tortured humanity singing ‘Christ We Adore Thee!’ with their Crusader crosses held high.” Many Jews were taken as prisoner of war and sent to Southern Italy as historian Shelomo Dov Goitein the author of “A Mediterranean Society” noted in “Contemporary Letters on the Capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders” that “Many of them were […] thrown into the sea or beheaded on the way.”
Medieval Jews living under Islamic control thrived, it was a time of religious and cultural renaissance. Although unequal, they were allowed religious freedom, autonomously control of their community affairs, and many achieved success in secular careers, with some serving the royal court. Life under Christian rule was far more repressive with the constant threat of violence. During the era of the crusades, Jews were expelled from Western European countries one by one. The Jews of France were under attack in the second crusade and expelled by King Philip IV in 1306 during the Third Crusade, where according to Madden “he claimed [their] wealth and property.”
The worst case was the Inquisition and expulsion from Spain in 1492 where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella forced Spain’s 200,000 and 300,000 Jews to leave. The root of the expulsion was the Reconquisita, an extension of the Crusades in essence, aimed at recapturing the Iberian Peninsula, and making a completely Christian Western Europe. Part of this vision was the forcible conversion of infidels including Jews, in 1391 Spanish Jews were en masse forcibly converted or faced death, thousands were massacred who refused. The Inquisition that followed terrorized the approximately 60,000 Jewish converses, many who secretly practicing Judaism, it was a witch hunt of gigantic proportions. In 1492, the Reconquista was complete and Spain’s monarchy saw the country’s Jews standing in the way of their vision for a perfect Christian Spain, and the best solution was to expel the Jews that would not see the Christian way and would not convert. For centuries afterwards Spain was devoid of Jewish life.
Although it might surprise some readers but the behavior of the Crusaders resemble ISIS a bit more after a further explanation; conquering, looting, massacres, and beheadings all in the name of a holy war. The problem with all the outpouring of criticism is much comes from the uneducated masses, or at least the historically illeterate. While historians do not wish to popularly discuss Christian hatred towards Jews even from medieval times, with the current rise it is uncomfortable subject better left for long historical monographs, taught at university or read by other scholars than a flashy sound bite in the news media. President Obama was only wrong in that he was not more specific in his examples and explanation, especially to a public that does know better. In a time when relations between the Obama Administration and Israel has been stressed and conflicted, the president might have gained points for his sympathy for anti-Jewish violence through history.
Madden, Thomas F, and Thomas F. Madden. The New Concise History of the Crusades. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.
Carroll, James. Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews : a History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Chazan, Robert. European Jewry and the First Crusade. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
Chazan, Robert. God, Humanity, and History: The Hebrew First Crusade Narratives. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000.
Eidelberg, Shlomo. The Jews and the Crusaders: The Hebrew Chronicles of the First and Second Crusades. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977.
Gitlitz, David M. Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of the Crypto-Jews. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996.
Netanyahu, B. The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain. New York: Random House, 1995.
Pérez, Joseph, and Lysa Hochroth. History of a Tragedy: The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007.
Roth, Norman. Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.
Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS is a journalist, librarian, editor, & historian. She writes regularly about news, politics, education, and Judaism for Examiner.com. She is the editor of Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program, where she focused on Medieval and Modern Judaism. Her specializations are the North American Jewish community, US, Canadian & Israeli politics, Jewish history, religion and cultural issues.