For over 800 years, they lay there, at the bottom of a well, mute witnesses crying out for justice. Nobody cared when they were thrown into the well, haphazardly like so much waste. Five of the 17 bodies lying at the bottom of the well were children and siblings, not more than 8 years old. None could have posed a threat to anyone, but that wasn’t the point. It never has been the point. The Ashkenazi Jews who likely were slaughtered during the blood libel in Norwich, England were the same as the European Jews who came under control of the Nazis, the Russian Jews who lived in Kishinev in 1903 and 1905 and so many other Jews who just happened to be in a place where anti-Semitism erupts into madness and murder.
In Norwich, the remains were only discovered when construction workers broke ground for a shopping mall in 2004. The bodies were randomly disposed of, lending researchers to conclude that this was not a sacred burial site. Researchers then took DNA samples and determined that they almost certainly were Ashkenazi Jews and most likely died in the late 1100s or early 1200s. While not definitive, a logical choice would be the blood libel which took place in Norwich in 1189 and 1190. These murders, among the most brutal that occurred against Jews in the Middle Ages, have been attributed to many stimuli, including the Crusades and the presence of Jews at the coronation of King Richard I in 1189. Anti-Jewish violence then erupted in Norwich, York and other cities and towns, stunning England’s small Jewish community.
Perhaps what’s most striking about the find in Norwich is that it’s not surprising. In almost any part of Europe, scenes like those from Norwich in 1189 and 1190 were duplicated. The bones found in other places may not be from 800 years ago, but they might be from 400 years ago in Poland, 120 years ago in Russia or any other time period over the last 2000 years. In any part of Europe, it is possible to just stumble over the remains of Jewish people murdered during a spate of anti-Semitic violence.
Israel was founded out of the ashes of the Holocaust, but the embers that lit the Zionist fire smoldered before the world had heard of Adolf Hitler. What Theodore Herzl saw in Paris in 1894 could have happened anywhere, at any time and for seemingly any reason, or more correctly for no reason.
The Norwich massacre is instructive. The Jewish community was centered in the area around the castle, in a location known as “Jewry”. They lived there because they were under the protection of the king, as they had no other way to defend themselves. When the mob came for them, the sovereign could invite them into the castle for protection. However, if he decided it wasn’t enduring the wrath of his Christian subjects, he could ignore the Jews’ cries and leave them to the sword.
This happened again and again over the last 2,000 years. The Holocaust may have been a one-off, a mechanized, structured extermination so horrific it took place once over two millennia, but the Norwich story happened repeatedly. On July 4, 1946, as the United States was celebrating its first Independence Day after the end of World War II, 42 Jews in Kielce in Poland were massacred by a mob after a young boy falsely claimed he was kidnapped by Jews. One year after the Holocaust!
Better than any other recent event, the Norwich finding might describe the reason for the State of Israel. So long as Israel survives, no more will Jews worldwide feel powerless. So long as Israel exists, no more will anti-Semitic mobs feel they can attack Jews with impunity, regardless of whether they live in Israel or in the Diaspora.
Jews outside of Israel often get accused of dual loyalty. Are we truly loyal to our home countries or to the Jewish state? I have always answered that question by saying that if I ever really needed to make a choice between Israel and my home country (the United States) it wouldn’t be difficult, as one or the other wouldn’t be worth supporting. But in fact there is a different relationship between Jews and Israel and those of other ethnic groups and the country of their birth or ethnic heritage. Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, Chinese-Americans and all other such hyphenated people may love their cultural heritage and the country of their ancestors, but they have no history of continually suffering pogroms and massacres without a safe haven as we do. Only Jews understand that wherever we travel in this world, there are places where our ancestors were murdered years ago for no apparent reason.
It is for this reason that Jews in the Diaspora must take extra care in their public pronouncements. The political views of Diaspora Jews span the political spectrum. Whether we like it or not, however, we all have a stake in the security of the State of Israel. Israel is not immune from or above criticism, but all Jews should appreciate its importance as we verbalize such criticism, especially in public. We can’t be naïve about how such criticism will be abused by those who wish us ill. The bodies at the bottom of the Norwich well can attest to that.