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Massacres and Double Standards; Jews, Christians, Muslims and "Who Hit Whom First"
On April 26, 2016, FrontPage magazine published my review of Dario Fernandez-Morera's book The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain here.
The book is superb, a must-read.
A reader posting under the rather anonymous internet handle of "R Steinberg" used the review to slander me as an anti-Semite.
In the comments section under the article, R Steinberg wrote, "Goshka [sic], as far as I am concerned, is a soft anti-semite. Goshka fails to mention that the massacre of Christians in 614 was a reaction to decades of Byzantine Christian persecution of Jews in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Holy Land; Jews understandably allied themselves with the Sassanid Persians in the latter's attempt to wrest Jerusalem from the Jews' Christian persecutors."
A subsequent post questioned whether this Jewish massacre of Christians even occurred. "Is there any positive historical proof of the 614 Jewish massacre of Christians in Yerushalem -- outside of Byzantine accounts?
R Steinberg responded, "I am only aware of Byzantine accounts, particularly that of the monk Antiochus Strategos, who, judging from his language, probably loathed Jews even before the massacre occurred."
In a further subsequent post, R Steinberg wrote "Her context-lacking reference to a massacre of Christians by Jew in the year 614, for example, seems gratuitous, as it occurred in Jerusalem (at the Mamilla pool or reservoir), not in the Iberian Peninsula, and a century before there were any Muslims in Spain."
According to historians, in 614, during the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628, Jews massacred Christians at the Mamilla Pool. It is mentioned in the book I was reviewing. I mentioned it in my review for a very specific reason, that I stated quite clearly in my review, and that R Steinberg declined to respect.
Fernandez-Morera's book argues that elites today market a false image of Muslim Spain as a land of happy coexistence. In fact, Fernandez-Morera demonstrates, there was much strife in Muslim Spain, much of it based on conflicts between Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
I mentioned that there is one aspect of this myth that Fernandez-Morera did not dwell on. The world today is not the world of the eighth century. Today Christianity is the world's largest faith. America, a largely Christian nation, was the first to have nuclear weapons. European languages dominate five of the world's continents and a large percentage of the remaining continents. Up to the mid part of the twentieth century, Europeans, often Christians, colonized much of the globe.
We are, of course, in the post-Holocaust era, and we are used to thinking of Jews as completely powerless minorities, unable to forfend the murder of six million Jews.
None of this was true in the eighth century. Christians were killed just for being Christian in the eighth century, not just by Muslims, but by Pagans, as well. If you were a Pagan Slav in the eighth century, you didn't think of Jews as powerless, friendless victims of genocide. You thought of Jews as slave traders. Slavs were among the most typically enslaved people in Muslim Spain. Their enslavement included mass castration of males. These are neutral, historical facts. To know them is not an anti-Semitic hate crime. It's simply true.
When we think of Muslim Spain, we need to think, not of Christians as unquestionably powerful and dominant. They were not. Christians were often victims.
It's very hard for some people to think of Christians as victims. It's so hard it is almost taboo.
FrontPage magazine recently drew my attention to Paul Kivel, a man who makes his living demonizing Christianity as the source of "everything bad." You can read about him here and here. His website, "Challenging Christian Hegemony," is here.
Responsible voices have called the status of Christians in the Middle East today a "genocide." The world's response to this genocide is most often silence. One reason for that silence is that we have been brainwashed never to think of Christians as victims. We have been brainwashed to think of Christians as all-powerful victimizers.
The Leonard Lopate Show is a talk show on the NPR affiliate, WNYC, in New York.
Lopate is a very intelligent, well-informed man. He knows the world.
He recently interviewed Klaus Wivel about his book "The Last Supper: the Plight of Christians in Arab Lands."
I was stunned by this broadcast. Lopate began by asking, paraphrase, "Aren't you stirring up Islamophobia?" Lopate went on to suggest that Christians in the Middle East don't belong there – that they are all Crusaders who invaded. Of course Christianity originated in the Middle East and Christians there today are most often not descendants of Crusaders, but rather of early Christians. Even if they were descendants of Crusaders, they have been there longer than Lopate's ancestors, or mine, have been in the US. We don't deserve to be the targets of genocide, and neither do Christians in the Middle East.
Lopate implied that Christians brought their problems on themselves through their behavior – maybe they were too close to, or too distant from, the right center of power.
It was very hard to listen to. I didn't hear, from Lopate, the kind of concern that victims of genocide usually receive.
We should know about the Mamilla Pool massacre. We should know that Christians, too, have a history of being killed for who they are. Christians, too, have reason to be cautious when interacting with members of other faiths. Christians, too, have a history of pain and victimization that deserves respect. Christian lives matter.
As for who hit whom first. R Steinberg compared Christian behavior toward Jews with Jihadi behavior toward Christians, that is, "continuous predation and conquest." I don't think that this comparison is justifiable. I don't think that seventh-century Christians mounted a jihad against Jews that involved "continuous predation and conquest" comparable to the Muslim Conquest.
If you'd like to read about Jews' status in the Byzantine Empire, one place to start is the Wikipedia page dedicated to that topic, here.
In any case, R Steinberg's insistence that Christians' bad behavior toward Jews be mentioned in any mention of the Mamilla Pool massacre reminded me, of course, of Polish-Jewish relations.
On July 10, 1941, Polish Catholics massacred Jews in the small town of Jedwabne, Poland. The Jews were first terrorized and humiliated. Then they were burned to death in a barn. This is a horrific event.
A huge debate surrounds how people talk about this event.
I have seen accounts that tightly focus on Polish Catholics fiendishly torturing and murdering Jews. Period. End of story. Nothing else is mentioned. In these accounts, one explanation is offered: Polish Catholics are essentially sick, twisted, hateful people. There is something wrong with being Polish. There is something wrong with being Catholic. Catholicism must change. Polish people must be forever demonized and shunned. I detail such accounts in my book Bieganski.
There are other ways of telling the Jedwabne story, though.
Pull the camera back.
Pull the camera back a few feet, and you will see that this massacre occurred during the Nazi occupation of Poland. You will see Nazi soldiers surrounding the Poles.
Pull the camera back even further, and you will see more. Here is a cut and paste of the Wikipedia page addressing the history.
"As soon as the Soviets entered Jedwabne, the local Polish government was dismantled. At first, many Polish Jews were relieved to learn that the Soviets, rather than the Nazis, were to occupy their town, and unlike gentile Poles, publicly welcomed the Red Army as their protectors …
Administrative jobs were offered to Jews who declared Soviet allegiance. Some Jews joined a Soviet militia overseeing deportations of ethnic Poles organized by the NKVD.
At least one witness testimony says that during round-ups, armed Jewish militiamen were seen to be guarding those being prepared for deportation to Siberia. A total of 22,353 Poles (entire families) were deported from the vicinity. Red Army troops requisitioned food and other goods, undercutting nearly everyone's material needs … Waves of arrests, expulsions and prison executions continued until June 21, 1941."
The bottom line: Before the Nazis invaded, the Soviets invaded. The Soviets murdered, tortured, and deported Polish Catholics. Some-not-all Jews celebrated the arrival of the Soviets and the end of a very short lived Polish sovereignty. Poland, previous to WW I, had been a colonized, occupied country since the late eighteenth century. Poland's 1939 loss of sovereignty to Germany and Russia, its deadly enemies, that had struggled to erase it for over a hundred years, was a catastrophe for Poles. Some-not-all Jews participated in rounding up Polish Catholics for deportation to Siberia.
None of that backstory makes the Jedwabne massacre excusable. None of it exculpates the perpetrators. None of that comforts the victims.
Here's the point – understanding the Jedwabne massacre as an expression of an essentially hateful Polish essence – which many elite voices chose to do – is canon. That version of history appeared in major American publications and on campuses.
In my review of Fernandez-Morera's excellent book, I did not present the Mamilla Pool massacre as an expression of a Jewish essence. I made no attempt to present the full backstory of that massacre as that backstory is utterly extraneous to the key point – that Christians over a thousand years ago were not the Christians of today in America. They were just one religion in a mix of religions. They were vulnerable. They were sometimes killed for their faith, both individually and en masse. That vulnerability deserves our awareness.
There is, of course, a double standard at work. The Jedwabne massacre has a backstory. The Jedwabne massacre was not representational of any Polish essence. It was rather, an expression of hideous local and contemporary circumstances – occupation, terror, and the decapitation of society by both the Nazis and the Soviets, who made it their business immediately upon arrival to liquidate teachers, priests, and anyone else who might lead the people.
Anyone who mentions the Jedwabne massacre's backstory risks being called a bigot or an apologist who wants to avoid ethical consequences and the need to be mindful of antisemitism.
In the case of Jedwabne, mentioning the backstory has been condemned.
In the case of the Mamilla Pool massacre, one must mention the backstory. One must not put an emphasis on being sensitive to eighth century Christians awareness of their own vulnerability.
I reject this double standard.
If someone were to say to me, "Jews feel vulnerable because of events like Jedwabne," I want to hear and respect that message. I don't need to immediately adduce the entire backstory.
If someone says to me that Christians, too, have a history of being killed, individually or en masse solely because of their faith, I want to hear and respect that. And not need to vitiate the message.