Belief shapes the way social groups interact with each other, sometimes leading to tragedy.
In last week’s post, I wrote about the pervasive belief in magic and witchcraft. We are predisposed to believe in magic. But we men and women of the West are educated to believe in the power of science, in empiricism, and in Reason. Now, don’t get me wrong—I believe Reason is the right tool to understand reality. But, when looking at the past, and even looking at the present in most of the World, we should realize that belief in magic is the default state for human beings.
For the past two years or so, I’ve been reading about medieval Christianity. For my money, the most interesting, and heart-breaking, story during those years were the events that lead to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.
Benzion Netanyahu, the very accomplished deceased father of Israel’s Prime Minister, wrote a magisterial history of the Inquisition in Spain. In his The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain, elder Netanyahu wrote about the reasons the lives of Jews in Spain ended in tragedy.
First, Jews stopped being crucial to the Spanish nobility. During the Islamic invasion of Spain in the early 8th century, Jewish communities had sided with the invaders. That state of affairs lasted for about two centuries; when the Muslim overlords no longer needed the Jews, they started oppressing them.
The Jews switched sides, and started cooperating with the fractured Christian kingdoms trying to reconquer lost territories. When Christians retook land, Jewish settlers were willing to garrison cities or towns, and defend it as part of the town’s militia. Jews thrown from other lands often found refuge in Spain.
After the re-conquest of Sevillla in 1248, Jews were no longer as necessary as they had been. The Christian kingdoms clearly had the upper hand. From that day on, the standing of Jews in Spain deteriorated.
Second, religious and ethic bigotry played its part. The elite Church in Rome generally defended the Jews. Popes and influential Bishops wrote in their favor. But Rome was far away, and rabble-rousing clerics incited the mob against the ‘killers of Christ’.
Third, a coalition of ‘Homes Buenos’ (‘Men of Quality’, the urban nobility), and the Christian urban poor staged a long-time campaign against the socially cohesive, very accomplished Jewish community. Jews hardly ever committed crimes. They paid their taxes on time. Jewish women avoided scandal. It was a different scandal that the Jews were better citizens than the Christians were.
King Fernando and Queen Ysabel loved their Jews. They had Jewish physicians, Jewish attorneys, Jewish bankers in their staff. Eventually they betrayed the Jewish people out of selfishness, perhaps—they didn’t want to confront the powerful forces advocating for the expulsion of the Jews.
But that’s not the whole story. Belief, the shared belief of 15th-century Spaniards, plays a considerable role. The inner life of the people of the time matters a whole lot.
Foremost here, a considerable number of Spaniards believed Jews were evil. When they read the original blood libel—Jews sacrificed a young Christian boy and desecrated the body of Christ—they BELIEVED IT. Evil people performing gruesome ceremonies for temporal advantage was part of their mental makeup. Just about everybody believed in the reality of the black mass.
It didn’t matter that, among the many ‘blood libel’ accusations thrown at the Jews for centuries, never was the corpse of a child found. Belief trumps reality in the social world. This remains true today.