Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 25

Ananists and Karaites were not the first Jews to reject the Oral Law as divinely inspired. This goes back to a rift 600 years before the Roman conquest. Nebuchadnezzar the Chaldean king conquered Judea in , and exported 10,000 of its best educated citizens to his capitol in Babylon, now Basra, Iraq. Those educated Jews completed the Babylonian Talmud, and started the great academies at Sura and Pumbedita, which later became Gaon. The First Temple of the Israelites in Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 BCE, and a mass expulsion accompanied it. For the 70 years without a temple, synagogues and midrash – houses of worship and study, not sacrifice – rose in importance. 

Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylon in 539 BCE, bringing the Hebrew peoples under his domain. Cyrus granted them permission to return to Judea and rebuild their Temple, but not restore the Judean royalty. This de facto left the priests in charge. But Judaism at that time was co-led by groups of both priests and also scribes and sages. The priests claimed a birthright inheritance, coming from a priestly line, descendants of Zadok the High Priest of King Solomon. The scribes and sages claimed an inheritance from Moses – that his words and teachings had been passed on in a direct chain from one scribe to another. 

It was a highly religious and highly contentious time period. The Second Temple was erected by 515 BCE, but under the authority of a foreign government. Was it legitimate, was it prophetic, was it blessed? Without a Jewish monarchy to constrain them, the priests exerted more power and influence over the life of common Jews. A group of sages, the Sanhedrin, codified the scrolls of the Jewish Bible into the Tanakh. On market days a loud reader would publicly recite the Torah, and it would also be read three times a day in synagogues. The Temple was not the only place for Jewish spiritual fulfillment. 

In 167 BCE, Antiochus IV of the Syrian-Hellenic Seleucid Empire stormed Judea, raided the Temple, stripped Jews of all their rights to self governance, and imposed Hellenization on them. They did not take it, and this resistance is known as the Maccabean Revolt. For an adorable and mostly accurate summary, I recommend the Rugrats MaccaBabies special. Watch it with your kids so they know some Jewish history too. The Hasmonean priests were basically the heroes of this revolt, leading to a new priestly dynasty. 

The Pharisee (“separatist”) party of scribes and sages formed as a response to the growing power of the priests, and their perceived corruption and assimilation. Another, more radical party with many religious beliefs in common with the Pharisees (immortal souls, resurrection of the dead, divinity of Oral Law) was the Zealots. These freedom fighters wanted foreign invaders out at any cost, and killed otherJews who would not join their cause. They also destroyed months worth of food and firewood, forcing the people of Jerusalem to fight in desperation in the First Jewish-Roman War, ultimately leading to the destruction of the Second Temple by Romans forces in 70 CE.

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 24

All of the upheaval and war, and commerce and trade, made the mid-700s a time of cultural exchange. New religious movements are birthed in those environments, as people polarize between desires for order and freedom. Anan ben David of Babylon started one such movement sometime between 760-770 CE, which had a recent revival in the 1990s. In his day it was known as Ananism, and we have an apocryphal origin story, most likely made up by his contemporary opposition. Today they are called Karaites and number 4,000 in the US and between 35-40,000 in Israel. 

In the story, the old Jewish exilarch of Babylon Anan’s uncle had died around 760. Anan and his cousin Josiah had both been considered as replacement. But the Babylonian Geonim picked Josiah and the Muslim Baghdad caliph confirmed him, so what was he gonna do? In a story designed to make him look dastardly, he would allow his followers to name himself exilarch in defiance of Muslim and Jewish law, that’s what. Can you imagine the mustache twirling as he does the 8th century version of skateboarding to piss off the stuffy Rabbi and Caliph, or is that just me? 

For this, story-Anan was charged with treason, sentenced to death, and thrown in jail. Somehow there he met Sunni founder of the Muslim school of jurisprudence named after him, Abu Hanifah, who advised him to differentiate his religion from the rabbis to gain the caliph’s support and mercy. Hanifah, of course, is also supposed to seem craven in this story crafted by political opponents of Ananites and Sunnis. Karaite history expert Leon Nemoy has cast serious doubts on this story, which is why I present it as so unlikely. 

What is certain is that Anan and his followers relocated from Baghdad to Jerusalem and built their synagogue there. Anan drew in Jews who didn’t like the major denominations popular at the time, and he also drew in those from older, smaller, dying sects. Anan published “The Book of the Precepts” around 770, borrowing from other Jewish offshoots that had come before him and whose writings were still in circulation. In particular his writing followed the traditions of the Sadducees and the Essenes, or at the least the writings credited to the Essenes. They are better known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

Ananism in practice was distinct enough from current Karaism that modern practitioners do not consider themselves to be of the same faith as Anan ben David. For example he preached against the use of medicine or healers, while today’s Karaites have no broad prohibition against medical care and find that history a bit embarrassing. Ananists did not believe in the immortality of the soul, resurrection of the dead, or divine origin of the Oral Laws – which had by then been written down as the Talmud. 

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 23

Khazaria over time, map in German

To the northwest of the Arab Caliphate and to the northeast of the Byzantine Empire laid the Khazar Khaganate. It broke away from the crumbling Göktürk Khaganate in 650 CE amidst wars with the Tang dynasty of China. Khazaria had a system of dual kingship. A higher king, shown reverence by all, was chosen from a house of notables. Historians believe this may have been a princely line of Chinese. The lower king performed the administrative duties and governed. The lower king would prostrate elaborately when in the presence of the higher. This was probably a way of balancing the sensibilities of different peoples. 

The Khazars were not a single ethnic or religious group, like Arabs or Jews. Historians estimate there were between 25 and 28 distinct ethnic populations as well as the ruling elite living in Pax Khazaria, including many Slavic groups. Khazaria was a buffer between the Christian West and Muslim East, but more than that, it was a trade route between them. Import and export taxes, and partaking in the Muslim slave trade by supplying Slavic slaves, became major sources of Khazars revenue. This was used to maintain an unusual for the era standing army to defend the borders from raiders. 

Everyone in those days knew that the best trade merchants were the Radhanites. These Jewish merchants were highly respected, multilingual, and well known for having established four reliable trade routes between France and China early in the ninth century, one through the capital of Khazaria. Some theories propose Radhanite influence led to the Khazar kings’ conversions to Judaism. The Rhadanites specialized in small, light goods such as cloths and spices, dominating the spice trade for a century, but also sold Slavic people to Muslims as slaves as the Khazars did. 
Jewish Radhanites were considered neutral third parties in the religious tensions between Christians and Muslims, and these merchants had an honest reputation that allowed them to continue trading with everyone at points when no one was willing to trade with anyone else. To protect themselves from nomadic caravan raiders stealing their silver, the Radhanites invented a system of “letters of credit”. This was a more advanced form of banking than simple money lending, which allowed them to buy and sell goods at each port without carrying coin. They probably brought the Chinese art of paper making to Europe. 

Khazaria had years of prosperity but by the late 800s, the map was getting uncomfortably squeezed. Everyone was raiding, invading, and going to war with the Khazars for their control of the Volga River and coasts on the Caspian and Black Seas. The Khazar Khaganate fell in 969 to Rus Kiev (Russian) forces, and Khazars fade from history by 1106. There is an antisemitic conspiracy theory that Ashkenazi Jews are descended from Khazars and not from Israelites; that they therefore have no connection to the Holy Land, and Zionism is thus an illegitimate cause. Neither history nor genealogy nor genetic testing confirm this baseless accusation, meant to deny Jewish people the right to a homeland. 

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 22

The 8th century was the start of the Gaonic Era in Jewish history. The great Jewish academies of scholarship and theological study in Babylon had continued to thrive since the completion of the Babylonian Talmud. These schools had grown in importance with the spread of the Jewish Diaspora over the world. Rabbis and exilarchs, Jewish community leaders in non Jewish lands, would send them questions on Jewish law and how to interpret ancient scriptures to apply in contemporary situations. The geonim, or geniuses, would debate these questions publicly, or put them to students as a test of their skills. The answers were recorded and sent back as Responsa. 

Geonims were professors, supreme court justices, and religious arbitrators, though the position was achieved through longevity not merit. Most gaon over the four centuries of the era came from just seven Iraqi Jewish families. Of the many men, only a few dozen were truly exceptional and well remembered for their significant contributions to Judaic law and writing. Over time the success of the academies’ first goal of spreading the Talmud and Talmudic study made reliance on the gaon less necessary. Rivalry between the schools at Sura and Pumbedita and decreased financial support from the Diaspora weakened their standing as the centuries passed.  

Life for Jews under the Umayyad caliphate was much like life under the Rashidun caliphate. They were second class citizens but probably not severely persecuted. Evidence suggests the Muslim minority in power depended on a large, higher taxed population of non Muslims to support the treasury, and this was one reason mass conversion was in fact discouraged. Dhimmi status was chosen by the Muslims as a tactic to prevent rebellion and uprising from conquered people, so they at least must have considered it preferable to other contemporary approaches. 

To the east in the Christian Byzantine Empire, Leo III did not have the same feeling. After a narrow victory against Muslim invaders the devout emperor decided the problem with his kingdom was its religious plurality. In 722 Leo ordered that all Jews and Montanists be forcibly baptised. Montanists were a prophetic branch of Christianity, which held that women could be bishops, the Holy Spirit could speak through its prophets, and generally followed ascetic practices such as fasting. Three Montanist martyrs locked themselves inside their houses of worship and burned them to the ground rather than be baptised, but it did not inspire any uprising among their coreligionists. 

Many Byzantine Jews fled to Bulgaria, but many others stayed. Most of these forcibly baptised Jews continued to still be Jewish in their hearts, and to practice Judaism secretly in their homes. Jewish mothers created “depatism” rituals, to wash away the dedication to Jesus Christ another had imposed upon their children. Men would stand guard outside the home while women made matzahs as they sang special prayers. Parents taught their children both their Jewish heritage, and how to hide their connection to it. These were “crypto Jews.”

Because of the endless campaigns of persecution against Jews for simply retaining their Jewishness, and because of their strong desire to continue doing so in the face of that, Jews have had to adapt. There is a Hebrew word anusim. In simple terms it means “forced ones”. In detail, this explanation from Jewish Virtual Library says it best. “Persons compelled by overwhelming pressure, whether by physical threats, physiological stress, or economic sanctions, to adjure Judaism and adopt a different faith.” Many anusim were were crypto Jews. 

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 21


The founder of Islam and ruler of the Arab peninsula Muhammad died in June of 632, without a clear successor to his spiritual and military empire. Muhammad’s four sons had died in infancy and two of his daughters had died as young women. Only Fatimah survived him and only she carried on his line. Many of his followers supported his longtime friend Abu Bakr, the father of his young wife Aisha, who had given Muhammad aid when he was persecuted by the Meccans for his preaching, and had remained by the Prophet’s side ever since. Others felt that rule of the Arab peninsula and the Muslim faith ought to go to Muhammad’s closest male relative, his first cousin and Fatimah’s husband Ali.

This schism could have led to war between the two men, but for Ali’s decision to accept Abu Bakr as first Caliph, and serve as his sometime advisor. That is not to suggest there was no conflict between them. Abu Bakr denied Fatimah lands at Khaybar she felt her father Muhammad had left her as inheritance. Shi’a followers, who believe Islam’s charge should stay in the House of the Prophet, still assert that Abu Bakr was responsible for the intentional burning of Ali and Fatima’s house. But Ali was not the source of Abu Bakr’s strife. 

Everyone else was. After Muhammad’s death, no less than three other men claimed to be the new Prophet of Islam, and started preaching and trying to gain followers and fighters. Apostasy and rebellion quickly spread. Wars to put down the self proclaimed prophets, wars of retribution against the Sassanid Persians, wars of expansion, and wars just because they were in the habit now took over until the Muslims dominated one of the largest empires in world history. The Sassanids were conquered by 654. 

What did this mean for religious minorities like Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians? Living under Arab Muslim rule meant all the usual indignities of living under conquest. In the first hundred years it did not include much forced conversion, in contrast with Christianity particularly Byzantine and Roman forms. The Muslims referred to non Muslims as dhimmi or “protected”, and charged able bodied men of military age an exemption tax if they did not want to fight in Islam’s holy wars. But they also could go fight, and gain in the booty. Freedom of religion was relative. 

The rights of dhimmis were enumerated in an apocryphal pledge between the second caliphate Umar and Christians of Syria, Mesopotamia, or Jerusalem, the Pact of Umar. There are several versions of this and their exact authenticity is uncertain. The rights and responsibilities of a dhimmi were to always show deference to a Muslim: Jewish homes must be built lower; Jewish doors should be so low they must bow to remember their low place. Jews must give up their seat to a Muslim. Passover celebrations were banned. There were not many forced conversions, but free open worship was not tolerated either. 

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE- Today, part 20

When the massive Confederate army came outside Medina, they sent a chief of the Nadir Jewish tribe as an emissary to the Qurayza fortress. He said they would surely overthrow Muhammad, and appealed to their size and numbers. The Jews inside would not let him in at first. When they eventually relented, one of Muhammad’s men reported it to his master as an act of treachery. Muhammad sent horseman into the city with megaphones, so when they prayed it sounded like a larger occupation. The Qurayza had a pact with him and had remained neutral until this point. They still did not come out of their fortress. 

The Meccans tried various measures to speed things along; challenging the Medinians to a fight, which they lost to Ali; rushing the trench with cavalry; and trading insulting poetry and verse with the opposite army. They did not want to run ahead on foot because the Muslims were stationed behind hillocks on the opposite side of the trench, well stocked with arrows and stones, and were also agreed to be better in hand to hand combat. Even if the Muslims were outnumbered three to one now, their firing position was excellent. 

Then Nuayn ibn Masud walks onto the scene like a gift from screenwriters who specialize in secret agent mean girls. An Arab leader in the Confederate army who had secretly converted to Islam and was in this war as a ploy, he cold approached Muhammad to end the Battle of the Trench (and thus the famine hunger lack of trade) by blaming everything on the Qurayza Jews of Medina. Ibn Masud would tell the Jews to ask for Confederate leaders as hostages, to ensure their own safety against the Muslims. Meanwhile he would tell the Confederates the Jews planned to give hostages to Muhammad. 
The Arabs and Meccans turned against the Jews. The Confederate mercenaries were reaching out to Muhammad, losing hope of booty if they stayed faithful to their allies. The long siege had weakened resolve and unity. Weather was recorded as particularly cold and bitter that year, inside the city and out. Confederacy camels and horses were dying of starvation. When the winter winds blew their fires out and their was no more food to forage, they gave up the battle in failure. 

Once they were gone, Muhammad turned to the Qurayza. Their fortress was surrounded by enemy forces for 25 or 27 days, starting in January of 627 before they ultimately surrendered. A dying member of the Aws tribe was said to have made the ruling against the Qurayza which Muhammad and his men carried out: for all the men who did not convert to be beheaded, the women and children enslaved. Muhammad oversaw as 600 Jewish men were executed. 

Rahyana bint Zayd was a Jewish woman from the Nadir tribe who married a man from the Qurayza. He was executed and she was among the enslaved. Muhammad chose her to be one of his wives. In Islam she is one of the Mothers of the Faithful, Muhammad’s wives. In most Muslims tellings of their courtship story, he manumitted or freed her from slavery before proposing, and in most she rejects him and Islam for a time before they wed.

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 19

The Nadir were expelled with only what they could carry, but with 600 camels that was still quite a lot. Muslim historian al-Waqidi wrote, “Their women were decked out in litters wearing silk, brocade, velvet, and the finest red and green silk. People lined up to gape at them.” The Nadir left to the sounds of tambourines and trumpets. Most went to the Jewish community of Khaybar and the rest to Syria. The Jews of Khaybar became subject of the Nadir chiefs who emigrated there. 

On the topic of emigration, Muhammad benefited greatly from the expulsion. He personally kept 1/5th of the land, giving him financial independence. He also had houses and spoils to distribute to his faithful who had followed him from Mecca in his most recent battles. Prior to clearing the Qaynuqa and Nadir, his immigrant followers had been forced to rely on the charity of Medinians. 

In 627, all of Muhammad’s enemies in the regions joined forces together to try to take him off the map once and for all. The Meccans, their tribal allies, the ousted Jewish Qaynuqa in Syria and Nadir in Khaybar, and the nomadic tribes they were offering to pay half their date crop to in case of success. 10,000 men in all marched on Medina and, if it weren’t for a new Persian military tactic Muhammad had learned from a follower, never before seen in the Arab peninsula, it could have worked. 

The Qur’an refers to this alliance as the Confederate army, the “confederacy of nonbelievers and Jews against Islam”. Muhammad had advanced warning giving him four days to prepare. He called a war council of advisors. Should they meet the Confederates in the city, or out in the open? Both tactics had worked before, but before the Muslims hadn’t been so severely outnumbered and about to face a famine. The Medinians harvested their crops early so that the Confederates would have to rely on their own rations. 

A Persian Muslim named Salman suggested they utilize Medina’s natural geography to protect them, with the aid of a trench. They dug along two sides of the city, where they were vulnerable to attack from mounted troops. The Confederates with their 10,000 men came riding on at least 600 horses and 1,000 camels. Between the lava flows, trees, and hillocks naturally surrounding Medina, and the added trench and new hillocks made by the Muslim defenders, they were secure for a long siege.