Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 47

When Arab forces surrounded the Byzantine captial of Constantinople during the Second Siege starting in the summer of 717, the Christians there didn’t know if they would survive. This wasn’t the loose blockade of the first round. It was a precise, military affair, with land forces including many mounted troops and a large navy. The Umayyads meant to starve them into surrender, or starve their merchants of economy until they forced a surrender, tactics that worked for them as often as force. But the Byzantine incendiary weapon Greek fire destroyed the Arab navy, allowing Constantinople to resupply itself while the Arab land troops were isolated. 

The winter of 717 was brutal. Famine and disease hit the Arab camps. The Byzantine navy stopped Arab multiple ships attempting to reach them and a ground resupply operation was seized in Asia Minor. The Bulgars were sometimes allies of Constantinople and sometimes enemies. In the spring of 718 they were allies, and attacked the Arab camps from the rear. 22-32,000 Arabs were cut down. The Muslims were forced to give up their siege. On their return voyage, natural disasters plagued them and killed many. To the Christians of Byzantium, it was a sign of God’s will. An old kind of Apocalypse theology was revived. 

During the Persian Wars of the 600s, when Constantinople had withstood Sassanid assault, Christian missionaries and bishops had preached that Constantinople was the New Jerusalem: that Old Testament prophecies about a coming Apocalypse applied to them. God had forsaken the Jews for he was displeased with them, but he had saved the Christians for they were his new chosen people. It was the original Israeli substitution theology. Romans began to conceive of “Roman Christian” as a race of people in direct opposition to the Jews, set apart by God as a holy contrast. After the Arab loss in 718, this theology returned. Arabs were seen as pawns or agents of the Jews, the true enemies of Christ. 

In 726 an underwater volcano erupted off the coast of modern Santorini in the Aegean Sea. This probably caused tsunamis, red tides, or other omens of the end times. Many Byzantines interpreted it as God’s wrath, for the sin of icon veneration. Emperor Leo III had a large image of Jesus removed from the Chalke Gate, and replaced with a simple cross. He didn’t check with any of the big churches or popes first though, he just did it. Veneration was a touchy issue, because it was tied up in Christ’s nature, Mary’s name, and whether Nestorianism was heresy or not. Pope Gregory III in Rome held two synods condemning Leo and upholding the veneration of images and the holiness of intercessory prayers. That is, prayers to Jesus, Mary, or a Saint, asking them to intercede with God on one’s behalf. 

In 741, Leo III died, leaving Byzantine to his son Constantine V. Constantine was also a staunch iconoclast (icon breaker). Constantine gathered the Council of Hereria in 754 to settle the matter, calling paintings of saints sinful, but the clergy gathered were not the heads of their churches. Contemporary sources accuse Constantine of harassment campaigns against monasteries, and with the martyrdom killing of St. Stephen. Because monasteries were exempt from both performing military service and paying taxes, many historians suppose Constantine had more practical reasons for trying to gain the obedience of the monks than his position on icons. 
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Further reading

Olster, David M. (1994). Roman Defeat, Christian Response, and Literary Construction of the Jew. University of Pennsylvania Press. 

L. Brubaker and J. Haldon. “Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680-850” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 46

From 712-740 the Umayyads campaigned in India. The first quest was a stunning success: they captured the Kingdom of Singh and a 2:1 return on investment. The caliph invested in grand public works projects. But when they failed in the Second Seige of Constantinople (717-718) and the embarrassing Battle of Toulouse against Duke Odo of Aquitaine (721), they were running out of money. Keen tax collectors pushed non-Arabs and non-Muslims to support the lavish lifestyle of the ruling minority, and the expense of maintaining the largest military in the world. People came to resent it. In 724 in Egypt, the first Coptic riots over tax policy broke out, because they were being taxed in the form of human slaves. 

​True believing Muslim mawla (non-Arabs) were not necessarily much happier with the ruling Umayyads than dhimmi (non-Muslims) and polytheists were. Each time a new caliph came to power, he moved the capital to his private estate. There was no permanent palace or central government facilities. Compared to the sophisticated courts of the Roman and Tang dynasties, the Umayyad court was simple and small, with almost all positions focused either on the military or raising taxes. There were no other matters of state significant to the caliphate sufficient to demand a government post. 

Local Iraqis were upset about gentrification in the 730s CE. Umayyad caliphs gave large, tax-free estates to their Arab favorites and spent treasury funds on improvements for them. These irrigation and land projects would inflate the surrounding land value, forcing locals out as privileged Arabs bought up the newly desirable space. Support started to grow for various contenders to the Umayyads for power, including members of the House of Muhammad, through his daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali. 

The celebrated general Abdul Rahman al-Ghafiqi was killed during the Battle of Tours (732), which the Arabs lost to the Frankish Charles Martel. They were forced to cease further expansion into Europe, and fall back to Gaul. Al-Ghafiqi’s death was a terrible loss, bemoaned at length in Arab records of the day. A naval expedition to Sicily failed disastrously in 744, at great expense. Ships were not costs the fighting men could share with the capital like arms and armor, which they often provided themselves. In June of 746 the Third Fitna or Muslim Civil War began. By 750 the Umayyad caliphate was replaced by the Abbasid. 
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Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 45

The Arab Empire in the early 8th century was on the rise. It had started in the Hijaz (western Saudi Arabia) during the life of Muhammad. In the time of the first four caliphs, called the “rightly guided caliphs” in Islam, the Arabian territory quadrupled in 29 years. By the start of the Umayyad caliphate, the Arab empire controlled Spain, the northern coast of Africa from Morocco to Egypt, the eastern Mediterranean coast including Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, the entire Arab peninsula, including modern Saudi Arabia, Yemen, UAE, Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait, most of Persia, and part of modern Turkmenistan.

The Umayyad caliphate in 720 CE covered 11.1 Million square kilometers of land, or 7.45% of the Earth. The mighty Roman empire at its greatest (117 CE) was less than half that size, at 5 Million square kilometers or 3.36% of the Earth’s surface. It would take five centuries for the Mongols to usurp the Arabs as the largest empire builders in world history. Yet they continued to follow a policy of expansion. For one thing, it was the only way they had to pay their enormous army. Booty from successful campaigns had always been the traditional Arab form of soldier payment. The borders were now too large to leave undefended, but the military was too large to pay from the central treasury. 

A plantation system of agriculture had taken root. The many princes of the caliphate and sons of generals were given private estates, managed by servants and worked by slaves. Rules of the Qur’an forbid enslaving fellow Muslims, so a steady supply of non-Muslim slaves was called for. The social hierarchy had Arab Muslims at the top, followed by non-Arab converts to Islam, known as mawali. After these came the “people of the Book”, monotheist non-Muslim believers in the One True God, Christians and Jews. These dhimmi had to pay jizya and live under certain legal and social ” disabilities”. Then came polytheists, and finally slaves. 

The Arab slave trade was not based on race, exactly. Tribal superiority, religious superiority – these concepts existed in the 700s.  Racial superiority based on skin color or shared haplotype didn’t. They bought and captured non-Muslims in border territories, in central Asia, and along the east coast of Africa. Bantu people, captured from central Africa then sold on the east coast, were forcibly transported across the Indian Ocean to every shore. Missionary work in Africa was discouraged, as it would reduce the slave supply. From central Asia so many Slavic people were kidnapped and sold into forced labor, the English word “slave” was once simply the word “Slav”. 


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Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 44

Jews from Iraq and Persia traveled to India, probably during the late era of the Chinese Han dynasty (25-220 CE). Then their Indo-Iraqi/Persian Jewish descendants sailed to China sometime early in the Tang dynasty (618-907). Like Jews in Buddhist India, the Jews in Kaifeng, China were free of persecution from their Han majority neighbors. Kaifeng was originally the capital city and the Jews lived in a minority enclave along with other foreigners. Very few early records and relics of Jewish life in this era survived. 

The local Han majority did not distinguish between Muslim and Jewish minorities, using the same word to refer to a synagogue or a mosque. Religious persecution was minimal and not state sanctioned policy. Kosher and halal practices made Jewish and Muslim Chinese stick out, and Kaifeng Jews, the largest ancient Jewish Chinese community, gained the name “the sect that removes the sinews” for their Kosher butcher practices. 

Kaifeng Jews incorporated some elements of Chinese culture into their Judaism, offering Kosher sacrifices on traditional Confucian holidays and burning incense in their synagogue. Confucian Chinese held Judaism in high regard, as a culture that shared values and virtues with their own: a sense of tradition, honor for ancestors, the primacy of family, and the importance of academic study. At the start of the Middle Ages (500-1500 CE), the two cultures with the highest rates of general literacy were the Chinese (20-30%) and Jews (variable across the Diaspora, but about a quarter to half of all males). 

And that’s the way the world stood as we wrap up the introduction to the world map before the 8th century. Christianity had started in Jewish Jerusalem, and spread down into Africa, up into Britain, and across the Mediterranean and Europe. Islam had been founded in what would become Saudi Arabia, and since conquered the whole of Persia, most of Central Asia, North Africa, and even Spain. 

Germanic tribes like the Franks and Lombards had taken over most of western Europe and settled on the island of Britain as well. The Russians and Slavs had come down from the north and conquered the Khazars. Christians were infighting and breaking up their universal world church. The Silk Road was getting too dangerous and war torn for Rhadanites to traverse, and the old empires were breaking apart into tiny feudal kingdoms. What was next for the Jews of the world? 

Further reading

Leslie, Donald Daniel (1972). “The Survival of the Chinese Jews: The Jewish Community of Kaifeng”
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Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 43

Shipping trade between west Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and the Indian subcontinent is as old as boats.

A stormy sea sent a small vessel shipwrecked on the shores of India. That’s how the Bene Israel origin story begins. This group should not be confused with the Ethiopian Beta Israel we already discussed. The Bene Israel origin story tells of seven Jewish men and seven Jewish women who crash landed on the Indian coasts of Konkon villages in 175 BCE, before the events of Hanukkah. They were taken in by the Hindu villagers, who taught them the profession of oil pressing.  The seven Jewish men took seven local women as concubines and from their wives and concubines two distinct, separate castes derived. 

The Bene Israel Jews lost their holy books in the shipwreck, and they were kept isolated from other Jewish communities for 18 or 19 centuries before being rediscovered. To their Hindu neighbors they were known as the “Saturday oil-pressers” for their trade and their tradition of resting on the Sabbath. They also circumcised their children, celebrated major festivals, and observed prescribed offerings from the Torah. They only knew one prayer, Shema Ysrael, and used it for every purpose. 

Bene Israel Jews developed their own rites and rituals around Jewish holidays and traditions. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the most important holidays to them, and it is traditional to visit friends and family on those days. For Yom Kippur the community dresses exclusively in white clothing. During wedding ceremonies the bridge and groom are adorned with henna. The bride wears a white Sari like other Indian brides, and she enters the synagogue as her groom sings her into the building with a special groom-song. Some modern Israeli-born descendants of Indian Bene Israel Jews are opting for western style bridal dresses in Israel now, as a result of cultural exchange.

Sometime in the 16-19th century (there are numerous proposed dates) a David Rahabi, who may have been a Cochin Jew from south India, encountered these Saturday oil pressers and recognized them as potentially Jewish. He tested them in a several small ways. His final test was giving the women of the tribe a large, mixed basket of fish and asking them to prepare a meal. As the Bene Israel women automatically began to separate the fish into clean and unclean categories by Kosher rules, Rahabi was convinced. The Cochin Jews began teaching the Bene Israel, providing them with a rabbi and a cantor. 

Like the Cochin Jews, the Bene Israel did not face antisemitism from their Hindu neighbors. When India was under British rule, certain Bene Israel families prospered from employment with the East India Company. Bene Israel were in fact loyal to England during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. They had done so well under British rule that, although they had not been very zealous about Zionism before, once India gained independence in 1947 and Israel became a state in 1948, many emigrated. 

About 2,300 Bene Israel emigrated to the new country of Israel between 1948-1952. More than 300 came back to India’s by 1954, complaining of racism. Some Orthodox rabbis did not consider Bene Israel “fully Jewish” because of their history of intermarriage, and might “investigate” their lineage for Indian heritage to disprove their Jewishness. Many Jews of all ethnicities felt this was an excuse for discrimination against non-Ashkenazi and non-Sephardi (Mizrahi, Black, and Asian) Jews. After many protests, in 1964 the Israeli Rabbinate declared Bene Israel are “full Jews in every respect.” 

Further reading

Dharamraj, Paul and Reuben, Afira. (8 May 2013). “Our big fat Indian-Jewish weddings“. Times of Israel. 

Weil, Shalva. “The Bene Israel of India”. The Database of Jewish Communities. Archived from the original on 11 August 2017. 

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Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 42 

Central Asia is “between the Black and Caspian Seas”. I find geographic landmarks helpful in map reading.

Since the days of King David, 10,000 BCE, Jewish traders had been traveling to Persia, according to ancient Jewish texts. The first, first-person documented account of a Jewish community present in Central Asia is actually found in the Babylonian Talmud: Rabbi Schmuel bar Bisna traveled to what is now Turkmenistan, and worried the wine local Jews were producing was not Kosher. Many believe that Jews were brought to the region of Persia and Central Asia as part of the Assyrian captivity of 7th century BCE. When King Cyrus the Persian defeated the Babylonians in 540 BCE, he encouraged the newly freed Jews to settle throughout his domain. 

An ancient Jewish Persian ancestry started in southwestern Iran between 8th and 5th century BCE. The less disputed descendants of this group are called the Jews of the Caucasus, or Mountain Jews. The Bible mentions them in their ancient home of Azerbaijan where they still reside 2,300 years later; in Ezra 8:17 the prophet sends delegates to their city, seeking priests for the Second Temple. Mountain Jews speak Judeo-Tat, a language that is primarily Persian but incorporates Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arab elements. They have a two-tiered rabbinate, with rabbis and head Rabbi called Dayan. Their faith includes Kabbalah mysticism and is neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic. Genetic studies performed in 2002 confirmed the ancestral Y-DNA of Mountain Jews is Jewish by way of the Levant, Persian, and Iraqi.

Georgian-speaking Jews have a 2,600 year history in the Caucasus. They say they are descendants of one of the Lost Tribes, and a 1st century Georgian Jew came back from a trip to Israel with a cloak he claimed Jesus was wearing at his own Crucifixion, but he got from a guard at Golgotha. (Holy relic, Batman!) A wide genetic study on non European diaspora Jewish populations in 2012 confirmed that Georgian Jews have Persian and Levantine roots. A minority of Georgian Jews have Karaite beliefs but Rabbinical Judaism is practiced by the majority. 

Bukharan Jews are Mizrahi Persian Jews who have had a presence in Central Asia for thousands of years. Many Bukharan believe they are descendants of the Lost Tribes Issachar and Naphtali. They are one of the oldest ethno-religious groups in Central Asia. As Sephardic Jews moved into the region, fleeing persecution, Bukharan adopted their religious practices. At the nexus of the Spice Road, Bukharan Jews are famous for their cuisine which mixes elements of Persian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Indian, Russian, and traditional Jewish cooking all together. Today the great majority of Bukharan Jews live in the United States and Israel. 

Further reading

Abizov, Rafis (2007). Culture and Customs of the Central Asian Republics. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 75.

Rosengarten, D. (2002). “Y Chromosome Haplotypes among Members of the Caucasus Jewish Communities

Begley, Sharon. (7 August 2012) Genetic study offers clues to history of North Africa’s Jews | Reuters Retrieved on 2017-07-09 

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Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 41

The primary goal of the Council of Chalcedon of 451 was the trial of Dioscorus. Not for heresy, but for hubris, for overstepping his bounds, for using monks as thugs to beat a clergyman to death. Papal supremacy did not exist in 449 when Dioscorus flouted all tradition and continued on with the Second Council of Ephesus after the legates from Rome had left. It didn’t exist weeks later when he tried to excommunicate Leo himself. Which meant it also didn’t exist for Pope Dioscorus. They were both Archbishops in the World Church, and Dioscorus was set to lose that. 

The trial of Dioscorus was interrupted by a debate about the nature of Christ. The council read aloud Leo’s Tome, a letter written by Pope Leo to Flavian; this letter was not allowed to be read at Ephesus I or II. In the Tome Leo explains the Church’s position that Christ has two natures, but is not of or from two natures. Parts of the letter worried the council as being too Nestorian, so they formed a committee to debate if the Pope was a heretic. They determined unanimously that he was not, largely by checking it against Cyril’s Twelve Chapters, which became accepted orthodoxy in the same step. Content this wasn’t heresy, they returned to the trial. 

Dioscorus did not appear for his trial, despite being summoned three times. Three was the punishable number of non appearances, for which you could be automatically deposed. In Dioscorus’s case there was a lot testimony from witnesses against him – some probably exaggerated for effect, but too numerous to be entirely fabricated. The council deposed him, and banished him, and declared all his decrees from the Second Council of Ephesus null. He lived out his final days in island exile. In the Coptic and other Oriental Orthodox faiths, Pope Dioscorus is a Saint. 

The council asked every bishop assembled to sign Leo’s Tome in agreement with his doctrine on Christ’s nature, but 13 Egyptian bishops refused. So the council set about writing a new creed of faith on the matter. There were four powerful non-Arian sees or church districts at that time: Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople. The communities of Antioch and Alexandria hated each other: Cyril v. Nestorius had been just one match in a long war. Rome was the home of St. Peter’s church, but Constantinople was the heart of the empire and its happening location made it in many ways more important. 

Somehow these bickering factions worked out the Confession of Chalcedon, a long profession of faith of a True Christian as they defined it: Someone who conceived of Jesus as “truly God, and truly man… in two natures, inconfused, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” The Alexandrians from Egypt thought this confession of two distinct natures was the Nestorian heresy and still would not sign. All the rest of the East and West did. The six separate denominations making up the Oriental Orthodoxy left the ecumenical church because they believed Jesus had two united natures. In 1984 Pope John Paul II and Syrian Patriarch Ignatius Zakka Iwas released a joint statement blaming the past schism on cultural differences and language barriers, not true distinctions in theology. 

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