Jews fought side-by-side with Muslim soldiers to defend Jerusalem

Jews fought side-by-side with Muslim soldiers to defend Jerusalem

Jews fought side-by-side with Muslim soldiers to defend Jerusalem against the Crusaders.


Massacre of Jerusalem

Jews fought side-by-side with Muslim soldiers to defend Jerusalem against the Crusaders. Saint Louis University Professor Thomas Madden, author of A Concise History of the Crusades, claims the “Jewish Defenders” of the city knew the rules of warfare and retreated to their synagogue to “prepare for death” since the Crusaders had breached the outer walls. According to the Muslim chronicle of Ibn al-Qalanisi, “The Jews assembled in their synagogue, and the Franks burned it over their heads.” One modern-day source even claims the Crusaders “[circled] the screaming, flame-tortured humanity singing ‘Christ We Adore Thee!’ with their Crusader crosses held high.” However, a contemporary Jewish communication does not corroborate the report that Jews were actually inside of the Synagogue when it was set fire. This letter was discovered among the Cairo Geniza collection in 1975 by historian Shelomo Dov Goitein. Historians believe that it was written just two weeks after the siege, making it “the earliest account on the conquest in any language.” However, all sources agree that a synagogue was indeed burned during the siege.


Following the siege, Jews captured from the dome of the rock, along with native Christians, were made to clean the city of the slain. Tancred took some Jews as prisoners of war and deported them to Apuleia in southern Italy. Several of these Jews did not make it to their final destination as “Many of them were thrown into the sea or beheaded on the way.” Numerous Jews and their holy books (including the Aleppo Codex) were held ransom by Raymond of Toulouse. The Karaite Jewish community of Ashkelon (Ascalon) reached out to their coreligionists in Alexandria to first pay for the holy books and then rescued pockets of Jews over several months. All that could be ransomed were liberated by the summer of 1100. The few who could not be rescued were either converted to Christianity or killed.

Jewish crusade literature

The end of the crusades brought with it many narratives coming from both Jewish and Christian sources. Among the better known Jewish narratives are the chronicles of Solomon Bar Simson and Rabbi Eliezer bar Nathan, The Narrative of the Old Persecutions by Mainz Anonymous, and Sefer Zekhirah, or The Book of Remembrance, by Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn.

The Chronicle of Solomon Bar Simson (1140) is mostly a record of what happened during the period of the First Crusade. Bar Simson accurately discusses the martyrdom of the communities more than the rare conversion of individuals. It is widely accepted that Bar Simson really existed, but it is hard to be sure who wrote the Chronicle and for what purpose.

The Chronicle of Rabbi Eliezer bar Nathan (mid 12th century) is known to be written by a person named Rabbi Eliezer bar Nathan, who was very popular in his time due to his writings. He is thought to have borrowed much of his information from Bar Simson, since much of the information is the same. His writing here is extremely emotional, taking on a more apocalyptic tone in a sense. There is a definite sense of personal experience coming out of this chronicle, experience with death and suffering within his community and others. This chronicle was extremely popular at the time, as several manuscripts were written about it in a myriad of places.

The Narrative of the Old Persecutions (14th century), as the lack of the author’s name implies, is from an unknown author. The main focus of this narrative is on Mainz, and takes a very realistic stance on the crusades. It tells of the complacency of Rhenish Jews, of the reactions that Mainz Jews had to news of other communities falling to the crusaders, and of their turn towards the Church to protect them, only to be find more despair there. It also brings in some information coming from the late Middle Ages, of Jews being associated with well poisoning.

Sefer Zekhirah (late 1160s, early to mid-1170s) has a very well known writer, Rabbi Ephraim, who was a well-known liturgist of his time. He was 13 during the Second Crusade, and is considered to be an eyewitness to many of the events that occurred during that time. This writing was rather popular itself, and consists of a series of poems, all expressing grief over the suffering of the Jews through metaphors and references to fables. His accounts, despite their very emotional appeal, are corroborated by other writings from the time and tend not to be so skewed as the two chronicles.

The details behind these narratives can all be found in several secondary historical sources, including Robert Chazan’s God, Humanity, and History and Shlomo Eidelberg’s The Jews and the Crusades, each of which gives background to the narratives and discusses their effects on European Jewry and Christianity.

Robert Chazan’s In the Year 1096: The First Crusade and the Jews provides details as to the changes made in Jewish/Christian relations as a result of the First Crusade. He focuses on whether or not the crusades really had a salient impact on the Jews of the time and in the future, pointing out that persecution was nothing new to them, yet also talking about the importance of their being made extremely distinct within the European community by the crusades. They were no longer part of it to any great extent, but rather were made out to be part of the “others” as many in Europe already had been, such as atheists and pagans.

Christian sources for information on general feelings after the First Crusade all focus on their acquisition of Jerusalem. William of Tyre, Fulcher of Chartres, the Venetian Treaty, the Travels of Saewulf, and John of Wurzburg’s Pilgrim Guide all detail Jerusalem but have little, if anything, to say of Europe and the Jews. However, in the midst of the First Crusade there were several Christian documents on the crusaders’ attacks of Jewish communities and the basis of those attacks. One such document is Albert of Aachen on the Peasant’s Crusade, which focuses on the disorganized peasant crusades that occurred along with the organized crusades that went on to take Jerusalem. It provides the personal experiences of Aachen, who was in one of these peasant crusades, and provides accounts of the slaughter of several groups of Jews. He describes it as being either “judgement of the Lord” or “some error of mind,” and the killings as not only being indiscriminatory, but also with no exception. His account also shows the Church being able to achieve little in its attempts to prevent these massacres.

Much of the focus of Christian writings of the time, however, was on the efforts to get to Jerusalem, though some accounts talk of the crusaders’ distrust of the Byzantine Empire, accounts that show some of the reasoning for the Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople. The Deeds of the Franks, which has an unknown author, is such an account, and has a clear bias against the Byzantines. Many of the writings on later crusades continue to focus on Jerusalem as well, until near the end of the crusades when Jerusalem stops being their focus and the return to stability in Europe does.

Many of the secondary sources on this time period question how important the impact of the crusades was on both the Jewish and Christian communities. Robert Chazan’s belief is that the effect was minimal in the end – both cultures were, in many ways, used to the persecution that was being enacted, and that this was just another step. R. I. Moore, within his book The Formation of a Persecuting Society, argues that the effect on Christians was huge, with their entire society gaining feelings of the need for separation from their Jewish neighbors, which allowed them to persecute further in the future. Ivan G. Marcus in his article The Culture of the Early Ashkenaz argues that the Jews pulled away from the Christian community physically, mentally, and spiritually due to the sheer ferocity and shocking nature of the crusades. All of these and more provide differing opinions on the results of the crusades, but all agree that the crusades caused a separation to occur between the two religions.

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