The beginning of the First Crusade in 1096 ushered in a new era of persecution and violence for the Jews of France and Germany, after a few centuries of relative tranquility and economic and intellectual flourishing. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that Ashkenazi Jewish writers from the 12th century onward display increasing contempt and derision toward their Christian neighbors. David Berger, one of the foremost historians of this subject, notes how medieval Jewish works internalized the Christian stereotype of Jews as ugly and physically deficient, even as they claimed this as evidence of Jewish superiority.
Berger then turns to the tension found within medieval Jewish polemics’ eschatological predictions—between a future where all people come together to worship the One God, and a future where God destroys Christendom for persecuting His people:
The presence of a vision of vengeance and destruction alongside a vision of subjugation and recognition of the faith of Israel expresses a tension between two types of prophecies, two traditions, and two psychological needs. On the one hand, there is the desire for radical, absolute, ultimate vengeance against the oppressor; on the other hand, there is the desire to see one’s opponent admit his error not for a passing moment, but for untold generations.
Apparently, the yearning for vengeance occasionally became so powerful that it led to a willingness to forego the desire for an ongoing admission of error entirely. The most prevalent solution, which took varied forms, envisioned the destruction of entire nations or many individuals of those nations, and the survival of the rest in a more or less inferior status, after they recognize that the Lord, God of Israel, is king, and his rule dominates all. Medieval Christian theology viewed the Jews as unwilling witnesses to the truth of Christianity, whereas the Jewish messianic vision viewed the remaining Gentiles of the end of days as willing witnesses to the truth of Judaism.
Though we have focused here on hostile relations, we should not forget that there were also friendly relations in daily life that left their mark even on Ashkenazic polemical literature, especially [the 13th-century] Sefer Yosef ha-M’kanne, and certainly on other genres of literature. Jews and Christians alike were delighted to discern the defects in the other group, but they also, however unwillingly, saw the positive characteristics as well. In the downtrodden Jewish community, both their self-image and their image of the other were formed out of deep personal struggles, and their visions of the ultimate fate of the Gentiles reﬂected a range of theological, exegetical, historical, and psychological considerations that arose out of the depths of the soul of an exiled people.
The ironclad faith that the Jew would ultimate be victorious at the end of days made it possible for an oppressed minority to maintain itself even in its contemporary condition. An examination of the various paths that this faith took can help us understand the remarkable phenomenon that manifests itself before our eyes—not the survival of the Gentiles at the end of days, but the survival of the Jews in medieval Europe.
Read more on Tablet: https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/history/articles/the-fate-of-gentiles