More than 900 years ago this week, in a small town in southwestern Germany, a bloodstained millennium awash in Jewish suffering got off to an ignominious start. And while the pillage and plunder committed by the Crusaders in 1096 has been overshadowed by subsequent anti-Jewish massacres and atrocities, there is a key lesson that the modern State of Israel can learn from this horrific chapter in our people's history.
The bloodbath commenced in Speyer, a German city on the Rhine. Though Jews most likely had been living there for centuries, the first recorded Jewish community dates back to 1084.
In a remarkable document written on September 15 of that year, the local bishop agreed to extend unprecedented privileges and protection to Jews in order to entice them to move to the city.
"I, Rudiger, with the surname of Huozmann, bishop of Speyer, in my endeavor to turn the village of Speyer into a city, believed to multiply its image a thousand times by also inviting Jews," he wrote with obvious esteem. "I had them settle outside the quarters of the other inhabitants and so as not to have them disquieted by the insolence of the lowly folk I had them surrounded by a wall," he added.
In exchange for an annual payment of 3½ pounds of silver, Bishop Rudiger granted the Jews land on which to dwell as well as a place for a Jewish cemetery.
He also agreed that, "just as the judge of the city hears cases between citizens, so the chief rabbi shall hear cases which arise between the Jews or against them."
Six years later, Emperor Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire personally confirmed the rights granted to the Jews, conferring upon them royal approval.
But what seemed like the beginning of a fairy tale of coexistence among Church, nobility and Jews quickly unraveled in the following decade.
On November 27, 1095, pope Urban II convened a gathering of 300 Catholic clerics and laymen at what came to be known as the Council of Clermont.
In an impassioned address, he bemoaned the Muslim occupation of the Holy Land and called on his followers to rise up and wage war to reconquer it.
Large numbers of knights, noblemen and peasants answered the call, forming a frenzied band of misfits, mendicants and militants.
As they made their way from France into Germany, the rowdy rabble could not contain its bloodlust and descended upon the Jewish communities of the Rhine, with Speyer as their first target.
In a contemporaneous Hebrew account known as Mainz Anonymous, an unknown author describes how the attack began on the 8 Iyar (May 3, 1096), on one of the Sabbaths between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot.
"The Crusaders and burghers rose first against the holy men, the exalted pious ones of Speyer, taking counsel against them, to capture them together in the synagogue," he wrote.
"But they were told of this, so they rose early in the morning that Sabbath, prayed quickly, and left the synagogue," the account states, adding that, "when the Crusaders saw that their plot to capture them together had failed, they rose against the Jews, killing eleven." When the bishop at the time, John, heard of the incident, he quickly put together an army and came to the rescue of Speyer's remaining Jews, "saving them from the Crusaders."
"He took some of the burghers and cut off their hands," the Mainz Anonymous informs us, "for he was a pious one among the gentiles, and the Omnipresent brought about merit and safety through him."
After the slaughter at Speyer, the situation deteriorated still further. The Crusaders marched to the town of Worms, where they proceeded to murder nearly the entire Jewish community of some 800 souls. Mainz and Cologne were next, followed by other towns and cities along their route, where the Crusaders left a trail of devastation and thousands of Jews killed.
Though many of the communities in question were quickly reestablished, the Crusaders' carnage and savagery left a deep imprint on Ashkenazi Jewry.
For the first time since Masada, large numbers of Jews demonstrated a willingness to die rather than abandon the faith of their ancestors.
The Hebrew chronicles which documented the Crusader massacres contain chilling accounts of parents putting their offspring to death, likening the scene to the biblical sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Many Jews chose to sanctify the Divine Name by committing suicide rather than succumbing to forced baptism at the hands of the Crusaders.
In the wake of the attacks, the Av Harahamim memorial prayer was composed, which is still recited today on Shabbat.
Historians have identified various other legacies of the Crusader attacks, but there is one that is particularly relevant to the Jewish state in its current predicament.
One of the greatest Jewish commentators of all time, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, best known as Rashi, lived through the Crusades.
And yet, throughout all his breathtakingly extensive scholarship, there is nary a single overt reference to the mass murder of the Jews.
But in a brilliant article published in the Spring 1999 issue of the journal Judaism, Harvey Sicherman and Gilad J. Gevaryahu make a compelling case that Rashi did in fact refer to the Crusades in a number of places in his biblical commentary, albeit not in an explicit manner.
Indeed, in his very first comment on the Torah, Rashi asks why the text begins with Creation rather than with the first mitzva given to the Jewish people.
He proceeds to quote the Midrash Tanhuma which states that since God created the world, He has the right to apportion it as He sees fit. Hence, Rashi uses his opening comment on the structure of the Torah in order to justify the right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.
But as Sicherman and Gevaryahu query, "Why would Rashi begin his commentary, which is otherwise dominated by an attempt to stay closely to the plain meaning of the text wherever possible, with this very defensive argument?" The answer they offer is compelling: "At a time when both Christians and Muslims rooted their claims to the Holy Land in their most venerated 'prophets' – Jesus and Muhammad – Rashi offers his Jewish readers a counterclaim rooted in the very creation of the world."
In other words, they note, "the historic context – the First Crusade and the pope's call – may explain Rashi's choice of the Tanhuma to begin his commentary on Bereishit [Genesis]," rather than to start it with a simple textual interpretation.
Herein lies the connection between the Crusader period and today, for then, as now, the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel was under assault by the nations of the world, with few willing to recognize its legitimacy.
And in the 11th century, as in our own era, innocent Jews were and are murdered simply because they are Jews.
Along comes Rashi with words of comfort and encouragement aimed not only at his contemporaries, but at us as well.
Rashi is reaching down across the centuries, from the dark days of the Crusades, to reassure us regarding a simple and fundamental truth: Regardless of what the world might think or do, the Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel because the God of Israel said so.