Jewish Conversion to Christianity and the Rise of Antisemitism

Question: How did Jewish conversion to Christianity affect the rise of anti-Semitism?


For much of their existence the majority of the Jewish people have lived as secondary citizens in diasporas across Europe and the Middle East. While many Jewish communities existed in peace with their gentile neighbors, others were met with violence and slander for their religious beliefs. Due to the repeated failures of Jews and Christians to coexist, people of both religions saw Jewish conversion to Christianity as the solution to this problem, or as it would later be referred to, The Jewish Question. Jewish conversion to Christianity occurred under a multitude of circumstances. The majority of which though were either forced conversions by the Church, which would often span the entire local Jewish community, or the voluntary conversion of Jews trying to receive all the benefits Christian citizens received that Jews did not.

      Jewish conversion to Christianity has continuously been relevant for the past 900 years while anti-Jewish rhetoric and conspiracy has evolved. What started as accusations of ritual murder, led to accusations of Jews aspiring to control the world and all other religions, which to led to accusations of being subhuman and needing of extermination. This guide helps outline the timeline of anti-Semitism’s progression alongside stories of Jewish conversion to Christianity. By using this guide, the researcher will have a full view of how Jewish conversion affected progressions in anti-Semitism, but also how conversions themselves were affected by anti-Semitism. Upon the conclusion of their research, the researcher will be able to determine if conversion affected anti-Semitism in its timing or narrative, or if it was simply a side effect of the self-sustaining roots of anti-Semitism.

      This research guide is divided into three sections which are equally essential to answering this question; defining anti-Semitism, Jewish conspiracy and Jewish conversion to Christianity.



The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Anti-Semitism – Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (2013)

The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Anti-Semitism defines what anti-Jewish rhetoric constitutes anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic behavior. Goldhagen discusses how anti-Semitism has become both globalized and eliminationist, or for the extermination of Jews, especially since the rise of Nazi Germany. The book also discusses how even after large scale instances of anti-Semitism like the debunked myths of ritual murder and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as well as the Holocaust, anti-Semitism has able to grow even though its existence should be obvious to the world. Goldhagen shines a light on political leaders from both the present and past by presenting their anti-Semitic statements. This shows the reader the links between modern anti-Semitism and attacks on the state of Israel with the same anti-Jewish rhetoric which has been circulating the globe for centuries.

“Desecration of the Host” – Jewish Encyclopedia (1906)

The Jewish Encyclopedia is a large and invaluable asset in analyzing any sort of Jewish history. It includes one of the more detailed and thorough descriptions of the Desecration of the Host, the other Blood Libel conspiracy besides ritual murder. The Desecration of the Host is the conspiracy that Jews aim to deface the body of Christ and do so by poking holes in Mass Wafers. While ritual murder accusations and trials were more relevant, the Desecration of the Host illustrates the fears Christians had of Jews and their supposed want to take over the Christian religion.

“The Jewish Question” – Goldwin Smith (1881)

This essay on The Jewish Question is taken from a compilation of essays pertaining to anti-Semitism called, Anti-Semitism and Jewish Nationalism. Goodwin Smith was an influential anti-Semitic leader in both Canada and Britain. He tried adamantly to depict Jews as both a separate race and a tribe that was only loyal to each other, while making allegations that Judaism isn’t even a religion. This essay was published in 1881 and gives us good insight on how anti-Semitism was manifesting itself in two nations which are overwhelmingly accepting of Jews and all other religions today. It is also important to note that this piece which accuses Jews of a conspiracy to control the world was released 20 years before the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was released.

“Anti-Semitism in England” – Claude Montefiore (1881)

C.G. Montefiore is the grandnephew of one of Zionism’s forefathers, Moses Montefiore. In this essay response to Goodwin Smith’s “The Jewish Question”, both of which are published in Anti-Semitism and Jewish Nationalism, Montefiore discusses what in his opinion is driving anti-Semitism in England. This essay is important because it discusses how economic downturn and taxes from war affected both Jews and non-Jews, but how the Jews received a large part of the blame. Montefiore also discusses how these phenomenon fractured certain Jewish communities which is essential for the discussion on voluntary Jewish conversion.

The History of the Jews – Heinrich Graetz (1891)

The History of the Jews by Heinrich Graetz is a multi-volume work discussing the entire history of Judaism up until 1891. It is extremely thorough and has the story of a lot of influential Jews who have done both positive and negative things for the Jewish people and faith as a whole. By using this work as a resource, volumes four and five being the most relevant, the researcher will identify Jewish characters who have played pivotal roles or roles that have illustrated the histories of anti-Semitism and Jewish conversion.


Jewish Conspiracy

The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe – E.M. Rose (2015)

The Murder of William of Norwich is the story of the first recorded successful ritual murder trial which convicted a Jew of guilty of ritual murder. This book gives the reader a look into the first instance of modern blood libel, and how this story was used as a template for other anti-Semitic and ritual murder trials. This book also outlines the worldly motivation for anti-Judaism during this time period, as well as the devoting the second half of the book to other ritual murder accusations that emerged in the centuries following William’s death.

Trent 1475: Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial – R. Po-chia Hsia (1992)

Trent 1475 tells the story of a ritual murder trial in Trent, Italy which resulted in the execution of the majority of the local Jewish community who could not convert. It is important to analyze ritual murder trials from different periods to show the continuity of the narrative and how much anti-Semitic notions really changed over time.

The Myth of Ritual Murder: Jews and Margin in Reformation Germany – R. Po-chia Hsia (1988)

Hsia’s earlier work, The Myth of Ritual Murder: Jews and Margin in Reformation Germany, discusses how conspiracies on Jewish use of magic, including ritual murder, were evident in Germany. The book discusses many anti-Semitic instances such as the expulsion of Jews from Regenburg in 1476. By analyzing her commentary on Germany during this time period with a knowledge of ritual murder accusations in other countries, we can see how similar the accusations were across Europe. The unchanging nature of this anti-Jewish discourse helps articulate how these accusations were used solely a weapon against Jews to demonize them.

Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World-conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion – Norman Cohn (1967) 

Norman Cohn’s book, Warrant for Genocide discusses the conspiratorial accusations against Jews that became the reasoning for mass murder of Jews by Nazis and civilian anti-Semites during the Twentieth Century. The most important of these conspiracies was the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Cohn first addresses the history of the Protocols and how they spread themselves across Europe. He also does word by wide comparisons with the Machiavellian work, Dialogue aux Enfers. By telling the history of Jewish conspiracy while debunking one of the greatest sources of it, the reader can fully grasp the story and the absurdity of Jewish world conspiracy allegations which are still circulating.

The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town – Helmet Wasser Smith (2002)

The Butcher’s Tale tells the story of a ritual murder trial from Germany in the year 1900. The victim of the murder was Ernst Winter and supposedly had wounds that indicated he was killed by a butcher, thus the suspicion was focused around the Jewish butchers of the community. While the case was unsuccessful, the chargers against the Jewish community were eerily similar to those which had been circulating Europe for over 700 years, showing the continuity of anti-Semitism’s narrative.

Blood Libel in Late Imperial Russia the Ritual Murder Trial of Mendel Beilis – Robert Weinberg (2002) 

This story of Mendel Beilis’ ritual murder trial for the murder of Andei IIushinkskii is one of the latest ritual murder trials coming out of Europe. The significance of this story is how many people it reached at the time, rather than the narrative of ritual murder which is for the most part unchanged compared to earlier accusations. Mendel Beilis’ story gained traction and there were theatrical performances of his show worldwide during and after his trial. Mendel Beilis then spent the rest of his life in British Mandate of Palestine before dying Queens where he was buried, and his story has lived on in the communities he associated with during his lifetime.


Jewish Conversion

Seeking Remission: Jewish Conversion in the Crown of Aragon, C.1378–1391 – Alexandra Guerson (2010)

“Seeking Remission: Jewish Conversion in the Crown of Aragon C.1378–1391” is an article by Alexandra Guerson which discusses Jewish conversion to Christianity in the Crown of Aragon. Much of the discussion is centered around the voluntary conversions before the riots of 1391, and the motivations behind the Jews who did convert. Her overarching point throughout her piece is that much of this voluntary conversion had to do with Jews wanting to improve their economic position and position in society. War was bankrupting kingdoms across Europe and Jews had to take on the burden of blame for the war and as well as the financial burden of it. Guerson establishes that these circumstances as well as the unrest within the Jewish community these situations caused were mostly responsible for voluntary Jewish conversion to Christianity before 1391.

Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages – David Nirenberg (1996)

Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages by David Nirenberg discusses the interactions between Jews, Muslims and Christians during the Middle Ages and the violence that occurred because of it. This book does an excellent job highlighting the non-religious reasons for conflicts between religious groups and how it contributed to stereotypes and bigotry. Nirenberg’s analysis of the Shepherds’ Crusade which lead to massacres of Jews and the reasoning behind it is essential for understanding anti-Jewish sentiments in Europe during this time period.

Testing Boundaries: Jewish Conversion and Cultural Fluidity in Medieval Europe – Paolo Tartakoff (2015)

“Testing Boundaries: Jewish Conversion and Cultural Fluidity in Medieval Europe” discusses Jewish conversion and how it connected to the cultural norms in the places of Jewish conversion. Two important points Tartakoff explains are effects of war on the Jewish community, as well as accusations of Jews being sexually deviant. Jews were trying to exit their communities because of the strain war had on the Jewish community. Fears of Jewish infiltration to Christian society were then perpetrated by the conspiracy of Jews attempting to marry into Christian households.

Between Christianity and Judaism: The Identity of Converted Jews in Medieval London – Lauren Fogle (2005)

“Between Christianity and Judaism: The Identity of Converted Jews in Medieval London” is an essay on the lives of converted Jews in medieval London. It establishes important facts like Jews being listed as the King’s property, the creation of the Domus Conversorum and the Pope’s hesitance from supporting forced Jewish conversion to Christianity. The most important discussion in this piece has to do with how the King was able to divide an already fractured Jewish community. The king already exerted a lot of power on to the Jews by making them property, but by also raising their taxes to support the Domus Conversorum, he made the Jews effectively subsidize Jewish conversion to Christianity. This essay helps highlight the effects of Jewish conversion on the Jewish community, rather than the Christian community which seemed mostly unchanged by Jewish conversion.

Adolescence and Conversion in the Middle Ages: A Research Agenda – William Chester Jordan (2001)

“Adolescence and Conversion in the Middle Ages: A Research Agenda” helps debunk any conspiracy towards Jews that they were trying to infiltrate the Christian religion through conversion and sexual deviancy. First it explains how women in the Jewish community were more traditional than the women outside the community, and that converts to Christianity were often given fiancees quickly. Due to the fact many of the Jews targeted by the Church for conversion were young males, it was reasonable to think they would be tempted by the idea of sex, not that they were trying to sexually corrupt the Church. Jordan also discusses how although the Jews that converted may have seemed opportunistic, they were just trying to improve their quality of life which was falling across all communities.


Works Cited in Order of Appearance in this Guide 

  1. Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism. First edition. 2015.
  2. “DESECRATION OF HOST.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 1906. Accessed December 6, 2015.
  3. Smith, Goldwin. “The Jewish Question.” In Anti-Semitism and Jewish Nationalism. Virginia Beach, Virginia: Donning Company, 1981.
  4. Montefiore, CG. “Anti-Semitism in England.” In Anti-Semitism and Jewish Nationalism. Virginia Beach, Virginia: Donning Company, 1981.
  5. Graetz, Heinrich. History of the Jews. Vol. 4. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1891.
  6. Rose, E. M. The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  7. Hsia, R. Po-chia. 1992. Trent 1475: stories of a ritual murder trial. New Haven: Published [by] Yale University Press in cooperation with Yeshiva University Library.
  8. Hsia, R. Po-chia. 1988. The myth of ritual murder: Jews and magic in Reformation Germany. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  9. Cohn, Norman. Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World-conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. 1st U.S. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.
  10. Smith, Helmut Walser. 2002. The butcher’s tale: murder and anti-semitism in a German town. New York: W.W. Norton.
  11. Weinberg, Robert. Blood Libel in Late Imperial Russia the Ritual Murder Trial of Mendel Beilis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014
  12. Guerson, Alexandra. “Seeking Remission: Jewish Conversion in the Crown of Aragon, C.1378–1391.” In Jewish History. Early Modern Conversion: the Crown of Aragon, and Germany ed. Vol. 24. Springer, 2010. Accessed on Jstor.
  13. Nirenberg, David. 1996. Communities of violence: persecution of minorities in the Middle Ages. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  14. Tartakoff, Paolo. “Testing Boundaries: Jewish Conversion and Cultural Fluidity in Medieval Europe, C. 1200–1391.” Speculum 90, no. 3 (2015): 728-62. Accessed December 2, 2015.
  15. Fogle, Lauren. “Between Christianity and Judaism: The Identity of Converted Jews in Medieval London.” Essays in Medieval Studies 22 (2005): 107-16. Accessed December 3, 2015.
  16. Jordan, William Chester. “Adolescence and Conversion in the Middle Ages: A Research Agenda.” In Christians and Jews. Notre Dame, 2001.