By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
“The more things change, the more they stay the same” – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
The above quote came to mind when thinking about two recent works that speak to the way fear can turn to hate and persecution. At first, “Poisoned Wells: Accusations, Persecutions, and Minorities in Medieval Europe, 1321-1422” by Tzafrir Barzilay (University of Pennsylvania Press) and “Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy” by Talia Lavin (Legacy Lit Book) might seem to have little in common. Barzilay’s book is a dispassionate, scholarly study, which maintains that tone even when discussing the deaths of hundreds of Jews, while Lavin’s work is a passionate, journalistic look at the current state of antisemitism on the dark web. The difference in their tone is understandable: no one is threatening to rape or kill Barzilay because of his study, while Lavin regularly has received such threats. What ties the two works together is that they show how fear can morph into hate, and how that hate can cause the deaths of innocents.
“Poisoned Wells” is a brilliant, but difficult, study. I took more notes on this book than any other I’ve read for review, and am still not certain that I fully understand the depth of Barzilay’s work. He looks at the many accusations of well poisoning in Medieval Europe: the ones that led to official investigations by religious and civil authorities (which sometimes led to the punishment or death of those accused), and the times that action was taken by a local population on its own to kill those they thought responsible. Although the author outlines the social and economic reasons behind the accusations, his greatest interest is in finding the triggers that led to specific actions, because not every area’s residents reacted to similar events the same way.
What is of particular interest is that Jews were not those first accused. The accusations originally focused on lepers who lived in areas of Southern France and Aragon; they were thought to have poisoned the wells during the spread of the Black Plague, a pandemic whose real cause was unknown at the time. A change occurred when the Jewish population was accused of inciting or paying lepers to poison wells in order to destroy Christian culture. This idea later expanded, with accusers claiming that the Jews were conspiring with Muslim officials in Islamic countries in order to weaken Christian countries. Heretics – those who practiced alternate versions of Christianity – were also seen as part of this international plot. Over time, the accusations spread across France and into German-speaking parts of Europe. However, they did not spread to all areas of Europe, for example, England, Italy and Eastern Europe. In some places Jews were protected; in others, the accusations never resulted in action. Barzilay estimates the number of those who died as ranging from the hundreds to the thousands. Historical records are not detailed enough to make an accurate count.
Underlying these accusations was the issue of water purity. As the population grew during this time, particularly in villages and cities, there was a move from private to public control of water sources, because more people were sharing the same water source (be it a well, river or other body of water). Industry was also growing and polluting the water, which people used for drinking, bathing, etc. In addition, worries about poisonings were growing during this time as medical writings discussed the use of poison – ideas that were also found in popular culture. Many in positions of power feared being poisoned; for example, kings worried those next in the line of succession would poison them so they could take control of their kingdoms.
The accusations against lepers began when their social and political status began to rapidly decline. In the previous time period, people had seen supporting lepers as part of their religious obligation and that voluntary support was enough to care for their needs. When the economic situation changed and voluntary donations were no longer enough, their care fell to local institutions. Local officials were unhappy about the change and began to isolate the lepers in the hopes of taking possession of property they owned or controlled. The lepers were easy to marginalize because they were already seen in Christian writings as examples of evil.
Christian writings of this period also described Jews as evil. Jews were accused of profiting during the famine: they were thought to have manipulated the grain markets and made exorbitant loans, which were forgiven if the Jew loaning money was arrested and executed. Local authorities also benefitted by taking possession of Jewish property after arresting and punishing them. However, accusations against Jews usually only took place in areas that contained large Jewish populations. In other areas, where there were no Jews, the poorer members of the community were often accused of causing the plague, which is ironic because they were the first to suffer from the disease for a variety of economic and social reasons.
In “Poisoned Wells,” Barzilay makes it clear that, while some accusations may have been made for economic reasons, the majority of the people believed these conspiracy theories. Forced confessions – torture was used – convinced many that Jews were poisoning the Christian population, ignoring the fact that the Jewish community also used the same water sources. The author notes that these types of accusations flourish during unstable political and social times. While not easy reading, “Poisoned Wells” is a fascinating historical look at how minorities are accused of causing society’s ills.
Unstable political and social times, and suspending disbelief to accept conspiracy theories: the ideas Barzilay explores can also be found in Lavin’s “Culture Warlords.” The hardcover version of her book was published before the 2020 election and, in her updated introduction, she notes how the January 6, 2021, resurrection at the Capitol proves again just how dangerous white supremacists are, especially with their embrace of violence to further their goals.
Lavin writes, “The far right has the sole goal of destruction, and allowing them any power is to accede to that goal. To make peace with white supremacy, to give it room, to tender it mercy, is to assert that protecting black and brown and Muslim and gay and trans and Jewish people isn’t that important or necessary. The marketplace of ideas breaks down when poison is sold in pretty packages, when hate is pressed into eager hands.” Lavin visited right-wing sites, read right-wing propaganda and then revealed the dangerous way these sites are affecting those who visit them. These are the people who elected Donald Trump as president, and then turned their back on him when he didn’t overthrow the democratic process and turn the U.S. into a fascist state that marginalized anyone who wasn’t white. Not all these supremacists are Christian: some have rejected Christianity because Jesus was once a Jew. These “pagans” have formed their own religion based on the Norse Gods, using their new religion as a way to create a fictional all-white past for Europe.
As much as white supremacists dislike people of color, underlying their theories is antisemitism. They believe Jews are pushing for whites and people of color to intermarry in order to create an inferior race that would allow Jews to run the world. What ties Lavin’s ideas about white supremacists to Barzilay’s “Poisoned Wells” is the matter of belief: white supremacists actually believe the ideas, that there is a Jewish conspiracy to destroy the white race. She notes, “In the white-supremacist movement, Jews have long served the function of a scapegoat. Blame can be a motivating force: The specter of the perpetually scheming and diabolical Jew allows those invested in white supremacy to posit themselves as oppressed and righteous. Few people adhere to ideologies they believe to be unjust or untrue. This is equally true of those who believe that the white race alone belongs in the seat of power, who cheer the degradation of non-white people and uphold the justness of racial brutality.”
The Internet has allowed these people to more easily find and support each other. It also offers a platform for those living across the country to connect and plan. If white supremacists’ writing is shut down on one website, they then find another or create their own site. They use code words so outsiders won’t understand their true meaning. They also encourage and urge each other on to violence. This can be seen in recent domestic terrorist attacks (although some in the government prefer not to refer to them as that) against Blacks, Muslims, the LGBTQ community and Jews. Lavin notes that white supremacists are encouraged when mainstream politicians refuse to condemn their actions. By allowing extremists to express their views, they become more acceptable to the general population. This pushes members of a political party to move further to the right and feel unable to condemn the people that they feel support their candidates.
What makes this even more dangerous is that, as Lavin writes, “White supremacy is where the cult of racism, the cult of antisemitism and the cult of the gun fuse together, creating an environment filled with people preparing themselves for a civilizational collapse they view as inevitable.” What they are doing is creating the very situation they worry about and, as their views get more radical, they are an explosion waiting to happen. Underlying their feelings is the same thing that underlay those who believed in poisoned wells: fear. Lavin notes, “Fear is the driver of the right-wing conspiracy machine, a primal force without which it would wither and die.”
Lavin tells of the terrible effect her research had on her, and readers will understand her feelings when they see the horrific comments she received when shining a light on white supremacy on her Twitter page and in her other writings. The author dislikes how her research makes her feel, but believes the only way to stop white supremacists is to bring their names, actions and thoughts out of the dark and into the light. She notes that authorities worry more about anti-fascists who protest against the right wing, rather than white supremacists. In fact, she believes some in police forces are friends with or sympathize with the alt-right. One example is the difference in the official policing plans when members of the Black Lives Matter Movement marched on Washington, DC, and when those who opposed Biden’s election did the same.
Although Barzilay’s work is demanding due to its overwhelming amount of material, Lavin’s is difficult for another reason: It’s not easy to read about how she was attacked, with those writing not only wishing her dead, but offering details about their plans to torture her. Barzilay doesn’t discuss what he felt when he wrote about hundreds of Jews being burned in a barn because people irrationally believe they poisoned the very wells from which they also had to drink. Lavin, however, evokes the anger she felt: “For the past year I have gone to bed with my anger and woken with my anger and gone about my day with my anger hot and wet like blood in my mouth.” What made it even worse is that she recognizes that white supremacists are as human as she is. But this realization also makes her understand how “the hate they promulgate and the violence they desire are the culmination of dozens or hundreds of small human choices.” They, too, like those Barziley writes about, are subjected to social, political and economic factors. But while the people Barziley writes about are long gone, the ones in Lavin’s book are very much alive and very much want to destroy innocent minorities. Both writers are due a debt of thanks for their work, with an additional debt being owed to Lavin for risking her life to reveal the truth of a threat against the very foundation of the United States. Her hope is that readers will take her words to heart and work against white supremacy.