Last summer, as part of a long trip to the UK, I was in the northern city of York, because my publisher, Crooked Cat, organised an event for its authors there.
I hadn’t been to York before and didn’t know much about it, other than the fact that its history is long. I was also vaguely aware that Jews had lived there and misfortune had befallen them at some point… unsurprisingly.
So I started reading. Jews were first brought to England from the continent by William the Conqueror in 1066. Many of them settled in York because, at the time, it was the second most important city after London, with a thriving textile industry. And, as in so many places in those times, Jews weren’t allowed to own land or work in a profession. So they did the one thing they were allowed to do, because Christians weren’t allowed to do it. They lent money.
Many people needed to borrow money, so the Jews did well from money lending. This was good for the King, because he could levy huge taxes on the Jews. But the people who owed money to the Jews were not so happy, especially as the Jews seemed to be more prosperous than them. Moreover, in church, and particularly around Easter time, they were taught to hate Jews.
These are the main events that led to the massacre of 16th March, 1190. On that day, the Jews who were still alive took refuge in Clifford’s Tower, which was then a wooden structure. But a mob surrounded the tower and then set fire to it, and the Jews decided on a mass suicide. Except for a few who left the tower and offered to convert in the hope that they’d be saved. But they, too, met their deaths on that day.
It is said that, because of that event, there is a “cherem” or boycott of York. That Jews aren’t allowed to set foot in York. That if they pass York on the train, they mustn’t eat or drink as they pass through and they mustn’t turn to look at the city. Yet there were Jews living in York for the next hundred years until they were expelled altogether from England in 1290.
In more recent times, small numbers of Jews have lived in York, some of them having arrived on the Kindertransport. There was a synagogue that closed down, but very recently prayers have started to be held again in York.
So what about the cherem? Most researchers say that in reality there never was a cherem. But it seems to me that even if only a few Jews boycott York, it’s still a boycott, albeit an insignificant one.
I have a reason for mentioning all this now. Last night, I attended a very absorbing talk on this topic organised by HOB Rehovot. Barry Levinson told a rapt audience consisting mostly of immigrants from the UK about the events leading up to the massacre and the massacre itself. He also showed us the short film he made on the topic. You can watch the film here.
During the talk and in the general discussion that followed it, I couldn’t help thinking how history repeats itself. The more I listen to the news from the UK and around the world, the more scary that thought becomes.