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Heritage Civilization and the Jews
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sidecurve1 The Crucible of Europe
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Europe/Near East/North Africa
732 to 1492


Though repeated attempts were made in the centuries after its demise, the Roman Empire was the only entity that ever united the Mediterranean in a single political system. Although North Africa and the Near East became part of a great Islamic empire in the 8th century, that empire did not last long.

Western Europe continued to be fragmented for centuries. While many states were sometimes included in a "Holy Roman Empire" there was little political substance behind this grand title. Only the Byzantine Empire held on over the centuries, gradually fading away until it was extinguished in the 15th century

The unifying forces of the Mediterranean in this period were not so much political as they were religious. Western Europe remained Christian, answering to the religious authority of the bishop of Rome, the pope. The Byzantine Empire also remained Christian, with its own church patriarch in Constantinople. In the Muslim lands of the Near East, North Africa, and Spain there was a similar continuity. Empires came and went, dynasties changed, but Islam and its legal system provided a glue that bound widely diverse peoples together.

A Jewish minority was sprinkled throughout this political and religious arena. In an era when religion was so central to society, Jews were forced to the margins, where they were vulnerable to periodic outbreaks of religious intolerance.
The Jews of Arab countries, the Must'arabs, spoke Arabic, ate almost the same food as their Muslim neighbors, and gave their children names that were common in the Muslim community. They shared in the great renaissance of culture and commerce in the Muslim world that continued into the first centuries of the 2nd millennium CE.

The Sephardim, the Jews of Spain and Portugal, were closely linked to cultures of the Iberian Peninsula. They joined first with Muslims and then with Christians in a period of brilliant intellectual and artistic achievement.

No matter where they lived, Jews remained dedicated to their unique heritage. Though their mother tongue might be the language of the land where they lived, a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew made it possible for the more educated among them to communicate with Jews anywhere in the world.

Jewish communities were connected through the correspondence of scholars and through commerce. As early as the 9th century, Jewish traders known as Radanites linked communities along a route from Spain to Eastern Asia. Over the centuries Jewish merchants helped spread Jewish as well as secular knowledge from one culture to another.
Because of their links to international trade and their experience in handling financial matters, Jews were invited into many kingdoms of Europe. By the 12th century European economies were expanding and Northern Europe was becoming, for the first time, an important center of world culture. Jews prospered on the fringes of Christian society, serving at first as merchants and then as lenders of money to the developing economies of Europe.

Because their presence was a matter of fiscal policy, however, when fiscal policy changed, entire Jewish communities could be expelled. In the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries, there were increasing waves of expulsions, as Jewish communities were caught in the crossfire of political, religious, and economic conflicts of a Europe reeling from the social repercussions of its rapid economic growth.

Throughout western Europe Jews were attacked, their property was confiscated, and entire communities expelled. In Central and Eastern Europe, however, there were lands that wanted Jewish capital and could benefit from Jewish commercial skills. It was to these lands, especially to Poland, that many Jews now went, to build what would become the great world of eastern European Jewry.

The final, and most tragic, expulsion of western European Jews came in 1492, when the Jewish community of Spain, the largest, most prosperous, and most illustrious Jewish community in the world, was expelled on pain of death.


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