Massacre in York Commemorated
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Massacre in York Commemorated

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The most notorious massacre of Jews in medieval England was commemorated today in York at a service attended by the Archbishop of York, Dr. Stuart Blanch, and the Chief Rabbi, Dr. Immanuel Jakobovits. A commemorative plaque was unveiled at Clifford’s Tower, where in 1190 about 150 Jews committed mass suicide rather than be caught by a mob, which had already murdered several Jews in their houses.

The service was arranged by the Jewish Historical Society of England to honor the memory of the victims and to strengthen Jewish-Christian reconciliation at a time of renewed anti-Semitism.

The incident at York was the climax of a wave of anti-Jewish outbreaks which swept England at the beginning of the Third Crusade, led by Richard the Lion Hearted, King of England. The York pogrom began with the murder of a Jewish family; the rest of the community then took refuge in the Royal Castle.

On suspecting that the Castle governor was preparing to hand them over to the mob, the Jews refused to admit him and he called in the local sheriff’s troops to force an entry for him. The Jews resisted, but seeing the position was hopeless, their leaders, Josce of York and Rabbi Yomtob de Joigny, said they should kill one another rather than surrender.


All but a handful took part in the mass suicide. The others surrendered after agreeing to embrace Christianity, but were themselves killed on leaving the Castle. Although the community was revived a few years later, it never regained its former preeminence. News of the massacre shocked Jews throughout Europe, evoking a number of elegies. One, by Rabbi Joseph of Chartres, contains the lines: “In place of their herds they offered up their children, and they slaughtered their first strength before their eyes.”

The death of Yomtob de Joigny was especially tragic as he himself, 20 years earlier, had composed an elegy about Jews massacred in Blois, France. He had been brought over to England from France to join other leading scholars at York, where there was an important Jewish academy. He is the author of “Omnam Ken,” one of the poems in the Ashkenazi eve of atonement prayer book.

According to the famous historian, the late Dr. Cecil Roth, rabbinical scholarship in England had previously been developing to a marked extent. But the massacre in York on March 16, 1190 was a blow from which English Jewry never wholly recovered. Exactly a century later, in 1290, the Jews were expelled from England where their position had become untenable. It was not until 1656, three-and-a-half centuries later, that Cromwell readmitted them, thus beginning the present Jewish community.

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