Transcending Time:
Kiddush Hashem and Jonestown

by Michael Bellefountaine

When faced with the horrors of the tragedy of November 18, 1978, most people tend to erect barriers between themselves and the people who died in Jonestown. There began an immediate formation of the “other.” Christians denied the Christian works of Peoples Temple condemning the members as socialists, while many on the left cited the tragedy as illustrative of the excesses of organized religion. To patriotic Americans the Jonestown residents were the example of un-American ideologies; to America’s political enemies Jonestown became emblematic of all that was wrong in America. Newspapers throughout the world blared headlines and stories of the uneducated, poor, mindless “cult” members of Jonestown.

One country’s coverage of the tragedy was markedly different, though. The Israeli press did not present it as anything more or less than the tragedy it was, one representing a significant loss of life. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Jews did not necessarily view the tragedy as a loss of faith, but rather could understand it as an expression of faith. When referring to Jonestown, many news agencies made reference to Masada where Jewish rebels and their families committed suicide in face of a Roman takeover of their mountain fortress. But the Israeli treatment of Jonestown was rooted less in an attachment to Masada than it was reflective of respect and cultural understanding of the practice of Kiddush Hashem.

Kiddush Hashem, a Hebrew phrase meaning “the Sanctification of God’s name,” refers to a practice in the Middle Ages where some Jewish people opted for suicide when faced with the choice of forced conversion or death. In most cases these instances were singular acts of bravery by an individual choosing death, often by their own hand. In a few isolated cities, though, the entire Jewish communities chose to kill themselves rather than face forced conversion and the destruction of their close-knit communities.

All of the incidents of collective Kiddush Hashem happened during the First Crusade in cities located between northeastern France and western Germany. Researchers and scholars usually cite the fanaticism of the crusades and the communities’ strict adherence to Jewish laws to explain the regional phenomenon of Kiddush Hashem. And certainly these two factors do account for a general analysis of the situation. However, they tend to overlook or downplay the internal dynamics within the community, the secrecy, isolation and constant threat of imminent doom that all contributed in equal measure to the communities’ decision to kill themselves. With this perspective, one might use information gained from the Jonestown experience to understand the mindset of those isolated communities, as well as placing Jonestown in a larger perspective of principled group suicides.

Jews had lived in the Rhine region since the times of Charlemagne’s empire, and many communities may have been remnants from the Roman Empire. Jewish migration from Italy continued so that by the late 11th century, there were thriving Jewish communities, numbering from a few hundred to a few thousand people, dotted throughout Europe. That changed with the launching of the First Crusade. Rallied by Pope Urban during the Council of Claremont on November 27, 1095, French nobles began to gather for a campaign to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims. Along the way, the Christian warriors assumed the additional prerogative to destroy Jewish communities in their path. Though there are reports of violence in France, the attacks there were either very few, or went unrecorded. However, letters written from the French Jewish communities warned their brethren in Germany of the coming crusaders. The alarm seems to have been well founded.

From May 3 to July 27, 1096, the Crusaders rampaged through Jewish communities in the northwestern portion of Germany. In many cases the entire Jewish community would kill themselves in anticipation of the rioting mob. Thousands killed their families and themselves, as detailed by one chronicle of the time:

The women girded their loins with strength and slew their own sons and daughters, and then themselves. Many men also mustered their strength and slaughtered their wives and children and infants. The most gentle and tender of women slaughtered the child of her delight. They all arose, man and woman alike, and slew one another.[1]

Although the presence of the menacing and threatening crusaders was the catalyst for the acts of Kiddush Hashem, it still doesn’t explain why the practice remained a regional, religious, and time-specific phenomenon. The Middle Ages were a violent and war-ridden time as feuding barons and lords vied for military supremacy. While a number of Jewish communities were under siege at this time, few opted for collective Kiddush Hashem. Other factors – such as the isolation of the community both geographically and ideologically, the communal approach to community cohesion where the rights of the individual were of secondary concern, and a profound sense of impending, imminent doom – had to have been in play to lead those communities to decide to extinguish themselves. Such factors certainly existed in the Jonestown community, and for that reason, study of the earlier period might shed light on the more recent historical events of November 1978.

The inability of Jewish communities to defend themselves was an obvious factor in their decision to embrace Kiddush Hashem. Professional soldiers fought in the Middle Ages, not the average citizen and certainly not the scholarly Jews. The strong class system of the region worked to the Jews’ disadvantage. Everyone had their place – merchant, clergy, soldier, farmer or bureaucrat – but Jews had a hard time fitting in. Spain was the exception. Jews were in every aspect of society and could even field a professional army. More than 40,000 Jewish soldiers were fielded by King Alfonso VI in the Battle of Zula (Zallaka) in his battle with the Moslem Almoravides. Indeed, both sides had so many Jews in their armies that they agreed not to fight on the Jewish Sabbath. Throughout the rest of Europe, though, the Jewish communities believed that their death was inevitable, and there was nothing they could do to defend themselves. This was the crucial first step to Kiddush Hashem. The crusaders may have provided the catalyst to implement this decision, but the decision itself was rooted in a longstanding belief in the communities’ inevitable destruction. The close-knit community was prepared to consider collective acts of Kiddush Hashem when the threat arose that the community, or a good portion of it, would be destroyed and defiled.

In addition, these communities were more egalitarian than their Christian counterparts. Women in Jewish communities had a greater role in business and as a rule were better educated. As the men in the family gravitated toward Torah study, the women of the family were left to manage the family business and deal with the household finances. This gave women an important role and increased their role as community members and decision makers.

In really understanding this decision-making process, we have to look at the make-up of the communities, and how the communities functioned. Like most Jews of the time, the people of the region were mostly merchants and urban dwellers, though some were farmers. The communities were closed and tight-knit. Interaction with their Christian neighbors was restricted to business. As historian Leonard Glick describes the times:

By the twelfth century most Jews in France and Germany were living in tightly organized communities, almost entirely responsible for their own maintenance. Everyone accepted collective responsibility for every aspect of life, from taxes and charity to education and legal disputes. Typically, a few hundred Jews lived together in a neighborhood within a city, interacting daily with Gentiles but with a firm sense of themselves as people destined to remain apart. When it came to the more personal kinds of social interaction, Talmudic regulations regarding food and wine were rigorous enough to ensure that Jews would eat and drink only with one another. Each community controlled settlement rights to protect members from unwelcome economic competition; Jewish refugees and wayfarers, however, were granted shelter and assistance. Everyone recognized ties to other Jewish communities, of course, but there was no centralized administration other than the rulings of prominent rabbis who were accepted as authorities. The communities were egalitarian and supportive, at least to the degree that everyone had the right to be heard, and to be protected against physical harm, personal insults, poverty, and social isolation. Moreover, everyone was obliged to serve the common welfare by respecting community secrets and not providing information to powerful Gentiles. Their essential concerns can be summarized in three words: education, cooperation and security.

More than ever, communal welfare depended on the absolute loyalty and cooperation of every individual. One had to be generous with personal wealth, honest in business affairs, willing to pay a fair share of heavy taxes, charitable toward the needy, ready to help defend anyone who has been threatened or endangered. Antisocial behavior, such as lying or stealing, rumor mongering, inappropriate fraternization with Gentiles, or careless public accusations against other Jews could lead to Kherem, excommunication.[2]

Despite Glick’s detailed descriptions of the Jewish communities, he does not fully make the connection between their desire to preserve the collective and the simultaneous sense of isolation and fatalism that would allow them to consider Kiddush Hashem. Although they were pious people, and the crusades were the initiating factor, certainly the Jews’ unique collective-structured society, with a dependence on a self-sustaining economy and limited communication with the world around them, helped make the decision of Kiddush Hashem a logical one when faced with the destruction of even a portion of their communities.

When viewed in this light we see a strong connection between these Jewish communities and the people in Jonestown. Here too, we have a group of committed individuals, living in a collective setting that was threatened from outsiders. Certainly, Leo Ryan, the news media and the Concerned Relatives were not the Crusaders of yesteryear, but they were emblematic of the power of outside forces that made the destruction of Jonestown a very real possibility, especially if – from the community’s standpoint – the removal of even a few members serve to split its complete collective. Couple this with the closed communities’ secrecy and isolation, and you have a pattern of human behavior that transcends time and place.

There is even a comparison in the role of women. As in the Jewish communities of the Middle Ages, the women in Jonestown had responsibilities and levels of power which were not available to them in the larger society. Their power was substantial enough that – had they refused to participate – they could have stopped this instance of modern-day Kiddush Hashem. But their loyalty to the collective group, and the desire to keep that group pure and undefiled, outweighed all else. With ownership in the decision for suicide, the women made its execution possible.

This is not meant to explain away the horrors of the final hours of Jonestown, or to alleviate the responsibility of the community’s leadership. Rather it is an effort to compare an historic event like Jonestown and the Crusades to see what we can learn about both of these tragic events. It is about looking at them through different eyes, with different values to see if it can help provide some perspective and – perhaps – even some understanding and acceptance.

Notes

[1] Glick, Leonard. Abraham’s Heirs (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1999), p. 100.

[2] Glick, p. 178.

(Michael Bellefountaine was a frequent contributor to the jonestown report before his death in May 2007. His complete collection of writings for the site may be found here.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on March 11th, 2014.
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