Historically, the experience of European Jews has consisted of alternating periods of toleration and persecution. Dating as far back as the era of the Roman empire, Jews faced persectutions. Later, just after the signing of the Magna Carta (1215), Jews were massacred and ultimately expelled from England in 1290 (an order that was not overturned until 1656). In 1254, Jews were expelled from France, with many settling in Germany or further east in Poland. In 1348, six hundred Jews were burned at the stake, and 140 children forcibly baptized in Basel, Switzerland. About 3,000 Jews were slaughtered in Prague, Czech Republic in 1389. In Vienna, Austria where Jews had lived since Roman times, 270 Jews were burned at the stake in 1421. The migration of persecuted Western European Jews toward the East brought the Yiddish language (a form of German written in Hebrew characters) to Eastern Europe.
Jews had prospered in Spain after the expulsion of the Muslims, but that period of toleration was also short-lived. In 1492 (the same year that Christopher Columbus sailed for America), King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and the Spanish Inquisition expelled approximately 200,000 Jews from Spain. Portugal followed suit in 1496. Those who stayed were forced to convert to Christianity or were sentenced to death. About 20,000 Jews were killed. Many Spanish Jews escaped to Northern Europe and the Middle East as a result of this persecution, forming communities known as “Sephardic” (or Spanish) Jewry.
Above: Rome's Arch of Titus depicts soldiers returning after looting the Temple of Jerusalem
In Venice, Italy in 1516, the first ghetto was established (ghetto means “foundry” or metal factory, which was next to where the exiled Jews from Spain settled on the island of Venice in 1492), where Jews were forced to live and were literally locked in at night. In Germany, the protestant reformer Martin Luther turned against the Jews because they would not convert. In 1543 Luther published his pamphlet On the Jews and Their Lies, which called for Germans to take violent actions to persecute and expel Jews from Germany. Many Jews moved east to Poland and Ukraine, but did not find peace there either. From 1648-1655 Ukrainian Cossacks led by Bohdan Chmielnicki slaughtered tens of thousands of Jews. Jews were expelled from Austria in 1670, and from Ukraine in 1727.
Above: The modern day site of the original Venetian ghetto
Enlightenment principles like those that inspired the American Declaration of Independence (1776) alleviated some of the discrimination faced by European Jews. For example, The French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) abolished official religious discrimination for a time in France. Austrian Emperor Josef II issued a Tolerance Patent (1781) granting limited rights to Jews in the vast Austrian Empire. However, full civil rights were not granted to Austrian Jews until 1867, and to German Jews in 1871, around the same time that the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was enacted (1866-1868), securing civil rights for former African-American slaves in the United States.
But while Jews obtained some civil rights, anti-Jewish discrimination and persecution persisted. From 1881-1920, violent attacks against Jews (called pogroms) in southern Russia forced almost two million Jews to emigrate to the United States, until the National Origins Quota of 1924 largely halted immigration from Eastern Europe.