A certain blame the victim attitude regarding anti-semitism can be found among several participants in various parts of online atheistdom. The idea is that the Jews should not have resisted conversion (into other religions that are just as wrong), and their adamant refusal to convert is evidence of what terrible people they must be - their disregard for assimilation must be evidence of bigotry and ethnic exceptionalism. In essence, by being racist, they have brought calamities on themselves.
This requires quite a flawed assumption: that the Christians would have welcomed the Jews among them on roughly equal terms in case the Jews had converted, and that it's all the Jews own fault.
We will see that very seldom was this the case. In fact, although I point out particular problems Jews historically have run into, similar problems - albeit sometimes in less strictly formalized ways - happen to pretty much every minority. Apparently, ethnologists think assimilation takes at least three generations in most societies. If the society puts up additional hurdles along the way, the first two generations may very well decide to revert their attempt to assimilate. If the society both puts up hurdles and stresses the need for assimilation, the minority is between Schylla and Charybdis, and Christianity very much has put the Jews between a rock and a hard place as far as this goes.
I have decided to present quite a bit of quotes here, instead of summarizing material from my sources; in part because the phrasing often catches, quite well, the attitude and behaviors of the time. The quotes are only examples, and should not be taken as an exhaustive survey of the relevant literature. In fact, these are but representative examples of what historians have found with regards to how medieval Christendom treated its Jewish neighbours.
Simply put, the assumption that Jews were welcome as converts widely does not hold. Sure, a Jew who converted was prized by the church, and often even paraded around and forced to participate in regular evangelization to his former coreligionists (or offered such a profession as a way of proving his sincerity) – and of course, some honest converts probably also wanted to convert their former coreligionists – so yes, the convert was welcomed, but into a rather particular kind of life where he was forced to interact with his former coreligionists on rather bad terms or entirely forbidden from doing so. Some converts obviously saw on which side the bread was buttered, and played this role very well - including making things up about Judaism that would make the Church even more happy. Further, the church viewed the converted Jew as evidence of its own validity and authority. However, even then it carefully kept its eyes on their converted Jews, never quite believing that they were honest about their conversion. The Christian population, by and large, was less accomodating, however.
In fact, widespread doubt existed about the honesty of Jewish converts in the minds of the Christian population in general:
Yet, despite the welcome extended by generations of popes, skepticism concerning the efficacy of conversion of Jews persisted among Christians. No official statement could allay the abiding popular belief that Jewishness inhered so deeply that it could never be effaced by baptism. Why did the pervasive suspicion that baptism by water could not overpower ‘‘baptism by the knife’’ persist, despite formal declarations to the contrary by the church elite? Medieval Jews were often courted for conversion by the clerical elite and well-intentioned missionaries, only to be rejected and distrusted as converts by just about everyone else. [Divided Souls, p. 34-35]
Examples from medieval times are listed in the same book, this being a fairly illustrative one:
One popular broadsheet dubbed the baptismal font Judenbad, the Jewish bath; one who sprang out of it remained the same person as the one who jumped in, now armed with new methods of deceiving Christians.[DS, p 35]
Certainly some Jews converted for the sake of material gains - but certainly many Christians did not adhere to Christianity due to any heart-felt love for God either, but due to the material benefits of being part of mainstream society and the steep cost of rejecting the relative safety of remaining a Christian - thus different demands were applied to converts than to born Christians – converts had to explicitly go an extra mile, whereas born Christians were okay as long as they did not raise a fuss. (Compare what happened to Christians who did raise such a fuss, though, Jan Hus or Martin Luther for instance, when they rejected the authority of the Church!). If Jews had converted in order to fit in and assimilate, they would only have confirmed the suspicions Christians had, viz. that Jews were less than honest about their conversion.
The formal-legalistic, and informal designations for baptized Jews reflected and sustained the belief in the converts' inherent Jewishness. Regardless of whether intended for the benefit or the denigration of converts, such labels served as constant reminders to baptized former Jews, as well as to those around them, of their exceptional status. Victor von Carben complained that even after his baptism people would point at him saying, "See, there goes a baptized Jew"; or concerning his advanced age, "An old Jew seldom becomes a good Christian."[DS, 36]
So, apparently Christians did not tolerate former Jews as "real" Christians - why should Jews then convert, in the hopes of assimilating? Conversely, Jewish law forbids pointing out to a convert that he is a convert - Christianity should have been as magnanimous with its converts as Judaism was! Jewish conversion was more frequent to Islam in the Muslim world, despite (or as a result of?) Jews generally being more tolerated in the Muslim world, and Muslims not assigning any particular significance to the background of a convert.
More examples of this behavior from Christians can be found:
The designations for converted Jews became badges that identified and distinguished them from other Christians and complicated their entry into Christian society. [DS, 36]
Jewish converts to Christianity were often reminded of their Jewish origins for the rest of their lives. Unlike pagans who converted to Christianity en masse in the early Christian centuries, medieval Jews converted to Christianity as individuals. Pagan society experienced Christianization as a gradual collective transformation. Individual Jews who converted to Christianity left one highly defined religious, ethnic, and social structure to enter another faith community whose self-image derived in large measure from a very negative view of the community of origin of the convert. Thus, converts from Judaism could not blend casually into Christian society. Their progress was monitored with all the suspicion and wariness engendered by an enemy who had suddenly switched sides.[DS, p. 38]
With regards to the situation in the Muslim world, we find quite a different situation:
The lack of any expectation that Jewish converts to Islam serve a special theological purpose stands in greatest contrast to the experience of Jewish converts to Christianity. While converts from Judaism in Christian lands were employed as particularly effective and knowledgeable missionizers, no similar expectation existed for Jewish converts to Islam. In the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church reaffirmed its commitment to train new converts, ‘‘so that from those [who have lately converted] shall come forth workers suitable for the work of the Gospel, who will be able to preach the mysteries of the Christian faith in every land where Jews and other infidels dwell.’’ Conversely, when Christians began to reconquer Spain and large numbers of Muslims converted to Christianity, the ‘‘Christians did not, by and large, experience the Muslims as jurists, theologians, philosophers, and political theorists. They experienced them as a social community, . . . with whom they had to deal.’’ 11 Only the relationship between Judaism and Christianity produced the expectation that converts from Judaism would play a special role.
Converts from Judaism occupied a preeminent place in the imaginations of both Jews and Christians, and their singular status made the smooth integration of first-generation converts an impossibility. Converts served the Jewish–Christian confrontation not only in discrete practical capacities, but as a trope, a figure of the imagination onto which beliefs and fears concerning Jews were projected.[DS, pp. 6, 7]
Of course, converts converted for a variety of reasons, and we do have some indications that conversions were not uncommon at all - in which case Jewish racism can't so much be the cause for Jews not converting - however, the reception of these converts may be the reason why a large segment of Judaism did not do so.
While there are no firm overall numbers for any land, the lists and records that do survive suggest that the rate of Jewish conversion to Christianity from the second half of the sixteenth century in Italy was relatively high. [DS, 8],
So, by making the lowermost classes especially prone to conversion, you also create a popular suspicion of converts being low-class, thus making the higher classes unwilling to convert. Clever, no? What a way of making conversion a desirable career move!Renata Segre suggests that the combined pressures of secular and ecclesiastical authorities, relentless harassment in the form of forced preaching, abduction of children, and other threats tended to induce the most vulnerable individuals to convert. This may explain why most converts in Italy did not rise to positions of power or prestige. Apart from service in the church itself, they did not follow an easy path toward integration into Catholic society. After expending an extraordinary amount of resources to achieve conversions, Italian Catholic society did remarkably little with the converts. Even in cases of noble or wealthy Jewish origins, and prestigious godparents, Italian converts from Judaism could not marry into good society.It is unclear whether this was a cause or an effect of Christian attitudes toward the converts. The suspicion that converts emerged from the lower classes of Jewish society may have influenced Christian attitudes toward them; continuing discrimination even after baptism may have prevented more well-born Jews from being enticed by conversion. [DS, 8-9] The sheer number of conversions in Iberia, along with the naked use of coercion, are unparalleled in scale for any other Jewish community at any other time or place. [DS, 7], ‘‘The number of Jews who converted to Christianity in that time [the eleventh century] is far greater than has generally been accepted by scholars.’’ These include Jews who converted because they were persuaded by Christian missionary activity or because they were attracted to Christian society for the whole gamut of reasons that inspired such crossing of boundaries. Grossman argues that, far from being a peripheral problem, conversion to Christianity was one of the most significant issues to face Jewish communities in pre Crusade Northern Europe.[DS, 14]
Typically, converts remained within a tightly confined social circle, often marrying other converts. The first female convert from Judaism recorded in Nuremberg married another convert; other converts both in Nuremberg and beyond followed this pattern. Converts to Protestantism tended to marry children of Christian clergymen. Both patterns of spousal choice indicate a poor record of reception as social equals in Christian society.[DS, p. 124]
Jewish conversion to the mainstream religion was in fact more common in the Muslim world - yet in the Muslim world, no particular theological significance was ascribed to the convert's religious background. Integration in the Muslim world therefore went more smoothly. (Also, cultural similarities between Judaism and Islam may have explained this as well - many of the rules of Judaism, such as kosher, benedictions uttered at a variety of times in the day, etc, align closely with similar rules in Islam. However, the Jewish convert to Islam was not forced to denounce his former religion in very explicit terms.)
In 1555, a papal decree (Cumnimis absurdum) presented by Pope Paul IV called for the confinement of the Jews to a particular street or quarter within a town or city. Although Jewish ghettoes had a prior existence in Europe, they had never before received a Pope’s public stamp of approval. Thereafter, Jewish ghettos sprang up throughout Europe. Segregation of the Jews was seen as a means to curb social contact with Christians and to punish Jews for rejecting Christ and for their stubborn resistance to baptism. Efforts to segregate Jews from Christians preceded the institutionalization of ghettos. [RoH, p. 55]
Orthodox Church. A Wallachian code of 1652 threatened excommunication to Romanian Christians who failed to abide by strict segregation vis-` a-vis the Jews, and the church admonished its faithful that sexual contact with Jews would call down the wrath of God. [RoH, p. 66]
Assimilation through professional relations was also not possible:
Andres Berndldez, a parish priest of Los Palacios near Sevilla, de-nounced Jews for being merchants, tailors, shoemakers, smiths, jewelers,weavers, and tanners as well as tax-gatherers and officials. None tilledthe soil as a farmer (this was not strictly true) or became a mason orcarpenter, the implication being that Jews preferred occupations thatmade money but preferred not to dirty their hands with hard work. Thefact that the Jews in the ghettos were cut off from the soil and othertrades because guilds would not accept them seemed to escape thepriest's notice.[DL, p. 91
This was even prolonged for generations in Iberia:
Guilds had regulations concerning access to their trades: for example, technical expertise and social acceptability. The carpenters, for example, wanted their members to be married or at best have a house of their own. This was no doubt partly due to the fact that the guilds felt responsible for their members and helped them through hard times such as sickness or accident. But money that could have been better spent, some members complained, was wasted on festive events celebrating the patron saint of the trade and other fiestas, instead of on charity and pensions. Many guilds ostracized minorities such as Jews and Muslims and insisted on purity of blood.[DL, p. 145]
LIMPIEZA DE SANGRE, OR PURITY OF BLOOD
Old Christians (those people whose families had always been Christian and hence supposedly of pure blood with no taint of Jewish or Muslim ancestry) enacted laws to restrict opportunities for minorities, especially Conversos and Moriscos (Jews and Muslims converted to Christianity, also called New Christians). ...
The Catholic Kings issued decrees in 1501 forbidding the offspring of those condemned by the Inquisition, which were mostly Conversos, to hold any important posts or to become physicians, surgeons, or notaries. Later came the practice of exhibiting in cathedrals and churches placards bearing the names of those punished in order to distinguish their descendants of impure blood. The Inquisition maintained records of family bloodlines, and before a person could marry or seek office, registers were checked back as far as possible to see if any Jewish or Moorish names appeared in the family tree.
[DL, p. 35 (my bolding)]
The same book details how Christian Spaniards persecuted Jews who had converted to Christianity, even murdering some among them:
While a statue of the Virgin Mary was being carried through the streets of a predominantly Converso neighborhood in Cordoba, a young girl, probably accidentally, dropped some liquid that may have been water from her balcony onto the statue. It was immediately taken as a grave insult by those below, who went on a rampage looting, wrecking, and burning Converso houses and murdering the occupants. Many Conversos fled the city for safer country towns, whereas others left the country by ship for foreign lands. Tension ran high and rumors were rife. [DL, p. 96]
A Jew who had not converted to Christianity was not under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition (unless he could be found to have enticed Christians to Judaism ). However, if you converted with your family, you put your wife and your children under their jurisdiction as well. This opened up scenarios like this:
Age was not a factor. According to inquisitional records, girls and boys as young as eleven and twelve were sentenced to life in prison for observing Jewish rites.[DL, p. 102]
As Jeremy Cohen observes, the jurisdiction of the inquisitions could even be extended to an entire community by converts:
Second, both Christian converts to Judaism and Jewish converts to Christianity who "relapsed" into their former religion came under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition, as did by extension those Jews who consorted with the converts and relapsi in their practice of Judaism. As I shall demonstrate in a subsequent chapter, such an extension of inquisitorial jurisdiction to any who aided heretics could easily be exploited by friars to harass entire Jewish communities. [FJ, p. 48]
So, if you had taught your child to observe some rites, and they happened to observe those rites and were observed to do so by, say, a Christian servant - too bad, off to prison with them. Given that even slight suspicion of Judaizing could lead to torture, conversion was not a good plan even if you by happenstance had come to believe in the Christian doctrine.
Slender was the proof needed by the Inquisition to convict a Converso of being a Crypto-Jew. Avoidance of pork (in keeping with Jewish dietary laws), observance of the Sabbath on Saturday, killing of fowl according to Jewish rituals, keeping of fasts on Jewish fast days, eating meat during Lent—all such lapses were eagerly reported to the tribunals by Old Christians who kept careful watch on their neighbors.[DL, p. 101]
Of course not all converts were thus punished, but bad news spreads faster than good news, and Jews of the time were not fully isolated from other communities – rumours would spread around the Jewish world, and people considering converting would see what bad things befell
Meanwhile, the church had significant movements teaching hatred for the Jews, which of course strengthened the disdain mentioned previously:
As inquisitors, missionaries, disputants, polemicists, scholars, and itinerants preachers, mendicants engaged in a concerted effort to undermine the religious freedom and physical security of the medieval Jewish community. It was they who developed and manned the papal Inquisition, who intervened in the Maimonidean controversy, who directed the burnings of the Talmud, who compelled the Jews to listen and respond to their inflammatory sermons, and who actively promoted anti-Jewish hatred among the laity of Western Christendom. [FJ, 13]
In more detail, Cohen says:
Prior to the thirteenth century, Catholic theology had demanded that the Jew be tolerated in Christendom. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), whose teachings provided the foundation for medieval Christian thought in the West, instructed that God had ordained the survival of the Jews, in order that their presence and continued observance of Mosaic Law might aid the Church in its mission to the Gentiles, and so they might convert at the end of days. By the early fourteenth century, however, friars openly advocated that Latin Christendom rid itself of its Jewish population, whether through missionizing, forced expulsions, or physical harassment that would induce conversion or flight.[FJ, 14]
The church in fact saw it as its mandate to ensure Jews were treated somewhat badly, as the Agustinian position explicitly stated:
The dispersion and degradation of the Jews, if insured by the regnant Church, would both alleviate the problem of the Jewish encroachments upon Christianity and enhance the value of their survival– by emphasizing the deplorable wretchedness of their error. [...] Augustine saw a definite need and place for the Jews within Christian society. God had preserved them to play a specific role, and they consequently could not be killed or otherwise purged from Christendom. To be sure, the rights of the Jews in the society were carefully delimited and restricted: the Church endeavored to prohibit fraternization between Christians and Jews; Christians could not legally own Christian slaves, nor were they supposed to hold positions of authority over Christians in any way whatsoever. [FJ, p. 20-21. My bolding]
In conclusion, much like any population, Christians have historically been very suspicious of the demographic changes; both Muslim and Jewish populations that have changed to Christianity have been met with doubt, relegation to second-class status, undue scrutiny and suspicion. Especially under the inquisitions, punishment was meted out even for the slightest hint at having returned to one's previous faith. Racism and "faithism" among the previous members of the religion made conversion a gambit that often only brought any benefits several generations down the line.
Since both communities favoured avoiding contact with the other side, a convert further had to cut a significant part of his social ties – the addition of the risk of being accused of relapsing and thus putting the whole community at risk was of course a further concern. In addition, skills he had learned in his life as a Jew might not be permissible to him any longer (kosher slaughter, scribal duties, joint business ventures with Jewish friends), and the suspicion with which he was eyed in his new life often prevented him from advancing into comparable status in his new community. Since Jews also were not permitted to own land in most of medieval Europe, it was not just a question of converting and just remaining on the farm - the farm seldom existed.
Given these facts, there's no need to posit that Jewish reticence was particularly a result of Jewish racism against others.
[DL] James Anderson, Daily Life During the Spanish Inquisition, 2002
[DS] Carlebach, Elisheva., Divided Souls Converts from Judaism to Christianity in Germany 1500-1570, 2001
[FJ] Cohen, Jeremy, The Friars and the Jews, the evolution of medieval anti-judaism, 1983
[RoH] Brustein, William I., Roots of Hate - Anti-Semitism in Europe before the Holocaust, 2003