Throw the Jew Down the Well: The Banality of Evil

Years ago when Yadid was six-years-old he started to go to Jewish school for the first time. A couple of months into school they learned about the story of Esther in preparation for Purim. That year at the Purim Seudah, festive meal, Yadid shared with me what he learned about Purim at school. In his kindergarten, Haman’s punishment ( for attempting genocide) was having to walk behind Mordechai, who was riding on the royal horse, and pick up the poop. Yadid added with a smile that this is his favorite part of the story. Even years later, the banality of evil sticks with me. At what age do we tell our children that it normal to hunt Jews? At what age will they learn that there is nothing normal about anti-Semitism?

I was thinking about this recently when there was a story reported about construction workers breaking ground in 2004 on a shopping mall in Norwich, England. Amidst their excavation they found 17 bodies at the bottom of a 800-year-old well. The identity of the remains of the six adults and 11 children and why they ended up in the medieval well had long vexed archaeologists. Unlike other mass burials where skeletons are uniformly arranged, the bodies were oddly positioned and mixed which was likely caused by their being thrown head first shortly after their deaths.

It was in the news because scientists were recently able to extract detailed genetic material preserved in the bones. Thanks to recent advances in ancient DNA sequencing they were able to understand more about how these people died. The genomes of six of the individuals showed that four of them were related — including three sisters, the youngest of whom was five to 10 years old. Further analysis of the genetic material suggested that all six were “almost certainly” Ashkenazi Jews.

The researchers believe they all died during antisemitic violence that wracked the city, most likely a February 1190 riot related to the Third Crusade. This was one of a series of religious wars supported by the church as described by a medieval chronicler. The number of people killed in the massacre is unclear.

“I’m delighted and relieved that twelve years after we first started analysing the remains of these individuals, technology has caught up and helped us to understand this historical cold case of who these people were and why we think they were murdered,” said Selina Brace, a principal researcher at the Natural History Museum in London and lead author on the paper, said in a news release.

So, yes the science is remarkable. But like the story of Purim as told to a 6 year old, it is shocking that the long history of antisemism is taken for granted and notably not remarkable.

This news story gives added depth (pun intended) to the brilliant satire of Sasha Barron Cohen. If you have not seen it, enjoy ” Throw the Jew Down the Well”:

Sadly, when it comes to the Banality of Evil, still so many of us just sing along.

-Original post about the Banality of Poop

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