[Update: The book discussed in this blog, "God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World," by Cullen Murphy, gets a nice review in today's New York Times. Check it out here.]

The Inquisition holds a special place in Jewish hearts—it horrifies us. For many people 1492 signifies the discovery of America, but for Jews, it’s the Spanish Inquisition, terror and expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula. I was reminded of that sordid history in Adam Gopnik’s recent essay in The New Yorker. It’s a roving piece, using Cullen Murphy’s new history, “God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World,” as an occasion to discuss everything from Jewish paranoia and Israel, to Carlo Ginzburg, the Italian Renaissance, and the philosophy of history generally.

The name that jumps out immediate in the essay is: Netanyahu. That’s Benzion, not Bibi, the current Prime Minister’s father. At 101, Benzion is still alive and very much kicking, and, Gopnik reports, still pushing his theory of the Inquisition. Benzion, once a prominent early modern historian, made his reputation decades ago for arguing that the Inquisition has been misunderstood by both Catholics and Jews. The whole idea of “conversos” (or “moranos”: same thing, only the latter is derogatory), he argues, was a myth created by the Spanish Inquisitors—and by extension, most Christians—because of their inability to accept Jews. Even after Jews had converted in the late-medieval Spain (i.e., became “conversos”), Catholics still didn’t believe they were true Christians. Thus, they went on a witch hunt to ferret out Jews—to torture, terrorize and burn them at the stake. In so doing the inquisitors revealed their true aim: to rid the world of Jews.

Yet Jews don’t get off easy in Benzion’s telling either. Even though he argues that conversos actually were genuinely believing Christian converts, Jews embraced the converso myth centuries later to make them seem more defiant than they were. Though Benzion, who is interviewed by Murphy in his book, says his theory is not ideologically driven, Gopnik calls it like he sees it: “The lesson [Benzion] Netanyahu obviously takes, and teaches, from his study can be summed up in three words: assimilation is impossible,” Gopnik writes. “Anti-semitism is too deeply implanted in Gentile cultures to be assuaged by softening or even renouncing your identity as a Jew.” But there’s more, Gopnik adds: “The implicit contemporary corollary is that Arabs have no real interest in peace or accommodation with the Jews in Israel, except as strictly controlled and fearful second-class citizenship.”

To which I’d add the next obvious corollary: now we see where Bibi gets it from!

Gopnik makes another provocative point too—that all the Inquisition revisionism reflects a moral insensitivity that he sees as endemic in much recent scholarship. It’s now the common view among historians, Murphy finds in his book and Gopnik reports, that the Inquisition was not one period of Spanish history, but a diffuse and multi-varied process that spanned all over Europe, over many centuries, and sought to rat out not only Jews, but humanists, Protestants, Muslims, and even disreputable versions of Catholicism. The Inquisition didn’t emerge from one papal office at one time, but from various Catholic priests, often without oversight, and over many centuries. Nothing wrong there, Gopnik writes, but what he finds disturbing is that so many of the historians pushing this view, in seem to soft-pedal the true horror of the Inquisition (or rather, inquisitions).

“Reading the revisionist histories,” Gopnik writes, “one is often startled by the introduction of shocking material that fails sufficiently to shock the author.” Gopnik gives Murphy credit in his reportage for never becoming cauterized by all the bloody stake-burnings, tongue-cutting and Spanish-style water-boarding. Murphy, Gopnik applauds, calls out the Inquisition for what it was—a fanatical and fanatically cruel abuse of power, premised on conspiracy, fear and superstition. Nor does Murphy let the distinct differences blind him to contemporary corollaries—from J. Edgar Hoover anti-communist witch-hunts to Guantanamo Bay torture.

Gopnik’s point is that we shouldn’t forget that all that horror was shocking and terrible, even then. It was just more familiar, less distant. Even if, as the revisionists have it right, the inquisitional horrors we recoil at hearing today didn’t actually happen every day, as revisionists argue, that they happened at all should make us no less outraged. “That there were not weekly autos-de-fe in sixteenth-century Spain does not alter our horror that there were any at all,” Gopnik writes. “Their purpose was to frighten and terrorize; the mark of their success is that they did not need to happened every day.”

Good points, all. But in Gopnik’s relish to highlight the lack of moral outrage among professional historians, he fails to give voice to another reason for their apparent indifference. It’s true that many scholars get a peevish delight in upturning conventional wisdom (as do journalists), which can occasionally lead to moral insensitivity. But just as often historians are driven to understand morally repellent acts because they’re intrigued—and morally aghast—that such horrors could happen at all. They want to know how the horrific crimes of the past—from the Inquisition, to slavery, the Holocaust, and the killing fields of Cambodia—could become part and parcel of daily life. In order to do that, that must enter the minds of both the perpetrators and the silent witnesses. Of course, the voices of the victims are essential—they remind us of the true horror of past iniquities—but just as important is understanding why a despot did what he did, and why no one did anything to stop him. If the tone of that narrative seems chilling, perhaps it isn’t the historian’s fault, but history’s. Often, it’s chilling stuff.