The Blood Libel Returns
By Rachel Neuwirth
With the revival of anti-Semitism as a global phenomenon, everything old is new again. A new Holocaust is threatened in Iran, a former top military leader and presidential candidate speaks in code of the dark power of New York money circles, and now, shockingly, the ancient blood libel against the Jews is revived in seemingly respectable quarters. After all the terrible things that have been done because of this lie, who could be so reckless as to give it new life?
Two Jewish professors, one an Israeli of Italian origin who teaches at a prestigious religious Jewish university in Israel, Bar-Illan, and is the son of a former chief rabbi of Rome, the other an Italian Jewish historian, have just revived the notorious “blood libel” that has caused the cruel murder of thousands of their co-religionists since medieval times. Professor Ariel Toaff has just this past week published a book in Italy called Pasque di Sangue, or “Bloody Passovers,” reasserting that the long-discredited medieval Christian legend that Jews ritually murder Christian children, drain their bodies of blood, mingle the blood in their matzah during the Passover festival and ritually consume it, has some truth in it.
In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Toaff asserted,
“My research has shown that in the Middle Ages, a group of fundamentalist Jews did not respect the biblical prohibition [against the consumption of blood]. . . It is just one group of Jews, who belonged to the communities that suffered the severest persecutions during the crusades. From this trauma came a passion for revenge that in some cases led to responses, among them ritual murder of Christian children.”
According to Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, Toaff’s book alleges,
“… some blood libels – accusations that Jews killed Christians in ritual murders to add their blood to matzah and wine on Passover – may be based on real ceremonies in which the blood of Christians was actually used.”
Italy’s most influential newspaper, left-leanig Corriere della Serra, has published extracts from Toaff’s book, together with an article praising it by Italian Jewish historian Sergio Luzzato. Luzzato describes Toaff’s book as a
“magnificent work of history. . .Toaff holds that from 1100 to about 1500. . .several crucifixions of Christian children really happened, bringing about retaliations against entire Jewish communities-punitive massacres of Jewish men, women and children. Neither in Trent in 1475 nor in other areas of Europe in the late Middle Ages were the Jews always innocent. A minority of fundamentalist Ashkenazis . . .carried out human sacrifices.”
According to Luzzato’s summary of Toaff’s purported research, the fifteenth-century accusation made against the Jews of the Italian city of Trent, where 16 Jews were tortured and hanged on charges of murdering a two-year-old Christian boy and using his blood to make matzot, “might have been true.” According to Luzzato, Toaff also alleges,
“a black market flourished on both sides of the Alps, with Jewish merchants selling human blood, complete with rabbinic certification of the product–kosher blood.”
To substantiate the charges of ritual murder against the Jews, Toaff relies not on any new evidence, but on the original confessions extracted through torture from the accused Jews in Trent and elsewhere.
How has Toaff’s employer, the religious Jewish Bar-Illan University in Tel-Aviv, responded to this outrage by one of its professors? By closing ranks behind him.
According to Haaretz, Toaff actually offered to resign in response to the controversy stirred by his book, but Bar-Illan’s president, Moshe Kaveh, refused to accept it. A spokesman for Bar-Illan, Yerah Tal, says,
“people who are not academics as well as lecturers at other universities, came to us and demanded that we fire Prof. Toaff, but we are not considering such a step. There are some who want to sacrifice him to Molech,[a pagan god of human sacrifices mentioned in the Bible] but the man hasn’t committed any crime.”
The response of Bar-Illan University has been little short of despicable. Another Bar-Illan spokesman, Shmulik Algrabli, said,
“Professor Toaff is one of the greatest scholars in his field, and we have confidence in his scientific method.”
Another press release from “Bar-Illan’s management” on behalf of President Kaveh said,
“we should refrain from relying on baseless reports that have been denied by Prof. Toaff himself and which, apparently, lack any connection to the research itself”
“Academic freedom must not be restricted under any circumstances,” averred Prof. Rimon Kasher, a colleague of Toaff’s at Bar-Illan.”The job of the researcher is to ask questions and expose what he finds.”
What? “Scientific method” in a blood libel? “Research” that spreads such libels? Is the reiteration of an ancient malicious fantasy, solely on the basis of alleged confessions extracted by torture, really “research” or a “finding?” Can an interview with Toaff published in La Stampa, a leading Italian Journal, and extracts from his work, together with Prof. Luzzato’s comments on it, published in Corriere della Serra, both leading Italian newspapers, be dismissed as “baseless” sources for Toaff’s views? Should blood libels be protected by “academic freedom?” Would firing Toaff really be like “sacrificing” him to a pagan god? This language that resembles the blood accusation itself-as does Toaff’s own melodramatic claim that his critics are trying to “crucify” him. It sounds like Bar-Illan is in deep denial and has fallen in with Toaff’s way of thinking, with all of its anti-Semitic implications.
What has been the response of the Jewish world to Toaff and Luzzato’s outrage? So far, extremely muted. Twelve senior rabbis representing Italy’s Jewish community, including Toaff’s father, Elio Toaff, who once welcome Pope John Paul II to the chief synagogue in Rome, did issue a strong denial of Toaff’s allegations. But world Jewish organizations, including those in the United States and Israel, have been almost completely silent.
It has been left mainly to Catholic priests and scholars to show a touch of sanity and decency in response to this revival of anti-Jewish medieval superstition by Jewish “scholars.” Monsignor Iginio Rogger, a church historian who in the 1960s led a new investigation into the fifteenth-century Trent case that now forms the centerpiece of Toaff’s book, said many scholars have concurred that the confessions of the accused Jews of Trent, on which both the medieval court and now Toaff have relied exclusively for “evidence,” were completely unreliable.
“I wouldn’t want to be in [Toaff’s] shoes, answering for this to historians who have seriously documented this case,” he said. “The judges used horrible tortures, to the point where the accused pleaded: ‘Tell us what you want us to say.’ “
And Allessandro Martinelli, the Catholic Church’s Delegate for Interreligious Dialogue in the Diocese of Trent, referred reporters to a “well-documented DVD and historical monograph by historian Diego Quaglioni disproving Jewish responsibility for [the deceased child] Simonino’s death” (from a summary of Father Matinelli’s remarks in the Jerusalem Post, Feb. 11, 2007).
Some historical background is needed to understand just how injurious and incendiary Professors Toaff and Luzzato’s words truly are. The “blood libel,” as it has come to be called, first appeared in the 12th century of the Common Era. In a series of spectacular trials between roughly 1200 and 1500 throughout Europe, hundreds of Jews were tortured into confessing to this charge and then hanged or burned alive by Christian courts. Whenever a Christian child, usually a male child, was found dead under unknown or mysterious circumstances, Jews were arrested and charged with having ritually murdered the boy. No evidence was ever produced to support these charges except confessions extorted under torture. Nonetheless the allegation thrived among medieval Christians, at around the same time that women of both faiths and all conditions of life were regularly accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Both accusations clearly originated from the same medieval mentality, when people were haunted by the supernatural. But whatever its psychological roots, the blood libel forced thousands of Jews to live in terror for centuries. In addition to those put to death by “judicial” process in formal trials, thousands of Jews were massacred in pogroms in which the blood libel was used to incite Christian mobs into a frenzy of hatred.
Criminal trials based on the blood accusation more or less died out in Western Europe as the Middle Ages drew to a close around 1500. But it continued to flourish as a part of popular anti-Semitic literature and folklore, and was given some limited sanction and encouragement by the Catholic Church, which declared some of the children who had supposedly been murdered by Jews “blessed,” and allowed them to be venerated by the faithful. In Eastern Europe, however, the allegation underwent a big revival in the eighteenth century, when numerous trials of Jews on ritual murder charges took place in Poland. Such trials continued to occur sporadically throughout Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, and there was also one in Damascus, Syria, in 1840, in which over twenty local Jews were tortured and put to death in response to blood accusations from a Catholic priest.
Finally, there was at least one more blood libel trial in the twentieth century. In 1911 a young and respected Jewish businessman, Mendel Beilis, was charged with ritual murder in Kiev by the Russian Tsar’s Ministry of “Justice.” After two years in prison, Beilis was finally acquitted in a widely publicized trial that helped to discredit the Tsarist regime in Russia in the eyes of all enlightened, educated Russian opinion. Surely now the ancient lie had been put to rest!
Yet the poison resurfaced once more with deadly results in the Polish town of Kielce in July 1946, after the Holocaust had supposedly ended. A mob that included Polish policemen and soldiers, incited by false rumors of Jewish ritual murders of Polish children, massacred over forty of the pathetic remnant of 200 Kielce Jews who had somehow survived the German extermination campaign. This was the last time, as far as I have been able to learn, that the blood libel led to Jewish deaths in Europe. But a documentary film about the Kielce massacre made in the 1990’s by American researchers contains interviews with several contemporary Poles, including a priest, who admitted that they still believed in the ritual murder myth.
The publication by the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church of a policy statement called Notre Aetate in 1965, which repudiated many of the anti-Jewish attitudes that had flourished in the church for centuries, has gone a long way towards putting the blood libel to rest in the Western world. And Catholic scholars have followed up this new policy of reconciliation with Jews by reexamining some of the medieval blood libel trials and concluding that the charges had been false.
As we have already noted, these reexaminations by Catholic scholars have included the same Trent blood libel case that Toaff has now made the centerpiece of his attempt to once again blacken the names of Jews martyred more than five hundred years ago. Following the publication of these scholarly vindications of Trent’s medieval Jewish community, the Bishop of Trent signed a decree “proclaiming that the blood libel against the city’s Jews was unfounded.” (The Jerusalem Post, Feb. 11, 2007). And the city of Trent erected a memorial plaque commemorating the Jewish victims, expressing remorse for the terrible injustice that was done to them and hopes for Christian-Jewish reconciliation in the future.
While the blood accusation has lost legitimacy in the Christian West-at least it had, before Toaff and Luzzato have now given it new life-in the Arab and Muslim worlds it has been revived as a part of the massive propaganda war against Israel by the government of Syria and the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezb’allah, In the 1970s the Syrian Minister of Defense, Mustapha Tlas, published a book called The Matzah of Zion, which has since gone through numerous editions and is peddled by the Syrian authorities at international book fairs. Tlas’s screed reasserts the claim that Jews had committed ritual murder and cannibalism of Arab children in Damascus in the 1840s. Within the past few years, both the Syrian national television and the Hezb’allah television station, Al-Ansar, have broadcast a purportedly fact-based serial drama showing actors dressed as Orthodox Jews murdering and ritually drinking the blood of Gentile children, in addition to other disgusting crimes. In this manner the war against Israel has been given this old lie of Christian origin a new life and potency among the world’s billion-plus Muslims.
Toaff and Luzzato’s revival of this medieval lie could not have come at a worse time for besieged Jewry, in the present environment of revived anti-Semitism throughout the Islamic world and in Europe itself. It may undo decades of painful progress in discrediting the libel in Europe and in improving Catholic attitudes toward Jews.It will give it even more impetus to anti-Semitic hate propaganda in the Middle East. Now every anti-Semitic website, newspaper and book published anywhere in the world will legitimate the ancient blood libel by citing the authority of two learned scholars, both Jewish, and one a professor at one of the world’s leading Jewish universities, and the son of a distinguished rabbi to boot. What more “proof” could the anti-Semites and Israel-haters require to substantiate their vicious lies? The damage to Jewish security and acceptance, and the threat to Jewish lives, is incalculable.
What could possibly have prompted such learned and prestigious Jews to such cruel, reckless and irresponsible behavior towards their own people? Was it the strong likelihood that Toaff’s book will become a best seller in Italy, where anti-Semitism is undergoing a revival, and conspiracy theories are perennially popular? In fact, the first edition of the libelous book has already sold out. Has its author done so as well? Or was Toaff’s motive connected somehow with his reputed “leftist” views (mentioned by Ha’aretz). After all, leftist Israel-bashers, including the Israel-based ones, now seem prepared to say anything that inflicts damage on “Zionism.”
Whatever their motives, may eternal and unending shame fall on the heads of Ariel Toaff and Sergio Luzatto. The heart weeps.
John Landu contributed to this article
Historical background can be found in the books Christian anti-Semitism: A History of Hate, by William Nicholls (Published by Jason Aronson, 1993), and The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-three Centuries of Anti-Semitism, by Father Edward Flannery, Revised and Updated. Published by the Paulist Press, 1985. See also http://www.answers.com/topic/christianity-and-antisemitism