blood libel 88.
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We Jews are no strangers to suffering. It started 3,500 years ago in the land of Egypt: "Slaves were we to Pharaoh in Egypt," the Bible recounts. The 10th and final plague hit the firstborn sons of every Egyptian. However, by smearing the blood of a slaughtered lamb on the doorposts of the Jewish homes, the death passed over them. Since that day, the stain of Pessah blood seems to follow us. For you see, the most wicked of all the slanders against us is that of the blood libel.
Josephus tells us that already in Roman times, the Greeks spread rumors that we wicked Jews slaughtered a Greek in the Temple in Jerusalem and ate his intestines as part of our rites.
In 12th-century England, there were repeated stories of children being killed by the Jews for ritual purposes.
The tale was usually the same. The holiday of Pessah is celebrated in the spring; the unleavened bread is an integral part of the feast. The ugly rumor proclaimed that the matza was not fit for use unless the blood of a Gentile child was kneaded into the mixture.
It is simply such a wild, unbelievable yarn that it became believable. As Hitler's minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels so successfully taught, a lie, repeated often enough, will end up as truth, and the bigger the lie, the greater the likelihood that people will believe it. With the blood libel, you have both: a lie repeated for centuries that is an unbelievable stretch of the imagination.
The trigger for this malice always seemed to occur in the early spring, before Pessah, when the rivers were melting and the paths were thick in mud. Often a child had disappeared and was found floating in the thawing river. Other times, he would be discovered frozen to death in the woods or in a field. Sometimes, he was even found lost in the forest before the frost took him, but usually after the wholesale indiscriminate slaughter of local Jews. Sometimes entire towns were wiped out.
IT WAS THE year 1144 in Norwich, England, and little William was found stabbed. Almost the entire Jewish population of the town was wiped out. In Lincoln, England, in 1255, little Hugh was found dead in a Jew's pit. The poor Jew named Copin confessed, in exchange for his life, that the boy was crucified. His life was saved - 18 other Jews were hanged for their "crime."
So well known was this fable that Chaucer memorialized little Hugh 100 years later in his Canterbury Tales in "The Prioress's Tale":
She's led him in through ae dark door,
And sae has she thro' nine;
She's laid him on a dressing-table,
And stickit him like a swine.
And first came out the thick, thick blood,
And syne came out the thin;
And syne came out the bonny heart's blood;
There was nae mair within.
She's row'd him in a cake o'lead,
Bade him lie still and sleep;
She's thrown him in Our Lady's draw-well
Was fifty fathom deep.
After centuries of pilgrimage to this site, as recently as the 20th century, the Anglican Church placed the following plaque in 1955.
"By the remains of the shrine of 'Little St. Hugh': Trumped up stories of 'ritual murders' of Christian boys by Jewish communities were common throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and even much later. These fictions cost many innocent Jews their lives. Lincoln had its own legend and the alleged victim was buried in the Cathedral in the year 1255.
"Such stories do not redound to the credit of Christendom, and so we pray: Lord, forgive what we have been, amend what we are, and direct what we shall be."
Pessah was indeed a holiday in which human blood flowed. But it was usually that of Jews who paid with their lives for baking the most humble of pastries, matza, made with only flour and water. Any other ingredient, most certainly blood, would render it hametz and unfit for the Pessah ritual.
However, such a "probable" reason was not always necessary. A more far-fetched excuse was the well-poisoning libel. During the bubonic plagues of the 14th century, Jews were accused of poisoning the wells of the towns to kill the Christians and to spread the disease. Somehow the fact that the Jews shared the same water, along with the consequences of the plague, seems to have been forgotten by the murderers.
One of the more twisted, and possibly the most telling and significant, of all libel events was that of the bleeding host. Through this facade we can grasp the medieval Christian hatred of the Jews as the deeper headwaters of the blood libels. To a religious and superstitious person in dark Catholic Europe, the wafer taken at mass was the body of their lord, and the wine drunk with it was his blood. It was real - the flesh and blood of their savior, in the flesh.
Throughout the centuries, Jews were accused of stabbing the host in an act of anti-Christian odium. Ergo, being the palpable body of the savior, the little cracker did what you would expect it to, it bled. Was it not enough that the Jews were responsible for Jesus's death the first time? Seemingly once again they caused his death through the biscuit's sanguinary surprise. This accusation of host desecration was first leveled against the Jews in 1243 at Berlitz, near Berlin, and resulted in all of the town's Jews being burned. Over the centuries untold Jews were killed for their supposed heinous act of killing the wafer.
LEST ONE think that these vile events represent the distant foul past of an unenlightened world, we hear of an old-fashioned blood libel in Damascus in 1840. Chief Rabbi Ya'acov Entabi and a group of leading Jews of Damascus were accused of killing a Franciscan monk and his Greek servant to use their blood in matza baking. They were imprisoned and flogged and tortured to admit their heinous crime. When no admission could be coaxed from the rabbi's pain-racked body, "witnesses" were found who claimed to have seen it all happen.
What was unusual about this particular libel was the active involvement of the French representative in Syria. He seemed to relish being in on the action and watched the torture and egged on the participants. However, this was not the Dark Ages, this was the enlightened modern world. The word of the assault spread via the telegraph, and the Jewish world responded by bringing intense diplomatic pressure to bear on Syria. Sir Moses Montefiore made it a primary cause of his, and soon, all the incarcerated were freed, that is, of course, except for those who died during the torture. Rabbi Entabi was so revered for his honorable behavior that he was received with kisses and honor by the great rabbis of Safed, where he went the following year and where he spent the rest of his days.
The most celebrated of modern libel cases is the Beilis trial in Russia in 1913. The basic story we know without having to tell it: Mendel Beilis, a quiet, reserved superintendent at the Zaitsev brick factory, is accused of killing a Christian boy for blood for his matza. While the reason is unclear, the czarist regime decided at the highest levels to turn this into a show trial. As the closed police records showed after they were opened a few years after the trial, witnesses were procured and evidence was fabricated. One of the greatest difficulties the Russian police had was that not one priest in all of Russia could be found who was knowledgeable enough in the Talmud to argue the prosecution's claim that the Jewish writings themselves were the basis for such a crime.
This time though, the Jewish and non-Jewish world and the world press followed every aspect of the trial and the ultimate acquittal of Beilis. Poor Beilis, a broken man whose health was taken by the years in a Russian jail, arrived home on the day of his freedom to a joyous welcome. Telegrams from around the world poured into his home, and a single message caught his eye. It was from Rabbi Avraham Kook, the chief rabbi of Palestine. Come home, he said, to the land of Israel. And there, Beilis went (although he later settled in the US).
Most of you reading this have also come home. You might have come from Syria or England, Iran or Germany or even the US. There were a few libels that happened there. Massena, New York, a small village located near the Canadian border, which in 1928 had about 35 Jewish families out of a population of 10,000, was the site. The US is different; there the accusation occurred not in the spring, but on Yom Kippur eve when the Jews were accused after four-year-old Barbara Griffiths failed to return home for dinner. Rabbi Berel Brennglass denied all charges, and stormed out of the police station. The little girl walked out of the woods unharmed the next day, and the Jews too survived the incident unscathed. But it is clear what could have been.
Now we are home and the insanity of blood libels from our lands of origin is behind us. It was something our grandparents might have seen or heard about. Sure some soon-to-be-forgotten history professor made a fool of himself this year by being quoted as claiming that Jews did actually kill Christian children for their blood. He was so shocked to find that besides some neo-Nazis and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, not a single person believed him. In fact, with his tail between his legs and his father, the former chief rabbi of Rome, along with many other historians and scholars publicly denouncing him and his research, he announced that the book was being taken off the shelves.
It is really unthinkable to imagine a more horrible and antithetical act to Jewish law than the use of human blood for a religious rite. The Bible insists that a human life is holy. The most wicked of all human acts is taking the life of another human being. The drinking or usage of blood, specifically blood, is forbidden with language as harsh as we find anywhere in the text. Another principle found in the Torah is human kindness to your fellow man. That stems, as we are told, from constantly remembering the experience of being slaves in Egypt.
These two principles, lovingkindness and the sanctity of human life, are among the most clear directives and messages in the Torah. How cruel it is then that the blood libel cynically plays upon these two hallmarks of Judaism. By asserting that we killed a young, helpless gentile child to utilize his blood, the gentile plays upon exactly those pure traits.
BUT IS IT really a thing of the past? It is if 1982 is the past. For my children it's like the Dark Ages. However, the then Syrian defense minister published and defended his book entitled Matza of Zion. I think that the cover art sort of says what the book is about. And our neighbors in the Palestinian Authority have had blood libels in the press and TV almost annually for the last few years.
Perhaps the most unique twist on the old story is 2002 article in Al-Ridyah, the Saudi government's daily paper. One of the editors was called by a US paper and asked whether it was true that Al-Ridyah wrote that the Jews drink human blood and mix it into their food on Purim.
For some real gore (viewer discretion advised), you could tune into the Al-Manar 24-part TV series that looked at every major catastrophic world event in the last 100 years and found a way to make a segment showing how the Jews were the cause. It was shown on cable all across the Arab world and hundreds of millions saw it. Two very Semitic looking hassidim with beautiful ear locks, looking like a cross between Zohar Argov and a Breslav hassid, are seen plotting on how to make the matza with blood. A Jew by the name of Nathan convinces a young Muslim boy to join him in a cellar and there, with a prearranged conspiratorial wink at his Jewish cohorts, they grip the lad and slit his throat, letting his blood drain in full color and motion into a large pan. The next shot is of the two rabbis meeting furtively in an alley to each take a bite of the holy bread. Yes, it's all there in full color.
We could look for all sorts of deep psychological or religious reasons for the perpetuation of this myth. All we know is that a century ago our ancestors quivered with their doors locked on the night of the Seder lest a knock unexpectedly spell disaster for them and their families. In fact, there were rabbis who decided that one should drink only white wine on the night of Pessah so that no intruder should find a red liquid prompting a call for vengeance.
This was a genuine fear, and because of it we can understand that the section of the Seder that says "pour out Thy wrath upon the gentiles" was not as it is today - a slight break to get some fresh air or to play a trick on the kids and pour out a drop of wine from Elijah's cup. It was clear and present danger.
While we sit around our Pessah tables with our friends and families this year, joyously tasting our award-winning Israeli wines and sharing our unique camaraderie and our joint history, let's think twice. Libels continue to spin all around us. Let the final words of the Haggada be our guiding light: Next Year in Jerusalem.
Dr. Ari Greenspan is a dentist in Jerusalem and Dr. Ari Zivotofsky is a professor of brain science at Bar-Ilan University. The writers' research of this material was part of a project into the history of matza in Jewish communities around the world. Anyone with interesting matza photos or stories is asked to write to Ari@greenspandental.com.
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