A blood libel in America

‘The Accusation’ tells the gripping true tale of an age-old antisemitic farce in the ‘Goldene Medina’

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September 26, 2019 17:54
3 minute read.
A blood libel in America

SWEDISH JOURNALIST Donald Bostrom speaks at a conference in Dimona. His story on alleged transplant-organ theft, published in a Swedish newspaper, provoked outrage in Israel.. (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE/AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

It’s a story all-too familiar to Jews around the world.

A four-year-old Christian girl goes missing in a small suburban town. The community bands together to search the forests for her as her family hopes for the best but plans for the worst.

And then, as the optimism begins to fade, rumors spread that the small Jewish community is at fault; that they had likely murdered her to use her blood for a religious ritual. The town’s authorities get involved.

While this exact story, or one like it, has occurred countless times throughout history – leading to pogroms and expulsions, murders and torture – this time it didn’t happen in Ukraine or Poland. This time it’s the Jewish community in a small town in upstate New York that gathers in its synagogue to also hope for the best but plan for the worst.

The blood libel that occurred in September 1928 in Massena, New York, is the only recorded blood libel to occur in the United States.

Why did it happen? And perhaps even more confusing: Why hasn’t it happened again?

New York University history professor Edward Berenson attempts to answer this question in his fascinating book The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town. The 229-page page-turner recounts the details of the event and the ramifications that resulted from it.

The book offers a gripping tale of a community of immigrants and foreign workers dealing with fear and xenophobia while the country is in the throes of a heated election season. At a time when Ellis Island was packed full of Yiddish-speaking men and women seeking a new life in the Goldene Medina (the “Golden” or “Promised Land”), the country was facing a battle for its very identity. The Ku Klux Klan was gaining prominence, and the battle between Catholics and Protestants was reaching a fever pitch.

On the cusp of what would be the beginning of the Great Depression, the time was ripe for people to begin blaming the stranger in their midst, to look for a scapegoat to pin the country’s problems on. The time was ripe for bigotry, racism and rebellion.

But Berenson also takes you back to the very source of this deadly antisemitic conspiracy, widely believed to have occurred in England in the mid-12th century, and documented by a monk named Thomas of Monmouth. The monk recounts that a friend of his, Theobald, had told him that the Jews of Norwich “brought a Christian child before Easter and tortured him with all the torture that our Lord was tortured with; and on Good Friday hanged him on a cross.” Theobald also told him that the Jews practiced this mutilation each year, selecting a new location each time.

Thomas of Monmouth took Theobald at his word because Theobald had been a Jew himself. The story came from a “converted enemy [who] had been privy to the secrets of our enemies,” Thomas wrote, referring to the Jews.

As the years went on, this story would grow wings and be used as a source for Jews to be blamed for the deaths of children all throughout Europe. Berenson describes many of the most famous cases. Some led to reasonable townspeople dismissing the claims but all too often led to pogroms, torture and death.

Nearly 500 years later, as Jews began to resettle en masse in the United States, they thought they were leaving the antisemitic horrors experienced in Europe behind. But the Massena case shows how stories can spread and travel across oceans despite all odds, and despite the unlikeliness of their factuality.

In describing the events of Massena in 1928, Berenson reminds the reader how vulnerable the minority can be and how quickly a community can turn against one of its very own. At a time when the United States has suffered the bloodiest year of antisemitism ever – with Jews having been gunned down in Pittsburgh and Poway – the message could not be more appropriate.

Berenson’s book challenges the reader to ask the tough questions: Are Jews truly safe in the United States? Can age-old conspiracy theories regarding the Jewish people become widely held beliefs once more?

The Accusation acts as a reminder of the danger of making claims about a people from a place of resentment, fear or xenophobia. Jews and non-Jews must read this book and take the messages from the past to heart, ensuring that old wives’ tales remain just that.


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