When vitriolic tales become ‘news’

‘Blood Libel’ presents a cogent account of the persistence of hate.

French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner listens to Chief Rabbi Harold Abraham Weill (R) as they stand beside graves desecrated with swastikas at the Jewish cemetery in Westhoffen, near Strasbourg (photo credit: REUTERS/ARND WIEGMANN)
French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner listens to Chief Rabbi Harold Abraham Weill (R) as they stand beside graves desecrated with swastikas at the Jewish cemetery in Westhoffen, near Strasbourg
On December 28, 1235, in the town of Fulda in Hesse, Germany, 34 Jewish men and women were executed by Crusaders following allegations that two of them had killed Christian boys and collected their blood in waxed sacks for use during Passover. After consulting with nobles, religious figures and Jewish converts to Christianity, Frederick II issued an imperial decree absolving the Jews of “the great crime” and condemning this – and any – blood libel accusation as without foundation in Jewish law or practice.  
Frederick’s decree and a bull issued by Pope Innocent IV in 1247 threatening excommunication for anyone killing Jews “because of such a suspicion” might have deterred blood libels for a while, but in 1475, when the body of a toddler named Simon was discovered in a canal running under the house of a Jew in Trent, the images and “authoritative accounts” of Jewish ritual murders spread across Europe, assisted by the development of the printing press. 
In Blood Libel, Magda Teter, a professor of history and Judaic studies at Fordham University, and the author of Sinners on Trial: Jews and Sacrilege After the Reformation, and Jews and Heretics in Catholic Poland, draws on archives in eight countries, including Vatican City, in a detailed analysis of the establishment of this monstrous myth in medieval and early modern Europe. The refusal of Vatican officials after 1583 to re-issue public condemnations of allegations that Jews murdered Christians for blood, and their subsequent equivocations, Teter demonstrates, have made it difficult to combat a “confirmation bias” based on readily accessible folktales. Blood Libel presents a cogent account of this persistence of hate.  
Central to Teter’s analysis is the response of a succession of popes who believed they were acting for the good of the Church to violent attacks on Jews.  In 1475, she reveals, Sixtus IV prohibited the veneration of Simon of Trent as beatus (or canonization) until claims of miracles performed in the presence of his (allegedly uncorrupted) body were verified by “apostolic authorities.” 
A century later, however, images of Simon, ubiquitous in churches, had created “new facts on the ground,” and Pope Gregory XIII inserted the toddler into the Martyrologium Romanum, sanctioning popular shrines in his name. 
Most consequential, perhaps, was the bull issued by Pope Benedict XIV in 1755. Distinguishing between those who deserved to be beatified and those who merited canonization, Benedict beatified Andreas of Rinn, another alleged child-victim of Jews; he also declared several times that Andreas, like Simon and other children, “was cruelly killed by Jews in hatred of Christian faith.” 
TO BE SURE, Teter writes, “The pope never affirmed the blood accusation – according to Benedict the murder was in odio – but that distinction would be lost on future accusers.”
Teter also provides an informative account of the different ways in which European countries handled blood libel accusations against Jews. Concerned primarily with conversion, she writes, Italians were more anti-Judaic than anti-Jewish, focusing on the tenets of the religion, with which they had rather extensive knowledge.  Although stories of Jews killing Christian children were scarcely unknown in Italy, judicial persecution diminished over time, as norms excluded participation by the clergy in criminal cases that could end in capital punishment.  
In Poland, by contrast, a lack of knowledge about Jewish customs; an echo chamber of vitriolic tales about Jewish wickedness, deceit, malevolence, cruelties and crimes; a weak judicial system; and a reliance on torture to elicit “the truth,” poisoned relations between Christians and Jews, and meant that blood libels persisted and trials were often deadly. Papal, royal, and imperial privileges, many Poles agreed, were only valid if based on truth; some papal bulls, they insisted, were fraudulent.
The papal recognition of Simon of Trent and Andreas of Rinn and the affirmation that these children were “cruelly killed by Jews in hatred of Christ,” Teter concludes, left “a long memory trail” of lore “recorded as facts in chronicles and cosmographies” that resemble today’s “breaking news”: privileging and legitimizing  the sensational, exceptional and negative while excluding or underplaying the ordinary, affirmative, historical and systemic.  
Teter’s dispiriting narrative helps explain the popularity, despite well-documented evidence to the contrary, of websites and chat groups “filled to the brim with articles on the ‘Jewish Murder Plan Against White Christians’ that are, as one white supremacist online user announced, ‘backed up by records going back many centuries.’” Her book also explains why in 2014 the Anti-Defamation League had to ask Facebook to remove a page titled “Jewish Ritual Murder.”
Blood Libel provides a timely reminder that “leadership matters, as do words and official statements.” After all, Prof. Teter emphasizes, “for all the work behind the scenes,” through which Vatican authorities tried to help Jews, “the absence of explicit public condemnations came to be read as a tacit approval. Silences are heard too.”
By Magda Teter
Harvard University Press.  
539 pages; $39.95
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.