Plagues, Jews and fake news

“They are blaming the Jews, accusing us of trying to destroy the economy in order to make money. They also blame Israel for causing the virus."

The Simon of Trent blood libel: Illustration in Hartmann Schedel’s Weltchronik, 1493 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Simon of Trent blood libel: Illustration in Hartmann Schedel’s Weltchronik, 1493
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It was only a matter of time before antisemites started blaming the Jews for the coronavirus. As incredulous as this may seem, we need only look back at our history to see how century after century since the beginning of the Middle Ages, libelous episodes of hatred were promulgated against Jewish communities throughout Europe. 

In 2016, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research sponsored an academic conference in New York in which the issue of the blood libel was explored. Jonathan Brent, executive director and CEO of YIVO, introduced the topic by sharing some shocking facts about this phenomenon. Brent reminded his audience that the antisemitic canards against Jews are not just rooted in the Middle Ages but rather occur in the contemporary world and even in the US. 

In 2010, black extremists in Chicago blamed the AIDS epidemic on Jewish doctors, whom they accused of injecting their babies with the virus. They even succeeded in obtaining small grants of state and city funds to propagate the libel. As recently as 2017, reports appeared in Russia about an investigation being carried out to prove that the murder of Czar Nicholas II and his family more than 100 years ago was a ritualistic plot perpetrated by Bolshevik Jews. 

This bizarre accusation came to light at a conference at Moscow’s Stretensky Monastery on November 27 of that year. The conference was attended by Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. At the same conference, Bishop Tikhon, an influential priest known as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s confessor, said that the theory is widely acknowledged within a special church commission that is currently examining the murder. 

Back in the 15th century, another Christian cleric, Tomas de Torquemada played a similar role. In addition to being the Grand Inquisitor who pursued, tortured and executed thousands of conversos (Crypto-Jews), he was also the personal priest and confessor of Queen Isabella of Spain.

Such accusations are deplorable and wicked; nevertheless, they continue to thrive in many parts of the world. With Passover approaching, we are reminded of the origins of these horrific calumnies. One of the main speakers at the YIVO conference was E.M. Rose. She is a historian of medieval and early modern England as well as a visiting scholar in the Medieval Studies Program at Harvard University. She is also best known for her book The Murder of William of Norwich. In her presentation, Rose explained how the first blood libel came about in the High Middle Ages about 1,000 years after the birth of Jesus.

“It all began with the Second Crusade. A knight back in England after the disastrous failure of the Crusade to the Holy Land could not pay his enormous debts.”

She went on to explain how the knight had borrowed money from a Jewish banker to finance his mission. Unable to pay the money back, the knight arranged to have the banker killed. As a result, he was put on trial for murder in a secular court. His legal defender was the bishop, his feudal lord. The bishop concocted a story about how the victim rather than the knight should have been tried.

“You cannot try the knight until you’ve tried the banker for killing that Christian child a few years ago,” the bishop alleged. “The Jew and his community perpetrated the crime.” The bishop’s libelous strategy worked and the accusation of homicide was thrown out and never investigated again. At that time, there were no pogroms and the Jews were left to continue their lives in the Golden Age of Medieval England. Rose went on to emphasize that the first blood libel was just a story, a myth without factual evidence “spun” by fine upstanding members of Medieval Christian society to gain economic and political advantage over their subjugated Jews. The story was accepted and believed by the members of the English Royal Court and became the narrative for many future blood libels (referred to later in this article) that were circulated for the same ends.

“The story of William of Norwich was retold in other places where it was used as a pretext to extort money from Jews, to create saints and justify the seizure of goods and power,” E.M. Rose told her audience. 

But the blood libel was not just a made-up falsehood to extort money from Jews. It had deeper origins that go back to Christian doctrine. The libel that Jews wanted to use the blood of young Christian boys was seen as the reenactment of the Passion of Christ. It was also connected to the reenactment of the legend of the Massacre of the Innocents, as described in the New Testament, when King Herod of Judea ordered his soldiers to slaughter all the baby boys of Bethlehem in an attempt to destroy the baby Jesus. (Jesus had meanwhile escaped with his parents to Egypt.) The infants were referred to as Innocenti by the Church. In the Middle Ages, the Innocents were perceived as Christians and their murderers as Jews.

Later on in history, modern commentators tried to defend the Church’s record by interpreting these events as some kind of superstition or greed. Others went even further and tried to put the blame on the Jews themselves. They alleged that blood libels were strongly connected to Jewish religious practices, such as rituals of circumcision and metzitzah be peh, in which the mohel performing the circumcision uses some kind of pipette to remove blood with his lips. They also referred to the ritual of Jews drinking red wine at Passover inspiring the most heinous canard of all that Jews drank the blood of young Christian boys and used some of it for baking matza. The Jewish community’s response in the Middle Ages was to keep a low profile. The Rabbis urged their followers to replace the red wine with white, however this did not change anything as the blood libels conveniently took hold and spread throughout Europe. 

The evil stories about the Jews fed into the religious Christian narrative of the Church with Christian male babies being compared to the infant Jesus while their mothers were seen as incarnations of the Virgin Mary. At the YIVO conference, Rose referred to several examples of young Christian martyrs who never actually existed. She began with the story of Hugh of Lincoln, whose murder allegedly took place in 1255. This myth was initiated by the English King Henry III in order to justify the imprisonment and execution of some of the Jews. He did this to free himself of debt, a plot that finally led to the confiscation of property and material assets and the expulsion of the Jews from England. In the meantime, the legacy of the fictitious Hugh of Lincoln continued to be celebrated and revered in Catholic England and was even referenced by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. Time Magazine once described him as one of the most famous saints in Medieval England. This was a misnomer, as Hugh of London was never made a saint. 

Unfortunately for the Jews, the celebration and veneration of boy martyrs began to spread. Some 200 years later, the most famous and enduring blood libel story of all was fabricated in Italy with dire consequences for the Jews. It was the story of Simon of Trent. He was a boy found dead in 1473 in the city of Trent, near the German border. The iconic sculptural depiction of his ritual murder by Jews became the most widely reproduced image in medieval times. One of the more familiar examples of this was reproduced in the Nuremberg Chronicle. At the time, Trent was ruled by a Prince Bishop, an educated Humanist who fully exploited the new medium of printing to market his holy city in many languages. The printed media promoted songs and poems and stories, telling and retelling everyone about the tragic murder of little Simon. Pilgrims flocked to Trent, bringing fame and fortune to this obscure Italian town. The Pope, at the time, sent his own investigator to try and curb the spread of Simonino mania. He was unable to do so and soon many other towns across Europe wanted their own little Simon. Stories proliferated and some were conveniently backdated to fit the narrative, including that of Christopher of La Guardia in Spain and Andreas of Rinn in Austria.

Accompanied by the mass distribution of printed “hate media,” the blood libels of the 15th century developed into a cleverly crafted format. These included grotesquely entertaining set pieces similar to pantomimes complete with defined characters: the innocent Christian child, the grieving mother and the evil Jews with costumes and props that were paraded through the towns and villages of Catholic Europe. Unlike the events that took place in the early Middle Ages, where the Jews were left alone to carry on with their lives, these appalling charades that masqueraded as Christian saint festivals were accompanied by show trials where Jews were arrested and made to confess to their crimes under brutal torture, often ending in their barbaric execution. Entire Jewish communities were attacked and forced to flee while their property was seized or destroyed. Medieval Ashkenazi Jewish women began to dress up as men to protect themselves from being raped. 

The blood libel cult became “big business” producing its own “artistic” legacy with pictures, sculptures, poems and songs about the innocent child victims none of whom ever existed in reality but who were invented to suit the fiscal and culture needs of the Christian doctrine. An example of this was “The Ballad of Little Hugh,” a song which is still sung today in Christian communities throughout the English-speaking world. Contributors at the YIVO conference demonstrated how these Church-inspired antisemitic tropes are still being bandied about today. In a recent Jerusalem Post article that covered the Christian pre-Lent carnival season in Europe, Liat Collins referred to the obscene parade of floats in the Belgian city of Aalst, where the townspeople paraded themselves dressed as Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox) Jews with big noses alongside giant effigies of the same folk dangling rats and money bags filled with gold. Also in February, Israel’s ambassador to Spain denounced a similar Mardi Gras Carnival routine in a small Spanish town that featured men and women dressed up as Jewish Holocaust victims being chased by Nazi soldiers. 

These offensive practices have also spread to the Middle East. Only 10 months ago, a Kuwaiti researcher, Muhammad Hamad Al-Muhanna repeated the blood libel story in all its gory details in a YouTube clip. He did this as part of an ongoing campaign to discredit Israel and the Jewish people throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Fortunately, the vast majority of non-Jews around the world are offended, embarrassed and ashamed of the perfidious rubbish that is circulated in the name of Christianity and Islam.

Part of the fuel that fired the great pogroms in Europe during the Middle Ages came from the Black Death, the Bubonic plague that swept across Europe killing far fewer Jews than Gentiles because the Jews were kept isolated in their ghettos. Their Christian neighbors accused them of witchcraft, poisoning the wells and spreading the disease. 

At present the world is in the grip of the coronavirus. I began this article by surmising that very soon a conspiracy theory would emerge in which Jews would be blamed for the current pandemic. Having only just Googled the said conspiracy theory, I was shocked to discover that there are now at least three reports referring to this matter including a report about an online CAM (Combat Antisemitism Movement) conference, during which Natan Sharansky addressed the forum.

In his speech, Sharansky highlighted current virulent antisemitic propaganda stemming from Iran, Turkey and a number of other countries around the globe, where Jews are being blamed for spreading the coronavirus. In Iran, the state-controlled news outlets are contributing to the incitement by blaming “Zionists” for the epidemic and warning people not to use a coronavirus vaccine if it is developed by Israeli scientists!

Sharansky ended his speech with the following statement: “They are blaming the Jews, accusing us of trying to destroy the economy in order to make money. They also blame Israel for causing the virus. We know that accusing Jews of spreading plague is nothing new. We saw it in the Middle Ages, during the Black Plague that swept through Europe. Then, too, they accused Jews of causing the spread of disease. The difference between then and now is that today, we have a strong State of Israel, and we are determined to fight antisemitism and defeat it.”