'Jews never committed ritual murders'

Speaking to 'Post', Prof. Toaff moves to diffuse row with Jewish community.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Ariel Toaff, the author of Bloody Passovers: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murders feels as if he had been excommunicated. A rabbinical press release was issued against the contents of his book even before anyone had read it, based on a review that appeared in the Corriere della Sera, which attributed Toaff - an Israeli historian of Italian origin who heads Bar Ilan University 's Medieval and Renaissance History Department - with attempting to prove the validity of some medieval "blood libels." Toaff feels like he had been pushed into a corner. None of his old friends have called him at his Rome hotel during the entire week of his stay here. He has been dismissed as editor of the Zohar historical review, and is concerned he might lose his university position in Israel as well. According to Bar-Ilan spokesman Shmuel Algrabali, the university "expresses its strongest reservations" over media reports claiming the book states that the notorious "blood libels" against Jews might have basis in fact. "Bar-Ilan University has condemned and will continue to condemn any attempt to justify the awful blood libels against Jews," the spokesman said. However, he defended the right of the professor to express his views and said the university would withhold judgment on the book until Toaff returns from his trip abroad. He has been prevented from seeing or even contacting his father, Elio Toaff, Rome's former chief rabbi who led the community for many years during, among other things, the terrorist attack on the main synagogue in 1982 and the hosting of John Paul II's historic visit in 1986. According to Toaff, it was Sergio Luzzatto's contentious review, solicited by Il Mulino publishers, and not his book itself that sparked the controversy. "I have been conducting research on this topic for six years with my students at Bar Ilan University without any problems," Toaff told The Jerusalem Post. However, Toaff admitted that he did not foresee the impact his book would have on a society which, he claims, is facing a major problem in the face of resurgent anti-Semitism. "Perhaps my book should have been aimed at an Israeli public where there is less risk of misunderstandings and of a misuse of my findings." Speaking to the Post, Toaff replies with a defiant "No" to the question of whether he believes Jewish communities could have committed ritual murder. His previous statement had been an ironic academic provocation, he said - a premise for breaking the taboo of academic research into the anti-Christian atmosphere in Ashkenazi European Jewish communities of the Middle Ages. According to Toaff, this atmosphere was an understandable aftermath of the Crusades, the massacres of Jews and the mass suicides of Jewish families who preferred death to conversions forced on them by fanatic Christians. However, he feels it played a role in the recurrent traumatic events which saw Jews as victims. What he contests are the foregone conclusions by historians, who claim that all statements made by Jews under torture were dictated by their tormentors and therefore untrue. In the medieval trial documents he found statements in Yiddish formerly ignored by investigators, which, he holds, provide additional keys for interpretation and understanding of the times. The first edition of 1,000 copies was sold out in one day, and the second edition has already been printed. But, Toaff maintained, he does not want to accept any money for this book and is seeking to hold off on further reprints for now. He has also refused offers for high profile Italian TV appearances because "I don't want to encourage anti-Semitic exploitation of my research." The Italian press has been hosting daily articles on the topic to which the book's title alludes: ritual murder, or the blood accusation, which has throughout the centuries served as an alibi for pogroms and massacres of Jews as well as food for rabid anti-Semitic rhetoric in Muslim countries and neo-Nazi movements today. Catholic and Jewish historians and journalists have either praised Toaff for his "courageous" forays into rarely discussed aspects of medieval Jewish life such as superstitions, including the use of blood for medical or ritual needs (despite the official taboos), or they have angrily accused him of a lack of historical discernment and responsibly for fomenting anti-Semitic stereotypes. On his first day in Rome, Prof. Toaff was quoted as saying that some ritual murders "might have taken place." This, together with Sergio Luzzatto's review triggered an indignant flood of replies. Some particularly cogent discrediting of Toaff's book came from Catholic historians who, after the Vatican II 1965 Nostra Aetate document on Catholic-Jewish reconciliation, oversaw the scholarly research and campaign that led to the removal of the cult of Saint Simonino - the Christian child allegedly murdered by Jews in Trent to use his blood for making Passover Matzot in 1475. Sixteen members of the Trent Jewish Community were then sentenced to hanging after confessions were extracted through use of excruciating torture.