Imaginary vampires, imagined Jews

The practice of depicting Jews as drinkers of blood has been common for centuries.

The writer is a professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University. This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (, and is reprinted with permission.

Eighteen ninety seven was a watershed year in Jewish history. The first Zionist Congress convened in a grand hotel in Basel, Switzerland. With much less pomp, the Yiddisher Arbeter Bund, the Jewish Labor Movement, was clandestinely founded in a Vilna basement (socialist movements being illegal under Tsarist rule).
In New York, Der Forverts, the world’s largest-circulation and longest-running Yiddish newspaper, began publication.
Meanwhile, in Odessa, the Hebrew-language Ha- Shahar, the first and most influential Zionist journal, was founded under the editorship of Ahad Ha’am. And now, thanks to Blood Will Tell, an engaging and insightful new study by Sara Libby Robinson, Jewish historians may consider adding a surprising entry to this list of 1897 events: the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
While never explicitly identified as a Jew, the figure of Dracula – and vampires more generally – encompassed an array of anti-Semitic stereotypes: rootless, of East European origin, dark-complected, and lusting after the money/blood of others. Assessing a wide range of themes in which blood and vampirism were evoked in late-19thcentury European “scientific” thought (Social Darwinism and criminology in particular), Robinson argues that Stoker’s depiction of Dracula exploited widespread anxieties about the dangers posed by the flood of Yiddish-speaking immigrants to Great Britain.
DRACULA’S FEATURES are “stereotypically Jewish... [his] nose is hooked, he has bushy eyebrows, pointed ears, and sharp, ugly fingers.” As for his behavior, Robinson situates Dracula in the realm of fin-de-siècle national chauvinism, which viewed non-Anglo-Saxons – and Jews in particular – as dangerous interlopers, loyal only to their alien tribe. “Like many immigrants, Dracula has made great efforts to acculturate himself to his new country and to blend in with the rest of the population, through studying its language and customs... [his] greatest concern is whether his mastery of English and his pronunciation would brand him as a foreigner.” Likewise, Stoker mines anxieties over Jewish dual loyalty. The one identified person whose aid Dracula enlists in escaping Britain is a German Jew named Hildesheim, “with a nose like a sheep.”
Robinson asserts that the purpose of her study is to widen the focus away from Dracula. She calls attention, often brilliantly, to the frequent appearance of vampiric metaphors and blood-related anxieties beginning two decades before Stoker’s work appeared, up through the First World War. She marshals evidence from dozens of German, French and British authors for allusions to perceived political and social threats evoking the fear of vampirism. Additionally, she casts a fine eye on some 30 illustrations culled from satirical journals such as the German Kladderadatsch, the English Punch, and the American Puck and Harper’s Weekly.
Nevertheless, Dracula makes an appearance in every chapter, and is cited more often than any other single work. The only author who receives more attention than Stoker is Émile Zola – for good reason, given his work’s sharply critical commentary on the political and social trends of his day.
Robinson’s approach to her sources is thematic and synthetic. She mines texts for their appropriation of blood and vampire metaphors, engaging neither in literary analysis of her sources nor in biographical studies of their authors. Robinson’s wide range shows precisely how malleable the accusation of vampirism had become by the early 20th century. On the economic front, Jews were vilified as frequently for being capitalist blood-suckers as they were for being socialist revolutionaries feeding on the social vitality of Old World Europe. The mythology about Jews and blood was protean enough to fit the contours of the nationalistracist, pseudo-scientific and religious theories of the day. In that last realm, medieval Christian mythology about Jews and blood was most infamously manifest in the notorious blood libel.
The synthetic approach is mostly suited, but its perils are nowhere more evident than in Robinson’s references to Max Nordau and his controversial work Degeneration in the context of a discussion of Social Darwinist anti- Semitism. Robinson oddly introduces Nordau as a “German intellectual,” making him sound much more deracinated than he was. Readers unfamiliar with the man called “Herzl’s rabbi” will almost certainly come away with the notion that Nordau was some German, anti- Semitic social Darwinist.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Since his first, stirring address to the Zionist Congress in that momentous year 1897, Nordau was the most influential exponent of practical Zionism until his death in 1923. Robinson never even alludes to Nordau’s status as a founding father of Zionism – an omission rendered doubly bizarre given her subsequent extended treatment of the Zionist aim of strengthening the Jewish body. Using Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland as her main source, she ignores Nordau’s more salient classic essay, “Muskeljudentum” (Muscular Judaism).
Notwithstanding this certainly inadvertent distortion, Robinson has written a provocative book that will heighten our awareness of blood metaphors. As is proper, she reserves her observations about the contemporary relevance of her research to a brief mention, in the book’s conclusion of recent depictions of Jews as vampires.
(Most chillingly, one cartoon casts former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon as “Sharoncula,” about to sink his canine teeth into the neck of an innocent Arab girl.) BUT TOO many discussions in this fine book eerily echo distressing recent news stories. Most are all too obvious.
Late last month, UN High Commissioner for the Middle East Richard Falk posted a vile cartoon of a rapacious Jewish dog on his website.
Still, numerous themes examined by Robinson elicit more surprising analogies. I will mention just one: Robinson’s fascinating discussion of the link between blood libels and shokhtim, Jewish ritual slaughterers. In the 1880s, cruelty to animals became a major concern in liberal European circles, and laws were enacted to regulate animal slaughter. These judicial acts coincided, in Konitz, Germany, with a notorious blood libel directed at two local shokhtim, along with rhetoric characterizing Jews as bloodthirsty beasts. Robinson observes that: “In Germany especially, this campaign veered towards anti-Semitic slander. According to some advocates of stunning, Jews supposedly took pleasure in their method of slaughtering, which strengthened their insensitivity and brutality. Propaganda depicted them as a ‘blooddrinking people.’ One hears a disturbing echo of this episode in Holland’s introduction, two weeks ago, of legislation banning both Jewish and Islamic ritual slaughter. The ostensible motive is the “humanitarian” concern for animal rights – a “humanitarianism” greatly clarified by Robinson’s study. Just as blood is hidden from sight until the skin is pierced, the metaphors of blood and vampirism examined by Robinson all too often cover deep racial hatreds and fears below the skin of polite public discourse.