On February 5, 1840, Capuchin friar Father Thomas and his servant disappeared without a trace. They were last seen in the Jewish Quarter of Damascus, Syria’s most important city, the pride of the Ottoman Empire’s presence in the Levant. The French consul in Damascus, a Jew-hater, immediately pressured the Turks to find the Jews whom he believed ritually slaughtered the two Christians. Indeed, spring was not far away, and with it, Passover. They coerced a Jewish barber into confessing to the crime and thus the “Damascus Affair” was born.
Accusations that Jews murdered Christians and siphoned off their blood to bake matzah for Passover were a feature of Christendom for centuries. But the truth is that a millennium before the first “blood libel” accusation in Europe, Greco-Egyptian intellectual Apion spread the word in Alexandria that Jews would kidnap a gentile lad every year, fatten him up, and slaughter him in the Jerusalem Temple while cursing the Greeks.
That this was believed by millions of people was absurd – the biblical binding of Isaac is a polemic against human sacrifice and the Torah forbids the Jews to drink blood (of animals or human beings) – but ritual murder charges against the Jews were tenacious. They were an obsession among many Christians and their religious leaders into the 21st century.
While the charge against Jews of ritual murder dates back to medieval Christendom, it is fascinating how the “blood libel” penetrated the Islamic world. In Damascus in 1840, the city’s Jewish leadership was arrested and tortured to force them to confess to the ritual murder of the priests. Seven of the arrested Jews were permanently disabled and two died under torture.
The response of the Jews, especially philanthropists Sir Moses Montefiore and French-Jewish leader Adolph Cremieux – and the protest of American President Martin Van Buren – became a harbinger of Jewish activism on behalf of those Jews who were persecuted. It reminds me of the more recent Jewish advocacy and protest on behalf of Soviet-Jewish refuseniks.
IT WAS ALSO the first of many times when American presidents spoke out on behalf of Jews being persecuted abroad. After Damascus, there were blood libels in the Islamic world often, and it has remained a charge until today among some Muslims.
Lest we believe that the burning at the stake of Jews for ritual murder was a stain on central and western European Christendom, we only have to examine the trial of Mendel Beilis in Russia in the 20th century. On March 20, 1911, a Russian Orthodox child’s mutilated body was found in a cave in the outskirts of Kiev. While it was obvious that Mendel Beilis, a Jew, was not the killer, he was arrested for ritual murder and languished in prison for two years awaiting trial.
The blood libel was deeply rooted in medieval Russian folklore. Again, as in the Damascus Affair, there was a worldwide outcry at the injustice of the accusation. The month-long trial in Kiev in 1913 acquitted Beilis of the ritual murder. Yet accusations of Jews performing ritual murder have not disappeared. It is popular in the Islamic world and we are facing a modern blood libel, especially on college campuses, in false attacks on the Jews of Israel for murdering Palestinian children in a campaign of genocide. As I said, this accusation is tenacious.
The period between Purim and Passover has been a dangerous one for Jews. The Eucharist – the Christian belief that the ritual wine was the blood of Christ and the holy wafer God’s body – fueled the myth that Jews would recreate the crucifixion by torturing the wafer and desecrating the blood of Jesus through ritual murder. Many Jews burned bearing this charge. The proximity of Passover to Easter only made the period leading up to the spring a dangerous one, often leading to pogroms, and propagated a lie that one would have expected would have disappeared with modernity. But it has not. Accusations of ritual murder should be recognized for the blood libel they are. But for the fanatics, it is a truth rooted in the Jews murder of their God and other imagined crimes.The writer is rabbi of congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.