Ariel Toaff, the author of Bloody Passovers: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murders said Monday his previous statement that some ritual murders of Christian children by Jews "might have taken place" had been an ironic academic provocation. Toaff, who heads Bar-Ilan University's Medieval and Renaissance History Department, replied with a defiant "no" to The Jerusalem Post's question of whether he believes Jewish communities could have committed ritual murder. He said his statement had simply been a premise for breaking the taboo of academic research into the anti-Christian atmosphere in Ashkenazi European Jewish communities of the Middle Ages.
'Jews never committed ritual murders'
According to Toaff, it was the contentious review of his book in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera 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," he said.
However, he admitted that he did not foresee the impact his book would have on a society which, he said, 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," he said.
Toaff has already paid a heavy personal price for his book and said that he feels as if he has been excommunicated. None of his old friends have called him at his Rome hotel during his entire week's stay here, he said. He has been dismissed as editor of the Zohar historical review and is concerned he might lose his university position in Israel as well, although the university has said it will withhold judgement on the book until Toaff returns to Israel.
He has even been prevented from seeing his father, Rabbi Elio Toaff, Rome's former chief rabbi who led the community during both the terror attack on the main synagogue in 1982 and the pope's visit in 1986.
A rabbinical press release was issued against the contents of the book even before anyone had read it, based on the review. The press release indicated the author was trying to prove the validity of some medieval blood libels in his text.
Riccardo Pacifici, vice president of the community and its spokesperson, said that out of respect and consideration for Toaff's father, the rabbi was not asked to sign the press release, but had himself stated his willingness to do so. Pacifici said the book was painful for Toaff's father, and he was whisked away to avoid his having to face the media on the subject.
Leone Paserman, president of the Rome Jewish community, called the book "a mere commercial operation, unworthy of a serious historian."
Dr. Amos Luzzatto, a retired surgeon and former president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, said it offers nourishment for growing anti-Semitism, for Jew-haters to say: "I told you so, I told you so."
Luzzatto, one of the few critics who had actually read the book, also questioned its scholarly contribution. "Toaff produces hypotheses instead of facts. His textual references are incomplete and insufficient to serve as evidence of an allegedly widespread expression of hatred of Christians by Jews in medieval times.
According to Toaff, the anti-Christian atmosphere which existed at the time in question 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 who were accused of the ritual murders were dictated by their tormentors and therefore untrue. In the medieval trial documents he found statements in Yiddish formerly ignored by investigators, which he insists provide additional keys for interpretation and understanding of the times.
The first edition of 1,000 copies of the book sold out in a day, and the second 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."
Meanwhile the Italian press has been hosting daily articles on the topic of ritual murder or blood libel. 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 official taboos - or they have angrily accused him of a lack of historical discernment and responsibility for fomenting anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Pacifici has gone a step further. He rejected what he said were Toaff's claims of verbal threats from Italian Jews and said the reason he refused to come to the synagogue was out of shame, not fear.
Comparing Toaff to a Jewish lawyer who wanted to defend two Nazis at a post-Holocaust trial in Lithuania, Pacifici noted the lawyer "broke down, cried and did teshuva (repented). I think Ariel Toaff's case is similar. He has created enormous damage to our image in the Christian world but even more so in Islam. I hope he will do teshuva."