The blood libel is alive and well--in fact and fiction!
Raphael Israeli's Blood Libel and Its Derivatives: The Scourge of Anti-Semitism (New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Transaction, 2012). 273 pp. $39.95/25.68 [pounds sterling]
Hannah R. Johnson's Blood Libel: The Ritual Murder Accusation at the Limit of Jewish History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012). 250 pp. $70/45.79 [pounds sterling]
Zygmunt Miloszewski's A Grain of Truth (London: Bitter Lemon, 2012). 352 pp. $14.95/9.78 [pounds sterling] (pb.)
Barbara Corrado Pope's The Blood of Lorraine (New York: Pegasus, 2011). 384 pp. $15.95/10.43 [pounds sterling] (pb.)
The most insidious charges against the Jewish people--that Jews preparing the Passover meal (seder) kidnap and kill innocent children and drain their blood for unleavened bread (matza)--has been a consistent staple of the antisemitic diet for hundred of years. (1) The five texts reviewed here--three scholarly studies and two works of fiction--testify to the endurance of this calumny even now.
While Birnbaum and Johnson discuss the past and specific cases of the blood libel, Israeli identifies its transmorphing into the current strain of Arab/Muslim antisemitism. What ties the two works of fiction together is the seeming willingness of the larger societies--i.e., contemporary Poland in the case of Miloszewski and late-nineteenth/early twentieth-century France in the case of Pope--to attribute criminal behavior, conspiracies, and murder to the Jews in their midst, and thus reveal the veneer of their supposed progressive civilizations through the duplicity of such attributions.
For Pierre Birnbaum, the case at hand is the false accusation of ritual murder by, and the subsequent trial, imprisonment, and execution of, one Raphael Levy--a mainstay of his Jewish community in Metz, France, in 1669. As Birnbaum, the University of Paris political science professor (emeritus), notes in his introduction:
Behind this lurid fantasy [of ritual murder/blood libel] lay a bottomless demonology and a culture permeated with magical thinking ... This legend was born in the Catholic West. Between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Christian anti-Judaism was built around three closely related myths: (1) that Jews crucified young Christian males in order to reenact and mock the crucifixion of Christ, (2) that they kidnapped and killed Christian boys to obtain blood for their rituals, and (3) that they sought to profane hosts that through transubstantiation had become the body of Christ, in order to kill him again.
These three myths formed the basis of medieval anti-Judaism, even if it was often difficult to distinguish them with such analytic clarity:
The myth of ritual murder was based on the preposterous idea that Jews cannot make matzoh without Christian blood. Despite abundant evidence that Jews do not eat food unless all the blood has been drained out of it, and despite all the indications of the constant vigilance that this atavism, so deeply embedded in their beliefs and customs, obliged them to maintain, the idea that Jews thirsty for the blood of Christian children kidnapped them and collected their blood in special receptacles became the central theme of countless sermons, legends, plays as well as paintings by the greatest masters, which decorated any number of churches (4-5).
Thus, it is in this setting and framed by religion--in this case Roman Catholic Christianity prior to the advent of the Protestantisms (which would, however, continue this nefarious tradition centuries later), most especially the charge of deicide (murderers of God/Christ)--that four-year-old Didier Le Moyne was found murdered in September 1669, his body gutted, and that a community of believers, despite the imprecations of King Louis XIV, so readily affirmed those guilty of his murder as the Jews, and particularly one of its leading residents, Raphael Levy.
"The Levy affair thus occurred in a context where Jews were the target of permanent, generalized suspicion," Birnbaum writes, and thus reveals a century before Jews would become citizens of France (1791) both the fragility and unease of Jewish-Christian relations of the times. As Birnbaum notes, "Everything in fact separated the Jews of Boulay, Helz, and Metz from their non-Jewish neighbors. They belonged to separated and rival social universes and to starkly contrasting cultural milieus. In seventeenth century France, the Jews still formed a separated, homogeneous, endogamous group" (39-40).
Especially fascinating in Birnbaum's telling of Levy's tragic story are Levy's own words, as revealed in the interrogation documents, his letters and petitions, and his will, all of which have survived. "Raphael worked out his own sociological explanation for the terrible charge against him: that the permanent minority status of the Jews in the midst of an often hostile population made them the perfect scapegoats. [When was it ever not thus?--SLJ] He emphasized an important point: "the crucial role of ordinary people in dramatizing the allegation" (96).
Somewhat ironically, however, officially, the Roman Catholic Church of France chose not to intervene in "L'affaire Levy"; thus, the circuitous route to Levy's death was largely a secular matter left to courts and magistrates. Yet, Birnbaum's excellent text draws our attention to the fact that:
what one sees is a confrontation of two religions living side-by-side in mutual distrust, as if religion were a structural factor in shaping an antagonism, or at any rate an insuperable separation, conducive to irrational outbursts and belief in myths such as ritual murder. In Christian eyes, Jews were remote and alien beings (101).
Thus, whatever lesson is to be learned from this sad affair, it is most assuredly not the proximity of Jews to their neighbors, but, rather, respectful knowledge of their differences that has the potential to lessen such outbursts of violence, irrational or other.
University of Pittsburgh English professor Hannah Johnson charts a somewhat different path in her equally excellent and important text. Initially, Johnson focuses on the death of twelve-year-old William of Norwich, England (1132-44), whose murder was attributed to the Jewish community as a case of ritual murder/blood libel, and may very well be the first recorded instance of such a baseless antisemitic charge. William, who was invariably granted sainthood status--though never officially canonized--had his story told in a multi-volume Latin text entitled The Life and Miracles of William of Norwich by the resident Benedictine monk Thomas of Monmouth. Almost fifty years later, a pogrom in 1189-90 against the Jewish communities of both Norwich and York--in part, perhaps, because of the supposed lack of justice (no one was either specifically charged with the murder and thus brought to trial and executed)--resulted in both the slaughter of many of the Jewish residents and the suicides of others. (2)
For Johnson, painting on a far larger canvas, "this book is about recent scholars' efforts to account for an explosive accusation and its implications for understanding the dynamics of persecution in Western history" (2)--essentially, how we today read and interpret the past. Significantly, she suggests that "ethics shapes methodological decisions in the study of the accusation" and "questions about methodology, in turn, pose ethical problems of interpretation and understanding" (2). It is this very interweaving that should give us pause as she critically reviews the work of others and concludes that, all too often and all too easily, we make faulty judgments about the past, judgments not grounded in the data itself and what it suggests, but in our own and often unacknowledged presuppositions. Further complicating the work of reading, interpreting, and understanding the past is the reality that, like all of us--historians, too--do not "escape the influence of ideology" (7). Johnson also argues that cultural influences, both then and now, play important roles in the entire process. The implications, therefore, of these various decisive factors are important today, even if sometimes neglected. As she writes:
This book is situated at this juncture, where the interests of historians and literary specialists meet, and asks questions about methodological issues of concern for both in understanding the dynamics of Jewish-Christian relations ... (19). My work emerges from a broad tradition of cultural criticism and intellectual history that is the province of literary critics as well as historians ... I also see method itself as a form of theory, since methodological guidelines operate in a framework for making sense of evidence, and form another metacritical apparatus for thinking about the work historians do (23).
Carefully rereading Thomas of Monmouth's accounting of the murder of William, Johnson correctly concludes that what Thomas did to the detriment of the Jews of his day was reconfigure the story itself and thus the Christian audience could not but find the Jews--the Christians' eternal enemies- - guilty as charged:
By reconfiguring William's death as a martyrdom, Thomas hopes to show a new triumph of Christian understanding over alleged Jewish literalism that parallels the way the two communities interpret the Crucifixion: the Jews of Norwich supposedly kill a boy, but Thomas resurrects a saint, someone more than human, from his remains, just as the Jews believe Christ died a man, while Christians proclaim that he is the son of God (41).
And, despite the fact that there were those who questioned the veracity of Thomas's account, including some of his fellow monks, his paralleling William's death with that of the Christ and his attribution of miracles to William, again paralleling the Christ, remained a powerful hold upon the Christians of Norwich and beyond. Here, then, we have a classic case of antisemitism as the "rationality of the irrational," and one that must not be deferred by any appeal whatsoever to factuality.
Johnson then carefully assesses the work of two important scholars: the late Gavin Langmuir of Stanford University, whose two volumes History, Religion, and Antisemitism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000) and Toward a Definition of Antisemitism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990) continue to be required reading for all students of antisemitism; and Israeli scholar Israel Yuval, whose Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), continues to generate much excitement in medieval studies. Johnson applauds Langmuir for his "historical uncertainty surrounding the ritual murder accusation as a specifically moral space" (62), as well as his important and significant distinction between anti-Judaism as the product of a certain kind of perverse rationality versus antisemitism as imaginative irrationality (66). (3)
Equally, she applauds Yuval for his (and her) recognition that "ideology cannot simply be excised from scholarship, since it forms part of the web of assumptions and experience that form the scholar himself" (121).
Johnson concludes her book with a fascinating discussion of Ariel Toaff, entitled "The Ariel Toaff Affair and the Question of Complicity," and the controversy still surrounding the publication of his 2007 book Pasque di sangue: Ebrei d'Europa e omicidi rituali (Bloody Passover: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murder), in which Toaff, a professor of history at Bar-Ilan University and the son of a former chief rabbi of Italy, suggests that there may, in fact, be some truth in the charge of ritual murder/blood libel during the Middle Ages by renegade Jews in response to the all-pervasive antisemitism of the times. Almost uniformly, however, the international scholarly community has rejected Toaff's work as shoddy, relying too much on accepting accounts of tortured Jews as legitimate, historically accurate records. Here, Johnson's interests are not in the factuality or non- factuality of Toaff's assertions and claims, but instead in the controversies of interpretive readings surrounding them and the vested interests of those on the attack, both in Israel and elsewhere. In bringing those attacks to her readers' attention, Johnson reconfirms the role of ideology as an important signifier on topics having ethical resonances beyond the world of scholarship into the larger Jewish and Christian communities and the ongoing research and study of antisemitism itself.
A wholly different text is that of Raphael Israeli, in his Blood Libel and Its Derivatives. At times coming perilously close to a rant, both his passion and his anger are transparent and not without justification. As Israeli, professor of Islamic, Chinese, and Middle Eastern history at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, notes in his introduction:
Such accusations as "apartheid," discrimination, "racism," well-poisoning, plots against the young generation of Muslims in order to harm the reproductive sectors of Muslim/Arab societies, the use of weapons of mass destruction to commit "genocide" against the Palestinians and other Arabs, injecting HIV-positive blood and other poisonous substances into Palestinian children, poisoning Arab lands under the guise of "agricultural aid," distributing aphrodisiac chewing gum among Arab women in order to corrupt them sexually, plotting to poison the Arabs' water and lands, killing innocent Arabs, and laying sieges to peaceful citizens are all derivatives of the blood libel adopted by the Arab/Muslim war machine in their struggle against Israel (xvii).
Israeli's book, then, is the concretization by an abundance of examples of these absurdly antisemitic calumnies, all of them wholly without substance. He notes as well that:
The two extant ideas which are linked to the blood libel and find extensive expression in both Muslim propaganda and in the occasional support Western media lend to it, are the following: the Jewish innate hatred of humankind, born out of the doctrine of the elected people, which connotes ethnic superiority (hence racism); and the accusation of murder of non-Jewish children, in our case Palestinian children, that has been hurled against Israel by many Muslim states, not least of which has been Erdogan's Turkey (52).
Israeli is also equally at home criticizing and condemning the United Nations and "lenient scholars" (his term) such as Bernard Lewis, Marc Cohen, and Moshe Maoz, who have historically contextualized Muslim/ Arab treatment of both Jews and Christians, while applauding the work of conservatives Robert Spencer, Bat Ye'or, and Andrew Bostom, who have "demonstrated and solidly documented the sorry story of the extermination of entire Jewish communities or their forced conversion under Islam" (118). Even Jews in Israel who have expressed positive sentiments regarding Moroccan kings and monarchs have evoked his ire (129).
It is, however, first, last, and always the Muslim/Arab world surrounding the beleaguered State of Israel that is Israeli's focus. As he notes:
The Arabs and Muslims are so steeped in their own propaganda and campaigns of hatred against Jews and Israel, that they have grown to believe in their own delusions, as the popular television series and books based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which are liberally cited in the writings of radical Muslims, such as the platform of Hamas and the public declarations that one hears from Hizbullah and Iran attest (162).
On balance, Israeli's book is both a depressing and a frightening text, but, he believes, all is not yet lost. He prescribes several steps that can be taken to combat this oldest of the world's hatreds:
The first step is to understand the dangers posed by Arab and Islamic anti-Semitism in the modern world, since it has taken the lead from the Western world in battling against Israel and gaining its delegitimation and demonization ... On a practical level what needs to be done is the following: Arab antisemitism must be monitored and its manifestations must be made available to Western media and opinion makers. Its publications must be translated into Western languages in the hope that exposure of these virulent materials will lead to international protests and diplomatic pressure on the relevant Arab governments and institutions (209).... Another course of fighting virulent antisemitism, especially, the blood libel, is to wage incessant, insistent, and long-hauled struggle by legal means and by launching information campaigns, to pursue the anti-Semites and to scuttle their bigoted hatred by suing them in courts of law in Western democracies where there is a rule of law (228).
The challenge, then, for the readers of Israeli's text--and I am confident he would agree--would be to expand the options and possibilities for action and activism on the part of all those, Jews and non-Jews alike, willing to commit themselves to and engage in the ongoing battle against antisemitism, and not only in its anti-Israel and anti-Zionist expressions but also everywhere this hydra-headed beast continues to present itself.
A Grain of Truth is the second crime novel/police procedural now translated into English from the pen of Zygmunt Miloszewski, former editor of the Polish edition of Newsweek. As he said in a recent interview in Tablet (April 18, 2013), "For a while ... I was the favorite writer of the nationalist, anti-Semitic right-wing," a writer who refuses to examine the murkier side of previously unpunished crimes during the Communist era and takeover of Poland. Both his novels follow the peripatetic career of Teodor Szacki, divorced husband, estranged father of a daughter, and prosecuting judge, formerly of Warsaw and now banished to Sandomierz after a disastrous and botched criminal investigation. In Entanglement (2010), he investigates a murder in Warsaw and uncovers the continuing machinations of the Secret Police who, though no longer in political favor, still abuse the dark side of power.
In A Grain of Truth, a series of bizarre and grisly murders continue to show evidence of the historical "crime" of blood libel/ritual murder, even though the post-World War II communities of Poland have been thoroughly decimated and eviscerated by the Holocaust/Shoah, and the Jews of Sandomierz are, collectively almost non-existent. (It is estimated that its prewar Jewish population of 2,500 was annihilated primarily in Belzec and Treblinka.) For Szacki, his dogged pursuit of both truth and murderer does not align with this antisemitism, and thus, A Grain of Truth becomes a window into contemporary Poland and the realization that, despite the absence of Jews throughout the country, antisemitism is alive and well. Jews do appear in the novel, though they are not the central focus of this well-written and well-translated tale, one that this reviewer urges to be read. It is, also, a look at a country recovering from the past, energetically present, and building for the future.
Pierre Birnbaum's historical assessment of the Jews of seventeenth-century France inhabiting a separate and rival universe, a contrasting social milieu, and "a separated, homogeneous, endogamous group" is transparently clear in Barbara Pope's The Blood of Lorraine, though its historical context is nineteenth-century France and beyond with the trial, on charges of espionage and treason, of Captain Alfred Dreyfus looming in the background and an influencing factor in the conduct of French citizenry, particularly its Catholic members, in their attitudes toward "their Jews." It is even more complicated by the geographical location of Lorraine close to the German border, which caused Jews once living in Germany to emigrate into Lorraine, and by the unease accompanying the integration of Jews into French life after the Revolution. Again, a grisly murder of a child has taken place, its body gutted, and the victim's parents, who are themselves denizens of that society, proclaiming loudly that the Jews are guilty. This time it is magistrate Bernard Martin who is called upon to investigate the crime at the importuning of fellow and Jewish magistrate David Singer, who has been initially assigned the case. The situation is fraught with political sensitivities, and Martin finds himself questioning not only his commitments to the rule of law, his own ignorance and prejudices about Jews-- about whom he knows precious little--his friendship and relationship with Singer, the pervasive presence of the Roman Catholic Church, and other uncomfortable considerations. Like Szacki, he too has been "removed" from his previous posting, this time from Nancy, and as the result of a badly handled investigation.
Both novels are replete with back stories (in Miloszewski, it's Szacki's relationship with his daughter and his personal loneliness; in Pope, it's Martin's pregnant wife, who miscarries their first child; his non-French father-in-law; and his tenuous relationship with his own mother), all of which make for good reads. In both as well, the killers are not Jews and the endings and uncoverings are solidly written and well worth reading about. As reflections of current reality in both settings, the all-too-easy recourse to "blaming the Jews" should serve as constant reminders that antisemitism, not only in Poland and France, is far from a done deal in the West, and, like its counterpart in the Middle East, is still worthy of attention and response.
(1.) The following headline examples are all taken from the website of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI): "Syrian Author Muhammad Nimr Al-Madani on Iranian TV: 'In Many Countries, the Jews Kill People and Mix Their Blood with the Matza of Zion' " (September 8, 2010); "Lebanese Writer [Sana Kojok]: 'Jews Make Passover Matzah with the Blood of Non-Jews' " (March 29, 2013); "Former Hamas Official [Dr. Mustafa Al-Lidawi]: 'In the Past, the Jews Slaughtered Christian Children on Passover; Today They Torment and Kill Palestinians Instead' " (May 6, 2013).
(2.) Fifty years later, in 1255, also in England, nine-year-old Hugh of Lincoln was murdered, and again a charge of blood libel/ritual murder was brought against the Jewish community, specifically a Jew named Copin, who confessed under torture. Like his predecessor, Hugh was elevated as well to unofficial sainthood and even became the subject of a popular ballad in the 1750s.
(3.) An interesting and relevant article that Johnson herself references is that of Robert C. Stacy (1998), "From Ritual Crucifixion to Host Desecration: Jews and the Body of Christ," Jewish History 12(1): 11-28.
Steven Leonard Jacobs *
* Steven Leonard Jacobs holds the Aaron Aronov Endowed Chair of Judaic Studies at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. Dr. Jacobs is the associate editor for the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism and the author of several papers and books on genocide, Judaica, and antisemitism. He can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org
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|Author:||Jacobs, Steven Leonard|
|Publication:||Journal for the Study of Antisemitism|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2013|
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