Among the unexpected consequences of the January 9 shooting tragedy in Tucson has been the introduction into American public discourse of a term seldom used and poorly understood. A nasty partisan sideshow erupted when Sarah Palin, responding to charges that her rhetoric about her political adversaries could be implicated in the crime of a lone, deranged gunman, accused her attackers of engaging in a "blood libel."
In the end, Palin's invoking of this term ignited much heat but shed precious little light on either its religious origins or its horrific historical legacy. All who entered the fray spoke of the blood libel as a long-discredited calumny against Jews. One legislator attributed its origins to the Nazis, another to the Soviets. Few, if any, seemed to be aware that it is alive and well, today more than ever.
In fact, the blood libel originated neither in Germany nor in Russia but in England, and specifically in the medieval East Anglian town of Norwich. (By coincidence, a feature piece on Norwich in the Travel section of the January 23 New York Times, while devoting considerable attention to the town's rich history of Christian piety, omitted mention of any darker side.) In 1144, the stabbed, bloodied corpse of William, a twelve-year-old lad, was found in the woods just outside of town. The local Jews were not only blamed for his death but accused of having re-created a ritual crucifixion, a slander that ultimately contributed to William's renown as a martyr and finally to his sainthood.
The notion that the Jews had re-enacted the murder of Jesus—on Good Friday, no less—quickly spread to other towns across England and from there across the Channel, fueling hitherto unprecedented demonizations of the Jews precisely at the height of the Second Crusade. In the process, the initial libel of crucifixion quickly became embellished by the hideous idea that the lifeless bodies of these innocents were then drained of their blood for use in the Jews' celebration of Passover.
At least four Popes, along with many monarchs both in the Franco-German lands of Western Europe and later in the east as well, firmly denounced the charge as a falsehood. Nevertheless, it took deep root in the medieval Christian imagination, leading to countless trials and public burnings of those accused.
While the rationales advanced for this most irrational of myths varied, the central notion was that Jews actually required the blood of an innocent Christian child as a key ingredient in the afikoman, the piece of matzah representing the paschal lamb that is consumed at the conclusion of the Passover seder. Outlandish as this may sound, two compelling theological motifs were at play. On the simple level, it was believed that, in ritually rekindling their act of perfidy in shedding the blood of Christ, the Jews were continuing to affirm the Gospels' account of their collective self-condemnation: "Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children" (Matthew 27:25).
On a deeper psychological level, the libel could be held to explain the sheer longevity of this same act of perfidy. The Jews, that is, aware that the blood of Christ was needed for their own salvation, had continued out of sheer, stubborn evil to refuse to accept him as their savior. Instead, during their festival of redemption they attempted to effectuate their salvation by substituting the blood of a baptized innocent child.
From the 16th century on, and despite the earlier efforts of Polish and Lithuanian royals, the blood libel would find its most fertile ground in Eastern Europe. It experienced a frenzied revival in late-19th-century Russia, where it triggered dozens of pogroms, notoriously the wave that began in Kishinev in 1903. In the 20th century, the most infamous instance, and one that generated outrage throughout the western world, was prosecuted by the Tsarist government against Mendel Beilis of Kiev in 1913.
But thereafter, and especially in the wake of the Holocaust, the libel appeared to have died away. In the epilogue to Blood Accusation, his masterful 1966 account of the Beilis affair, Maurice Samuel averred that the blood libel had run its historical course, becoming "an insignificant factor in the anti-Semitism of the last half-century." Allowing that it still "cropped up here and there in 'cockroach' publications," Samuel nevertheless concluded that, as a source of "major agitation," it had been killed not only by the Beilis case and later developments but, more critically, by "the spirit of the time."
Alas, it is far from dead. Rather, as with so many other hateful and completely discredited Christian myths about the Jews, the blood libel has migrated to the Arab world. There, it enjoys widespread credence and support.
As early as 1960s, books published in Egypt referred to "talmudic human sacrifices." In 1982, the influential Syrian politician Mustafa Tlass published a best-selling and widely reprinted book, Matzah of Zion, affirming the truth of the notorious 1840 case of blood libel in Damascus; to this day, Tlass's book is cited as the authoritative text on how Jews and Zionists continue to perpetrate ritual murders on Arab children. Arab government-sponsored newspapers and television networks regularly publish and broadcast variations of the blood libel. Notable among them was the 2003 miniseries, The Exile, aired both on the Hizballah network Al-Manar and on Al-Jazeera with its many millions of viewers; it included horrific depictions of long-bearded and hook-nosed rabbis extracting blood from the corpses of lifeless Arab children.
Of course, the Jews' central role in the passion and crucifixion of Jesus—the very source of the libel's power—has no resonance in Islamic theology or history. And so the myth has had to be adjusted. Arguably the most creative such adaptation was achieved in March 2002 when the leading Saudi daily, Al Riyadh, stated that hamantashen, the pastries eaten on the holiday of Purim, are filled not with poppy seeds or prunes but with the blood of Gentile children; thus was the baby-killer accusation linked ingeniously to a more regional story (ancient Persia being the setting for the events of Purim).
Setting aside such efforts to cater to Arab audiences by lending some semblance of historical "logic" to the blood libel, the widespread Muslim belief in this millennial calumny testifies to a hatred even greater than that propagated to illiterate medieval Christian peasants. For the latter, at least, there was a theological rationale. Moreover, unlike the many Popes and Christian monarchs who, however futilely, denied the truth of the blood libel, its proliferation in the Arab world today is officially endorsed by both religious authorities and governments. As we now watch several of these governments tottering, it is hard not to wonder what new forms the defamation might yet assume—and whether their existence will continue to be ignored by western observers as assiduously as it was in the reaction to Sarah Palin's hapless remark.
Allan Nadler is professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University.
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