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Blood Libels: Yesterday and Today

Blood Libels: Yesterday and Today

Recent rhetoric has raised the specter once again.


In 1911, a 12-year-old boy was kidnapped and murdered in Keiv, Ukraine. Local people accused an area Jew, Menachem Beilis, of committing the crime, and he was promptly arrested and held in the most appalling circumstances for two years. Beilis was innocent, but the fact that he was blamed for a crime he did not commit is not what was remarkable; Jews in Ukraine have long faced intense anti-Semitism, and it surprised few that a Jew was quickly arrested for the murder, on flimsy evidence.

What set the Beilis trial apart from other criminal prosecutions was the nature of the Russian government's case against him. Menachem Beilis became the last Jew in the West to be formally tried for the ancient slur of the blood libel.

He was accused, like many Jews before him, of killing a Christian child so that he could use her blood in a Jewish religious ritual. For nearly a thousand years, Jews like Menachem Beilis have been accused of procuring blood in this way. The reasons Jews are said to require this blood vary: usually, unlucky Jews were accused to needing blood to make Passover matzah, though other reasons (like having a physical requirement to ingest blood to stay healthy) have been voiced as well.

For months, into 1913, the Russian state conducted a formal trial into this bizarre accusation. Beilis remained in prison during this time, in the most appalling conditions, while "experts" and lawyers debated whether it was plausible that Beilis had killed the boy for religious reasons. Shockingly, given the strong air of anti-Semitism at the trial, Beilis was acquitted. (Anti-Semitism continued to dog him, however, and Beilis eventually left Russia for Israel some years later.)

Through Shakespeare, the blood libel became entrenched in English literature.

The first reliably recorded blood libel dates from 12th century England, and the myth of the blood libel (and related slurs of Jews committing murder for religious reasons) soon became entrenched in English literature. The Prioress' Tale in Chaucer's celebrated Canterbury Tales recounts one such ritual murder. Several hundred years later, another major piece of English literature brought the myth of Jewish blood lust to a new audience: Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice features the Jew Shylock itching to carve a pound of flesh out of poor Christian man.

In other countries, too, an imagined Jewish penchant for murder came to define the Jews, and sometimes helped shape Christian national identity as well. Simon of Trent (a young child supposedly murdered by Jews in the 15th century) is a popular saint in Italy. Another supposed victim, Hugh of Lincoln, was canonized in England after Jews were – in a grotesque twist – accused of first fattening him up before killing him. In the 12th century, the Jewish population of Blois, in France, was burned at the stake for supposedly murdering a young child. Even as recently as the 20th century, the blood libel was used in Europe, when Nazi publications resurrected the charge in an effort to stir up hatred against Jews. For in addition to demonizing Jews, accusations of blood libels could be used to unite populations and to channel dissatisfaction, as in community after community turned on the Jews in their midst.

Blood Libels Today

The accusation of Jews as uniquely menacing continue to thrive in the Arab world, with the substitution of Muslim children being supposedly murdered.

A book, Matzah of Zion, written by a senior Syrian politician in the 1980s about a major blood libel in 1860 in Damascus, repeats the slur and continues to enjoy widespread popularity. In 2002, the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh published an article claiming that Jews require human blood to make pastries for the Jewish holiday Purim.

In 2001, the Government-backed Egyptian newspaper Al Aksa reported as fact that Jews do require human blood for ritual purposes. The Egyptian newspaper Al Masri Al-Yawm recently published "scholarship" purportedly showing that Jews used to routinely murder Christians.

Jews as bloodthirsty, Jews as nefarious, Jews as a people with superhuman powers: all these anti-Semitic attitudes have root in the blood libel, and all of these attitudes, unfortunately, help shape the way the world sees Jews today.

Often, the inaccuracies of anti-Jewish prejudices are unexamined. For example, the 2003 television drama The Horseman, which depicts Jews as violent, bloodthirsty and secretly controlling the world, was wildly popular in much of the Arab world. Perhaps viewers were able to enjoy it because they had been conditioned to see Jews in this negative light.

Even in the Western world, these attitudes remain. The 2009 British bestseller, A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks, features a Jewish character with a nearly superhuman (and super-greedy) ability to destroy global prosperity.

At times, the blood libel even surfaces in grizzly accusations against Jews (especially Israelis) who want to mutilate people today. In 2009, the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet reported, as fact, unsubstantiated allegations that Israelis were "harvesting" organs from Palestinian children to use in transplants. The accusations were investigated and found to be baseless, but the newspaper has yet to apologize.

In 2010, Baroness Jenny Tongue, a member of Britain's House of Lords, rephrased the libel, calling on Israel to investigate "claims" that Israeli humanitarian workers travelled to Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake there in order to harvest organs from Haitians to use in transplants.

Ending the Blood Libel

Anthony Julius, concluding his masterful 2010 book on English anti-Semitism, Trials of the Diaspora, observed that "anti-Semitism is a sewer" and vowed never to revisit such a disturbing topic.

But we as Jews – as all thinking people, in fact – do not really have that luxury. Shining a spotlight on dark places helps to expose the lies they contain, and can help address entrenched attitudes and prejudices. We all have an obligation to counter lies and distortions whenever we meet them.

"When G-d is with me, I have no fear of what any mortal may do to me" (Psalms 118:6). Jewish history is so rich, and its tradition so beautiful, that when we delve into our own heritage, when we learn the truth about our own religion and history, we arm ourselves with the truth. Jewish history is not blood libels an all the horrible allegations made against us: it is the history of our people serving G-d with dignity, and reaching out to make the world a better place.

January 16, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 12

(12) Diane McKillop, February 1, 2011 4:32 PM

The truth will out

Reading this account just made me feel sick to my stomach. Sometimes I cannot hardly believe the depth to which the enemy will go to manifest his hatred for the Jews. But I put my trust in the Word of God - that one day you will be vindicated and everyone will bow their knee to the one true God who has revealed Himself to the world through His chosen people.

(11) Wa Ford, January 20, 2011 3:25 AM

What is ironic is christians believe they are drinking the blood of a dead jewish man in a ritual called communion in English. This ritual is pure idolatry and is from the mithra mystery cult a western form of Zoroastrianism a religon which christians and moslems slaughtered it's adharents to cover up the fact that it along with Judaism is where they stold their ideas religious from. There are about 250,000 Zoroastrians alive today mostly in Iran and India

(10) Gary Katz, January 19, 2011 4:34 PM

The Sarah Palin silver lining

Sarah Palin may have inappropriately used "blood libel," but at least she's pro-Israel. We should worry more about what the haters say.

(9) Beverly Kurtin, January 19, 2011 3:50 AM

Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin attempted to excuse her targeting of various Congress used the term "Blood Libel" in her excuse. Some say it was appropriate others not. I have negative feelings about her, but some people I respect say that what she said was appropriate. I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. When idiots bring up our drinking blood, I yank out my Kindle (it has the JPS Tenach), go to Leviticus 17 and ask them to read it. The story the traitors who try to convert Jews to Christianity go to that Chapter and misuse the last few verses to claim that we need to have a blood sacrifice in order to have our sins forgiven DESPITE the fact that is NOT what it says. And saved from what? The Greek's eternally burning hell? Sorry, we don't buy it.

(8) Morton Ginsberg, January 18, 2011 7:58 PM

Blood libel

Until Sarah Palin's recent speech, I'd all but forgotten about blood libel. Your article reminded me of what it truly is and reinforces my own feelings that the term was misplaced and ill-used, trivializing what has been horrendous for our people throughout history. To equate a political criticism of a party using terms like "target" and "crosshairs" too often with blood lible is little short of blasphemy. Surely, one running for high office should weigh their words more carefully and the sstatements about words not carrying that kind of weight should read "Mein Kampf" and remember how the words of Hitler mesmerized an entire nation and led to the slaughter of millions of innocents! Thank you, thank you for this wonderful article. Mort Ginsberg

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