Sunday, February 11, 2007

A Factual Basis for the Blood Libel? Not Really

Blood Libel, Damascus, 1983 (Source: ADL)

I am almost starting to feel sorry for Professor Ariel Toaff. First, the professor's fellow Jews got all angry at him for claiming that the original blood libel accusations had some basis in the historical reality of the Middle Ages. In Israel, he complained, they had begun treating him "like Yigal Amir," the assassin of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin z"l. Now he has begun morphing into Jesus; in an interview from Rome, Toaff told Ha'aretz that he "will not give up [his] devotion to the truth and academic freedom even if the world crucifies [him]." Seriously though, I am hoping that for his sake he stops saying stupid things and starts making sense soon.

The controversy began with the publication, in Italy, of Toaff's book Pasque di Sangue [Passover of Blood] a few days ago. The new work was praised in several Italian newspapers. Toaff, a respected medieval Jewish historian who specializes in Italian Jewry and is the descendant of an important Italian Jewish family, claimed that in his new book he had discovered evidence that some of the blood libels against the Jews in the early modern period (I've read report after report referring to the "Middle Ages"; but blood libels really took off in the late 15th century, and the one to which Toaff refers, in Trent, dates to 1475) had a factual basis.

Toaff's statements in the media have been widely interpreted as implying that some Jews actually sacrificed Christian children and used their blood for ritual purposes, most famously for baking matzot for Passover. Toaff, doing his best to reinforce the worst stereotypes about members of his profession, has done nothing to deny such conclusions, instead throwing tantrums about those maligning him and generally acting with no understanding of how normal people might perceive the kinds of statements he has been making.

Obviously, I have not read Toaff's book yet. But from everything he's said in interviews, I am having a hard time discovering what this "factual basis" of the blood libel might be. All I see is a number of vague statements, which are interesting but hardly amount to a real argument for the veracity of the blood libel.

So, for example, Toaff told Ha'aretz that
I tried to show that the Jewish world at that time was also violent, among other things because it had been hurt by Christian violence. Of course I do not claim that Judaism condones murder. But within Ashkenazi Judaism there were extremist groups that could have committed such an act and justified it.
The first part is an interesting contribution, though not terribly original in light of the work by Hebrew University Professor Israel J. Yuval on qidush hashem (lit. "sanctification of the divine name") during the Crusades. In a pioneering Hebrew article, Yuval speculated that the martyrdom by Ashkenazi Jewry, where Jewish parents killed their own children and themselves to avoid forced conversion or death at the hands of crusaders, might have led Christians to imagine that Jews would "sacrifice" non-Jewish children as revenge. This work is now available in the English translation of his book שני גוים בבטנך (Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, 2006). The original article was published in Zion 58:1 (5753 = 1993); it's called הנקם והקללה, הדם והעלילה : מעלילות קדושים לעלילות דם ["Vengeance and Damnation, Blood and Defamation: From the Stories of Martyrs to Blood Libel Charges"].

So yes, this was a violent world. And yes, perhaps there were such "extremist groups." But if Toaff is so convinced of his claims, why say that they could have committed "such an act"? It doesn't inspire much confidence in his conclusions, and makes me suspect that Yuval was right on when he called "
Professor Toaff's interpretation ... trumped-up" (Ha'aretz).

Matters become even murkier when Toaff discusses the evidence he used to arrive at his interpretation:
Toaff said he reached his conclusions after coming across testimony from the trial for the murder of a Christian child, Simon of Trento, in 1475, which in the past was believed to have been falsified. "I found there were statements and parts of the testimony that were not part of the Christian culture of the judges, and they could not have been invented or added by them. They were components appearing in prayers known from the [Jewish] prayer book.
It's a very big step from liturgy to murder. Few people would deny that Jews, especially in the Middle Ages, often cursed Christians whom they saw as their oppressors, especially after the Crusades. Particularly in the Pesach liturgy, which recounts the liberation of Israel from slavery and God's bloody revenge against the Egyptians, there is no shortage of rather violent exhortations, such as the one recited before Hallel in the Seder:
שפך חמתך על הגוים אשר לא ידעוך ...
Pour Your wrath onto the nations who do not acknowledge you ...
And let's not forget that the first plague against the Egyptians is "blood." Or the use of red wine, which is dripped on the table for each plague. But is this evidence for the "ritual murder" of Christian children? It seems much more plausible to read such rituals as evidence for the sublimation of suffering and desires for revenge into ceremony. (The story of Trent 1475 has already been told, by the way, by
Ronnie Hsia, a very fine scholar at Pennsylvania State University, who, I was hoping, might come to Berkeley.)

In the Ha'aretz interview, Toaff claims that
Over many dozens of pages [he] proved the centrality of blood on Passover (...). [And that b]ased on many sermons, [he] concluded that blood was used, especially by Ashkenazi Jews, and that there was a belief in the special curative powers of children's blood. It turns out that among the remedies of Ashkenazi Jews were powders made of blood.
Again, yes, blood is important in the Passover haggadah. It's also important in the Bible as a whole. Is this evidence that medieval and early modern Jews transgressed the explicit prohibitions on ingesting animal (and, a fortiori, human) blood, not to mention the commandments against murder?

Even if the kind of folk remedies to which Toaff refers existed, I am having a hard time seeing their connection to "ritual murder." This statement confused me further:
Toaff said the use of blood was common in medieval medicine. "In Germany, it became a real craze. Peddlers of medicines would sell human blood, the way you have a transfusion today. The Jews were influenced by this and did the same things.
So was the use of blood a Passover ritual or something that everyone did throughout the year? I am also curious how exactly Toaff was able to infer such things from sermons.

The kicker of the whole affair to me is the admission by Toaff, in the Ha'aretz interview, that he had
no proof of acts of murder ... [only that] there were curses and hatred of Christians, and prayers inciting to cruel vengeance against Christians. "There was always the possibility that some crazy person would do something."
A possibility that a crazy person might have done something does not constitute a factual basis for anything. In light of his own statements, Toaff's original claims strike me as incredibly reckless and irresponsible. I have nightmares just thinking about lecture courses where a professor teaching medieval European history tells a room full of undergraduates that "one Jewish scholar has recently concluded that the blood libel had some factual basis." Can anyone tell me that those students would not walk out of the room believing that Jews actually murdered Christian children and used their blood for Passover rituals? I guess every century needs its blood libel.


Jeha said...

A very good piece to start would have been the section on “Blood Libels" on Wikipedia.

Poor Professor Ariel Toaff could have RTFM and thus done a better freakin research; now we're gonna have a helluva time explaining how a clutz he is to all the apologists for the Baath, Syrian National-Socialist, Fundamentalists... I can almost hear them claim that they now have solid evidence coming from a "repentant Jew".

The pen is indeed mightier than the sword; when wielded by idiots, it can even be far deadlier than an atom bomb...

yaakov said...

Ariel Toaff has achieved immortality. For the rest of human history, Jew haters will cite Ariel Toaff's 'proofs' that Jews ritualy kill Christian children to use their blood for Passover matzoh.

Anonymous said...

Gal Shalev

It says in the Torah I forgot which pasuk that the real enemies are within us. We are our own worst enemy. Post Zionism and the bizzare hypercritical tendencies of certain Jewish intelligentsia (the list is vast - chomsky finklestein, neumman, butler and many more) are more dangerous than the Palestinian molotov cocktails.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

In "pour out Your anger ON the nations...", I suggest that in the Hebrew you correct the letter alef in `al to an `ayin.

Rasmus said...

The right approach to it is to debunk his theory, which is in fact just a hypothesis. The wrong approach is to go baloney about how he encourages anti-Semitism and is "irresponsible" for just seeking the truth with an open mind. Come one, which ethnic and religious group has not performed ugly rites in the past? Welcome Jews, join the human race! Nothing to be ashamed of. Conversely, it makes Jews look extremely insecure when even some obscure historical hypthesis can bring forth accusations of "traitor".