The Power of A Lie

When U.S. representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar announced plans to visit Israel in August to showcase to the world the “evils of Israeli occupation,” a startling fact emerged. Miftah, the Palestinian non-governmental organization co-sponsoring their trip had published on its website that Jews use Christian blood for Passover matzah.

The liberal media ignored this disturbing revelation. For news outlets, the story was about Israel’s offense to the United States and to liberal democracy in barring entry to the congresswomen.

Did Miftah’s endorsement of the blood libel stir up any concern among the left? Was it even noticed? Indications are that it was consciously overlooked—a telling statement about the nature of the left’s “humanitarianism.”

To overlook this organization’s embrace of blood libel against the Jews or Israel is not just to miss a case of revolting bigotry.

The blood libel is the purest expression of anti-Semitism. It is the demonization of a people that has haunted world history from medieval times and caused unspeakable atrocities. It continues to play out in the 21st century.

To give it a pass is to be tolerant of its legacy of horrific evil and its potential for igniting the basest impulses in humanity.

Under intense criticism, Miftah eventually retracted and apologized, but preserved on its website an even more virulent allegation. It published an article by Bouthaina Shaaban, political advisor to Syrian President Assad, in which she claimed that Israel kills children to steal their organs (to use or sell for medical purposes).

“After the Swedish journalist Donald Bostrom wrote about the Israeli army killing Palestinian youth in order to harvest their organs,” Shaaban wrote, “there were other media reports about Israelis stealing Ukrainian children in order to harvest their organs. Once again, there are documented reports from Haiti that organs are being stolen by Israelis,” the writer continued, calling for international justice “to put an end to such criminal practices against innocent people.”

The Blood Libel Enters History

The allegation that Jews engage in ritual murder started out as a Christian phenomenon that made its debut in the 12th century, when allegations took root in the city of Norwich, England, that Jews had murdered a young boy to acquire Christian blood for matzah-baking.

Within just 50 years’ time, Christians in eight European cities had accused Jews of ritual murder.

Throughout history, different groups—including the early Christians—have been accused of killing children. But in Fulda, Germany in 1235, the blood libel against Jews incorporated a new and unique element— “host desecration” –that was applied exclusively to the Jews.

Now the Jews were accused not only of killing a child, but of re-enacting the killing of the Christian deity by doing so. This form of the libel whipped up the frenzy of the masses to unprecedented levels.

The libels crisscrossing Europe began to follow a nightmarish pattern: Criminal investigations and interrogation under torture leading directly to mob lynchings, or “judicial” murder—usually burning at the stake. This was often followed by wholesale expulsions of Jewish populations.

By the end of the 13th century, the number of outbreaks of blood libel had more than tripled and spread to almost every corner of Europe. This was in spite of some rulers and even church leaders declaring the charge of ritual murder was without foundation.

A Tool for The Greedy

Over the centuries, the blood libel became deeply rooted in Christian culture, in part because it tapped into the fears and anxieties of parents and children alike. But more importantly, it had particular appeal to the greedy and the corrupt who recognized its potential for extortion and other unscrupulous designs.

“The blood libel was often a pretext,” writes historian Emily Rose in Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe. “Sometimes it was a way [for the accusers] to get money or make their town more famous as a place for pilgrimages. [The murdered child was often memorialized as a martyred “saint” and his/her grave converted into a shrine]

Some Christians purposely hid their children and pretended they had been kidnapped and killed, so that they could use blood libel to extort money from Jews. Others who owed large sums to Jewish moneylenders resorted to fomenting a blood libel against their creditors in order to free themselves from debt.

For example, Hungary witnessed major blood libel cases in Tyrnau in 1494 and 1536, as well as in Posing in 1529. The Posing affair was instigated by the local count, Ferenc (Francis) Wolf, who owed sizable sums to Jewish creditors. [Hillel Kieval; YIVO]

After Wolf proclaimed in public that Jews had killed a Christian child in order to use the blood for ritual purposes, 30 Jews were arrested, among them community leaders, including Rabbi Moshe ben Yaakov haKohen and his children. All were burned at the stake; the remaining Jews were expelled from the city. The local count was thus freed of his debt to the Jewish moneylender.

The boy, for whose “murder” the Jews were slaughtered, was eventually found alive. No apologies were offered to the Jewish community.

In medieval times, the blood libel was rooted in religious beliefs. When those beliefs changed with the weakening of the church’s power in the 18th century, the libel endured by morphing into a different framework. By the 1900s, it was often linked by anti-Semites to notions of race.

Accusations that Jews engage in ritual murder were now considered proof of the “depravity” of the Jewish “race.”

In “the blood libel of the century,” as the  internationally publicized 1913 Mendel Beilus trial came to be known, the defendant’s world class team of attorneys strove to dismantle these poisonous stereotypes about Jews once and for all.

Although Beilus was acquitted, the satanic Jew-hating tropes continued to simmer beneath the surface. In the 1930s and 1940s, Hitler and the Nazis exploited these infamous libels to demonize all Jews.

Not surprisingly, the blood libel continued to incite violence long after the Holocaust ended, inciting mob attacks on Jewish Holocaust survivors in the Polish cities Keilce, Krakow and Rezeszow.

Blood Libel in Muslim Lands

The blood libel was transferred to the Arab world by Christian missionaries, surfacing in the infamous Damascus Affair in 1840. Today it is a recurring feature of Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism, as illustrated by the website belonging to the above-cited Palestinian organization, Miftah.

That blood libels have proliferated in Muslim lands is partly due to the efforts of Mustafa Talas, Syria’s former defense minister, who in 1983 wrote a book in which he accused the Jews of Damascus of committing ritual murder of a monk 143 years earlier.

Despite the long passage of time since the alleged incident, Talas’s book fell on fertile ground, bringing anti-Semitism in Syria to a new pitch. Far from abating after the 1840 incident, Muslim hostility to Jews had deepened, as generation after generation passed along the message of the Jews’ heinous “crime.”

Mothers still warned their sons not to stray far from home “or the Jews might kidnap you and slaughter you to collect your blood for their matzahs.”

What really happened in Damascus illustrates with stark clarity how an ancient lie in the Christian world was extrapolated to 19th century Muslim society, and shrewdly exploited by various nations in the power politics governing the Middle East at that time.

Egypt Aligns with The French

The political backdrop to the Damascus affair unfolded in the 1830s, when Syria was controlled by Muhammad Ali, an Egyptian leader who expelled the Ottoman Empire from the region with the backing of the French.

In return for French support, Ali granted broad privileges to Egypt’s and Syria’s Christian minority, including freedom of worship. He also awarded government appointments to a number of Christians, thus cementing his relationship with the French consul and its superiors.

The blood libel began on February 5, 1840, when a Catholic monk named Tomaso, with his servant Amara, disappeared after last being spotted in Damascus’s Jewish market. The monk was known to have been involved in shady business and the two men were probably murdered by tradesmen with whom Tomaso had quarreled.

Nonetheless, Tomaso’s fellow monks immediately circulated news that Jews had murdered both men in order to use their blood for Passover.

This was not the first time such lurid accusations had been made in the Ottoman Empire in the early 1800s. Authorities, however, had always rejected them as groundless. This time, they took the allegations very seriously, not because they were any more credible but because they came at a time when the Ottoman Empire was crumbling.

European Nations Jockey for Power

The decline of the empire posed a unique opportunity for several European nations who were eager to expand their influence in the region by supporting either Egypt of the Ottomans.

France supported Mohamed Ali, while its rivals – notably Austria and Great Britain –backed the Ottomans in order to prevent the extension of French influence.

As Catholics in Syria were officially under French protection, the investigation into Father Tomaso’s disappearance was undertaken by the French consul. When not a single Jew would admit to the crime under interrogation, the French turned the affair over to the Syrians, who used the most barbaric tortures to extract confessions.

As Jonathan Frankel recounts in his book The Damascus Affair: ‘Ritual Murder,’ Politics, and the Jews in 1840,” A 20-year old Jewish barber, Salomon Halek, was arbitrarily detained for questioning about the disappearance of Father Tomaso. He broke down under the ghastly tortures and named seven of the Jewish community’s dignitaries.

Among them were the merchant, David Harari, and his three brothers, Isaac, Aaron and Joseph. Their uncle, Joseph Laniado, and two rabbis, Moses Abulafia and Moses Saloniki, were also named.

All seven were arrested and tortured. Six died under torture. The seventh, Abulafia, was deprived of sleep for three days, dragged on the ground by a rope tied to his waist and whipped on the soles of his feet. Close to the point of death, he declared his willingness to confess.

Abulafia’s “confession” maintained that he had delivered a bottle filled with Father Tomaso’s blood to Damascus Chief Rabbi Jacob Anthebi, a man of great spiritual stature. Abulafia also “translated” for the inspectors, sections of the Talmud allegedly “confirming” the blood rite’s role in Jewish tradition.

Rabbi Anthebi was arrested and put to the most brutal tortures, but refused to confess, lie about the Talmud, or inform on his fellow Jews.

World Reaction

News of the atrocities in Damascus finally reached the Jewish world through frantic letters by Damascus Jews, and reports penned by diplomats, businessmen and travelers to their contacts across the world.

Jews in Europe and the United States were shocked. Those who had been led to believe that a new era of humanitarianism beckoned on the horizon were stunned at the signs of a return to the darkness of the Middle Ages.

In addition to the horrific plight facing their fellow Jews in Syrian torture dungeons, the fact that the accusation of ritual murder in Damascus was initially accepted as proven fact by almost the entire free press in Europe, was devastating for Jews. Typical was a report appearing in multiple newspapers in April, declaring:

“Today the truth is known: of the nine accused [Jews], seven are united in admitting everything …The body [of the victim] was suspended head down; one of the Jews held a tub to collect the blood while two others applied pressure to facilitate the flow. Then, once the source of blood had dried up, all of them, maddened, threw themselves on the corpse, cutting it to bits.”

In England, the country’s leading newspaper, The Times, argued that given the “evidence” against the Jewish religion, based on 13th century records documenting passages in the Talmud that allegedly prescribe the sacrifice of Gentiles, the onus of disproving the ritual murder charge ought to fall squarely on the Jews.

Following this article, an editorial in The Times in June 1840 declared: [If the truth of the accusations] is borne out … then the Jewish religion must at once disappear from the face of the earth. We shall await the issue as the whole of Europe and the civilized world will do, with intense interest.”

With prospects looking increasingly bleak for the Jews of Damascus, a Jewish delegation consisting of Moses Montefiore, his secretary Louis Loewe, Adolphe Crémieux and Solomon Munk, left for Egypt to beg for an audience with Egypt’s viceroy, Muhamed Ali.

Ali received them and appeared impressed with their presentation. However, he declined their request that the Damascus investigation be turned over to Alexandria, or that the case be considered by European judges.

With the outbreak of war between Egypt and Turkey considered imminent, a plan calling for negotiations over the case between Egyptian and Syrian authorities was out of the question.

Divine Twist

The Divine plan, however, was pulling strings from a different direction. In a miraculous twist, one of the Jews arrested, Isaac Levi Picciotto, was an Austrian citizen and under the protection of the Austrian consul. His Austrian citizenship eventually led to the intervention of Austria, England and the United States in the affair.

Around the same time as the Jewish delegation was meeting Ali, the Austrian consul in Egypt received a report from his counterpart in Damascus about the torture of the Jewish suspects there. The consul had also penned a letter to Ali protesting the inhumane treatment of its Austrian citizen, Levi Picciotto.

In addition, the Austrian consul petitioned for the government in Egypt to order a halt to the barbaric torture methods used by the Syrian investigators. These moves proved to be a game-changer for the imprisoned Jews.

How ironic, notes historian Albert Lindemann, that leaders of France and Great Britain, “the two major European states known to be the most progressive and most friendly to Jews, by no means wholeheartedly came to the rescue of the Jews in Damascus.”

Even more ironic, it was Chancellor Metternich in Austria, an arch-conservative,  and Nicholas I of Russia, notorious for his hostility to Jews, who refused to line up behind the blood libel charges in Damascus.

“The press in both Russia and Austria followed a line favorable to the Jews in Damascus. When certain editors appeared to falter, writes Lindemann, “they were brought sharply back into line by the authorities.”

Mohamed Ali Capitulates

Mohamed Ali and the French had no desire for a public investigation into the blood libel events in Damascus. In addition, angering Austria by continuing the torture and prosecution of one of its citizens at this precarious time would not be wise, they reasoned.

Finally, Great Britain had issued an ultimatum to the Ottomans and their allies to give up all claims to Syria within 30 days or face attack. To show they meant business, the British sank several Egyptian supply ships in the Mediterranean.

In the face of overwhelming pressure, Ali responded by relinquishing all claim to Syria. To score extra points, he decided to release the imprisoned Jews. The Jews gratefully and joyously accepted their liberation even without any judicial declaration of their innocence.

In the end, however, it was explicitly stated that their liberation was an act of justice, and not merely a favor granted by the ruler. The liberation order was issued on August 28, 1840, and those prisoners who were still alive in Damascus were saved.

***

Two Vastly Different Legacies

Historians have noted that two very divergent accounts of the Damascus Affair were passed down to posterity, and have continued to follow their own separate courses until today.

In the Jewish narrative, the crisis hanging over Damascus Jews culminated in a miraculous deliverance, with the release of the surviving prisoners in Damascus, and an edict issued by the Sultan in Constantinople repudiating the ritual murder myth.

A very different anti-Semitic version of the affair was put into circulation as early as 1846. In a two-volume book published in Paris, chapter after chapter of “officially recorded confessions” described in great detail how the Jews of Damascus had committed the murders, while omitting all mention of the extensive use of torture.

These protocols bear almost no resemblance to the version of the affair preserved in Jewish historical accounts and memory.

In the following decades, the French protocols were published in German, Italian, Arabic, and Russian. The idea that the ritual murder case had been conclusively proved in Damascus and the prisoners only released for political reasons, or because of bribery, now became a key theme in a series of anti-Semitic journals and books.

In 1986 Mustafa Talas, the Syrian minister of defense, issued yet another edition of the libel-riddled protocols, titled Matzah of Zion, maligning the Jews of Damascus and the Talmud.

Since then, the assertion that Jewish ritual murder was proven in Damascus in 1840 often appears in Arabic-language media and in speeches by Arab diplomats, adding fuel to a lie that has incited bloodlust and wreaked havoc for centuries.

***

Kielce Pogrom

In 1939 there were approximately 24,000 Jewish inhabitants in Kielce, comprising a third of the town’s population. Almost all the Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. By the summer of 1946, about 200 Holocaust survivors had returned to their native Kielce, hoping to rebuild their lives.

A tiny minority were able to reclaim some property which had been confiscated by non-Jews during the German occupation. This apparently enraged the town’s Poles who had richly profited from the plunder of Jewish property after the Nazi deportations.

Historians believe the pogrom was incited with the intent of discouraging the return of Jewish Holocaust survivors to Poland.

On July 1, 1946, a nine-year-old non-Jewish boy, Henryk Blaszczyk, left his home in Kielce, without informing his parents. When he returned on July 3, the boy told his parents and the police, in an effort to avoid punishment for wandering off, that he had been kidnapped and hidden in the basement of the local Jewish Committee building on 7 Planty Street.

The building, which was owned by the Jewish Committee and housed a number of Jewish relief organizations, was home to up to 180 Jews. It did not have a basement. The residents had no idea they were about to become the target of deadly anti-Semitic violence once again—this time from their Polish neighbors.

On the morning of July 4, a small group of state militia and local police approached the building to investigate the alleged kidnapping. As rumors spread that Jews had kidnapped a Christian child for ritual sacrifice, a mob began to assemble.

Polish Officers Led the Attack

It was not the mob, however, but police and military officials who initiated the violence, recounts Polish historian Jan T. Gross in his 2006 book Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz. The officers opened fire and began dragging Jews into the courtyard, where they were savagely attacked by the mob.

Jewish men and women were beaten with rifles, stabbed with bayonets, robbed and hurled into a river that flowed nearby. Kielce residents walking by observed the violence but did nothing to stop it. It wasn’t until noon that another group of soldiers was sent in to break up the crowd and evacuate the wounded and dead.

But the horror was far from over. In the afternoon, a group of metal workers ran toward the building, armed with iron bars and other weapons. The residents of 7 Planty were relieved; they thought these men had come to offer help. Instead, the metal workers began brutally attacking and killing those still alive inside the building.

The violence went on for hours. Miriam Guterman, one of the last remaining survivors of the pogrom, recalled the nightmare in the 2016 documentary film, Bogdan’s Journey: “I could not believe these people were human.” (Rachel Gross, Smithsonian)

42 Jews were killed that day at 7 Planty and around the city, including a newborn baby and a woman who was six months pregnant. Another 75 were injured.

Three days after the pogrom, surviving Jews buried the victims in a mass grave in the Jewish cemetery. Government authorities ordered military units and locals to attend the funeral as a “sign of respect” for the victims.

In September and October 1946, Polish authorities in Kielce indicted civilians, soldiers and police officers for their participation or complicity in the killings. Although a handful of the attackers were executed, the key perpetrators among the police were let off the hook.

Among the defendants were the commander of the Kielce Office of the Security Service, Major Vladyslaw Sobczynski, the Chief of Police, Colonel Viktor Kuznicki, and his deputy, Major Kazimierz Gwiazdowicz.

Of the three, only Kuznicki was punished; he received a one year sentence. The other two were acquitted.

The Kielce Pogrom sparked intense fear in the already traumatized postwar Polish Jewish community. Kielce was not the first post-war pogrom against Jews in Poland but it was unique in that local authorities, not civilian rabble rousers, initiated the violence.

Beyond the horror of the atrocities, the pogrom took on a larger historical significance, convincing the survivors that Poland could never be safe for Jews. More than 90 per cent of Poland’s Jews had been annihilated in the Holocaust. Now the few survivors who had managed to stagger back to their homes were desperate to leave.

Over the next few days, these broken people streamed toward the Czechoslovakian border in growing numbers. A trickle became a stream and then a flood, as Polish Jews from all parts of the country sought escape from what they now saw as a hateful deathtrap.