Historians try to account for the strange rise, fall and resurgence of the Blood Libel against Jews

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tags: Jews, blood libel



ANTISEMITISM, the world’s oldest, ongoing hatred, morphed from its earliest days in ancient times as a theological prejudice, with the ascendency of the Christian faith to the status of state religion of the Roman Empire, to the racist doctrines of rightwing 19th- and 20th-century European nationalists. (I prefer the British spelling of the A-word, without a hyphen, because “Semitism” does not exist.) There have also been times and places when and where antisemitism all but disappeared. This piece will explore its evolution to our time and place.

What got me going on the subject recently was an all-day conference on “The Blood Libel Then and Now: The Enduring Impact of an Imaginary Event,” hosted by New York’s YIVO Institute for Social Research on October 9. Scholars spoke in the morning sessions on the medieval origins of the blood libel — the bizarre accusation that Jews murder Christian children to drain their blood in order to make matses for Passover. The earliest episodes invoking this toxic idea date from about 1,000 years ago, but it grew in ferocity and frequency well into the 20th century, spreading from England, France, Italy, Germany, and Austria into Poland, Russia and beyond.

David Kertzer of Brown University powerfully indicted the Roman Catholic Church for its perpetuation of the blood libel and antisemitism into modern times. He refuted the argument of today’s Church authorities that it had only preached a theological argument against Judaism as a religion, not the kind of racial hatred that characterized Nazism throughout its reign and Italian fascism from 1938 until Mussolini’s downfall. Kertzer quoted articles in official Vatican publications from the late 19th century that did, indeed, preach a full-throated racism toward Jews as a people, and also showed the audience cartoon caricatures of Jews from Church-sponsored sources that were later used by the Nazis.




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