Several of my last posts were on the problems of Jewish self-criticism, the ways the MSM has difficulty presenting the conflict, and the ways in which it contributes to anti-Semitism, partly because the hyper-self-critical Jews either don’t know or don’t care about the impact their remarks have on non-Jews, partly because the non-Jews don’t understand just how inaccurate this hyper-self-criticism can be. Now we have a most bizarre incident, where an Israeli historian at Bar-Ilan University has published a book in Italian giving credence to the blood libel. The book sold out its 1000 copies in a week (mine still hasn’t sold its 1000 copies in a decade), and sites hostile to Israel are only too happy to present the material in a calm and reasoned manner.
For a thoughtful post on this with good links, see the reflections of a UC Berkeley graduate student, “A Factual Basis for the Blood Libel? Not Really,” at Kishkushim [Nonsense].
A medievalist colleague of mine, Johannes Heil, a German scholar in Heidelberg has written a valuable review of the controversy, translated by Andrew Gow, an occasional commentator here at this blog. I quote at length from the piece below, along with some passages from newspaper articles in the Jerusalem Post and Ha-Aretz.
Johannes Heil, Ignatz Bubis-Lehrstuhl für Geschichte, Religion und Kultur der europäischen Juden, Hochschule für Jüdische Studien, Heidelberg/Germany
Translated by Andrew Gow, Dep. of History and Classics, University of Alberta, Edmonton/Canada.
“Pasque di sangue” – Ariel Toaff and the Legend of Ritual Murder: A Comment
The Italian historian Ariel Toaff has just published a book, and his colleague Elena Loewenthal has called it ‘a scandal’. This title is frequently bestowed in Italy, but in this case, it seems to have been earned (Ariel Toaff, Pasque di sangue. Ebrei d’Europa e omicidi rituali [Bloody Passover: Jews of Europe and Ritual Homicide] Bologna: Il Mulino 2007). A quick look at the background will suffice. If there is such a thing as a timeless uber-narrative of Jew-hatred, it is the accusation of ‘ritual murder’. Pious chroniclers, merciless priests, fanatical social critics, anti-Semitic pamphleteers, murderous rulers and even recently afternoon soaps in the Arab world have illustrated all sorts of things with the legend of ritual murder: a negative version of mysticism of the Cross, blood-thirsty usury, the healing of Jewish physical infirmities, world-spanning lust for power, Zionist aggression.
The accusation of using blood for ritual purposes is compatible with anything, anywhere — a true skeleton key. Refuting this wandering, morphing legend is as easy as it is hopeless. It was always thus: anyone who wants to believe such tales is not going to be dissuaded easily, especially not by scholars. True believers do welcome imagined or real confirmations of what they ‘know’, especially from academics. So historical work on this topic, even if it deals with the distant past, can immediately become highly political. This was visible in the 1990s in the harsh and in fact often exaggerated reactions to Israel Yuval’s attempt at a reinterpretation of the appearance of ritual murder fables in the 12th century. The well-established Israeli medievalist was not advocating a fundamentally revisionist approach; he only suggested that external characteristics such as the reddish colour of charoset and a few other elements of the Passover story might have led Christians, in their eager ignorance, to the idea that Jews used blood for ritual purposes. According to Yuval, such misinterpretations of seeming evidence had horrific consequences and laid the groundwork for the unstoppable further success of this grisly tale.
This is letting Yuval off the hook too easily. The really offensive and worrisome aspect of his otherwise brilliantly disturbing argument was his insistence that Christians came up with the blood libel as a result of a) seeing them kill their own children rather than let the Crusaders kill them and take their children away to become Christians, and b) hearing the Jews curse them and call for God to take vengeance on them in the aftermath of the Crusading massacres. “If they’ll kill their own children, and they yearn for vengeance, but don’t have the power to do so, then they must be doing it secretly.” This emphasis on the role of Jewish prayers in inspiring the blood libel made it an easy step to blaming the blood libel on the Jews, and exculpating the Christians for one of the most disturbing episodes in their long history of Jew-hatred.
But it was revealing to see how much effort Yuval put into proving that Christians might well have heard these Jewish prayers, when in fact, it would have been much easier to demonstrate that, in the Europe of the 12th century, no Christian needed to hear Jews calling God to revenge them for the merciless mass slaughter of men, women and children during the Crusades. On the contrary, the assumption would have been, “of course they want vengeance.” Indeed one of the best explanations I’ve read for the success of the blood libel in 12th and 13th century Europe sees it as a projection of guilt: “not only do they want to take vengeance, they are taking vengeance for our killing their children, they are killing our children.” And of course, since blood libels consistently provoked massacres, they also increased the psychological need for that “lethal narrative.”
What I think bears consideration here, however, is that peculiar Jewish trait of energetically pursuing unflattering details, which we’ll see again with Toaff: Yuval spends a great deal of effort proving a connection between Jewish fantasies of revenge and Christian fantasies that they were taking revenge, when there’s no need to work that angle. In an honor-shame culture where revenge is an integral part of justice, such motives are the basic assumption, the very fabric of the society.
The real problem with Yuval’s work is his narrowly constructed argument, which aims for sensational results. The same is true of Magdalena Schultz’s equally one-sided (though methodologically much weaker) psychologising attempt to find the roots of the ritual murder fable in repressive processes on the side of the perpetrators — cases of abused and murdered children were, supposedly, blamed on Jews for the sake of convenience. One might be able to find evidence for this interpretation in individual cases, but as a general explanation it simply does not suffice. If we pass over such methodological ‘tunnel vision’ and look at the broader picture, we quickly see that these ‘Jewish’ motifs are all much older and come from inner- Christian contexts and needs, specifically from the peculiar dynamics of the rhetoric of incrimination directed against Christian dissidents (‘heretics’) from the 11th century onwards.
Here we find all manner of disgustingly precise detail — as though the writer had himself attended the gatherings of misguided Christians—in tales of ritual murder as a Black Mass and so forth: Christians were accusing each other of exactly the same crimes long before the Englishman Thomas of Monmouth interpreted the death of young William of Norwich, in the middle of the 12th century, as a case of ritual murder committed by Jews. This was the only way to bring about the veneration of the dead child, against canonical rules, because such honours were otherwise reserved only for witnesses of the faith in the full possession of their spiritual powers, who died a martyr’s death willingly and consciously.
The anger directed at Yuval, especially by the older generation in Israel, was at times out of all proportion, but also understandable because of the suggestion that Christians’ anti-Jewish ideas might have been based on Jewish rituals. It seems to have mattered not at all that Yuval claimed such ideas were the result of dreadful misinterpretations. Such fine distinctions — and this was what drove critics like Breuer or Fleischer — simply do not matter in the global world of headlines, never mind among confirmed anti-Semites. The criticism of Yuval was, therefore, directed less at his work than at the misreadings that lazy or hostile readers might get out of it — or read into it.
I don’t have access to the original article here, nor the English version in Yuval’s new book, Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. But I don’t think this was the crux of the matter.
If we follow the news headlines of the last few days, we see that this types of reading has been actively pursued in the case of “Pasque di sangue” – Bloody Easter in English – and it turns out to be highly ‘reliable’: the author of this ‘scandal’ is the son of Elio Toaff, former rabbi of the Jewish community at Rome, and a professor at Bar-Ilan University (Ramat Gan, Israel), an Orthodox Jewish institution the religious credentials of which are beyond all possible doubt. Studying the notorious (and thoroughly studied) ritual murder trial at Trent in 1475, Toaff claims to have found evidence that “a minority of fundamentalist Jews of Ashkenazi origin” actually performed such rituals. It’s not only the errors of fact – the ‘Inquisition’, which supposedly discovered all this, did not exist as such in that period – that justify scepticism about the supposed discoveries of this historian. He himself acknowledges that the documents of the investigators at Trent and elsewhere were obtained by force, and that the papal emissary sent to Trent at the time to investigate, dei Giudici, declared the entire trial to be devoid of any form of legal legitimacy. But from this point on, the Professor commits errors that one usually learns to avoid in undergraduate seminars. Even if Toaff, working in the wake of the thorough studies of Wolfgang Treue and Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia, had discovered in Trent, Treviso or Portobuffolè a document that had not yet been turned over and over a thousand times already (and he did not), he would still have to answer the question how he construes his evidence from such one-sided documents, the contents of which were squeezed, in the most literal sense of the word, from the witnesses. But Toaff seems not to be someone to be impressed by such standard methods.
In an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz on 12 February, he claimed to have found in the investigative records of the Trent trial details that “did not come from the Christian culture of the judges” and thus had to be of Jewish origin. This shows that he understands both societies as strictly separate entities that did not communicate with each other and in which no knowledge or rather half-knowledge about the other side existed.
If we follow this logic, then everything that has ever been said about Jews and about the many other ‘others’ would also have to be true. The investigative records of the judiciary, especially in the time of the pogroms during the Black Death, with their accusations of well-poisoning, are full of such half-knowledge, paired with eager and peculiar interpretations. Sometimes it seems as though the future accusers had sat down to eat at the same table and then, when it suited them, concocted their own coherent if utterly faulty version of all the things they had seen and misunderstood. Torture did the rest to bring out further ‘details’. But Toaff takes the things recorded under these circumstances at face value.
Had he looked just a bit beyond the edge of his writing-table, he might have noticed that the activities of the circle around the ‘humanist’ Tridentine bishop Johannes Hinderbach had connections to the witch-hunting campaign of the Dominican Heinrich Kramer (‘Institoris’), famous for the Malleus maleficarum or ‘Witches’ Hammer’. [This work is one of the most deliriously paranoid, apocalyptic works of misogyny in the history of that unfortunate hatred. — RL] The bishop of Brixen thought the latter was a psychopath and had him expelled from his bishopric. Toaff seems never to have heard of any of this. His version of events suggests that the Jews had nothing better to do than to take on and act out the (fictitious) roles that had been assigned to them, but that had been developed a thousand years earlier by Christians to be used against their own Christian enemies in internal doctrinal squabbles [The literary nature and antiquity of these accusations alone, as in the case of witchcraft accusations, demonstrates that they were traditional smears, not based on real activities — AG].
Toaff has already been attacked heavily, and seems to think he has been misunderstood. In an interview for Mabat, the main Israeli news station, on 11 February, he wanted to smooth ruffled feathers and claimed that he was talking not about Christian children having been murdered by Jews, but about blood used for medicinal purposes. This does not improve Toaff’s situation, and given the sensational title of the book, it hardly sounds convincing. That he said the next day in his interview for Haaretz that “the whole world will crucify him for this book”, is hardly evidence of talent in the high art of carefully thinking though what one is going to say before opening one’s mouth.
The result is appalling: either the book is a result of the utter naïveté of a historian who has hardly ever looked beyond the narrow confines of his academic speciality, the social history of Italian Jewry [and who has never read the controversial literature of early Christianity, medieval witchcraft treatises, or the scholarship on either one – AG] or it is a deliberate, deeply cynical attempt to get a hearing for his ideas beyond the narrow circle of specialists. Anyone who knows how such sensitive topics work in the conditions of the mass media knows that Toaff can look forward to invitations to talk shows here and there – if so, I suggest you keep on channel surfing. The script is well known and in its fifth remake not in the least amusing: the prophets of cultural entertainment will announce a new ‘Historikerstreit’ [a very public battle among German historians in the 1980s over how Germany ended up where it was in 1945, and over who was to blame – AG]. The audience will listen intently to ‘the Jew’, “who should know, after all.” Historians’ and other news venues are already racing to present new aspects of this ‘scandal’ and in one anti-Israeli blog, Toaff is advised to hire bodyguards (“…you know, Mossad…”).
Scholars will hardly have anything to add to all this. This recurring myth has been refuted, many, many times over. All the current rabbi of the Jewish community at Rome could do, in his reply to Toaff, was to repeat something that had already been published in an earlier investigative report: that Jews are not allowed, anywhere and at any time in the past, present or future, to eat or otherwise make use of blood. That was some time ago. The investigation was initiated by Emperor Frederick II in 1236 to look into a ritual murder accusation in the German town of Fulda, and its results were confirmed in Innocent IV’s bull of 1247, designed precisely to protect Jews against such accusations. It is not unreasonable to expect that the historian Toaff might have heard of it.
Now part of what is so interesting about all this is the amount of effort and single-mindedness that Professor Toaff put into coming up with his evidence. He states in the Ha-Aretz interview:
“In one of the testimonies in the Trento trial, a peddler of sugar and blood is mentioned, who came to Venice,” Toaff says. “I went to the archives in Venice and found that there had been a man peddling sugar and blood, which were basic products in pharmacies of the period. A man named Asher of Trento was also mentioned in the trial, who had ostensibly come with a bag and sold dried blood. One of the witnesses said he was tried for alchemy in Venice and arrested there. I took a team to the archives and found documentation of the man’s trial. Thus, I found that it is not easy to discount all the testimony,” he added.
This is a dedicated historian on the trail of something he will not cease pursuing. His single-minded and energetic pursuit doesn’t necessarily produce good history — I have not read the work yet, so I’m not passing judgment — but it does bear testimony to his determination. And in the context of this post, the determination is to find proof that Jews were involved in horrific matters. Toaff continues:
Toaff, who will be returning to Israel today, said he was very hurt by accusations that his research plays into the hands of anti-Semitic incitement. “I am being presented like the new Yigal Amir. But one shouldn’t be afraid to tell the truth.” Toaff also said, “unfortunately my research has become marginal, and only the real or false implications it might have are being related to. I directed the research at intelligent people, who know that in the Jewish world there are different streams. I believe that academia cannot avoid dealing with issues that have an emotional impact. This is the truth, and if I don’t publish it, someone else will find it and publish it.”
Note many of the tropes of the hyper-critical Jew.
- First, he takes criticism badly, trying to smear his opposition with comparing him to Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yithak Rabin in 1995. The analogy is completely off. [At best it can be said that Amir confirmed negative stereotypes about the Jew.]
- Second, he invokes moral autism as a defense: “never fear to tell the truth” (no matter how speculative and potentially damaging such a “truth” might be). Given the climate in which both Muslims and “Post-Leftists” are spreading blood libels about Israel and anti-Semitism is on the astonishing rise the world over, I’d say that’s somewhat akin to shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, especially when it’s as speculative as this appears to be.
- Third, he pursues his insulated perspective by insisting his work was addressed to “intelligent people” familiar with the complex variety within the Jewish world. That the wrong kind of people might snap it up — as they apparently have — is of no concern. As for the emotional elements, well we must deal with them.
- And finally, he argues that he had to do this, or someone else would have, as if his fairly daring if not foolish conjectures were so real and true that someone else would have come up with the same conclusions… something like a mathematician finding a proof before someone else does. As if another historian would operate with the same determination to pursue this subject. As far as I know, medieval history does not have any David Irvings… yet.
So I ask you, was there ever a people as self-righteously, self-destructively, self-critical as one who can produce a first rate scholar and ordained religious leader intent on confirming the validity of one of the most vicious slanders against his people, the occasion of many a massacre in the past, the present, and, unfortunately, in the future as well?
UPDATE: Toaff now regrets some of his phrasing and wants to re-edit before further copies are sold. No word yet on changing the sensationalist title.
“I was astounded by the sheer force of these misrepresentations, which turned what is a research book into a vehicle used to harm Judaism and the Jewish people and, God forbid, as a justification for blood libel.”
Toaff also promised to donate all the funds forthcoming from the sale of his book to the Anti-Defamation League. “I will never allow any Jew-hater to use me or my research as an instrument for fanning the flames, once again, of the hatred that led to the murder of millions of Jews. I extend my sincerest apologies to all those who were offended by the articles and twisted facts that were attributed to me and to my book.”
This is a far cry from the “I’ll stick to my position even if they crucify me” stand he took earlier. What has happened? Did he only now wake up to the damage his ill-advised writing and horrendous title might do? What other examples do we have of such tunnel vision of the “true historian” pursuing a “truth” that so maligns his own people in the midst of a global campaign of defamation, no matter what the consequences.
Kenneth Stowe, a medievalist emeritus from Haifa has an excellent review of Toaff’s book at History News Network, specifically addressing the methodological flaws. His conclusion:
Ultimately, Pasque di Sangue comes across as the product of deliberate imagination rather than reasoned historical thought. To correct the book, as Toaff proposes, would mean to phrase the whole hypothetically and to discard a raft of tendentious (especially secondary) sources, leaving the book with essentially nothing to say. A pity, for Toaff’s materials could have led to a master book about beliefs and their reception, for which a starting point could have been chapter ten, which discusses Christian and Jewish attitudes toward blood. As its stands now, Pasque di Sangue is full of “sound and fury.” It signifies nothing more.
The opening line (in bold) emphasizes my larger point about the addiction to self-criticism that characterizes some Jewish thought. What on earth motivated this “deliberate imagination” so damaging to Jews, so encouraging of the worst kind of hate-mongering fantasy? As for the book “signifying nothing,” there I disagree. Not only has and will the book have a terribly damaging impact on both sound Jews and gentiles alike, but it is enormously significant in the exploration of the bizarre love-affair of Jews with self-criticism.