Saturday, April 28, 2007

Bloody Passovers: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murders

Apropos Judaism's Culture of Death, last night I happened upon the furor created last February by 64-year-old professor and department head Ariel Toaff of Bar-Ilan University, an Orthodox Jewish institution in Israel. Toaff "is among Israel's and the world's senior researchers in medieval Jewish communities and the Italian Jewish community" and the son of the retired chief rabbi of Italy.

Right: "A woodcut showing Jews performing a ritual to extract a Christian child's blood. These prints were popular in Germany and the Netherlands in the 15th Century." Source: Jerusalem Post.

Here are few excerpts from articles about the author and his controversial book:
An Israeli historian of Italian origin has revived "blood libel" in an historical study set to hit Italian bookstores on Thursday. Ariel Toaff ... claims that there is some historic truth in the accusation that for centuries provided incentives for pogroms against Jews throughout Europe.

Toaff's tome, Bloody Passovers: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murders, received high praise from another Italian Jewish historian, Sergio Luzzatto, in an article in the Corriere della Serra daily entitled "Those Bloody Passovers."

Luzzatto describes Toaff's work as a "magnificent book of history...Toaff holds that from 1100 to about 1500...several crucifixions of Christian children really happened, bringing about retaliations against entire Jewish communities - punitive massacres of men, women, children. Neither in Trent in 1475 nor in other areas of Europe in the late Middle Ages were Jews always innocent victims."

"A minority of fundamentalist Ashkenazis...carried out human sacrifices," Luzzatto continued.
--"Historian gives credence to blood libel" by Lisa
Palmieri-Billig in the Jerusalem Post. Feb. 7, 2007.

According to a new book by history professor Ariel Toaff, medieval Jews not only sacrificed Christian children, they also used their blood as an ingredient in baking matzo (unleavened bread). In Bloody Passovers: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murders, Toaff, son of Rabbi Elio Toaff, describes "the mutilation and crucification of a two-year-old boy to recreate Christ's execution at Pesach" near the northern Italian city of Trento.
--"Did Jews Drink Blood?" by Emil Steiner
in the Washington Post. Feb. 8, 2007.

In the book, Prof Toaff alleges the ritual killing was carried out by members of a fundamentalist group in reaction to the persecution of Jews.

The book describes the mutilation and crucifixion of a two-year-old boy to recreate Christ’s execution at Pesach ... The festival marks the fleeing of the Jews from Egypt and Prof Toaff says Christian blood was used for "magic and therapeutic practices".

In some cases the blood was mixed with dough to make azzimo, unleavened bread, eaten at Pesach. He says the acts took place in around the city of Trento in modern northern Italy, between the 11th and 14th centuries. ...

Italy’s senior rabbis, including Elio Toaff, issued a joint statement condemning the book. ...

Prof Toaff, who teaches mediaeval and Renaissance history at Bar Ilan University in Jerusalem, said the reaction was a "disgrace" as they had not read the book, which has yet to be published.

He emphasised the practice was confined to "a small group of fundamentalists."
--"Professor outrages Jews with book claim" by Andrew
M. Rosemarine in the Telegraph (UK). Feb. 9, 2007.

In an interview with Haaretz from Rome, Professor Ariel Toaff said he stood behind the contention of his book, "Pasque di Sangue," just published in Italy, that there is a factual basis for some of the medieval blood libels against the Jews. ...

"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," the Bar-Ilan history professor said. 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," he said.

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.

"Over many dozens of pages I proved the centrality of blood on Passover," Toaff said. "Based on many sermons, I 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."
--"Bar-Ilan prof. defiant on blood libel book 'even if crucified' "
by Ofri Ilani in Ha'aretz. Feb. 12, 2007.

A week after its publication, Ariel Toaff has withdrawn his Pasque di sangue (in English: Bloody Passovers: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murders) from circulation. Hopefully this will elegantly end an unfortunate episode. The book’s thesis is unambiguous: Jews crucified Christian children and used their blood ritually.
--"Blood Libel: Ariel Toaff's Perplexing Book" by Kenneth
Stow in History News Network. Feb. 19, 2007.

[Members of the Israeli Knesset (MKs)] on Monday demanded that the state examine ways in which it could prosecute Professor Ariel Toaff ...

Speaking at a discussion of the book and its ramifications held at the Knesset Education Committee, MK Marina Solodkin (Kadima) said the thought "there are valid reasons to prosecute the author of the book," and called to "put him to trial over historical truth and the Jewish people's reputation."

MK Arieh Eldad (National Union), who initiated the discussion, said that Toaff "has made himself an accomplice to modern blood libels." Eldad added that the state must ensure that for such publications, "the punishment will exceed the benefit."

Most of the discussion's participants used the meeting to attack the "new historians" who criticize Israel policy throughout its existence ? this despite the fact that Toaff does not address Israel's policy at all in his book.
--"MKs demand the author of blood libel book be prosecuted"
by Ofri Ilani and Adi Schwartz in Ha'aretz. Feb. 26, 2007.
The second to the last excerpt is the only one written by a trained historian (according to his bio, Stow is Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at the University of Haifa) and it is curious for two reasons. First, scholars usually at least pay lip service to academic freedom and having the book withdrawn from publication hardly seems consistent with that and, yet, Stow is unabashedly pleased with the decision.

Second, in his critique of Toaff's book, Stow writes:
The reader is equally to accept as true the tale of a Christian boy allegedly murdered by Jews in 415, although the sole teller is the Church historian, Socrates, no more reliable than his counterpart who wrote that during the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 611 C.E., the Jews murdered 50,000 Christians.
This is, apparently, a reference to the account of the 10th century Egyptian Christian historian, Eutychius, of a massacre that actually took place in 614. But, surely, Stow must know that Eutychius' account is very credible. His colleague Elliott Horowitz, Professor of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University, discusses the historiography of the massacre at length in his book, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (pp. 228-247).

Horowitz notes that the massacre of Christian children, women, and men by Jews was documented in several 7th century sources. Also, referring to three non-Jewish, 19th century historians, Horowitz writes: "Both in citing that number [90,000 dead], the highest offered by any Byzantine chronicler, and in speaking openly of Jewish vengeance against the Christians of Jerusalem, they were matched by two of the greatest Jewish scholars of the nineteenth centuray, Saloman Munk and Heinrich Graetz ..."

So, how can Stow not know that accounts of the murder of tens of thousands (the lowest death toll cited by Horowitz is 30,000 by Michael Avi-Yonah) of Christians by Jews in Jerusalem during the Perisan conquest are completely credible? Perhaps, Stow is hoping that his readers have simply been conditioned to unthinkingly reject any suggestion of Jews killing non-Jews as patently untrue and, worse, "anti-Semitic." Certainly, that is the underlying tone of much of the criticism of Toaff. I've never seen Toaff's book and, now, probably never will, so, I make no claims about his scholarship or his conclusions but it's hard not to wonder if the real issue is not about historical truth but about protecting received notions of Jewish innocence and victimhood.

Bar-Ilan University's statement seems telling in this regard:
Following a preliminary investigation into the circumstances surrounding the publication of Prof. Ariel Toaff's book in Italy, Bar-Ilan University is expressing great anger and extreme displeasure at Prof. Ariel Toaff, for his lack of sensitivity in publishing his book about blood libels in Italy. His choice of a private publishing firm in Italy, the book's provocative title and the interpretations given by the media to its contents, have offended the sensitivities of Jews around the world and harmed the delicate fabric of relations between Jews and Christians.

Bar-Ilan University strongly condemns and repudiates what is seemingly implied by Toaff's book and by reports in the media concerning its contents, as if there is a basis for the blood libels that led to the murder of millions of innocent Jews.

Bar-Ilan University's executive leadership and academic faculty have consistently condemned any attempt to justify the terrible blood libels against the Jews. Prof. Toaff should have demonstrated greater sensitivity and caution in his handling of the book and its publication, in a manner that would have prevented the distorted and offensive reports and interpretations.
The university's web site provides no evidence of any substantive scholarly critique in the "preliminary investigation" or elsewhere.

I have created the table below for another way to consider the sequence of events.

Toaff on the Possibility of Jewish Ritual Murder of Christians
The StatementThe ReactionThe Recantation
On his first day in Rome, Prof. Toaff was quoted as saying that some ritual murders "might have taken place."Ariel Toaff ... feels as if he had been excommunicated.

A rabbinical press release was issued against the contents of his book even before anyone had read it ...

Toaff feels like he had been pushed into a corner. None of his old friends have called him at his Rome hotel during the entire week of his stay here. He has been dismissed as editor of the Zohar historical review, and is concerned he might lose his university position in Israel as well.

According to Bar-Ilan spokesman Shmuel Algrabali, the university "expresses its strongest reservations" over media reports claiming the book states that the notorious "blood libels" against Jews might have basis in fact.

"Bar-Ilan University has condemned and will continue to condemn any attempt to justify the awful blood libels against Jews," the spokesman said. ...

He has been prevented from seeing or even contacting his father, Elio Toaff, Rome's former chief rabbi ...
Speaking to the Post, Toaff replies with a defiant "No" to the question of whether he believes Jewish communities could have committed ritual murder.
All passages in this table are quoted from " 'Jews never committed ritual murders' " by Lisa Palmieri-Billig in the Jerusalem Post. Feb. 11, 2007.

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