A Centuries-Old Canard Makes a Troubling Comeback
by Amy E. Schwartz
In September, Josh Marshall of the online political news outlet Talking Points Memo reached for an unexpected metaphor to express his disgust at Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric. Speaking of Trump’s penchant for showcasing undocumented immigrants who had allegedly committed grisly crimes, then putting victims’ grieving mothers on display at the Republican National Convention and elsewhere, Marshall zeroed in on the candidate’s emotional manipulation of the audience: “There’s no other word for this but incitement and blood libel.”
Blood libel? It’s a phrase that carries a considerable emotional charge and—until recently, anyway—a very specific historical meaning. The original blood libel dates back to medieval Europe and refers to the ever-recurring false belief that Jews murdered Christian children and used their blood for nefarious purposes, whether baking it into Passover matzahs or replenishing their own bodily fluids (lost, in some versions, through the “wound of circumcision”). The horrible tale spread swiftly and hung on for centuries; there’s even a version in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Horrific in its imagery, it has traveled from culture to culture leaving persecutions, trials and tortures in its wake.
Lately, though, uses of the term have been anything but specific. Commentators of all political persuasions—tempted, perhaps, by an image with such ready emotional punch—have thrown it around with abandon. This July, conservative super-donor Charles Koch complained to a crowd of donors that rumors he would support Hillary Clinton amounted to a “blood libel.” Last April, former Israeli ambassador and current member of Knesset Michael Oren denounced Democratic primary contender Bernie Sanders in The Times of Israel for overstating the number of Palestinian casualties in the Gaza War of 2014; Oren called that overstatement a “blood libel,” too. Marshall, in the Talking Points Memo article about immigrants, explained in detail why he had drawn so shocking a comparison: In persecutions from anti-Semitism to lynching, he argued, the invention of grisly crimes and the emphasis on victims “was and is a way of provoking vicarious horror, rage, hate and finally violence whether specific individuals were guilty or not.”
But this oldest and hoariest example of fake news is not a term to mangle for rhetorical effect. Dina Porat and Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson, writing in the Encyclopedia Judaica, call the blood libel “one of the most terrible expressions of the combination of human cruelty and credulity.” Although the first instance of the classic blood libel was leveled in 1144 at the Jews of Norwich, England—who were falsely said to have kidnapped, tortured and hanged a child named William—elements of it stretch back to the Hellenistic era, when Greek chroniclers claimed that Jews would fatten up a Greek for a year, then sacrifice him. Scholars trace parts of the myth to the imagery of the crucifixion (particularly the Jews’ cry in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus’ “blood [should] be upon us and our children”) and also to an ever-shifting set of beliefs about Jews’ monstrous nature (such as the belief that Jewish men menstruated). There were blood libel accusations in early 20th-century Russia (the infamous Menachem Beilis trial) and even in Massena, New York, in 1928. Later versions have spread through the Middle East and Islamic countries, where they were previously unknown. The libel has also shown continued ability to change its shape—one reason it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between sloppy, trivializing references and those that draw legitimate parallels.
“There are two kinds of blood libel, and both are relevant to the world we live in,” says Ken Jacobson, deputy director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “There’s extremism, and there’s overreaction.” The ADL tracks references to “blood libels” and objects to their overuse for the same reason it objects to careless comparisons to the Holocaust—“because they’re sacred” and because they trivialize real events in which Jews suffered horrifically.
Are there actual blood libels being leveled against Jews today? Jacobson argues that there are, pointing to instances that repeat the traditional libel about ritual murder—including an Egyptian television show that depicts Jews in religious garb extracting blood and doing “the goriest kinds of things” with it—and publications such as The Matzah of Zion, by the Syrian military officer Mustafa Tlas, which first appeared in 1983 and has been reprinted, quoted and widely distributed through extremist channels.
The ADL was quick to condemn a Facebook post last October by Palestinian activist Bassem Tamimi in which he shared an allegation—complete with doctored photos—that the IDF was arresting Palestinian children in order to steal their organs. ADL’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt called the claim “outrageous and incendiary” and “just another version of the anti-Semitic blood-libel that has been used to foment hatred of Jews for centuries.” Jacobson characterizes other accusations as “figurative” blood libels—for instance, the unfounded accusations in a recent speech by Rutgers professor Jasbir Puar at Vassar College in which she alleged that Israel was purposely “stunting” and “maiming” the Palestinian population.
Jacobson argues that some accusations that are not classical blood libels can still be reasonably described that way, since the essence of the blood libel is “taking an issue that has nothing to do with reality” and connecting it to nonexistent Jewish guilt. Such cases are necessarily ambiguous—Benjamin Netanyahu, he notes, has frequently and accurately accused Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas of blood libel, most recently when Abbas told the European Parliament that some Israeli rabbis had urged the poisoning of Palestinian wells.
But then again, opposition leader Isaac Herzog declared that UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee engaged in a “blood libel” in October by adopting language that ignored the existence of a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount. This falls into the head-scratching category. So, in a different way, did Sarah Palin’s complaint that critics who said she bore some responsibility for the 2011 shooting attack on former Arizona representative Gabrielle Giffords “should not manufacture a blood libel.”
A blood libel, according to the ADL, is “a false, incendiary claim against Jews.” But no matter how conveniently emphatic it sounds, not every false, incendiary claim against Jews—or against anybody—is necessarily a blood libel.