In late 2006 or early 2007, I read something about a forthcoming book that had stirred up a great deal of controversy in Jewish communities around the world, especially in Israel and Italy. The book, written in Italian by history professor Ariel Toaff (son of Elio Toaff, Chief Rabbi of Rome) of Bar Ilan University in Israel, was called Passovers of Blood; according to his critics, Toaff argued, using close readings of Medieval records of Jews tortured and put on trial for murder, that in the Middle Ages the blood libel was true—that is, that Jews used to murder Christian children and use their blood as an ingredient in matzah, the unleavened bread at the center of the celebration of Passover and the commemoration of the Jews’ escape from Egypt. In response, people called for Toaff to be fired and/or excommunicated. If I understand correctly, he was forbidden to attend his father’s funeral. The book’s publisher canceled the second printing.
I’ve tried and I’ve tried and I simply can’t come up with a way to communicate to non-Jews the enormity of such an assertion. For literally thousands of years, the blood libel has led to the slaughter of Jews in pogroms (anti-Jewish riots) and government- and church-led murder trials. The closest thing I can think of is the idea of a black historian writing a book claiming that slaves in America really were beasts incapable of human thought. It’s almost unthinkable. So I figured that Toaff’s critics were distorting the text of the book to serve their own ends and that what he’d actually written, though perhaps incendiary in some way, couldn’t possibly say what they claimed it said, especially since his previous published books had titles like To Eat Like a Hebrew: Jewish Cooking in Italy From the Renaissance to the Modern Age and Hebrew Monsters: The Jewish Imaginary From the Medieval Period to the Early Modern Period.
But I am a bloodthirsty man obsessed with murder, hate, and revenge, so the whole thing was making me really happy. Obviously I had to get a copy of the book. My Italian was extraordinarily rusty, but I figured that with a good dictionary I could get through enough to be satisfied. The publishers had printed only a thousand copies, though, so I had to act fast.
Well, I didn’t act fast enough, as it happened. Because there was exactly one copy for sale in the world, offered by a used bookstore in Italy. And it cost $432.00.
I did not have $432.00, so I regretfully closed my browser and went on to other tasks, presumably involving looking at pictures of naked men.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about Passovers of Blood, and finally, a few days later, I threw in the towel. “Fine,” I thought to myself. “I’ll spend $432.00 on a book I can’t read. What else is plastic for?” So I went back to the bookstore’s web site to find that the book now cost $817.00.
I gave up.
After several months passed, however, I got an e-mail from a friend in Italy, and in my response I begged him to check his local library for a copy of Passovers of Blood and, if they had the book, to photocopy it and send it to me.
The next day, he e-mailed me a PDF of the Italian text and the accompanying images (mostly Medieval woodcuts). “I’m sorry to say,” he wrote, “that I got it off an Italian antisemitic revisionist web site. But such are the lengths I’ll go to for my friends.” I sent him something flirtatious in response, opened the PDF, and prepared to find out what Toaff had really said.
“Trials for ritual murder”—this is a rough translation, but not too rough—”make up a hard knot to untangle, where people who want to examine them go generally to research that confirms, more or less convincingly, the theories that they have already developed and in which they seem firmly to believe. Elements that don’t fit the picture are often minimized in their significance, sometimes passed over in silence. Curiously, in this type of research, what needs to be proven is treated as a given. The perception is clear that a different attitude would present dangers and implications which one wants to avoid at all costs.”
Later on: “We must decide therefore whether the confessions of infant crucifixions on Passover Eve, the testimony of the accused about the use of Christian blood in the feast document myths—that is, beliefs and ideologies going back for a long time—or rites—that is, actual events occurring in reality and celebrated in prescribed and consolidated forms, with their baggage, more or less fixed, of formulas and anathemas, accompanied by those magic and superstitious practices that were an integral part of the protagonists’ mentality.”
I couldn’t get much further in Italian, but eventually I found a translation into English—done, alas, by antisemitic revisionists and hosted on an antisemitic revisionist web site—and in the end Toaff seemed to say that it was conceivable that a fundamentalist sect had occasionally kidnapped Christian babies to put their blood in matzah. The evidentiary link seemed pretty weak to me, but I’m not a historian and so I don’t feel competent to judge his historiography.
What I don’t get is: How on earth could anybody write such a thing and not expect to be—forgive me—crucified by the world Jewish community? I saw Toaff on some YouTube video and he seemed genuinely surprised at the vitriol he’d provoked. It was as if this were no different from writing about food or monsters.
If you want the Italian text you can download a PDF here.
If you want the images you can download a PDF here.
If you want to read the translation you can do so here; it’s a revisionist web site, but as far as I’ve been able to discern it’s a pretty accurate translation.