April 12, 2010

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.

Oh, boy.

“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.”

Oh, shit.

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.

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7 Responses to In late 2006 or early 2007, I read something about a forthcoming

  1. matt says:

    I make no pretence of understanding the enormity of the assertion. But I do have a fundamental problem with the notion that, just because the Jews have been persecuted and demonised throughout history, it is necessary to pretend that all Jews have always been paragons of virtue, that unlike members of every other ethnic and religious group none have ever been deranged nutcases, and that all right-thinking people must collude in this pretence or be drummed out of polite society. Are the Jews somehow required to be exempt from the human condition? What kind of cruel nonsense is that?

    Of course, I have less idea than anyone whether Toaff’s thesis has any historical validity. But if a few far-out religious loonies used some travesty of Judaic scripture as a fig-leaf for their psychopathy, why would we even be that surprised? That is what far-out religious loonies do.

    That the very idea cannot even be mentioned suggests something very unhealthy in the surrounding culture. I can appreciate some of the reasons — both emotional and tactical — why one might wish such a discussion not to take place. But that sort of systematic denial leads to situations such as the Catholic church currently finds itself in, driven by a similar synecdochic fallacy into distorting, downplaying, covering up and condoning dreadful abuses.

    You cannot live to please your enemies. If you let them set the agenda, if you let them curtail the things you are allowed to say and do, then you are persecuting yourself on their behalf. You will never live up to the ideal of perfection this demands, and even if you were to, it wouldn’t make any difference. They will continue to paint you in evil terms anyway.

  2. Naomi says:

    I was raised by two academics, so I speak from experience when I say that scholars in academia can be remarkably intellectually isolated and weirdly oblivious to anything that smacks of pop culture.

    This, however, hits a new low in terms of “wait, WHAT? you SERIOUSLY didn’t realize people were going to be mad at you?” I’d say he’s thoroughly dethroned Judith Levine (author of Harmful to Minors, who was also quite startled at how overwrought people got at her assertion that sometimes teenagers have sex and it’s not actually that big a deal.)

    I’ve always considered blood libel to be an early documented example of an urban legend. As an urban legend, everyone — Jewish or not — knew about it. Of course victims of these accusations knew what they were supposed to confess they’d done. The fact that the story was told and told again does not mean that it ever actually happened, any more than any gang anywhere in the U.S. has ever required new initiates to drive around with their lights out, then stalk and shoot the first person to give them a courtesy flash. (Incidentally, did you know that the only child to ever die from poisoned Halloween candy was murdered by his own father? The father had heard all these warnings about candy and figured that poisonings must be so common no one would think twice about his assertion that his son was poisoned by candy given to him by a neighbor. Whoops.)

  3. Matt and Naomi: I agree with you both 100%. I myself am astonished mostly that he didn’t think such a claim would be controversial. If I were doing research into this matter, I’d want anything I wrote to be backed up by watertight evidence, which this book is not. But that’s about common sense rather than moral sense.

  4. campbell says:

    To be honest I am a wee bit surprised that anyone has problems understanding the enormity of the Blood Libel. I am not Jewish and it is an accusation that has always made my blood run cold (so props for me as a senstive soul, I suppose).

    I am guessing that the problem people had with Toaff’s book (at least as Faustus has summarised it) is that he was asserting not that child sacrifice was the work of ‘loonies’ (tsk tsk Matt!)but the work of fundamentalist sects or a single such and that these things happened not once but occasionally.

    The effect of that is to place child slaughter within the pale of the Jewish tradition; right up by the uttermost outside edge perhaps but the work of a group and a group recognising and revering shared religious truths with the mainstream nevertheless. And not a one-off that gave rise to an urban legend but multiple events however rare.

    What I would like to see is Toaff’s analysis of how the trials were conducted particularly if torture was used or threats against loved ones and how he weighs the reliability of the evidence of the accused. As the Enlightenment penal reformers pointed out long ago: torure a man enough and he’ll confess to anything.

    By the way I am assuming that he does have confessional evidence or from Jewish sources. If he bases his thesis on 3rd party evidence only then, I am sorry the book is worthless and the motivation for writing it is probably best sought for in Freud.

  5. Stephen says:

    It seems to me (this could be completely wrong) that Ariel Toaff is just trying to out do Carlo Ginzburg in terms of discovering a groundbreaking new look at religious practices in Medieval Italy.

  6. I’m going with what Campbell said about third sources. As someone who grew up in a kosher home, and just went and kashered her entire (non-kosher) kitchen for Passover so that her mother could come and stay with us for the 8 days of the holiday, I am here to tell you that blood is very, very restricted in Jewish ritual practice: like, if you’re a Jew, you can’t get a really good juicy steak ever, because the blood has to be drained from all meat before you’re allowed to eat it. (This can involve soaking it in water and treating it with salt to make darned sure – I remember my mom doing this at home in the 60s.)

    The rules for Passover matzah are even more severe – look up “shmurah matzah” sometime – I can assure you they don’t involve any blood, because in addition to everything else, matzah has to be parve, i.e. have neither meat nor milk products in it. The notion of anyone adding blood to it – even the blood of chicken, let alone children – just beggars the housewifely imagination. You’d be scrubbing out the pots for weeks. And it still wouldn’t be kosher.

    So what’s even the point?

  7. Anna says:

    for extra fun – right now in no-longer-soviet-russia, where i happily no longer live, one can buy “Kaballah” brand Vodka. it has a label in Hebrew, a random quote from leviticus, a glass figurine of a toddler on the inside of the bottle, and the label boasts that it is made with blood of Christian babies. in soviet russia, the stupid does you…


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