In light of Sarah Palin’s recent characterization of herself as the victim of a “blood libel” and the subsequent uproar it has received in the media, it seemed a fitting time to explain what the “blood libel” is in Jewish history.
A typical “blood libel” followed this pattern. First, the body of a non-Jew, usually a child, would be found dead. A Jew would then be accused of the murder, and the motive imputed to him was that he needed the child’s blood for ritual purposes, most typically for baking matzahs. The first such accusation came in 1144 in Norwich, England, but there were many more throughout history. In Spain in 1490, for example, six conversos and two Jews were accused, found guilty, and burned at the stake for the ritual murder of a child even though no body was ever found. Often these blood libels coincided with pogroms with the Church and government officials encouraging the mob violence.
Notably, this canard of Jewish ritual murder for blood was a strictly Christian invention. Though the Jews in Arab countries suffered in other ways, they did not face the blood libel until 1840 in Damascus, and then only when France had imperial control of what is today Syria and “imported” in the idea.
Neither was the United States immune. On Yom Kippur of 1928, after the disappearance of a little girl, Rabbi Berel Brennglass of Congregation Adath Israel in Massena, New York was forced out of services and questioned for four hours by the police. All the typical accusations of blood libel had been made by the townspeople who surrounded the synagogue, shouting and threatening. The girl was found alive and well in the woods where she had gotten lost.
The last and perhaps most famous blood libel of Europe was the case of Mendel Beilis in 1911. It began when a Russian council of noblemen suggested to the Czar that he “purify” Russia by expelling its Jewish population. Mendel Beilis, an unfortunate and obscure Jew from Kiev was thus propelled into history. When a Christian child in Kiev was found dead, Beilis was accused of ritual murder. The police soon became aware of the identity of actual murderers, but, under instructions of the Minister of Justice, continued to gather “evidence” against the hapless Beilis. Protests against this travesty were lodged with the Russian government by agencies in Western Europe and the United States, but were ignored. Beilis was brought to trial at the end of 1913, found not guilty because of lack of evidence, though the presumption of the “blood libel” itself was never refuted.
I make no comment about Sarah Palin’s use of this term. I merely want to educate people about the facts of Jewish history, which is something I will comment on. And I certainly can comment about what all this says about the Jewish people. The core of the Jewish people has remained steadfast in our identity and beliefs in spite of blood libels and persecutions. The “stiff- necked people” has indeed proven to be stubborn. Like the walnut, we’re a tough nut to crack. But even when we’re at our lowest, our kernel fruit remains whole and protected.