Antisemitism then and now

On a Spring day in March 1144, the body of a twelve-year old boy named William was found in the forest near the English town of Norwich. Although no-one was convicted of the murder, William’s uncle, a priest, had no doubt as to who was to blame; it was the town’s Jews who had killed the boy as part of a bizarre religious ritual. The Jews were protected from the mob by the local sheriff, but the entire local community was wiped out fifty years later. William became a saint and developed his own cult, and Norwich achieved notoriety as the home of the first blood libel of the mediaeval world.

More followed. “Saint Harold of Gloucester”; “Saint Robert of Bury”; “Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln” and many others punctuated the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Each blood libel brought pogroms, executions and expulsion in its wake. After the Jews were exiled from England, the madness spread to Europe and thence to Asia and the Arab lands. 

This tragic story tells us that a lie, repeated a sufficient number of times and echoed by enough sources, can be accepted as valid. Even though Jewish law mandates the avoidance of even a trace of blood – to such an extent that every egg must be checked for any specks before it is eaten – the notion that Jews killed children in order to drink their blood took hold of populations across the world. 

This was not just a result of the primitive superstition and religious fervour of the Middle Ages; as late as 1840 the Jews of Damascus were accused of ritual murder– allegations that were re-visited in a book by the Syrian Defence Minister in 1986. In the twentieth century, blood libels occurred in Iran, Ukraine and even in New York. In 2002 a government-backed Saudi newspaper ran a series of articles confirming the “veracity” of instances of ritual murder by Jews.

Ideological convictions played a significant part in spreading and perpetuating the myths. The Christian Church, whose philosophical foundation  partially rested on the belief that Jews were Christ-killers, had an interest in extrapolating this belief to make Jews baby-killers as well. Political motives were also involved. Those who owed money to Jewish moneylenders were keen to find an excuse to justify the Jews’ banishment and the confiscation of their property. Thus both clergy and politicians conspired to create a “narrative” in which “the Jews are guilty” became a natural and even automatic assumption on the discovery of any crime.

And myth generates myth. Once it is “established” that William of Norwich was a victim of the Jews, it seemed logical to assume the same of Harold and Robert. The story of little Hugh was spread by poem and ballad and even earned a mention in The Canterbury Tales. Word of mouth, the social media of the day, served to provide instant judgements against which accurate investigation provided no match.

Today we pride ourselves on our sophistication and intellectual rigour. We assume that no mass delusion could take place in the modern age. We are wrong.

Now, as then, critical masses of intelligent people believe in distorted narratives and unashamed lies spread, not be minstrels or chronicling monks, but by twitter and instagram, where millions share stories and instant judgements without any scrutiny or accountability. 

Now, as then, Jews are the “other”, “untrustworthy”, “in league with a foreign power” and “the cause of their own misfortune”. Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, is “demonic” and  the “root of literally all the evil in the world”. Some of our attackers are careful to distinguish between Jews and Zionists, yet they regard all Jews as guilty of this “sin” until proven innocent.

Now, as then, Jews are accused of murder, yet this time it is on the scale of “genocide” – a charge which conveniently absolves the world for committing or allowing the Holocaust. 

Now as then the generators and transmitters of these lies regard themselves as intelligent, rational and unprejudiced. They “do not have an antisemitic bone” in their bodies. They care only for the protection of little children (or at least those whose tragic deaths can be blamed on Jews).

This vast surge of modern-day antisemitism is found in the anti-Israel demonstrations on the streets, and especially in the sewers of social media. Some of the manifestations of the world’s oldest hatred have not yet reached the mainstream, nor the majority of the political class. But if we listen carefully to the media, we can hear these evil and barbaric notions about Jews inching closer and closer to the status of fact. 

We can hear our government leaders downplay antisemitism by never even uttering the word without adding “and Islamophobia”. 

We can hear how the atrocities of October 7 are minimised, contextualised and denied. 

We can hear how claims by the Hamas murderers are accepted without question, while statements from Israel are “unverified”.

And we can hear how Israel is held to an infinitely higher standard than any other nation on earth.

Lies that are repeated often enough inevitably sow doubt and raise questions. Can so many people on twitter be wrong? Can so many journalists and commentators be biassed, misreporting or distorting facts to fit their own prejudices?

The lesson of history is that they can. The evidence before us is that they are. The terrible fear is that this is just the beginning.

About the Author
Born and raised in London. Lived in London, Manchester and Melbourne. Principal of Melbourne’s largest Jewish Day School from 2007 to 2023.