Jeffrey L. Rubenstein

From blood libel to genocide libel

These two false accusations leveled against Jews are driven by the same psychological mechanisms: guilt, doubt and hatred
Martyrdom of Simon von Trent, depiction from the Nuremberg World Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel. Woodcut 1493 (PD via Wikimedia)
Martyrdom of Simon von Trent, depiction from the Nuremberg World Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel. Woodcut 1493 (PD via Wikimedia)

Accusations that the Israeli campaign against Hamas in Gaza was a “genocide” began flying almost as soon as Israel began the attack. These false and spurious calumnies culminated with South Africa formally charging Israel with genocide in the International Court of Justice on Dec. 29th, 2023. Israeli officials and many defenders of Israel reacted by calling the accusation a “blood libel.” Eylon Levy, an official Israeli government spokesperson, stated that Israel would defend itself in court “to dispel South Africa’s absurd blood libel.” President of Israel Isaac Herzog claimed on January 29th that the ICJ judges “twisted” his words and took them out of context to create the false impression that he considered all Gazans as legitimate military targets, which is tantamount to a form of “blood libel.”

Herzog, Levy and others used the term “blood libel” in the sense of a false accusation intended to demonize the Jews. In medieval, early modern and even in modern times, Christians falsely accused Jews of murdering Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals, carried out trials where Jews were tortured into confessing, and followed the blood libel with violence, pogroms, and murders.

I believe that this comparison of the accusation of genocide in Gaza to a blood libel is completely correct. In fact, the motivation for the charge of genocide can better be understood by some psychological analyses of the motivation for, and function of, blood libels.

As has been pointed out repeatedly throughout the centuries, the blood libel is absolutely absurd, as Judaism prohibits the consumption of blood, a prohibition stated several times in the Torah (Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 7:10-12, Deuteronomy 12:23). Even the blood of animals slaughtered according to laws of ritual slaughter (shehitah) must be drained for the meat to be kosher.

The persistence of the blood libel is therefore difficult to understand, especially since some Popes, Christian clergy, Christian scholars and government officials condemned the libels and insisted they were false. Blood libels nevertheless resurfaced continually even after the Middle Ages – a famous case was that of Menahem Mendel Beilis in Russia in 1911. Yet the Beilis case was not an exception but the rule. Hundreds of blood libels took place over the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Blood libels spread to Muslim countries, despite their basis in Christianity, and even surfaced in a bizarre case in upstate New York in 1928.

To make sense of this persistent phenomenon some scholars have turned to psychological explanations. It is these explanations that will help us understand the baseless charge of genocide against Israel, a charge that is also absolutely false, as has been cogently argued by Israel’s defenders.

Scholars have noted that blood libels began after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which ruled that transubstantiation was the correct understanding of Eucharistic doctrine. Christians thereafter had to believe that the wine and wafer/bread of the eucharist was “transubstantiated,” that is, actually turned into the blood and flesh of Jesus. The ritual of the mass was not merely symbolic but real: Christians were drinking the blood of Jesus and consuming his flesh, incorporating the immortal and incorruptible blood and body of Jesus/God into their corruptible and sinful human bodies in a ritual meal. Those who did not believe this doctrine, those who did not believe that the wine transformed/transubstantiated into real blood, were heretics.

(1) Christian Guilt. According to one scholarly theory, blood libels against Jews originated due to Christian guilt about this belief and practice. Some Christians felt guilty about what essentially amounted to a type of ritual cannibalism, guilty about consuming “human” flesh and drinking “human” blood. In what the scholar Alan Dundes calls “psychological inversion,” Christians projected a form of this practice onto Jews, displacing their guilt and self-loathing about drinking blood onto the “Other.” The blood libel assured Christians: it is not we who drink blood, not we who engage in this type of cannibalistic practice, but the Jews. The accusation that Jews murdered Christian children is also a distorted form of the crucified Jesus and the charge of deicide.

Charging Israel with genocide functions in a similar way. The true perpetrators of genocide are of course Hamas, who state this goal explicitly in their charter and attempted to carry it out on Oct. 7th. Some Palestinians and supporters of Palestinians, I believe, with the goal of an independent state and not the murder of all Israelis, feel guilty about the Hamas atrocities. Even Mahmoud Abbas (eventually and ambivalently) disavowed the Hamas attacks stating that they “do not represent Palestinians.” Yet at the same time, as we have repeatedly seen, Palestinians and their supporters have embraced Hamas and the Oct. 7th massacres. They evidently feel they cannot renounce the Hamas atrocities, since Hamas acted in the name of the Palestinians after all, but feel guilty about the murder of infants, rapes, burning of families, and other heinous crimes.

One way to cope with the guilt is to falsely accuse Israel of genocide – a “genocide libel.” This psychological inversion functions to negate the guilt these Palestinians and their supporters feel about Hamas’s actions and to displace it onto Israel. As if to say: it is not we Palestinians, not those acting for our cause who are perpetrators of genocide, but Israel. This also helps explain why so many individuals and groups blamed Israel for the atrocities even before Israel mobilized and began the Gazan campaign. They minimized their guilt by falsely accusing Israel and holding Israel responsible.

(Incidentally, this is in part the same motivation for those who rip down posters of hostages and ignore the rapes perpetrated by Hamas. Palestinian supporters reduce their guilt for backing an organization that committed the crimes of kidnapping and sexual violations by denial.)

(2) Christian Doubt. A second and closely related psychological understanding of the blood libel sees its target as Christian doubt about the doctrine of transubstantiation rather than guilt. Many medieval Christians obviously had their doubts about the belief that wine and wafer/bread actually turned into blood and flesh. The medieval mind was more credulous and less skeptical than we are today, but some, perhaps many, medieval people could not accept this claim. We know this because Protestants rejected the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation based in part on this point. In fact, some scholars understand the blood libels against Jews as emerging from this intra-Christian debate. To help address their doubts, Catholics falsely accused Jews of using human blood in their rituals. This helped dispel their doubts and reassure Catholics that their belief was true: if even the Jews drank human blood, if Jews believed that human blood was necessary, if our enemies subscribed to a similar belief – then the wine in our ritual must be blood too.

Falsely accusing Israel of genocide helps dispel the doubts of Palestinians and their supporters about the appropriateness and legitimacy of Hamas’s attacks. Those who doubt whether murdering civilians, kidnapping infants, rape, and suchlike are legitimate in a struggle for political independence are reassured by accusing Israel of genocide. The “genocide libel” dispels doubt by convincing Palestinians that these tactics are legitimate because they face a genocidal enemy. If Israel commits genocide, then Palestinian supporters need not doubt the legitimacy of Hamas’s atrocities. If Israel is genocidal, they need not doubt the propriety of genocidal acts on their behalf.

(3) Christian Hatred. Some scholars see the blood libel as an inversion of Christian hatred toward Jews. The blood libel helped Christians deal with their deep hatred and animosity toward Jews simply for being Jews and for not accepting Christianity, for being the “Other” who rejected the majority culture and way of life. Cardinal Giovanni Vincenzo Ganganelli, who would later become Pope Clement XIV, wrote in 1759 that two infant boys Simon and Andrew were killed by Jews “in hatred of the faith in Jesus Christ.” To justify their own hatred of Jews, Christians libeled Jews with the most despicable and hateful acts, killing Christian children for their blood. This belief helped Christians cope with their ugly and irrational hatred of Jews and reassured them that such hatred was deserved.

Hamas’s acts of terror on Oct. 7th were motivated by a deep hatred of Israelis and Jews. What else drives people to murder, rape, massacre and commit other such acts of ultimate cruelty and barbarity? Among the murdered were some Israelis most active in working for peace with Palestinians, like Vivian Silver, and other Israelis who drove Palestinians and their children to hospitals in Israel for treatment. Infants and children were slaughtered with their families. For those supporting Hamas, what can justify such indiscriminate hatred? The fact that Israelis hate Palestinians even more, as demonstrated by the Israeli “genocide.” The genocide libel assures Palestinian supporters of Oct. 7th that Israelis, even those like Vivian Silver, hate Palestinians so much that they commit genocide and should be hated in return.

Because the “genocide libel” is rooted in deep psychological mechanisms, I believe that it will unfortunately be very difficult to combat, just as blood libels have been difficult to combat. Rational discourse and argumentation may not be of much help. We need courageous leaders on all sides to stand up and reject the “genocide libel” in order to engage in more productive dialogue.

About the Author
Jeffrey L. Rubenstein is a Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Literature in the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies of New York University. His books include, "Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition and Culture" (1999) and "The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud," (2003)
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