David I. Roytenberg

Blood Libel

Lies propagated by the media feed the frenzy of Israel hatred on Canadian Streets

If you know about the history of antisemitism, the notion of blood libel will be familiar. The blood libel first appeared in Europe in the middle ages and claimed that Jews had murdered a Christian, often a child, and used the blood of the victim to prepare Passover Matzot. Blood libel cases often sparked an outbreak of mass violence against Jews, fueled by irrational fears of Jewish malice toward Christians. False claims against Jews were treated seriously by the authorities, creating an official record that was then used to “prove” the truth of subsequent allegations, and fuel violence against Jews centuries later.

The earliest claim of blood libel was the work of an ambitious monk named Thomas of Monmouth who used the story of the disappearance of a child named William of Norwich, to promote the church where he was buried as a site of pilgrimage. William had died in 1144, but the project to publicize his story, and blame it on the Jews took place years later. As part of this effort, Thomas wrote a book in which he invented the blood curdling details of Jewish ritual murder. This article in “The Nation” includes a description of these events.

The story of Jewish ritual murder cropped up again in Blois in 1177, where the leading Jewish citizens were burned at the stake despite there being no evidence that any crime had been committed.

A particularly important case was that of Simon of Trent, a boy who was murdered in the Italian city of Trento in 1475. Trento was home to three Jewish clans who lived there under the protection of the ruling Prince-Bishop Johannes Hinderbach. The Jews were relatively prosperous. The events are described in this Wikipedia article. Although the Jews of the town joined the search, found the body, and reported it to the authorities, they were accused of ritually murdering the boy and confessed under torture to the crime. Attempts by a skeptical Papal official to verify the facts of the case were thwarted by local authorities. Fifteen men, constituting the entire male Jewish population of the town were executed for the crime.

The case led to attacks on Jews, and to similar accusations against other Jews in the surrounding region of Veneto, Lombardy and Tyrol, and ultimately to the expulsion of the entire Jewish population in 1486. In later centuries, the murdered boy was venerated locally, and his story became part of the official martyrology of the Catholic Church in 1586. It was only in 1965 that the Catholic church repudiated the claim of ritual murder by Jews, of Simon of Trent, and banned the veneration of his relics. In the 21st century new efforts to rehabilitate the blood libel in this case have emerged.

According to this study of the history of ritual murder cases, by a scholar named Steven Eglund, there is a link between medieval ritual murder cases and an outbreak of similar events in the nineteenth century. This includes an accusation at Rhodes in 1840, where the Jewish community was ultimately exonerated, and at Damascus the same year, where a number of Jews were arrested and confessed under torture. The Damascus charge was incited by the French consul, who hated Jews and was trying to promote the interest of Christian merchants in the city. The events became an international sensation and led to riots against the Jews of Damascus by their Christian and Muslim neighbours.

* * *

In our own time we have seen similar invented stories spread widely and used to incite violence against Jews. In the first chapter of his 2022 book, “Can ‘the Whole World’ be Wrong?” Richard Landes writes about the death, in September of 2000, of Mohammed al Durrah, a 12 year old Palestinian boy. An image of the terrified boy behind his father was published and quickly spread around the world.

Image: Viral photo of Mohammed al Durrah who was killed in Gaza in September 2000 —Fair use,

The story that accompanied the picture was of a boy who was deliberately gunned down by Israeli troops. According to Landes, there was no evidence that this was true. He argues that it is most likely that the entire sequence was staged in order to promote hatred toward Israel.

Landes indicts the journalistic profession as a whole for a wholesale dereliction of duty at a crucial moment, and argues that the false story of the Israeli murder of a Palestinian boy exposed by a brave cameraman to the eyes of the world, was the spark that set off the two year orgy of violence known as the second intifada. As in the middle ages, false charges of murdering a child were used both to incite and to justify the murder of Jews.

* * *
I began reading Landes’ book while flying back from Israel on Thursday and the story of the invented murder of Mohammed al Durrah bears an eerie resemblance to another news flash that emerged over the twenty four hours that I was in transit from Israel to Canada.

According to several news outlets, over 100 Palestinians had been killed when Israeli troops fired on a crowd in Northern Gaza. The crowd had gathered to receive aid that Israeli troops were escorting into the area. The aid has been coming in via the Kerem Shalom crossing, in order to help people in Gaza City who have been beyond the reach of aid organizations operating in the South.

The story put out by Hamas, was that Israel had committed a massacre. As I read this, my heart sank because Israel is already under intense international pressure to capitulate to demands that it end its campaign against Hamas without achieving its vital aim of removing Hamas from power in Gaza.

By the time we landed in Toronto, it became clear that none of what Hamas had claimed was true.

The Times of Israel Daily Briefing on March 1 provided a detailed account of what happened, as reported by the Israel Defense Forces:

Israeli troops escorted a convoy of 38 trucks on a long journey from the Kerem Shalom crossing up the coast to Gaza City. As they approached Gaza City, thousands of Palestinians began to rush the trucks. The army fired warning shots in the air. Palestinian truck drivers tried to escape the mob and ran over some of the people. Many others were trampled in the rush to reach the convoy.

After the convoy had continued on to its destination, a group of Palestinians approached an Israeli tank. Israelis fired in the air to warn them off and then fired at the legs of those who continued to advance, injuring “less than ten”.

The trucks arriving in the destination were attacked by armed men, presumably Hamas who looted the trucks. At this point the Israelis were no longer with the convoy.

In spite of the detailed account of the events, which clearly revealed the Hamas account as a lie calculated to cover their own role in the incident and to blame all the deaths on Israel, many international news stories led with the claim that Israel had fired on the crowd. International leaders, including French President Macron and Canada’s NDP leader Jagmeet Singh repeated the false claims that Israel had fired on a crowd of desperate Palestinians.

It seems like the strategy of falsely accusing Jews of murder is still alive and well in our own moment. Using blood libel to foment hatred and violence against Jews still works and that is why people who hate Jews keep using it.

This article was originally published in Canadian Zionist Forum on March 1, 2024

About the Author
David Roytenberg is a Canadian living in Ottawa, Canada, with a lifelong interest in Israel and Zionism. He spent 9 months in Israel in 1974-75 on Kibbutz Kfar Glickson and is a frequent visitor to friends and family in Israel. He is married and the father of two sons. David is Secretary of MERCAZ Canada and the chair of Adult Education for Kehillat Beth Israel in Ottawa. He wrote monthly about Israel and Zionism for the Canadian Jewish News from 2017 to 2020.
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