As soon as the festival of Passover ended this week, we found out the New York Times had published an antisemitic cartoon. The image portrayed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu portrayed as a dog, leading a kippa-clad US President Donald Trump. An hour or so later the news came through of a right-wing extremist murdering a worshipper in a shooting in a Synagogue near San Diego.
From the right and the left US Jews are experiencing anti-Semitism at virtually unprecedented levels and with tacit support from the highest levels of government and the media.
Last week some were shocked at a blatantly anti-Semitic ritual in a small town in Poland that involved beating an effigy of an Ultra-orthodox Jew.
Just as I am still shocked (but no longer surprised) by open anti-Semitism in the 21st century, I am equally shocked about the past. It seems impossible to me, yet true, that there was a pogrom in Poland less than a year after the Holocaust. A nine-year-old non-Jewish boy, Henryk Blaszczyk, went missing for two days. When he returned home, he told his parents he had been kidnapped by Jews and held in the basement of the local Jewish Committee building.
Even though his story quickly unraveled, on July 4, 1946, a large mob gathered outside the building and began attacking members of the Jewish community. On that single day, 42 survivors of the Nazi horrors were murdered by a mob of Polish soldiers, police officers and civilians in the Kielce Pogrom and more than 40 wounded.
Although the records were destroyed, some have claimed that not only was this pogrom carried out by those in positions of authority but that the entire attack was orchestrated by the Soviet regime.
Anti-Semitism goes back almost as far as the Jews themselves. But there is a world of difference between anti-Semitic beliefs or acts carried out by individuals, and those carried out with overt or tacit approval by the leaders of a country, movement or religion.
Which is why the story of Hugh of Lincoln is the most famous blood libel in England. “Little Saint Hugh” (or sometimes Little Sir Hugh since he was in fact never canonized) was an eight- or nine-year- old boy whose dead body was discovered on 27 August 1255, almost a month after he went missing. The discovery was made as a group of wealthy Jews from around the country were visiting Lincoln to attend the wedding of Belaset son of Benedict. The locals quickly blamed the Jews, accusing them of murdering the boy as part of a ritual.
This was not the first time English Jews had been accused of murdering Christians. William of Norwich was said to have been crucified by Jews in 1144, according to a biography of William written by Thomas of Monmouth. In 1168 Jews were accused of the ritual killing of Harold of Gloucester and in 1181 of the death of Robert of Bury.
Transforming a tragic death into a blood libel made good business sense for towns and churches. Pilgrims would come to visit the sites of events in the lives of the the alleged child martyrs. The pilgrimage would culminate in a prayer recited in the local church, often accompanied by a donation or gift, so blood libel was a great revenue stream.
What set the story of Hugh of Lincoln apart from earlier stories was that this time King Henry III himself supported the false accusations. A Jew named Copin confessed under torture to murdering the boy. His torturer was John of Lexington, brother of the Bishop of Lincoln, Henry of Lexington. A month later King Henry arrived in Lincoln and sentenced Copin to death. Henry also had 90 other Jews arrested and locked up in the Tower of London. Eighteen of them were hanged soon afterwards for refusing to be judged by a Christian court. The remainder were sentenced to death but were freed a few months later, probably because nobody was really convinced they were guilty.
The Canadian historian Gavin I. Langmuir explained how this case was different from the blood libels that preceded it:
What distinguished the Lincoln affair from other accusations of ritual murder was that the king took personal cognizance and had one Jew executed immediately and eighteen others spectacularly executed later. That royal substantiation of the truth of the charge was probably decisive for Hugh’s fame, which far outshadowed that of William of Norwich, Harold of Gloucester, Robert of Bury St. Edmunds, and the poor anonymous infant of St. Paul’s.
There are probably many reasons Henry III gave the royal stamp of approval to this lie about the Jews. It was only two years since he passed The Statute of Jewry — a law that segregated Jews and Christians, banned the construction of synagogues and required all Jews to wear a badge marking them as Jewish.
In addition, the king had spent the previous few years taxing the Jews very harshly. But he still wanted more. Luckily for him, the law stated that any Jew convicted of any crime forfeited all his land to the crown. By accusing the Jews of murder, he could balance his budget.
There may have been political and financial reasons for Henry’s support of the blood libel — but at the end of the day, it was anti-Semitism that led him to execute 19 Jews.
A few years after Hugh’s death, on July 18, 1290, Jews were ordered out of England completely. They didn’t return until the time of Oliver Cromwell in 1657. But the fact that there were no Jews in the country for over 350 years didn’t end the lie of the blood libel.
For centuries afterwards, Lincoln Cathedral profited from the lie about Hugh as the faithful came to visit the shrine to the ‘martyr’ – who despite not being canonized nevertheless has July 27 as his feast day.
The Prioress’s Tale in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century “Canterbury Tales” describes a blood libel remarkably similar to the one about Hugh.
In 1910 someone dug a well in Jews’ Court, Lincoln, claimed it was where Hugh’s body had been found, and charged people money to see it. And in 1925 a school in nearby Woodhall Spa was named after Hugh.
But perhaps the most shocking part of the story is that it wasn’t until 1955 – ten years after the horrors of the Holocaust – that Lincoln Cathedral placed a sign at the site of Hugh’s shrine publicly admitting that the claim of ritual murder was a fiction. The lie was so pervasive that it lasted for 700 years!
This week’s Torah reading, Kedoshim, opens with a list of prohibitions, including the prohibition of lying (Leviticus 11:19):
Do not steal, and do not deal falsely, and do not lie one against another.
In the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 24:5), Levi says that this list of commandments is a repeat and elucidation of the Ten Commandments. And, as the name of the portion implies, avoiding lies, and the other forbidden actions, is what makes the Jewish people holy.
Billy Joel said that honesty is such an easy word, but in Judaism, it is elevated to one of the most important values. The Psalmist writes (Psalms 101:7), “One who speaks deceitfully shall not dwell in My house, one who utters lies shall not stand before My eyes.” From this, the Talmud (Sota 42a) learns that those who habitually tell lies are one of four groups who will not receive the Divine Presence. Rabbi Elazar goes even further: “One who falsifies his words is considered like one who worships idols,” (Sanhedrin 92a).
The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 22b) says that a person won’t lie about something that can really be proven wrong. Yet we often find that some people, even people in positions of authority or power, tell lies that are easily and instantly disprovable. Why do they do this? And why do people not laugh them out of office?
If you stick to unalloyed reality, few people will follow you. In fact, false stories have an intrinsic advantage over the truth when it comes to uniting people. If you want to gauge group loyalty, requiring people to believe an absurdity is a far better test than asking them to believe the truth. If a big chief says ‘the sun rises in the east and sets in the west,’ loyalty to the chief is not required in order to applaud him. But if the chief says ‘the sun rises in the west and sets in the east,’ only true loyalists will clap their hands.
In George Orwell’s 1984, one of the ways in which Big Brother ensures loyalty is through doublespeak. After years of fighting a patriotic war against Eurasia, while allied with Eastasia, suddenly, mid-sentence, Eastasia becomes the enemy they’ve always been fighting and Eurasia is an ally.
A leader who tells easily-disprovable lies is demanding loyalty. The followers are forced to either admit their leader is no good and that they were fools for following him or her, or they have to accept the new reality the leader determined for them. Usually, it is easier for our brains to accept the alternative facts, rather than admit we may have made a mistake.
The prohibition against lying is listed in this week’s Torah reading alongside the other restatements of the Ten Commandments. Honesty is one of the foundations of our society. Yet it is often easier, or more pragmatic to accept the lies. And once we, as a society reject the truth in favor of lies, it is but a small step to the anti-Semitism that leads to centuries of blood libel, or to hatred of other groups, or even to the very destruction of the world in which we live.