In 1840, Syria was ruled by Muhammad Ali of Egypt, who had rebelled against the Ottoman Empire. France supported Ali, whereas Austria and Great Britain supported Turkey. On February 5, 1840, Father Thomas, an Italian monk, and his Muslim servant, Ibrahim Amrah, disappeared in Damascus. Jews were accused by local townspeople of murdering both men to use their blood for Pesach. A barber, Solomon Negrin, was arbitrarily arrested and tortured until a “confession” was extorted from him, according to which the monk had been killed in the house of David Harari by seven Jews. These men were arrested. Some of the prisoners died during their interrogation, and five of the seven were made to “confess.” Bones were found in a Jewish quarter and were alleged to have been the bones of those killed, but respected non-Jewish doctors refused to certify that they were human bones. The doctors wanted to send them to a European university for examination. However, the French consul refused and the authorities claimed that the guilt of the Jews was proved beyond doubt.
This blood libel shook Jews across the world to the core. Many had believed that blood libels were a thing of the past, a medieval accusation that the modern world had long since rejected. The blood libel charge made its first appearance in Norwich, England in 1144. Jews were accused of having kidnapped, tortured and crucified a Christian in memory of the crucifixion of Jesus. Then they were said to have distributed the blood of the Christian in preparation of matzot for Pesach. The guilty Jews were massacred and their money was taken by the Church. In 1171, the blood libel made its first appearance in continental Europe and resulted in the destruction of the Jewish community of Blois, France. Often Christian religious and secular leaders denounced these accusations; however, the accusation still continued to crop up. By the end of the thirteenth century, the blood libel became almost an annual occurrence somewhere in Europe. But that was then. Blood libel in 1840? This would never happen, or so the Jews thought.
Fast forward to 2023. Yes, we know that much of the Arab world is not resigned to the fact that Jews have returned to Israel en masse after living for almost 2,000 years primarily in the diaspora. In response, the State of Israel has been trying to address this issue by finding Arab neighbors who wish to partner with us to find a peaceful path forward. Recently we have been made painfully aware that we have enemies backed by Iran who wish to terrorize us and destroy us in the most inhumane manner imaginable. Furthermore, the fact that the Arab street in moderate Arab countries is ablaze with protests against Jews and the world media immediately believed that Jews intentionally targeted innocent civilians in a Gazan hospital because Hamas terrorists said so means that the blood libel is alive and well not just in 1144, not just in 1840, but in 2023, as well.
But something happened in response to the Damascus blood libel of 1840. The Jewish world came to their aid. For the first time in American Jewish life, Jews organized themselves politically to help diaspora Jewry in distress. The American Jewish community of 15,000 protested in six American cities on behalf of their Jewish brethren. A Jewish delegation, whose members included Sir Moses Montefiore, a British politician and leader of the British Jewish community, and French lawyer and eventual French Minister of Justice Adolphe Cremieux, left for Egypt to meet Ali. After much pressure, the prisoners who were still alive in Damascus were released on August 28, 1840.
The Damascus blood libel of 1840 made Jews painfully aware of the need for intercommunal cooperation, finally resulting in the establishment of Alliance Israelite Universelle. This organization was founded in 1860 to help fellow Jews wherever they suffered or were discriminated against because of their religion. Adolphe Cremieux was an assimilated Jew, but he understood the need and power of the Jewish nation to unite and fight for our brethren in distress all across the world. Once when Rav Tzvi Yehuda Ha-Kohen Kook told the story of the Damascus blood libel and the role of Adolphe Cremieux, the assimilated Jew, in establishing the Alliance Israelite Universelle, Rav Kook added that the actions of Cremieux were the first steps to the creation of the modern State of Israel. He said that the intense feeling that each and every Jew is a limb that is connected with every other Jew to form a body, and that when one limb is in pain, every limb in pain, is what it means to be a Jew in the State of Israel. This is what Adolphe Cremieux felt over 180 years ago, and this is what we are seeing all across the streets of Israel and throughout the world wherever Jews live.
Yes, the blood libel against our people is alive and well in 2023, but so is our determination to fight all those who oppose us.