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Why the Xtian blood libel against the Jews just won’t die

Why the Blood Libel Won’t Die

In “The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe,” Emily Rose, a historian who has taught at Johns Hopkins, Princeton and Baruch, among other universities, explores long-standing false accusations that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood in ritual ceremonies. From the Middle Ages to the present, such allegations — despite having no basis in fact — have repeatedly served as justification for the murder of Jews. The Forward’s Benjamin Ivry recently spoke with Rose about this unfortunate (and still relevant) medieval history:

In 1144, Jews of Norwich, England, were accused of ritual murder after a boy, William of Norwich, was reportedly found dead in a forest. A translation of the medieval account of William of Norwich’s death by the Benedictine monk Thomas of Monmouth is just out from Penguin Classics; a novel by Bill Albert, “Norwich 1144: A Jew’s Tale,” was published in 2014, and in 2012 Hannah Johnson’s “Blood Libel: the Ritual Murder Accusation at the Limit of Jewish History,” appeared. Why is the blood libel such a hot subject?

It combines popular religion, the interaction between Christians, Muslims and Jews, and understanding how peoples are denigrated, so it is part of a broader discussion of how people and races and groups become dehumanized. And it lasts for centuries. This blood libel is the quintessential demonization of a people, the one that lasted the longest and caused the most horrific executions.

An estimated 150 cases of blood libel resulted in the killing of Jews. Since many people died as a result of these calumnies, should the term blood libel be revised, since it merely implies defamation?

I think the blood libel is probably a good term. We need to understand how powerful a myth it was. It led to torture and death by pogrom.

Gabriel of Belostok, a 6-year-old supposedly murdered by a Jew in 1690, was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. As he is increasingly worshiped by the faithful today, especially in Belarus where the U.N. Refugee Agency sees the cult as a “dangerous expression of anti-Semitism,” does this cause more concern than legendary characters from 500 years ago?

Absolutely, except that we cannot address the myth until we know how it started. The saints I talk about are not that important, but the story is important. There are a lot of people who believe that there is no smoke without fire. In this case, there was lots of smoke, but no fire.

In the 16th century, Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, issued a royal decree denouncing blood libels. Do Islamic believers in the blood libel conveniently overlook this precedent?

Absolutely. It has been denounced by leading Christians and Muslims, civil and religious authorities, and yet it hangs on. That is the lesson — that these beliefs can persist for centuries and pop up at certain times. There is an absolutely continuous belief.


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