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When he met Pope John Paul II in 2001, Syrian president Bashar Assad surprised the pontiff when he said of the Jews, "They try to kill all the principles of divine faiths with the same mentality of betraying Jesus Christ and torturing him, and in the same way that they tried to commit treachery against the Prophet Muhammad."

In order to understand the background to these accusations, one must go back to the year 1986 when then-Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass, who was considered an intellectual giant in the fields of the humanities and the arts, published his book "The Matzoh of Zion." The conclusion of the popular book was that the Jews had indeed murdered a Christian monk in 1840 as part of a ritual murder, in one of the most important blood libels in Jewish history, known as the "Damascus Affair."

The phenomenon of a blood libel against the Jews was until then an anomaly in the lands of Islam. The Muslim majority lived under the Ottoman rule in Syria alongside two minorities, the Christians and the Jews. The two minorities were considered "protected citizens" (dhimmi) and were treated in tolerant fashion. They were allowed to practice their religious precepts in return for paying a tax, and recognizing that they had a lower legal and social status. But in 1831-32, the ruler of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, conquered Syria from the Ottoman sultan, holding the territory until the end of 1840. The period of Egyptian rule in Syria was perceived by the country's Christians as a golden era, since they saw their rights increased. It's a period of great importance to any understanding of the change that occurred in the attitude of Muslims toward the Christians.

The rights that the Egyptian rulers granted to non-Muslims - including appointments to government councils, acceptance to the regional administrative system, the building and renovation of places of worship, permission to ride horses in the cities and to wear clothes of colors that previously had been permitted for Muslims only - hurt the feelings of Muslim subjects, arousing in them grudges toward the non-Muslim population. Muhammad Ali was considered to rule at the sufferance of the European powers, led by France, in return for which he granted excess rights to non-Muslim minorities, particularly the Christians. In addition, the local Christians were perceived as collaborators with the European powers that were hoping to gain control of the Ottoman Empire. As a result, the Muslims started developing a hatred for the Christians, who were now perceived as political rivals.

Tensions and struggles between the Jews and Christians had existed from time immemorial, for both religious and historic reasons, and were exacerbated by competition over economic and commercial positions. In order to be successful in the economic, administrative and public spheres, every minority required the backing and support of the Muslim majority. Hence, each side tried to incite the Muslims against the rival ethnic groups. The Muslims' hatred of, and hostility toward, local Christians, and their relative sympathy toward the Jews, led the Christians in Damascus to complain about the cruel treatment they received by the qadis (Muslim judges). The fear that they would become victims of Muslim violence when the Ottoman regime returned to Syrian rule also pushed the Christians to seek new ways to incite the Muslims against the Jews. To this end, they enlisted priests from such Catholic orders as the Franciscans and the Capuchins. The priests brought with them to the Middle East not only the culture of Catholic Europe but also the medieval myth according to which the Jews required human blood for the Passover rites.

On February 5, 1840, a Capuchin monk named Father Tomaso, together with his servant, Ibrahim Amara, disappeared. A short while later, rumors started circulating that they had last been seen in the Jewish quarter of Damascus and that they had been murdered by Jews so that their blood could be used for Passover rites. The heads of the community, led by Rabbi Yaakov Antebi, were arrested and tortured in order to force an admission of guilt from them. The French consul, who wished to fulfill his duty as defendant of the Catholics, effectively headed the investigation. A number of Jews broke down and supposedly confessed, others died during torture while Hakham Moshe Abulafia, chose to convert to Islam in order to escape his torturers. Later he emerged as the state's witness and incriminated the Jews, claiming that they had ordered him to mix Christian blood in their matzot and that he had been forced to take part in the monk's murder at the order of Rabbi Antebi.

Through threats, tortures and false evidence, such as finding the missing monk's bones in a sewer in the Jewish quarter, those who charged the Jews succeeded in winning over public opinion. In a legal procedure, the Jews were found guilty and sentenced to death. The affair was reported in the newspapers and word of it reached Europe, where an accusatory finger was pointed also at the Jews in western Europe. This aroused the Jews of western Europe to engage in widespread public and political activity, aimed at influencing the various governments to put pressure on Muhammad Ali to grant their accused co-religionists the chance for a fair trial, at which they would have the opportunity to prove their innocence. With this in mind, a Jewish delegation headed by Moses Montefiore and Adolphe Cremieux left for Egypt to meet with the khedive.

And indeed, the widespread diplomatic activity led to the issuing of an order granting them a pardon. In early September 1840, immediately after the order reached Damascus, the prisoners were freed, without officially being exonerated. The Jewish communities in the Diaspora and in Damascus itself celebrated the release of the tortured detainees but their joy was premature. The release did not have the force of a legal acquittal and public opinion continued to consider the released Jews murderers who had been freed with the help of bribes paid by their brethren in Europe. As a result, anti-Jewish ferment continued in Damascus and throughout Syria for many more years, against the backdrop of accusations of vile crimes for ritual purposes. A stone monument was erected in the Capuchin monastery in Damascus with the inscription in Arabic and Italian: "Here are interred the bones of the monk Tomaso who was murdered by the Jews on February 5, 1840."

The French consul in Aleppo also said later: "The Jews of Aleppo are part of a cruel sect whose principles are secret and to which barbaric superstitions and bloodletting are attributed. This is the same sect that is accused of using human blood for kneading matzot instead of sacrificing a lamb for Passover as written in the holy books of Moses."

Another libel almost every Pesach

During the years 1841-1860 there were at least 13 blood libels in Syria that became known to the general public, 10 of them in Damascus and three in Aleppo. Sometimes the Christians would use the threat of a blood libel as a means to blackmail the Jews, so that the accusations of ritual murder could be heard almost every year before Passover. The Christian incitement inspired Muslims to invent their own blood libels. They, too, began attributing to the Jews responsibility for the disappearance of a boy or girl from their home, whether out of a desire to take revenge or to squeeze money out of them. Following the events in Damascus in July 1860, when the Muslims massacred thousands of Christians, the Christian community there was greatly weakened and consequently the phenomenon of blood libels began subsiding. As the final decade of the 19th century began, however, the bleak days of 1840 returned.

In the year 1890, the holiday of Easter fell during Passover. On April 7, the second of the intermediate days of Pesach, a 6-year-old Christian boy disappeared. The Jews were accused of murdering him, and of using his blood for ritual purposes. As a result, riots broke out in the city.

The child's body was found two weeks later in a well. An autopsy revealed several findings that supposedly confirmed that the Jews had murdered him for ritual purposes. It was alleged that there was no blood inside the body, for example, and there was a cut on one of his arms. Eventually, however, it was established that the boy had drowned and not been murdered and that no Jews had been involved. This was not sufficient, however, to calm either Christians or Muslims, many of whom remained convinced that the Jews were responsible, and that they had again escaped punishment thanks to the power and influence of their co-religionists in Europe.

In the last decade of the 19th century, the Christian community in Damascus regained its strength, both economically, and from the point of view of its public status. This process continued until the eve of World War I, and was accompanied to a certain extent by forcing Jews out of key economic positions they held. The Jews were a central object of incitement in the Christian press, which had its headquarters in Beirut. The weekly Al-Bashir, for example, published an article aimed at proving the claim that the Jews used Christian blood for Passover rituals. This weekly, the organ of the Jesuits in Lebanon, contained reactionary and anti-Semitic French Catholic teachings, and contradicted the neutral approach adopted by the official French consular representatives.

Toward the end of the 19th century, two anti-Semitic pamphlets were distributed in the region. One, published in Arabic in Cairo, was written by a Lebanese Christian journalist who had settled there; the other, by a French priest, was printed in Paris under the title "Murdered by Jews: A History of Ritual Murder." The incitement from French Catholic quarters increased the ferment among the Christian population and led to attacks on Jews, who found themselves beaten in the streets of Damascus. A few days after Passover, two Capuchin priests in Damascus incited the Christian masses to riot against the Jews. Jewish shops were looted, many Jews were beaten and a young girl from the community was abducted by one of the priests and locked up for interrogation.

Some of the frequent blood libels of the period were short-lived and drew minimal attention, but others led to outbursts of violence. In the end, blood libels spread to many other cities in the Middle East.

The Damascus Affair played an important role in modern Jewish history. It served as a trigger for strengthening renewed Jewish national awareness and for the re-establishment of ties between the various Jewish communities in the West and East. Jewish national solidarity pushed forward the process that eventually created the modern Jewish national ethos. But the Damascus Affair also led to the creation of the anti-Semitic myth that the Jews controlled the world. This myth, which found widespread expression in such anti-Semitic literature as "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," has taken hold anew in the past few decades, and examples can be seen at book fairs and in the media of the Arab world. Various drama series on Arabic-language television and articles in the written press once again raise the issue of Jewish responsibility for ritual murders, something that was inconceivable in the Muslim world before the intensive European infiltration of the Middle East.

Dr. Yaron Harel is a senior lecturer in Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University. His book "Intrigue and Revolution in the Jewish Communities of Damascus, Aleppo and Baghdad, 1744-1914" was published in Hebrew last year, and will be brought out by the Littmann Library in English in 2011.