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The author of a book on the use of blood by Jews in Ashkenazi communities in the Middle Ages said yesterday, in the face of the furor its publication aroused, "I will not give up my devotion to the truth and academic freedom even if the world crucifies me."

In an interview with Haaretz from Rome, Professor Ariel Toaff said he stood behind the contention of his book, "Pasque di Sangue," just published in Italy, that there is a factual basis for some of the medieval blood libels against the Jews. However, he said he was sorry his arguments had been twisted.

"I tried to show that the Jewish world at that time was also violent, among other things because it had been hurt by Christian violence," the Bar-Ilan history professor said. Of course I do not claim that Judaism condones murder. But within Ashkenazi Judaism there were extremist groups that could have committed such an act and justified it," he said.

Toaff said he reached his conclusions after coming across testimony from the trial for the murder of a Christian child, Simon of Trento, in 1475, which in the past was believed to have been falsified. "I found there were statements and parts of the testimony that were not part of the Christian culture of the judges, and they could not have been invented or added by them. They were components appearing in prayers known from the [Jewish] prayer book.

"Over many dozens of pages I proved the centrality of blood on Passover," Toaff said. "Based on many sermons, I concluded that blood was used, especially by Ashkenazi Jews, and that there was a belief in the special curative powers of children's blood. It turns out that among the remedies of Ashkenazi Jews were powders made of blood."

Although the use of blood is prohibited by Jewish law, Toaff says he found proof of rabbinic permission to use blood, even human blood. "The rabbis permitted it both because the blood was already dried," and because in Ashkenazi communities it was an accepted custom that took on the force of law, Toaff said. There is no proof of acts of murder, Toaff said, but there were curses and hatred of Christians, and prayers inciting to cruel vengeance against Christians. "There was always the possibility that some crazy person would do something."

Toaff said the use of blood was common in medieval medicine. "In Germany, it became a real craze. Peddlers of medicines would sell human blood, the way you have a transfusion today. The Jews were influenced by this and did the same things.

"In one of the testimonies in the Trento trial, a peddler of sugar and blood is mentioned, who came to Venice," Toaff says. "I went to the archives in Venice and found that there had been a man peddling sugar and blood, which were basic products in pharmacies of the period. A man named Asher of Trento was also mentioned in the trial, who had ostensibly come with a bag and sold dried blood. One of the witnesses said he was tried for alchemy in Venice and arrested there. I took a team to the archives and found documentation of the man's trial. Thus, I found that it is not easy to discount all the testimony," he added.

Toaff, who will be returning to Israel today, said he was very hurt by accusations that his research plays into the hands of anti-Semitic incitement. "I am being presented like the new Yigal Amir. But one shouldn't be afraid to tell the truth." Toaff also said, "unfortunately my research has become marginal, and only the real or false implications it might have are being related to. I directed the research at intelligent people, who know that in the Jewish world there are different streams. I believe that academia cannot avoid dealing with issues that have an emotional impact. This is the truth, and if I don't publish it, someone else will find it and publish it."

Still, Toaff says he is sorry he did not explain some of the points in his book more clearly.

He claims that he has been making the same arguments for a long time. "After 35 years of research, I have not become a stupid anti-Semite, and have not published a book to make money."

In any case, Toaff says he believes his findings have current implications. "Extremists in the past brought disaster on us by false accusations. I wanted to show that hatred and incitement of this kind can develop, because there will always be someone who will take advantage of it."

Meanwhile, Bar-Ilan University announced yesterday that its president, Professor Moshe Kaveh, will summon Toaff to explain his research. The university's statement said it strongly objected to what was implied in media publications regarding Toaff's research, and condemned "any attempt to justify the terrible blood libels against the Jews." However, the university also reiterated that Toaff was among the senior lecturers in his field in Israel and internationally.