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Was the charge that Jews used Christian blood for baking matza the most absurd blood libel in the Middle Ages? Not necessarily. In the Rindfleisch pogroms in 1298, thousands of Bavarian Jews paid with their lives when a member of the community was accused of stabbing the holy Communion wafer, which symbolizes the body of Jesus. Pious Christians say that when these wafers are pierced, they bleed and cry real tears.

The deadliest medieval blood libel would have to be the well-poisoning libel. In the mid-14th century, the Black Plague was raging in Europe and claiming millions of victims. The Jews were held responsible for the epidemic and accused of trying to wipe out the Christian population. Hundreds of Jewish communities were destroyed in pogroms across France, Germany and other parts of Europe.

Blood and passion

The majority of blood libels, however, revolved around charges of murdering Christians for ritual purposes. Murder for the sake of matza-baking was an especially popular charge. A subcategory was murder for health purposes. As reported in Haaretz this week, Prof. Ariel Toaff of Bar-Ilan University has just come out with a book that claims something new: Maybe the blood libels weren't libels. In some Jewish communities, he says, especially among the Ashkenazim, blood was reputed to have curative properties and was employed in kabbalistic rituals. It was used, among things, as an aphrodisiac and to staunch bleeding after circumcision.

Christians, too

The history of blood libels apparently began with Apion, a first-century Greco-Egyptian philosopher. According to the Roman Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, Apion claimed that during the reign of Antiochus, the Jews used to kidnap a Greek once a year, hold him hostage in the Temple, and force-feed him. Then they slaughtered him and ate his intestines.

Actually, the pagans accused the early Christians of using children's blood in their rituals.

Up in arms

The Jews were first accused of murdering children in the English town of Norwich in 1144, writes Prof. Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson. The story was repeated in other parts of England, boosting the Church's ratings. These 12th-century blood libels did not trigger a massacre of Jews, but the English exported them to Europe, where the inhabitants were of a more practical sort. In 1171, 48 Jews were burned to death in France.

Over time, the blood libels moved eastward. In 1490, 14 Jews in Tyrnau, Hungary confessed that they regularly drank Christian blood for medicinal purposes. They were burned at the stake. This was the customary punishment in cases of blood libel, but there were exceptions. In 1515, according to the Jewish encyclopedia "Daat," 13 Jewish women in Budweiss were drowned in the river. In 1639, two Jewish community leaders of Luntshitz were torn limb from limb and their corpses mounted on wooden spikes at the crossroads for all to see.

The corpses of Christian blood-libel victims tended to attract miracles. In 1286, the body of Werner, an 11-year-old boy, was found floating on the River Rhine. The body had a halo around it, and anyone who touched it was cured of whatever illness he had. Twenty years earlier, when Jewish suspects were led to the corpse of a murdered 7-year-old girl in Baden, she raised her arms.

Soy blood

And how do you know it's a blood libel? The Jewish essayist Ahad Ha'am said that blood libels were so ridiculous they dispelled themselves. Really? In his book "The Damascus Affair: Ritual Murder, Politics, and the Jews in 1840," Prof. Jonathan Frankel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem writes that the French premier in those days, Adolphe Thiers, observed that if the Jews committed ritual murder in the Middle Ages, there was no reason to assume they would stop doing it in modern times.

On November 8, 2001, the French newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur reported that Israeli soldiers rape Arab women at checkpoints so that their families will murder them for violating the family honor. It took a month for the paper to publish a retraction.

On October 10, 2000, Adel Hammouda published an article in the Egypt's English-language newspaper Al-Ahram, in which he reveals: "The bestial drive to knead Passover matzas with the blood of non-Jews is confirmed in the records of the Palestinian police, where there are many recorded cases of the bodies of Arab children who had disappeared being found torn to pieces without a single drop of blood. The most reasonable explanation is that the blood was taken to be kneaded into the dough of extremist Jews to be used in matza to be devoured during Passover."

For your information, Hammouda, the Jews bake the matza eaten at dairy meals from soy blood.

Bloodless libels

The more serious the charges against Israeli politicians, the more likely they are to be called blood libels - despite the fact that the word "libel" alone is quite sufficient and doesn't need any bloody qualifiers. President Katsav, now on leave of absence, has called the accusations against him, among other things, a "despicable blood libel." Minister Yitzhak Cohen of Shas described the indictment of Aryeh Deri as a "Passover blood libel."

But not only politicians resort to the blood-libel defense. Businessman David Appel, he of the Greek Island scam, complained to Ari Shavit of Haaretz that he was the victim of "the biggest blood libel in the State of Israel." The political right tends to use the term when talking about the charges of the left against the settlers. On Arutz Sheva, the broadcasting network of the religious right, Boaz Haetzni called the charge that the settlers vandalize the olive trees of the Palestinians a "whopping Passover blood libel." Maybe they should call it an oil libel.

Power to the Jews

In 1840, the leaders of the Damascus Jewish community were arrested and tortured. They were accused of murdering the Capuchin monk Tomaso and his Muslim servant, whose blood they used to bake matza. Thanks to the new communications media, and especially the telegraph, this scandal in a remote Middle Eastern city aroused an international outcry. For the first time, world Jewry banded together to fight back.

On the one hand, the campaign was effective and the Jewish leaders were freed from jail. On the other hand, writes Prof. Frankel, it led to the birth of the myth that Jews control the world media - and the world.

Conclusion: Not only the Jews have demonstrated an uncanny ability to survive over the past 2000 years. The enduring hatred of the Jews, and its ability to adapt and renew itself, is even more amazing.

Crusade

A few weeks ago, yours truly came up with the idea of awarding a prize for the most embarrassing thing an Israeli politician has done over the past year. The proposal stirred up a flurry of interest in the Knesset cafeteria. Now the question is whether such a prize should also be awarded in the sciences. "I will not give up my devotion to the truth and academic freedom even if the world crucifies me," Prof. Toaff told Haaretz correspondent Ofri Ilani.

Not the whole world, Prof. Toaff. Just the Romans, after the Jews hand you over.