Still Raising Its Bloody Head

"The Damascus Affair: `Ritual Murder,' Politics and the Jews in 1840" by Jonathan Frankel, Cambridge University Press, 1997, 509 pages, $23 [translated by Ami Shamir into Hebrew, The Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 519 pages, NIS 106.10].

"The Damascus Affair: `Ritual Murder,' Politics and the Jews in 1840" by Jonathan Frankel, Cambridge University Press, 1997, 509 pages, $23 [translated by Ami Shamir into Hebrew, The Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 519 pages, NIS 106.10]

The story of the Damascus blood libel (1840) is not just the story of the arrest and torture of heads of the city's Jewish community, who were accused of murdering the Capuchin monk Padre Tomaso and his Muslim servant in order to use their blood to bake matzah for Passover. The libel and its spin-offs developed overnight into an international storm that swept up most of the European powers, threatened to upset the political balance of power in the Middle East, almost led to armed conflict and, for the first time in the modern period, led to the emergence of an international Jewish policy based on solidarity and fear for the status of the Jewish religion at a time when it seemed that the gates of European society were opening, if gradually, to Jews.

Prof. Jonathan Frankel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem describes all this using a rare combination of painstaking historical research and a compelling ability to write that makes this book - with its hundreds of footnotes - an experience full of suspense and personal and political drama. Frankel examined hundreds of documents in archives scattered throughout Europe, read numerous newspaper articles that were published about the affair at the time and afterward and yet, with all this, he does not for a moment lose the thread of the story itself. He skillfully leads the reader from document to document, from one diplomatic note to another, through journalistic description and diary excerpts, while keeping the overall picture and the details in view. This book is further testimony to the way classical narrative history - which seems to be outdated and out of fashion - can shed new light on a matter that is ostensibly hackneyed, provide the researcher with new insights and fascinate the educated general reader.

Frankel has many achievements to his credit, of which I shall enumerate but a few: He succeeds in making clear the impossibility of understanding the Damascus affair without taking into account the convoluted international context of what was happening in the Ottoman Empire at the time and the conflicting interests of the European powers. He chillingly documents how well-known European statesmen (especially in France) gave a certain amount of credence to the blood libel, and shows how new means of communication - especially the telegraph - transformed something that occurred in a remote provincial city in a backwater of the Ottoman Empire into a matter that for months engaged the top diplomatic echelons and public opinion in Europe.

The international context is the key to the whole affair: At the time, Damascus, like all of Syria and Palestine, was under the control of the ruler of Egypt, Mohammed Ali. Even though formally he was subordinate to the central government in Constantinople, Mohammed Ali became semi-independent and after his son Ibrahim Pasha conquered Syria and Palestine in the 1830s, Mohammed Ali's Egypt became a kind of de facto state. He was supported mainly by France, which was trying in this way to balance Britain's influence that was expressed mainly in its good relations with the central Ottoman government.

Belief in the story

When Mohammed Ali gained control of Syria, the status of the Jews, who until then had enjoyed a preferential commercial standing in the Ottoman Empire, also declined. Mohammed Ali wanted to gain the support of the Christian Arab population in the region and thus obtained aid from France, which saw itself as the historical defender of the Christians in the Levant. This context explains the actions of the French vice-consul in Damascus, Count Ratti-Menton, and the involvement with Tomaso of the French prime minister, Alfred Thiers.

The monk came from Sardinia, but as a member of the Catholic Capuchin order, he was entitled to the protection of the French consulate, hence Ratti-Menton's initial involvement. But the vice-consul took things further: Even though he knew that all the confessions had been extracted from the suspects under harsh torture, he reported on them to Paris as proven facts. This was known, but what Frankel points out is the astonishing fact that prime minister Thiers accepted these things more or less literally, and also came to the aid of his representative in Damascus when doubts as to the reliability of the testimony began to arise. In a statement at the legislative assembly, Theirs related neutrally to the reliability of the blood libel as something that "should be looked into." In a conversation with James de Rothschild, who was close to him and approached him on this matter, Theirs went even further: "If the Jews in the Middle Ages committed, as it turns out, ritual murder, why shouldn't the backward Jews of Damascus do the same today?"

As Frankel shows, Theirs was not the only one. Important European newspapers like the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung published reports on the ritual murder as fact. Even The Times of London defined the question of whether the Jews (or only perhaps backward Jewish sects) use Christian blood to bake matzah as "an open question." Most of the foreign consuls in Damascus also accepted the fact of the ritual murder.

This is the most astounding subject in Frankel's book: It turns out that the Enlightenment - and the fact that it was known that the confessions had been extracted from the suspects under excruciating torture - did not prevent circles in the European public from attributing a certain amount of credence to the accusation that "apparently there is something" in the story of using blood for baking matzah. Frankel insists that, paradoxically, it was modernization that gave the libel unimaginable resonance: Information about blood libels in the Middle Ages, for example, was circumscribed to the geographical area in which they occurred. The telegraph and the rise of the free press gave the Damascus affair a pan-European dimension. In early periods regimes could - if they wanted to - impose censorship on the distribution of such reports. However, one of the results of liberalization was the absence of censorship restrictions, including, of course, on the press that disseminated lies. At the same time, the atmosphere of secularization produced a different paradoxical restriction. In the past it had been the popes (Innocent IV, Clemens VII, Gregory IX) who had come out on a number of occasions against blood libels; in the more secular 19th century, these papal declarations had no weight and were hardly heard.

There were three elements that came forward to act against the libel, and some of them are rather surprising. First of all, the Austrian chancellor Metternich, the symbol of the forces of reaction in Europe after 1815, was among the first to order his representatives to protest to the authorities. In part, this derived from the fact that Austria was the only power that had Jewish consular agents in the East, and one of the people accused in the plot was a member of the Picciotto family, members of which had been Austrian consular representatives in Aleppo for generations. The British government, headed by Lord Palmerston, also served as a key to the resolution of the affair, out of a combination of liberalism and political interests, which in this case were anti-French. Finally - oddly enough - there was a group of Jewish converts to Christianity who came out vehemently against the accusation that Jews took human victims. This group, which in other contexts was antagonistic to Judaism, could nevertheless not accept the accusation that Jews committed ritual murder and they were among the first to prove the absurdity of the accusations by using Jewish texts - with which they were naturally familiar.

Jewish solidarity

Another of Frankel's achievements is the way he tracks the Jewish expression of solidarity. The roles of Cremieux and Montefiore have become milestones in Jewish history. Frankel shows, on the one hand, that their role was less crucial than what the two of them - especially Montefiore, who was a master of public relations - took credit for; on the other, he testifies to the extent to which Judaism throughout Europe enlisted in the cause.

It is clear that the modern means of communications that disseminated the libel also made things easier for Jewish connectedness throughout Europe. It is astonishing to see the extent of the immediate response - in raising funds, setting up committees, sending delegations to the authorities and writing in the newspapers: There had been nothing like it in Jewish history. It is clear that at the basis of this there was a profound Jewish solidarity that the modern means of communications deepened.

But Frankel points out another element: It was not only their tortured brethren in Damascus that the European Jews rushed to defend, but also themselves. From the extensive correspondence that he cites, it emerges that for the Jews of Europe, who at that time were on the threshold of acceptance into European culture, the blood libel was a direct threat. If the Jewish religion permits human sacrifice, how could the Jews be accepted as equals in European culture? It was people like the members of the Rothschild, Cremieux and Montefiore families - who had acquired standing in European society - who felt the horror directly: If the blood libels were accepted as fact, then they themselves - the elite of the Jews, the bankers who accomplished things in the courts of Europe - would be considered coreligionists of benighted religious murderers. Therefore there was the massive mobilization, beyond the basic Jewish solidarity.

Frankel shows that all these lobbying efforts bore fruit, although the gradual release of the prisoners was more a result of the zigzags of European politics in the Middle East. Under military and diplomatic pressure from the European powers, with Britain at their head, the Egyptian regime was ejected from Syria and Palestine, which then returned to direct Turkish rule. Even before then pressure was applied on Mohammed Ali to release some of the prisoners, and with the return of Ottoman rule to Damascus, the others were released.

However, Frankel shows that the affair did not end there. On the one hand, European Jewry demonstrated an impressive ability to use networks of influence: Journalists were encouraged to write sympathetic articles, and Jewish and pro-Jewish newspapers were founded and journalists were funded. As noted, a new Jewish politics emerged. But at the same time the image of Jewish power emerged: Claims that the Rothschilds controlled the world and that the Jews "controlled the press" began to appear for the first time only after the successful enlistment of public opinion by the Jews in the wake of the Damascus affair. There was a price for the success.

The blood libel has not disappeared, and Frankel shows how it keeps cropping up in anti-Semitic literature and incitement. Among other things Frankel mentions Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, who in 1986 published a book about "the murder of Padre Tomaso," which repeats the accusation that the Jews of Damascus murdered the monk in order to use his blood.

And there are more recent chilling examples. On November 6, 2000, a long article by Adel Hamouda about the blood libel appeared in the semi-official Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. He relates that in his childhood, he had heard stories about this, but never believed them until he read the book by Mustafa Tlass that cites the confession by the Damascus Jews in 1840, and Hamouda quotes at length from these confessions (without noting, of course, that they had been extracted by torture, and that the prisoners were ultimately released). At the end of the article (in the translation that appears on the website, there is the following astonishing passage: "The bestial drive to knead Passover matzahs 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 matzahs to be devoured during Passover."

In 1840 so-called ('galut') Jews raised an outcry. In 2000, the Israeli Foreign Ministry, for reasons known only to itself, did not find it necessary even to register a protest to the Egyptian authorities. Normalization?

Prof. Shlomo Avineri's English translation of "The Holy History of Mankind" by Moses Hess is forthcoming at Cambridge University Press.