Ashkenazi Jews & the Blood Libel

Ashkenazi Jews & the Blood Libel

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In today’s selection — in the 9th century CE, the great Charlemagne himself had
recruited Jewish trading communities from Italy to the Rhine region in an enlightened
move to add the dynamic of trade to his largely agricultural kingdom. These Jews
called the area to which they relocated Ashkenaz and became know as Ashkenazi Jews.
Their plight turned perilous three centuries later with the rise of the First Crusade:

“Relations between Jews and Christians remained more or less stable until near the
end of the eleventh century, when pressure began to build for a crusade to rescue
the Christian holy sites in Palestine, especially the Holy Sepulchre, from the hands
of the Muslims. The religious enthusiasm directed violently against the distant
nonbelievers came to be directed also against the Jews, for as some Christians argued,
‘Here we are going to make war against the infidels in the Holy Land, when we have
infidels in our own midst.’ When the mobs of the First Crusade began to sweep eastward
across Europe in the spring of 1096, among their early victims were the Jews of
the Rhineland communities. Local lords and church authorities on the whole tried
to live up to their legal obligation of defending their Jewish clients, but they
lacked the forces to prevent the onslaught. The result was widespread massacres
and forced baptisms. Rather than risk falling into the hands of the Christian mobs,
many Jews committed suicide, the men killing their own wives and children first
and then themselves. This was the first great trauma suffered by Ashkenazic Jewry,
but there was far more in store. The Second and the Third Crusades brought their
own horrors. In England, the Jews of York committed mass suicide in 1190 rather
than fall into the hands of the warriors of the Third Crusade, an event still commemorated
weekly in many Ashkenazic synagogues.

“Hostility now became the normal attitude of the average European toward the Jews.
This hostility was partly grounded in fear. The ordinary illiterate and superstitious
medieval European peasant saw the Jews, with their strange customs, odd religious
practices, and mysterious Hebrew prayers, not just as social and economic outsiders,
but as weird practitioners of black magic directed both against man and God, perhaps
even agents of the devil. This attitude came to its fullest expression in the blood
libel, the widespread belief that Jews regularly murder non-Jews, particularly children,
in order to use their blood for magic or religious rites, especially for Passover.
The blood libel had arisen as far back as Hellenistic times, when it was directed
by pagans against Christians as well as Jews, but it achieved its fullest and most
destructive form in medieval Christian Europe. For Christians, the central religious
rite was the mass in which, they were told, wine and bread were changed into the
blood and body of Christ. Their priests regularly taught them that the Jews, in
their perverse wickedness, had spilled the blood of their savior. Against the background
of these ideas, it was natural for the credulous masses to imagine that the Jews
practiced diabolical counter-rituals involving blood. It was likewise rumored that
Jews would steal communion wafers and torture Jesus by sticking pins in them and
by otherwise defiling them. Sometimes Jews were accused of using the wafers for
unholy magical rituals.

“The first full-fledged blood accusation was made against the Jews of Norwich, England,
in 1144. They were accused of capturing a Christian child named William before Easter
and hanging him on Good Friday in a reenactment of the torture and crucifixion of
Christ. They were supposed to have performed this ritual in fulfillment of an alleged
agreement among world Jewry that a Christian child should be killed each year. The
Jews of Norwich were massacred. Similar accusations were subsequently brought against
Jews all over Europe. The accusation took a particularly sinister turn when the
belief became widespread that the Jews used the blood of a slaughtered Christian
child to make the Passover matzot (wafers eaten in lieu of bread during the eight
days of the festival). The details of the accusations varied, but the consequences
were similar: Whole Jewish families, sometimes whole Jewish communities were killed,
often by being burned alive. The most famous cases occurred in Gloucester (1168);
Blois (1171); Vienna (1181); Saragossa (1182); Fulda (1235); Lincoln (1255) — commemorated
by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, in connection with his own fictional tale of
a blood libel — Munich (1286); Trent (1475); and Avila (1491). This last case
was known as that of ‘the Holy Child of La Guardia’; it was concocted by those in
Spain who were campaigning for the expulsion of the Jews, and it had the gravest
possible political consequences.

“Christian intellectuals, even in the Middle Ages, did not give credence to the
blood libel, and in the sophisticated Islamic world in this period, the blood libel
and the image of the Jew as ally of the devil were unknown. Christian kings and
the upper Christian clergy did what they could to defend the Jews against the outlandish
accusations. After the Fulda blood libel of 1235, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick
II established a commission to study it; the commissioners quite correctly pointed
out how absurd it was to accuse the Jews, whose religious law prohibited them from
eating even an egg with a blood spot on it, of eating human blood for ritual or
any other purpose.”
Author: Raymond P. Scheindlin
Title: A Short History of the Jewish People
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Date: Copyright 1998 by Raymond P. Scheindlin
Pages: 101-104
A Short History of the Jewish People: From Legendary Times to Modern Statehood
by Raymond P. Scheindlin by Oxford University Press, USA

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