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Home arrow Sociology arrow Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism Representation

The Middle Ages

The blood libel was one such antisemitic representation which gained considerable traction throughout Western Christian civilisation (Dundes, 1991; Laqueur, 2006). In the Middle Ages, Christians began systematically to accuse Jews of the ritual murder of Christian children and cannibalism. This constituted a re-construal of the accusation of cannibalism which had been present in antiquity. This popular belief was made possible by the existing representation in early Christendom of Jews as an immoral and bloodthirsty group of individuals who were collectively responsible for the spilling of Christ's blood. In the minds of many Christians, Jews were aided and abetted by demonic, satanic forces in their quest to kidnap, torture and murder innocent Christian children to utilise their blood for Jewish religious rituals. As Perry and Schweitzer (2002) observe, medieval Christians provided distinct explanations for this – some claimed that the Jews sacrificed Christian children in ceremonies replicating the crucifixion, while others later asserted that Christian blood was an essential ingredient for matzo, the unleavened bread used for the Jewish Passover.

The blood libel acquired particular popularity in England, where the first cases were reported. In 1144, “William”, a young apprentice boy, was found murdered in Norwich, England. Although initially no religious significance was attributed to William's death, some four or five years later the monk Thomas of Monmouth visited Norwich and claimed that the Jews were responsible for the torture and murder of the boy. The monk succeeded in fabricating a myth which was to remain in Christian religious and cultural consciousness for centuries, particularly as many of the alleged victims came to be viewed as Christian martyrs and, in some cases, saints (Göller, 1987; Karl, 1987). Indeed, the blood libel spread rapidly across cultural, geographical and temporal boundaries. This myth was transmitted through religious sermons, chronicles, poems, literature, newspapers, and oral testimonies (Göller, 1987). The charge of ritual murder was reproduced in various English communities: Norwich (1144), Gloucester (1168), Bury St. Edmunds (1181), Bristol (1183), Winchester (1192, 1225, 1235) and Lincoln (1255); as well as in countless communities on the European mainland: Oberwesel, Germany (1287), Rinn, Austria (1462), Trento, Italy (1475), Bösing, Slovakia (1529), Rhodes, Ottoman Empire (1840) and many others.

It appears that the representation of negative Jewish distinctiveness, originating from antiquity, and that of Jewish evil, which emerged in the early Christian era, provided the heuristic tools necessary to believe such a fallacy. Not only would any human sacrifi have been completely incompatible with Jewish Holy Scripture (Perry and Schweitzer, 2002) but no compelling evidence was ever provided in support of any of these blood libel cases. Accusations and judgements were often based upon the false testimonies of others, confessions extracted under duress, or
simple hearsay. Yet, the consequences for Jews were often horrifi For instance, the blood libel case in Lincoln, England led to the hanging of 12 Jews and to the Crown's confi of their property, eventually culminating in the Jews' expulsion from England in 1290, while the alleged killing of a 9-year old boy in Bösing (who, incidentally, was later found alive in Vienna) resulted in the public burning of 30 Jews. Existing anti-Jewish myths and representations were suffi “evidence” for accusing, condemning and terrorising Jewish communities all over Europe.

It may be tempting to confine the blood libel accusation to the depths of medieval history and to dismiss this as a regrettable aspect of the past but, as Perry and Schweitzer (2002) demonstrate in their detailed historical review of antisemitism, the blood libel accusation has continued to characterise social representations of Jews in modern history. Feldberg (2002) recounts a blood libel case in the small upper New York state town of Massena, which occurred as late as 1928. A four-year-old girl was reported missing by her parents and soon a rumour spread that the local Jewish community had kidnapped the child and drained her blood for a Yom Kippur ritual. The town mayor subsequently ordered a local police officer to question the spiritual head of Massena's Jewish community about ritualistic practices within the Jewish community. Antisemitic sentiment was already observable in the community, which had led to the accusation in the first place but the mayor and state police's actions served to lend credibility to the blood libel accusation. This was not only deeply offensive to the Jewish community but also potentially dangerous, as antisemitic mobs began to mobilise. The child was subsequently found alive and the mayor and state police formally apologised to the Jewish community. The case did not descend into the violence and brutality that had been observable in medieval Europe. However, this event tellingly exhibits the cultural “stickiness” of the blood libel accusation, that is, its ability to transcend cultural, geographical and temporal boundaries in the absence of any evidence whatsoever. Indeed, there were several other such incidents in the US in the twentieth century (Dinnerstein, 1994). Moreover, in Poland, the country in which over 3 million Jews had just been murdered, and just one year after the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed to the world, a blood libel accusation succeeded in mobilising residents of the city of Kielce against the Jews (Gross, 2006). The violent pogrom resulted in the deaths of 40 Jews, many of whom were Holocaust survivors themselves. Not only was the blood libel accusation culturally, geographically and temporally pervasive, it could re-gain ground in communities still coming to terms with the Holocaust.

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