Failed Auction of Anti-semitic Book Causes Controversy in British Jewry

A controversial Victorian manuscript widely described as anti-Semitic failed to sell this week when it was put up for auction at Christie’s in London.

The result of Wednesday’s auction was both disappointing and humiliating for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the umbrella organization that sought to sell the document after suppressing it for nearly 100 years.

The board’s decision to auction the manuscript, “Human Sacrifice Among the Sephardine [sic] or Eastern Jews,” by the 19th-century explorer Sir Richard Burton, provoked a furious reaction from leading members of Britain’s Jewish community.

Lord Janner, a former president of the Board, said it was “immoral to propagate pornography — and this is worse than pornography.”

He called the decision to “seek to sell a viciously anti-Semitic document was a grotesque error.”

The Board decided to sell the manuscript in part to raise much-needed funds, administrative director Sandra Clark said.

The estimated sale price of the manuscript was $210,000 to $280,000, but the top bid was $196,000, less than the prearranged minimum price for which the book.

Janner described the result as “the worst of both worlds — the contents of this disgraceful document have been publicized, and the Board has not raised the resources it needs.”

He was not the only one upset by the attempted sale.

One London rabbi suggested that his congregation raise money to buy the book to keep it out of the hands of anti-Semites.

Sephardic deputies on the Board were “shocked and surprised” at not having been consulted about the sale, and some compared it to online auctions of Nazi memorabilia.

The Board rejected the comparison, describing the manuscript as a historical document of little interest except to those interested in Burton.

Clark told JTA there was nothing in the manuscript “that isn’t readily available from other sources. The Board as whole does not consider it controversial.”

She said only two or three of the Board’s 320 deputies objected to the sale.

At least one far-right Web site announced the planned auction.

The manuscript is an account of the Damascus Blood Libel. In 1840, a friar, Padre Tomaso, and his servant disappeared in Damascus.

Thirteen members of the city’s Jewish community were arrested and accused of ritual murder. Some confessed under torture, but all 13 were acquitted in the end.

Burton, a colorful adventurer best remembered today for translating the Kama Sutra into English, was British consul in Damascus in 1870-71, but was recalled after disputes with his superiors, the Ottoman governor of Syria, local Christian missionaries — and a small clique of powerful Jewish moneylenders in Damascus.

He wrote “Human Sacrifice” when he was “angry and devastated at being recalled from his dream posting,” Christie’s manuscript expert Priscilla Thomas said.

The book, based on hearsay 30 years after the event, is critical of those who defended the Jews and refers to Padre Tomaso as a martyr.

Burton biographer Mary Lovell said, “Before he went to Syria his opinions on Jews were conventional enough. Afterward, his anti-Semitism was pronounced.”

She added that anti-Semitism was common among Victorians of Burton’s class.

Friends dissuaded him from publishing the manuscript, and when his widow died 19 years after he completed it, she left instructions that it was to be burned.

But W.H. Wilkins, who was collaborating with her on an autobiography when she died in 1896, kept the manuscript.

He tried to publish it soon after, but, in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair in France, the Board of Deputies was on its guard and threatened to sue for libel. The book was withdrawn.

The manuscript passed through several more hands before the Board managed to obtain it through court action in 1909.

The present-day leaders of the Board expressed disappointment that it did not sell on Wednesday. The executive and honorary officers will now decide how to proceed.

One option would be to approach the highest bidder from Wednesday’s sale to try to sell it privately.

Lovell suggested that the Board had gotten bad advice about how much the manuscript was worth.

She also doubted that the Board — which hoped to use the money as part of a down payment on new premises — will be able to get more than the $196,000 top bid for the document.

“The people who were likely to buy it were likely to have been at Christie’s. “If they wanted to go for it, they would have gone for it today. They won’t pay more privately,” she predicted.

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