Book Reviving Blood Libel Charge Has Italian Jews Livid, People Reading

A just-published book by an eminent Italian-Israeli historian that revives European blood libels has Jews in Italy and abroad in an uproar.

But the furor hasn’t hurt sales. “Bloody Passover: European Jews and Ritual Murder” sold out so quickly after its arrival in bookstores Feb. 8 that another edition is on its way.

Ariel Toaff, who teaches Medieval and Renaissance history at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, wrote that Jews in the Middle Ages may have murdered Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals.

Reactions from rabbis, Jewish intellectuals and community leaders generally have been of pained indignation that a reputable Jewish historian should lend support to scenarios that have been cornerstones of rabid anti-Semitism and justification for the violent persecution of Jews.

“A Jewish tradition of this kind has never existed, nor has any indication or custom that allows the ritual use of human blood. The only blood ever spilt was that of many innocent Jews, massacred on the basis of unjust and libelous accusations,” a group of Italian rabbis, including Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, declared in a statement.

The issue is especially disturbing for Italian Jews because of the book’s author. Toaff is the son of Rabbi Elio Toaff, who from 1951 to 2001 was the chief rabbi of Rome, Italy’s largest Jewish community. Rabbi Toaff became a beloved and respected figure in Italian Jewry.

In 1986 Rabbi Toaff welcomed Pope John Paul II to Tempio Maggiore, the first visit by a pope to Rome’s main synagogue, where they prayed together.

The elder Toaff, 91, has made no statement on the issue, but has been reported as “associating himself” with the joint statement made by the Italian rabbis.

Ariel Toaff responded to the statement.

“In my book, over 400 pages, I simply wanted to verify if the use of Christian blood in the dough for making azzims [matzot] for Pesach was only a stereotype of anti-Jewish prejudice,” he said. “My research was very long, lasting six years, during which I examined Jewish and Latin sources and entire archives.”

Italian Jews aren’t the only ones condemning the book.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote in a statement, “It is incredible that anyone, much less an Israeli historian, would give legitimacy to the baseless blood libel accusation that has been the source of much suffering and attacks against Jews historically.”

“Bloody Passover” is based on confessions, mostly extorted by torture, of Jews accused of ritual murder. The trials Toaff examines took place in Central Europe between 1100-1500, notably the 1475 trial in Trento, in what is today northern Italy, of 13 Jews of German origin. Under torture, they confessed to murdering and crucifying a Christian child on the eve of Passover.

Toaff’s thesis is that ritual murders of Christian children may have been committed, and that in the religiously passionate atmosphere of the Middle Ages there were small communities of Ashkenazi fanatics — possibly deranged by persecution, perhaps filled with hate for their Christian tormentors — who took revenge, veiling their actions with a combination of superstition and religious ritual.

Foxman said citing testimony extracted under torture was absurd.

“It is like trying to establish the charge of witchcraft based on the testimony at the Salem witch trials,” he said.

The wave of reactions occurred even before the book came out. The furor was sparked Feb. 6 when Italy’s foremost daily, Corriere Della Sera, featured a full-page story previewing the publication. The book arrived in stores two days later and sold out in less than 24 hours. A second edition is on its way.

A number of prominent Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals have written lengthy essays in Italy’s daily newspapers, virtually all condemning the book for reviving ancient prejudices and providing ammunition for the most extreme anti-Semites.

“In order to overturn the accepted position that the legend of Jewish blood sacrifices was the construction of anti-Judaism, one would think that Toaff had discovered hitherto unknown sources,” wrote Anna Foa, a historian at Rome’s La Sapienza University. “In reality it does not seem that Toaff has done so.

“Finding one’s way through the mass and complexity of his notes is arduous, but when one succeeds, one has the feeling of having nothing concrete in hand,” she continued. “His book is a re-interpretation, based on his personal re-reading of the same sources that historians have used to reject the accusation: the trial documents. Toaff turns these around, passing blithely from the hypothetical to the affirmative, and combining them with great ability with other sources to support the thesis of his book.”

At a time when conspiracy theories about Jews are flourishing, Foxman wrote, “Extremist, anti-Semitic and Islamic extremist groups will undoubtedly use this charge to further their hostile aims to the Jewish people.”

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