A 4-year-old Christian girl goes missing in an isolated town on the banks of a river named after a saint. After hours of fruitless searching, townspeople hear rumors that she was kidnapped and killed by local Jews who needed her blood for their rituals. The mayor and a local cop interrogate various Jews, including the small community’s rabbi, who has to part an angry mob to answer his summons to town hall.
It’s a scenario that played out dozens if not hundreds of times in Europe beginning in the Middle Ages, ending in forced confessions, preordained convictions and deadly violence that claimed the lives of countless Jews.
But the case described above didn’t take place in medieval Italy or 19th-century Poland. It happened in Massena, a small industrial town in far upstate New York in 1928. As described in “The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town” (Norton), a new book by NYU history professor Edward Berenson, the search for Barbara Griffiths and its aftermath show both the ways “it can happen here” and, perhaps more significantly, the ways America has largely resisted the kinds of vicious anti-Semitism that plagued Europe’s Jews for centuries.
Although the Massena case is little remembered today, it was a national media sensation at the time. Berenson has a personal connection to the affair: He and his father were born in Massena, and his great-grandparents were perhaps the town’s first Jews. His research and interviews with elderly residents show a town dominated by the Alcoa aluminum plant, whose immigrant workforce brought diversity to a typically WASPish village on the St. Lawrence River. The immigrants, especially those from the nearby French-speaking parts of Canada, may also have brought retrograde ideas about Jews: Quebec’s traditionalist Catholic establishment held onto a European-style anti-Semitism that often included accusations of ritual murder. Berenson reproduces a French Canadian newspaper calling Jews “drinkers of blood” — right under the hockey scores.
Berenson hardly mentions the white nationalist muck stirred up during the 2016 presidential campaign or the events in Charlottesville, but echoes of the present moment are heard everywhere in the story of the Massena blood libel. America in the 1920s was convulsed by homegrown racists. The Great War unleashed what Berenson calls “nationalist passions” — and a backlash against the immigrants who flooded into the cities and the African Americans who migrated north to escape Jim Crow. Berenson writes that those changes “sparked a potent reaction on the part of traditionalists, who longed for an idealized old United States, and a variety of other individuals and groups who feared they were being left behind.” A revitalized Ku Klux Klan, targeting mostly blacks and Catholics but reserving some of its ire for the “Jewish” press and Hollywood, grew to some 4 million members in 1924. That same year, Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent published 21 articles accusing an influential Jewish agricultural entrepreneur of “plotting to turn the U.S. economy over to international Jewish financiers.”
Barbara Griffiths also went missing on the eve of an ugly presidential election in which the Republican Herbert Hoover was seen as the guardian of a rural, Protestant American past and New York’s Democratic, Catholic governor, Al Smith, was made the embodiment of immigrant hordes assaulting the American way of life. The Klan, which had an active branch in Massena, referred to Smith as the “anti-Christ” and a lackey of money-mad “Hebrew syndicates” that were undermining American morals.
Blood libels were enacted in times of economic uncertainty when nationalists and religious traditionalists were feeling vulnerable to forces beyond their control and cynical leaders used minorities as a convenient foil. Although the Catholic Church firmly repudiated the blood libel in Vatican II, Berenson suggests that the slur is transmitted as “social knowledge,” a sort of cultural meme in which the Jew symbolizes the forces out to destroy Christianity. It’s a short walk from the blood libel to “Jews will not replace us,” chanted by the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville.
One year after a gunman targeted a synagogue in Pittsburgh because he held Jews responsible for bringing in immigrant “invaders,” it’s tempting to think that we’ve returned to the America of the 1920s or the Europe of, well, nearly forever. But Berenson’s book is also about American exceptionalism: Thanks in part to the intervention of the era’s two major Jewish groups —the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress — Massena’s mayor apologized for suspecting the Jews. They had allies in a sympathetic national press, and in Smith, who brought the pressure of the governor’s office to bear on behalf of the Jews. (It helped, no doubt, that Barbara Griffiths walked out of the woods, unharmed, a day after she disappeared. She had gotten lost.) Berenson writes that whatever led the mayor and the police to suspect the Jews, “what’s important is that … a near unanimity of public voices told them they had been wrong.”
The blood libel never really goes away. It is alive and well in the Middle East, and too often makes its way, like other classic anti-Semitic tropes, into anti-Israel rhetoric. Just last week, at a panel discussion at Princeton University, the anti-Israel propagandist Norman Finkelstein charged that the Israelis are “biped bloodhounds drinking the blood of one million [Palestinian] children,” according to the campus newspaper. Far-right attacks on the liberal philanthropist George Soros draw on the complete glossary of Jew-hatred, including the blood libel.
But “The Accusation” suggests not only how hateful ideas fester, but what it takes to keep them from spreading: An assertive ethnic community that stands up for its own and — crucially — cultivates allies among other religious and ethnic groups; political and communal leaders who understand that attacks on immigrants and religious minorities are also attacks on Americanism; and a robust, unbiased media that rejects conspiracy theories and exposes the cynicism of demagogues who indulge in and exploit them.
One year after Pittsburgh, are those guardrails still in place? I have my doubts.