Shots were fired in Tuscon, Arizona, on 8 January – and within a week, people around the world were learning about a concept – the ‘blood libel’ – that most of them had never heard of before.
When I taught a week on Jews in medieval and early modern Europe to my first year history students, almost none of them had encountered the term before. I suspect that Sarah Palin had only the vaguest notion of its meaning herself. But following her infamous video clip on 12 January, journalists and the general public have been scrambling to catch up with a concept that carries an enormous emotional charge for Jews (my own, very secular husband included) yet has so utterly faded from memory for most of the rest of us.
It’s at moments like this that it is nice to have been a teacher, to have given many hundreds of young people an insight into the meaning of anti-Semitism, as it was practised in Europe for many centuries. It’s nothing to be smug about, but at least, as the result of a tutorial on Jews in Europe, my ex-students are ahead of the game now, even if about 95% of them probably forgot most of what they learned there within a few hours or weeks. I hope it’s vaguely coming back to them now.
Briefly, the blood libel was a widely held belief amongst many Christians that Jewish communities stole Christian children, killed them and drained their blood to mix with the matzo meal that was made into unleavened bread at the time of the Passover (Pesach). Dates are vague; the belief was certainly widespread by the 12th century, and it lingered on, particularly in Eastern Europe, until scarily recently.
The story incorporates garbled ideas about eating the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, and the ritual slaughter of the Paschal lamb in the days leading up to Passover. Easter usually occurs at roughly the same time as Passover. Both are based on the lunar calendar, and the Last Supper was probably a Pesach meal. This coincidence of Christian and Jewish rituals no doubt increased the tension and possibility of conflict between the two communities.
The belief was widespread, but never officially sanctioned by the Church. On the contrary, the church hierarchy tried, repeatedly, to intervene. So Pope Gregory X, for instance, wrote in the 13th century that:
most falsely do these Christians claim that the Jews have secretly and furtively carried away these children and killed them, and that the Jews offer sacrifice from the heart and blood of these children, since their law in this matter precisely and expressly forbids Jews to sacrifice, eat, or drink the blood, or to eat the flesh of animals having claws.
Very logical, no doubt, though it’s a bit worrying that Gregory X bases his argument that the Jews are innocent of eating children on the fact that children aren’t Kosher.
In any case, folk beliefs are seldom debunked by the application of reason, and several children who went missing, presumed killed and eaten, were made into local saints, such as William of Norwich, 1132-1144, and Little St Hugh of Lincoln, 1246-55 (to be distinguished from Big St Hugh, a perfectly respectable bishop who kept a pet swan). Because these were saints created by popular acclamation and without official recognition by the Church, there is no way subsequently of stripping them of their haloes. They remain something of an embarrassment.
Which brings us, I guess, to Sarah Palin, whose position within the Republican party seems rather similar. My hunch is that, like most of the general population in America, she had very little idea of what a ‘blood libel’ meant. It is a belief that usually flew under the radar, and remains so, a concept giving great offence to those who know the background story, but mystifying the rest of the population who do not. Ironically, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik’s complaint that Arizona had become a ‘Mecca’ for ‘hatred and bigotry’ was an equally unfortunate appropriation of the language and symbols of another religion.
But there is a rule of thumb that says: in any public dispute, whoever first claims that their opponents are behaving like Nazis has, ipso facto, lost the argument. Perhaps in the same way, whoever first claims to have been victimized to the extent that medieval Jews were victimized has lost the argument too.
This is not a good photo, I’m afraid. I took it from ground level of a carving on the wall of the town church in Wittenberg, where Martin Luther lived. It shows (trust me!) a Jewish rabbi, distinguished by his pointed hat, about to kiss the pig’s arse, while other Jews suckle from her teats.