Tag Archives: anti-Semitism

How should we deal with racist language?

If you go to iTunes to download a copy of one of Joseph Conrad’s classic novels, you will find it listed under the name The N—— of the Narcissus (1897). Apple’s antennae are very sensitively tuned when it comes to the use of what Americans call ‘the N word’.

There has recently been a controversy over racist terminology at ABC Radio. A sports commentator, Warren Ryan, was suspended for using the racist term ‘old darky’, and has now quit because he refuses to apologize for something that was taken out of context. He says he was quoting from Gone with the Wind. You can read the details here.

As a completely dis-(and un-)interested bystander regarding anything football-related, I know nothing about Ryan, except that in general I think sports commentators should act in a civilized manner and keep their traps shut as much as possible, but the story does raise the issue of how we deal with racist comments that are not our own, but those of another generation. Continue reading

Little Bags of Poison

The year was 1348, and terror haunted Europe.  An inexplicable, horrifying disease was spreading from city to city along the trade routes, killing as it went.  Within 4 years, perhaps a third of the population died, and nobody knew why.

In their fear, people looked for explanations – and scapegoats.  In Savoy, the authorities rounded up a number of Jews, men and women, and questioned them under torture.  One of them, Agimet of Geneva, had recently been to Venice to buy silk.  Before he left, according to his confession, he was approached by ‘a teacher of their law’, Rabbi Peyret, who gave him ‘a little package of half a span in size which contains some prepared poison and venom in a thin, sewed leather bag.’

‘Agimet took this package full of poison and carried it with him to Venice, and when he came there he threw and scattered a portion of it into the well or cistern of fresh water which was there …. Of his own accord Agimet confessed further that after this had been done he left at once in order that he should not be captured by the citizens or others, and that he went personally to Calabria and Apulia and threw the above mentioned poison into many wells. …He confesses further that he put some of this poison into the public fountain of the city of Toulouse and in the wells that are near the [Mediterranean] sea. Asked if at the time that he scattered the venom and poisoned the wells, above mentioned, any people had died, he said that he did not know inasmuch as he had left everyone of the above mentioned places in a hurry. Asked if any of the Jews of those places were guilty in the above mentioned matter, he answered that he did not know.’

Today we know that bubonic plague is caused by a bacillus, Yersinia pestis, but in the 14th century, little bags of poison were as good an explanation for the spread of the Black Death.  Agimet’s confession, extracted under torture, suggests he was able to travel vast distances – from Geneva to Venice to Calabria to Toulouse and home again – in a few months, and showed a puzzling ignorance of the Torah that would be surprising for a practicing Jew, but not at all surprising for his Christian torturers.

In the wake of the latest Wikileaks revelations about information gathering at Guantanamo Bay, and some of the self-serving statements from the CIA about how they extracted information from a courier to Osama bin Laden’s safe house, we need to confront the issue of torture, and its long and inglorious history.

People have never lacked inventive ways of hurting their fellow human beings, but the motivations for doing so vary.  I’m not talking here about people who get their kicks from inflicting pain, though no doubt many sadists have gravitated to the work.  Nor am I talking about corporal punishment, or executing people in imaginatively cruel ways.  Roman crucifixion, the Chinese ‘death of a thousand cuts’, or hanging, drawing and quartering in England, were all horrible deaths, designed to serve as a warning to others, and to assert the power of the state over the quivering bodies of its subjects.

But official, judicial torture, as opposed to just hurting someone, was designed to make people confess, to recant their heretical beliefs, and/or to get information about co-conspirators.  The problem, as in the case of Agimet, was (and is) the quality of the information extracted in this way.

In the medieval and early modern period, both religious and civil authorities in Europe used torture.  There were rules, gradually elaborated.  Judges could only order torture when they already presumed the person was guilty, torture should be applied in stages, and a confession extracted under torture had to be subsequently confirmed afterwards.

Paulus Grillandus, a papal judge, presided over witchcraft trials during the 16th century.  He certainly believed in witches and wrote one of the standard accounts about them, but he was dubious about confessions extracted under torture.  In On the Question and Torture, he itemizes 5 degrees of torture:

‘now a mere threat, now a suspension on the rack for the space only of an Ave Maria or a Paternoster, now a graver suspension for the space of a Miserere, now for a period which might reach into hours, and, last degree of all, where the victim’s limbs, weighted down, were jerked and twisted till the agony was greater than the amputation of the hand….’

Galileo was shown the instruments of torture by the Inquisition, though there is debate about whether he was tortured to ‘the second degree’.

Many confessions, particularly of witchcraft, occurred without torture.  As any experienced policeman knows, false confessions are common, and fantasists reflect the context of their time.  So in the 17th century, people were more likely to fly to a witches’ sabbat in Germany, or see the devil in the woods of Massachusetts, than to see aliens in the Arizona desert.

The Salem witch trials of 1692 are particularly well documented.  Very little torture was involved, but they do show how accusations tend to proliferate: 1 accuses 2, who accuse 4, who accuse 8….  in a geometric progression.  The decisions of the Salem trials were overturned in 1711 and most of the survivors and relatives were compensated.  One of those who raised concerns at the time was the Boston cleric, Increase Mather.  ‘It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape,’ he wrote, ‘than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned.’

Gravestone of one of the judges, Salem

Judicial torture went out of favour in the late 18th century, coincidentally (or not) at about the same time that people stopped believing in witches.  It was irrational, in a rational age, to reply on information extracted under torture, better ways of finding information were coming in with police forces, and people worried about the long term effects on the torturers themselves.

Torture went underground. The British used torture against the Mau Mau in Kenya in the 1950s, and we now know – if we ever doubted it – that the Americans used torture at Guantanamo Bay.  Torture tends to surface in situations when the state is weak, and people are frightened or confused.  Then it is easy to identify that invisible terror with alien people, of an alien religion, travelling from place to place with little bags of poison.

Documents from the Salem witch trials are on line at

Cornell University Library Witchcraft Collection and Salem Witch Trials Documentary archive

The Blood Libel – and Sarah Palin

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.

Juden Schwein (Jewish Pig)

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.