Commentary Magazine


Topic: Passover

A 21st-Century Blood Libel

The 21st century’s first blood libel, it appears, was only skin-deep. Ariel Toaff of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, an Italian-born medieval historian and the son of the chief rabbi of Rome, now claims that his new book Pasque di Sangre (“Passover of Blood”) has been misinterpreted. In any case, he says, he never really meant it when he wrote that in at least one case, that of the trial and execution of sixteen Jews in the Italian town of Trento in 1475, there may have been some truth in the medieval charge that Jews killed Christian children before Passover in order to use their blood to bake matzos.

To judge by his quoted remarks, Toaff seems—understandably, perhaps, given the fierce attacks on him in academic circles—a bit discombobulated these days. One minute he is ready to defend his book even “if the world crucifies me” (an interesting association in the context), while the next minute he has withdrawn it from circulation and barred his publisher from coming out with a second printing. And throughout it all he keeps insisting that he never had any inkling of the furor it would touch off. Although it’s hard to imagine a professor at a reputable Israeli university being so foolishly naïve, all the evidence seems to point to his being exactly that.

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The 21st century’s first blood libel, it appears, was only skin-deep. Ariel Toaff of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, an Italian-born medieval historian and the son of the chief rabbi of Rome, now claims that his new book Pasque di Sangre (“Passover of Blood”) has been misinterpreted. In any case, he says, he never really meant it when he wrote that in at least one case, that of the trial and execution of sixteen Jews in the Italian town of Trento in 1475, there may have been some truth in the medieval charge that Jews killed Christian children before Passover in order to use their blood to bake matzos.

To judge by his quoted remarks, Toaff seems—understandably, perhaps, given the fierce attacks on him in academic circles—a bit discombobulated these days. One minute he is ready to defend his book even “if the world crucifies me” (an interesting association in the context), while the next minute he has withdrawn it from circulation and barred his publisher from coming out with a second printing. And throughout it all he keeps insisting that he never had any inkling of the furor it would touch off. Although it’s hard to imagine a professor at a reputable Israeli university being so foolishly naïve, all the evidence seems to point to his being exactly that.

Is there a moral? Indeed there is. I agree with Alvin Rosenfeld’s point, in his controversial essay “‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” that although any Jew has the right to say what he wants about Israel, every Jew would also be well-advised to exercise this right sensibly. The same holds true for what a Jew says about the Jewish people.

Even if (as he now denies) Ariel Toaff was convinced that Jews killed a Christian boy in Trento in 1475 in order to make ritual use of his blood, and thought it was his duty as a historian to go on record as saying so, there were wiser ways of doing this than publishing a book with a lurid title. Even in one printing, Sangre di Pasque will give the loonies, and unfortunately, some of the not-so-loonies as well, plenty of cause for believing in one of the most horrendous of all anti-Jewish canards. After all, didn’t no less than an Israeli professor, the son of Rome’s chief rabbi, say it was true—and wasn’t he then intimidated into a retraction by the international Jewish cabal? Had Toaff written a cautiously worded article, appearing in an obscure professional journal of medieval history and entitled “Notes on a 1475 blood-libel trial in Trento,” he could have staked his claim quite nicely to being a leading blood-libel revisionist while doing much less harm.

It is pretty clear that, even in Trento, Jews in the Middle Ages did not murder Christian children for their blood. It is also evident that Jews in Israel today are not “Nazis” or “colonial racists” practicing “apartheid” toward the Palestinians, as many Jewish intellectuals described by Rosenfeld are fond of saying. But even Jews deluded enough to believe otherwise would do well, unless they really do want to be ranked with the enemies of their own people, to think of the consequences that can follow from telling the anti-Semites what they’d most love to hear.

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