Roberto Bonfil

Repeating the blood libel insults scholarship

An Israeli academic's book claiming that medieval Jews ritually murdered Christians is a disgrace, says Robert Bonfil

A new book published in Italian by a Bar-Ilan professor of Jewish history is stridently calling for the re-opening of what the civilised among us considered to be a closed file: the truth about the ritual murder of a boy, Simonino, allegedly committed by the Jews of Trento in 1475 in order to use his blood for baking matzot.

The trial that followed ended with the extermination of the entire Jewish community, following confessions extracted under torture, and the beatification of Simonino. Although accusations of ritual murder were no longer a novelty in Europe more than three centuries after the first case in Norwich, this case had far more tragic and more lasting consequences than prior occurrences for two reasons. First, contrary to the previous policy of emperors and Popes who consistently rejected the allegations, in this instance the accusation was acknowledged by the Church and the murdered child beatified. Second, the story received unprecedented publicity thanks to the recent invention of printing. Leaflets depicting the murder were distributed widely, exciting the imagination of artists who reproduced it in churches throughout the surrounding area.

It was only in 1965, thanks to the effort: of serious scholars such as Cecil Roth, that the Vatican acknowledged the falsity of the allegations and put an end to the cult of "Saint Simonino". Elio Toaff the father of Ariel Toaff the author of the new book, was then the Chief Rabbi of Rome. How ironic that Bar-Ilan University, which refused to enroll Cecil Roil among its teachers of Jewish history, granted that privilege to Ariel Toaff.

Now Elio Toaff's son calls for a re-opening of the file, claiming it his duty as a historian to uncover the truth. Has he found new documents? Has he unearthed hitherto unknown evidence? The answer is squarely no.

Toaff's book is an insult to the intelligence an outrageous, sophisticated mosaic of half truths, insinuations, belief in the trustworthiness of confessions extracted under torture, of uncritical use of sources in general and of texts produced by apostates in particular, a cocktail of unwarranted hypotheses blended with allusions to anthropology and the medieval use of magic. I do not hesitate to describe the book as a disgrace that will taint and bedevil the entire family of serious historians.

Top Italian scholars, specialists in the field who have devoted years of scholarly effort to unearthing and publishing the minutes of that trial, or to penetrating the convoluted minds of judges in such trials, have reacted to Toaff's book with almost unanimous scorn.

Their thorough rejection of the book's methods and contents should be sufficient to assure anyone of the lack of substance in Toaff's ruminations. The question of why he proceeded with this project will remain a mystery for all who do not dare enter the minefield of Freudian speculation. But historians will have to cope with a vital question affecting their craft. Historians can feel free to research, make known their findings and maintain a single-minded commitment to truth only in an atmosphere of intellectual liberty - without fear of censorship or other interference. Membership of an academic institution in a free country should, in principle: be sufficient to certify such commitment. But how are we to act if a member exploits academic immunity by using it as a shield behind which to hide and so guarantee the publication of his or her work? How are we to prevent this academic immunity from being used dishonestly? This could threaten the entire basis of serious historical research.

Jews cannot help but react emotionally to this travesty. And yet, one cannot avoid asking oneself the question: who were the scholars who recommended the publication of the book to a serious publishing house such as Il Mulino, if experts such as those alluded to above reacted to it with such disdain? Did the publishing house have some unidentified agenda, or did it fall into miserable error? In the latter case, we may be glad that by withdrawing the book, it has found a way to redress, at least in part, the damage that has already been done.

Robert Bonfil is Emeritus Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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