Haaretz: Adi Schwartz 1/3/2007

Toaff fights for his good name

During the past two weeks Prof. Ariel Toaff has quoted, more than once, a statement that is attributed to Alfred Dreyfus. Money doesn't matter to me, the French-Jewish officer is quoted as having said, but anyone who takes away my good name takes everything I have. And it is for this good name, for his professional reputation, that Toaff is now planning to fight. He wants to continue to engage in historical research, to teach and publish. He also wouldn't mind getting hit over the head a little, but now he feels that he is being hit unjustly.

In fact, Toaff doesn't quite understand how the whole thing happened. It all began on the day his book was published, February 8, with an article by historian Sergio Luzzatto in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. This was the start of the misunderstanding. Luzzatto praised the book as a major historical work, and wrote that Toaff presents the possibility that the Jews of Trento had indeed murdered the child Simonino. However, according to Toaff, Luzzatto simply didn't understand the book.

The snowball started to pick up speed. A large group of Italian rabbis - among them the researcher's father, Elio Toaff - published a sharp condemnation of the book and dismissed its claims outright. The rabbis, who had not read it, helped create a sense of "ganging up" in the Italian and Israeli media, and depicted the younger Toaff as a delusive and naive type, not to mention anti-Semitic.

Toaff has been able to explain this attack only by citing the Jewish fear of anti-Semitism, as though the Jews wanted to say to him: Even if all of what you have written is true, why go into it? But Toaff thought, and still thinks, that in this manner and with this way of thinking, it is impossible to conduct historical research.

Then came a long series of articles written by non-Jewish historians, some of them of the highest caliber, such as Prof. Diego Quaglioni. All of them harshly attacked the book, its flawed methodology and the way in which its conclusions were drawn. This, of course, could not be explained by Toaff as fear of anti-Semitism, but rather quite simply by the herd instinct and the non-Jewish writers' lack of understanding of the Hebrew language. After all, Toaff relates to Hebrew words that the accused people of Trento spoke during the course of their trial. After all, how can historians who don't speak Hebrew possibly understand what they meant, as well as the basis for it?

The result of all of this was that Toaff was transformed into a fool, a Jew-hater and someone who has revived the historic blood libel that has accompanied his community and the entire Jewish people for hundreds of years. However, this is not at all what he had intended. The last thing he wanted was to put ammunition in the hands of the anti-Semites, whether in the Church or elsewhere. The only reason he can sleep at night is that he knows that this was not his intention.

Now Toaff is on the defensive. He is not interested in being interviewed in the media, because they distort what he says. No, he will respond in a professional journal, as befits his status as a department head at Bar-Ilan University, and there he will explain, in many pages, with the possibility of citations from sources, what in fact he really intended. As far as the professor is concerned, he wanted to deal with verbal religious violence, which can lead to destructive consequences. This is the heart of the matter - not Simonino or the drawing of blood for use in ointments or food. All that Toaff wanted to do was to warn of the possibility that extremist elements within Judaism would distort the original intention and create an atmosphere that ultimately would bring their own destruction down upon them.

Perhaps this is connected more to the present than to the past. Then, 500 years ago, Toaff believes, Jews did not murder Simonino, just as they did not murder any other child. They certainly did not murder him in order to use his blood in the Passover ritual, for if there were indeed some use of blood, it was blood that was taken from living people and without resistance on their part. But when he looks around him today, he sees extremist Jewish elements that are distorting the spirit of Judaism, with curses and attempts at excommunication, and this, in his opinion, could end badly. As, for example, in the cases of the pulsa denura (kabbalistic death curse) ceremonies that were the background to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir, or the intolerant behavior toward Yonatan Bassi, himself a Jew of Italian origin.

The claims that avarice or a strong desire for fame are behind the entire move amuse Toaff. So does the claim that this is a classical case of self-hatred, which has led him to acknowledge what the Catholic Church has long forgotten. He is less amused by the status of relations with his father, Elio, formerly the chief rabbi of Rome and the most famous Jew in Italy. Ariel had wanted to dedicate the book to his father, but his father was not at all involved in its preparation. Now they are speaking again and the younger Toaff hopes to go to see him soon to put an end to the affair.


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