Haaretz: Roni Weinstein 2/3/2007

A blood-stained version of history

"Pasque di sangue" ("Bloody Passovers") by Ariel Toaff, Bologna: Il Mulino, 2007

On the cover of "Pasque di sangue" by Ariel Toaff is an illustration showing an old, bearded patriarch clutching a knife, about to use it to slaughter a small boy. Beside him looms a pillar of fire with an angel hovering overhead, observing the events on earth with visible worry. There is no indication on the cover of where the illustration comes from, or any explanation of what it depicts. A reader unfamiliar with medieval art could easily mistake it for a picture of a Christian child being murdered by a rabbi. Only after careful perusal of the book does one discover that it is an illustration from a "Jewish" text, and it depicts a biblical scene - the sacrifice of Isaac.

This illustration appears again in the book (figure 15), but this time it includes the ram that becomes a substitute for Isaac, which makes it identifiable as an episode from the Bible. On the cover, the ram is missing. Maybe this is nitpicking, but a book jacket is one's first encounter with the book and is meant to convey the spirit of the text. And that indeed is the spirit of Toaff's new book, which has already kicked up a storm and been pulled off the shelves: veiled hints, half-truths, and misuse of intriguing sources and important testimony.

In the opening chapter, Toaff sets out the major research goals of the book. Until today, he claims, historians have avoided serious and honest study of Inquisition and court documents pertaining to cases in which Jews were accused of ritual murder of Christian children. These murders were ostensibly carried out with the object of mocking Christianity. At a later stage, it was claimed that the Jews used blood obtained this way for Passover preparations and magical cures, to stop bleeding in general, and especially hemorrhaging in circumcised babies.

Toaff claims that this material was not simply overlooked. He insists that apologists and intellectual lightweights deliberately turned a blind eye because the truth was too painful. He finds further confirmation for his theories in the testimony of Jewish apostates. Toaff is aware of that this testimony is biased, in particular the confessions extracted under cruel torture, when suspects broke down and gave the Inquisitors the "truth" they wanted. In order to get around this problem, Toaff offers a double methodological solution.

Influenced by historian Carlo Ginzburg, whom he quotes briefly, he says that court testimony outside the cultural world of the (Christian) interrogator, all the more so a milieu that is strange and unfamiliar to him, may be drawn upon as reliable evidence of the religious and cultural beliefs of the person under interrogation. To complete the picture, one needs to establish which components in the culture (in this case, Jewish) make the charges credible, or worthy of serious investigation. In this way, both the interrogator and the interrogated are on the same plane, and both the torturer and the victim supply the historian with testimony that is equally credible.

To back up his argument that Jewish culture provided the impetus for accusations of ritual murder, Toaff cites the research of Yisrael Yovel, "who bases himself on the thought-provoking and pioneering work of Cecil Roth." Yovel sees a relationship between the blood accusations and the cases of suicide and murder of children in the Jewish community of Germany during the First Crusade. In other words, blood libels originated in the deviant behavior of the Jews, and the Christians' misinterpretation of these acts. In the German towns where Jews were massacred, there were acts of collective suicide and infanticide from which the non-Jews concluded that if Jews could do this to their own offspring, they were certainly capable of doing it to innocent Christian children (this is a circumstantial argument that does not appear in any explicit form in sources from those days).

There is a critical difference, however: Yovel never claimed, as Toaff does, that the Jews participated in the killing of Christian children for ritual purposes. He says that blood accusations originated in German society and anti-Jewish stereotypes spread throughout the Catholic world from there.

What concrete evidence does Toaff bring? While the book offers nothing new in the way of documentation or archival material, Toaff's "contribution" is a new interpretation. His theories mainly revolve around the trial of the Jews of Trent, a town in northern Italy, who were accused of murdering a boy named Simonino in 1475. Soon after the murder, the town declared the boy a local martyr, and he went on to become a pan-Italian saint.

A large number of documents related to the investigation and trial of these Jews has survived. A scholarly edition of these documents was published, with the addition of an important introduction by two Italian historians, Diego Quaglioni and Anna Esposito, that provides scholars with a wealth of material for fascinating studies on Jewish-Italian and Italian dialects, folklore and local customs, artwork inspired by these events, and the inauguration of saints.

The trouble is that Toaff uses the testimony from this trial, even confessions extracted by torture and violence, as authentic evidence of Jewish life. Nowhere in the book does he subject this data to historical scrutiny. In consequence, the first chapters are full of unequivocal statements about how the Jews caught young Christians, hid them and finally murdered them to drain their blood. A look at the footnotes reveals that Toaff consistently relies on literal translations of trial transcripts from Latin to Italian, as if records of this type were the honest truth. Adopting such an approach means the historian is not free to add commentary of his own or question the data.

Free of bias?

Quaglioni and Esposito have written in the Italian press about how "shocked and incredulous" they were to read Toaff's interpretation of the affair. Pope Sixtus IV, for example, sent a special delegate to rebuke the local bishop for using excessive force in interrogations and gravely deviating from proper judicial practice, but Toaff hardly relates to this.

Were the judges in Trent free of bias? This question might be asked, first and foremost, about the man who ordered the trial - Prince-bishop Hinderbach, who brought anti-Semitic stereotypes with him from his native Germany, including the idea that Jews kill Christians and collect their blood. Hinderbach describes how starving German soldiers were reduced to eating dogs and rats during the war, and how they did not even balk at eating the flesh of Jews. The implication is that even before the trial, there was a link between violence, religious fundamentalism and cannibalism in the minds of people in northern Europe, and it goes without saying, the judges and interrogators in Trent.

What is important here is not only Hinderbach's personal outlook, but the fact that anti-Jewish myths were already entrenched at this point in time. Looking back, there was already a long line of incidents, from the William of Norwich affair in 1144 and the publication of the first hagiographic treatise in which a Christian baby allegedly killed by the Jews was declared a saint, to a whole host of blood accusations in England, France and Germany. So by the second half of the 15th century, when the Trent trial took place, anti-Semitic myths were firmly rooted in Europe, and the judges knew very well how to go about constructing a ritual murder case.

Toaff finds further backing for his claim in the testimony of baptized Jews called to the witness stand in Trent and elsewhere. These statements were particularly colorful and full of detail, complete with dates and references to well-known figures in the Jewish communities of northern Italy and Germany. Although the relationship between the Jewish community and converts to Catholicism was extremely sensitive in medieval and early modern times, not all converts were in the same category. Not all of them acted out of hatred and hostility toward their former co-religionists. Clearly, though, the ones whose testimony Toaff cites are among the most vicious. Two of them were particularly active in anti-Jewish propaganda and played a major role in the burning of the Talmud in 13th century (Provence) and 16th century (Italy). Other converts to Christianity cited in the book wrote and carried out their missionary work long after the Trent trial.

The anti-Jewish invective of figures like Benedetto Bonelli (whose book Toaff calls "a serious scholarly work"), Paul Sebastian Medici and Julio Morosini is explored in a fascinating study recently published by Marina Capiero, which probes how the Church pressured the Jews of Rome to convert in the 17th and 18th centuries. The strategies included breaking up families, kidnapping young boys, and baptizing small children who got lost in the street.

These Christian converts, some of them educated in Catholic theological seminaries, played a central role in the campaign of hostility and violence toward the Jews. Others, less well known, provided the Spanish theologian Alonso de Espina, with "inside" information, which he used in "Fortress of Faith," a book that contributed to the spread of blood libels all across Europe.

'Between the worlds'

The importance of these converts in the judicial process cannot be emphasized enough: They were the ones who supplied the most sensational details, but also the most concrete. These were people who lived "between the worlds," and were thus highly sensitive to what their new milieu would want to hear. But none of this rates so much as a mention in Toaff's book.

The second axis of the book is the Jewish "contribution" to the accusations of ritual murder. Toaff does not bring a single, documented case outside the non-Jewish court system. His argument is that such accusations fit in with the culture of "the fundamentalist circles of Ashkenazi Orthodoxy" in the late Middle Ages. The use of terms like "fundamentalism" and "Orthodoxy" in connection with medieval Jewry is surprising, but obviously connected to modern day fears of religiosity and the threat that fundamentalism poses to the liberal lifestyle. Toaff offers no scholarly explanation for such terminology. Nor does he delve deeper into the disturbing phenomenon of mass suicide and infanticide in the Jewish communities of the Rhine valley during the First Crusade (1096), or the encounter with movements preaching social or religious rebellion that took out their aggression on the Jewish minority. Instead of historical explanation, Toaff passes moral judgment on Ashkenazi Jewish society, with its urge for revenge on its Christian tormentors.

Earlier studies have shown that the experience of pogroms did leave Ashkenazi Jewish society in the Middle Ages more attuned to rituals of blood, death, suffering and revenge, which reached a peak with Passover and the seder. The blood of circumcision (symbolizing the pact between God and Israel), the blood of the lamb sacrificed on Passover, the blood of Ashkenazi martyrs - all these were linked in the minds of medieval Jews and served as a mental outlet for their anger at the outside world. Some of the major components of the Ashkenazi Passover ceremony mimicked or mocked Christian rituals and Christian theology, especially the crucifixion of Jesus as crucial for salvation. Curses against the Christians were added, as well as "inverted" rituals that poked fun at Christian rites.

Toaff claims that all of this points to active hostility toward the Christian world. One small psychological step, and it becomes "possible" for the Jews to use Christian blood in their rituals. Possibility and likelihood are all very well, but where are the facts? A historian who spends all his time speculating on what sounds likely or might have happened, rather than examining what did happen, effectively eliminates any chance for serious scholarly debate.

But blood, it is worth noting, was not just a symbol of protest against the Christians in Ashkenazi Jewish counter-culture. It was also a major component in magic and the occult, in both Jewish and non-Jewish society. Evidence for this can be found in a wide variety of sources from different periods and geographical regions. Toaff does not explain how books of folk remedies and Jewish customs became sorcery manuals, but he quotes from them as if they contain truths about practices that were widespread among the Jews.

In fact, the issue is more complicated than it appears in this book. The perception of blood as helpful in healing and preserving the body's youthfulness and vitality was not limited to "primitive" sectors in Italian society, nor was it the private preserve of witches and healers. Interesting discussions on this topic can be found in "The Book of Life" by Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), one of the leading humanist philosophers in Florence. Should we conclude from this that the humanists committed ritual murder, without need for further documentation?

If Toaff's book contains any contribution, it may be in the second half, although, again, Toaff dwells solely on the truthfulness of the ritual murder accusations, without exploring the role of the occult in Ashkenazi society. The book offers several intriguing and valuable testimonies that simply cannot be ignored about human fascination with the power of blood (wisely including a reference to Piero Camporesi's disturbing but gripping book "Juice of Life: The Symbolic and Magic Significance of Blood").

"Sefer Hahasidim," a compilation of writing by several 11th and 12 century authors and a showcase of Ashkenazi Jewish culture in the Middle Ages, is packed with magical beliefs that are clearly derived from Germanic culture, some of it even pre-Christian. Researchers of Ashkenazi culture have been strangely hesitant to enter this minefield and claim that magic and demons played a part in the world of Ashkenazi Jewry. Toaff's book does it.

A final comment on the response of Italian scholars to Toaff's book: All the leading historians specializing in the Inquisition, Jews, conversion and Judeo-Christian relations in Italy have fiercely attacked the book. The author's decision to halt book sales (after the first edition sold out) has sparked criticism of another kind. So now, instead of a scholarly debate on the issues raised in the book itself, historians must ponder the question of whether the academic community is guilty of lynching Toaff, and whether academic discourse and freedom of research have their limits.

Dr. Roni Weinstein is a research fellow at the University of Pisa and a researcher of Italian Jewry in modern times.


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