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The Bloody History Of a Disastrous Libel

Blood Libel: The Damascus Affair of 1840
By Ronald Florence
Other Press, 272 pages, $15.95.

‘It is obvious to me… that you killed him to take his blood and that that’s your custom. Don’t you know about the expulsion from Spain and other expulsions, and about the thousands of Jews killed because of this issue? And yet you stick to this custom of killing people secretly!”

So cried Sherif Pasha, the governor of Syria and adopted son of the famed Muhammad Ali, viceroy of Egypt, in Damascus in 1840. The pasha had been alarmed by reports of a missing Christian monk and his servant, who according to rumor had last been seen in the Jewish quarter of the city. Rounding up a number of Jewish witnesses, all of whom claimed to see Father Thomas elsewhere, Sherif Pasha’s men tortured new stories out of the prospective witnesses, forcing them to implicate many of the religious and financial leaders of the community in the crime of murdering the two men and draining their blood for religious purposes.

The accusation against Jews, known as the blood libel, has remained depressingly similar throughout history, varying in not much other than minor details from place to place, and from century to century. The blood libel claimed that Jews, possessed of an unquenchable thirst for gentile blood, would kidnap and murder Christian children in order to bake Passover matzo with their blood. Historian Ronald Florence devotes “Blood Libel” to the Damascus affair, delving into its unexpected twists and turns and offering a take on its global political implications.

The book begins by gently wading into the water of the Damascus affair, starting with the missing father, and the accused Jews, before paddling further and further out into the ocean of mid-19th-century geopolitics. A matter for gossip in Damascus cafés and courtyards soon becomes a pawn in a much larger game of European and Middle Eastern diplomacy and power maneuvering. “Blood Libel” juggles the personal and political details of its narrative, cutting adroitly between the pasha’s torture chambers and the maneuverings of European diplomats to control and influence the case, but is better off when it concentrates on the pitiful accused Jews of Damascus.

Florence grasps the existential terror of false accusation, and the tragic renewal of the already ancient blood libel against a prosperous, vibrant Jewish community in Damascus. In 19th-century Syrian jurisprudence, the line between investigation and trial was fluid, and confessions procured under torture were considered not only admissible but also proof of the accused’s moral culpability. The pasha and his torturers were assisted in the process of their sham investigation by the local French consul, Count Ratti-Menton, who under the byzantine rules of the former Ottoman rulers of Syria held the right to oversee the well-being of the local minority Christian population. Ratti-Menton and his chancellor, Jean-Baptiste Beaudin, were firm believers in the blood libel from the outset, sending back dispatches to France about the Jews’ culpability in the affair, and the barbaric practices of Eastern Jews.

Halfway through the book, with the accused Jews languishing in prison, awaiting final word of their condemnation from Muhammad Ali in Cairo, “Blood Libel” zooms out to reveal the Damascus affair as a small cog in the machinations of global powers. The ruling Egyptians are locked in a power struggle with the Ottomans for control of Syria and Palestine, which Ali and Sherif had won in battle; and their respective European allies, the French and British, jockey for control of the Middle East through their clients. The fate of the imprisoned Jews becomes a lever for the British (longtime supporters of near equality for Jews) against the French, and their support of repressive justice in Syria. It also serves as an impetus for the Ottomans, and their more tolerant attitudes toward Jewish mercantile and political muscle, to reassert their claim to the lands taken from them by Ali’s army.

Needless to say, this is an abundance of material for a book that clocks in at fewer than 300 pages. Florence takes an admirable stab at the European diplomatic maneuvering, but is on more stable ground when he sticks close to the falsely accused Jews: the tortures they suffered, the indignities heaped on their families, the blindly malignant antisemitism of the ruling Egyptians and their European cronies, and the rapidly disintegrating relations between Damascus’s two minority groups — Jews and Christians.

Telling an all-too-familiar story from Jewish history, “Blood Libel” is the tragedy of a flourishing community that belatedly realizes that its success, and its very existence, is dependent on the good will of leaders often disinclined to leave the Jews in peace. Except, of course, for those murdered by the pasha’s secret police, the Jews of Damascus survived the events of 1840, and the imprisoned Jews were eventually freed with the assistance of Sir Moses Montefiore and French Jewish physician Adolphe Crémieux, but their relations with their Christian and Muslim neighbors were never quite the same. In a casual but jarring aside, Florence reminds us that such brutalities were part and parcel of Jewish life, even in the supposedly enlightened 19th century. The Damascus affair was only one of the blood libels that tormented Jewish communities in the era, joined by similar accusations in Egypt in 1844 and 1846; Palestine in 1847, 1848, 1870, and 1871; Iran in 1866, and numerous others. The globalization of geopolitics, spurred by colonialism, brought a concomitant globalization of hatred, and the sins of Europe toward its Jews were exported to the Middle East, where they flourished anew in virgin soil.

Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to the Forward.

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