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Scholar Pulls Book Revisiting Blood Libel

After unleashing a torrent of criticism both in his native Italy and around the globe, an Israeli professor has ordered his publisher to halt distribution of a new book that suggests a possible historical basis for the centuries-old charge that Jews murdered Christians and used their blood for ritual purposes.

Ariel Toaff, a professor of medieval and Renaissance history at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, said in a February 14 statement that, while he stands by his research, he is recalling the book, “Pasque di Sangue” (“Bloody Passovers”), in order to reframe those sections of it that he feels have been misunderstood by readers and mischaracterized in the press. To further allay criticism, Toaff promised to donate any money he may have earned from book’s early sales to the Anti-Defamation League, which only days before had condemned the scholar.

Though Toaff’s move appears to have quieted the ADL and Bar Ilan — both of which said they were “satisfied” by the professor’s defense of his work — many scholars, in both the Jewish world and beyond, continue to question the historian’s methods and conclusions.

The controversy was set into motion February 6, two days before the book’s official release, when the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera ran an enthusiastic review by Sergio Luzzatto, a professor of modern European history at the University of Turin. The review, which Toaff has since singled out as the leading factor in prompting the uproar, ran under the heading: “Ariel Toaff’s Disconcerting Revelation: The Myth of Human Sacrifice Is Not Just an Antisemitic Lie.”

According to Luzzatto, Toaff’s “courageous” book argues that some Christian children, or “perhaps even many,” were killed by fundamentalist Ashkenazic Jews between 1100 and 1500. Furthermore, Luzzatto has Toaff describing unleavened bread baked with dried blood possibly taken from murdered Christian children.

Though it is now clear that the review was in many ways at odds with Toaff’s actual findings, it nevertheless set the tone for the discussion that followed — including a swift and ferocious critical backlash.

Italy’s rabbis — who for a half-century were led by the professor’s father, Elio Toaff — issued a statement saying that, “No precept nor custom on the ritual use of human blood ever existed in the Jewish tradition. On the contrary,such use is simply deemed horrific…. The only blood that was shed was that of the many innocents Jews that were massacred because of this unjust and heinous accusation.”

After briefly employing a wait-and-see attitude and defending its professor’s academic freedom, Bar Ilan soon changed its position. Expressing “serious reservations” about the book, a university spokesman said that “senior officials and researchers condemned in the past and condemn today any attempt to justify the awful blood libels against the Jewish people.”

Meanwhile, in New York, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement: “It is incredible that anyone, much less an Israeli historian, would give legitimacy to the baseless blood libel accusation that has been the source of much suffering and attacks against Jews historically.”

As the furor gained momentum — including calls from some quarters that Toaff be removed from his post at Bar Ilan — the professor struggled to defuse the situation. Though he said in early interviews that ritual murders “might have taken place,” he later said that he does not believe that they did and that saying otherwise was, in The Jerusalem Post’s words, an “ironic academic provocation.”

Determining the true thrust of Toaff’s thesis has not been easy. The book was just released a few days ago, and only in Italy. It has not been translated, and few experts in the field have had the chance read it. Repeated attempts by the Forward to reach Toaff were unsuccessful. Nevertheless, in published interviews and newspaper accounts, the broad outlines of the author’s thinking have begun to emerge.

The book reportedly rests on the premise that from the time of the first Crusade in 1096 onward, certain Ashkenazic fundamentalists may have engaged, not in ritual slaughter, but in religiously inflected revenge killings prompted by persecution and forced conversion. Toaff writes in his book’s introduction that such acts may have been “instinctive, visceral, virulent actions and reactions, in which innocent and unknowing children became victims of the love of God and of vengeance.”

In supporting his claim, Toaff draws from the confessions extracted from the 16 Jews accused of murdering the 2-year-old Simon of Trent in 1475. Though the confessions have long been regarded as historically suspect, Toaff has defended them as potentially viable sources.

“I found there were statements and parts of the testimony that were not part of the Christian culture of the judges, and they could not have been invented or added by them. They were components appearing in prayers known from the [Jewish] prayer book,” he told Ha’aretz.

Toaff has argued that certain revenge killings, coupled with the use of dried blood for medicinal purposes — a “real craze” in Germany at the time, he told Ha’aretz — could have helped to fuel the blood libel myth.

Though news of Toaff’s thesis has been met with skepticism in the academic world, scholars have, nevertheless, been quick to point out that Toaff is not the only medieval Jewish historian to have cast a critical eye on the version of history in which Jews emerge blameless in the face of the blood libel charge.

“To understand Professor Toaff’s book, we have to take at least one step back,” said Adam Mintz, the rabbi at New York’s Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim. In taking this step, Mintz, who is also a visiting lecturer in Jewish history at Queens College of the City University of New York, pointed to the work of Israel Yuval, a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Yuval himself caused an uproar with an article he published in 1993 in the Israeli journal Zion. As with Toaff, Yuval’s study began with the first Crusade, when German Jews were faced with a choice between conversion and death. Not only did some Jews choose to die rather than be baptized, but in some cases they killed their children as well. Yuval’s innovation was to suggest that, in seeing these killings, Christians may have come to believe that it was their own children who were being killed.

The year after Yuval’s article was published, the same journal devoted a double issue to his thesis in which it was attacked by five different scholars. What the critics took issue with, Mintz said, “was the suggestion that the Jews somehow brought the blood libel upon themselves. It was as though Yuval had said that the Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves.”

Yuval, whose book “Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages” was just released in English last year, said he has followed the Toaff affair with great interest. Asked if he felt any kinship with the beleaguered Toaff, he demurred. “Having myself been persecuted doesn’t make me any more sympathetic to Toaff’s theories,” he said. “I think they are untrue.”

Yuval acknowledged surface similarities between his work and Toaff’s, but what he stressed were the essential differences. “My point of departure was that the blood libel was a lie, a misunderstanding, something that never happened,” he said. “What he did was go one step further: He took the fiction and made it into a reality.”

Echoing Yuval’s sentiment was Anna Foa, a professor of history at Rome’s La Sapienza University who wrote a stinging critique of the Toaff book in the newspaper La Repubblica on the day the title was released.

“This is not a history book,” she later told the Forward. “It’s a novel.”

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