Media are attacking the Congresswomen by claiming that the group sponsoring their proposed trip ‘promoted blood libels.’ The claim is based on one item briefly posted on the NGO’s website six years ago… and the news reports don’t mention that the item referenced an Israeli news report about a book by a prominent Israeli historian…
By Alison Weir
Some articles currently trending online attack U.S. Congress women Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar through lurid claims about the organization that was helping to sponsor their proposed Congressional trip to the Palestinian Territories. (Israel has blocked the trip.)
The Jewish Forward kicked off the latest round of attacks on the two Congresswomen with articles on August 15th and 16th accompanied by a tweet by the opinion editor claiming: “The organization organizing Tlaib & Omar’s trip promoted an anti-Semitic blood libel.”
This is really a shame, though: The organization organizing Tlaib & Omar's trip promoted an anti-Semitic blood libel: “Much of the chatter and gossip about Jewish blood rituals in Europe are real; the Jews used blood of Christians in the Jewish Passover.”https://t.co/U4qpSz28SS
— Batya Ungar-Sargon (@bungarsargon) August 16, 2019
Similar articles were published the same day by JTA, National Review, the New York Times, and Breitbart, and the sensationalist accusation has since been echoed by Fox News, CNN, the Washington Post, and a multitude of additional websites and Israel advocacy organizations.
The problem is that all these reports lie through a variety of significant omissions.
- First, none provide full information about the organization being discussed: Miftah, The Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy. Miftah is an internationally respected human rights organization. It is chaired by Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, a Christian Palestinian who has received numerous awards, including UNESCO’s 2005 Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Peace and Reconciliation. Ashrawi holds a PhD in Medieval and Comparative Literature from the University of Virginia. During her youth she attended a Quaker school.
- Second, many of the reports fail to report the fact that Miftah’s only reference to blood libel was a small part of one item that was briefly on the website six years ago, and which was quickly taken down. (Miftah has posted hundreds of items from diverse sources.)
- Perhaps most significant, none of the stories report that the offending item quotes an Israeli newspaper report about a book by an Israeli professor.
The fact is that the Miftah article referenced what had widely been discussed in the Israeli media: a renowned Israeli history professor had written an explosive book saying there was “a factual basis for some of the medieval blood libels against the Jews.”
Book by Italian Israeli professor Ariel Toaff
To place the Miftah post in context it is essential to learn about the book it was based on and the multitude of news reports about it in the Israeli media.
The book had been published by a mainstream publisher in Italy, reportedly selling 1,000 copies the first day. It received positive reviews from two Italian historians, since quoted in a review in the Journal of the Historical Society. Italian historian Sergio Luzzatto, wrote that Toaff “displays an extraordinary mastery in the fields of history, theology and anthropology.”
Medievalist Franco Cardini wrote: “Hats off to Ariel Toaff … he offers the reader not only exemplary historical research based on authentic sources and on an up to date reading of the critical literature, but he also gives us the example of an act of intellectual honesty that will undoubtedly have consequences.”
The book was major news in Israel, newspapers carrying headline after headline about it. The book was particularly noteworthy because its author, Ariel Toaff, was a top Israeli historian noted for his “scholarly rigour.” Toaff was also a rabbi and the son of the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, who was, in the words of Ha’aretz, “to Italian Jewry as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.”
When the controversy first hit, Toaff’s Israeli university initially supported him, announcing: “Professor Toaff is one of the greatest scholars in his field, and we have confidence in his scientific method.” This didn’t last long.
Toaff and the university immediately came under major attacks.
After first defending his 35 years of research, Toaff quickly withdrew his book, donated the royalties to the ADL, eventually provided a somewhat mixed recantation (see below), and a year later published a revised version of the book. Toaff showed the new text ahead of time “to many rabbis both in Israel and elsewhere.”
While the text was expurgated, some reviewers report that it still contains significant revelations. The new book has not been translated from Italian into English. (An unauthorized English translation of the original book, with some commentary, is here.)
The following articles from Ha’aretz provide a window into the controversy:
Anger After Bar-Ilan Historian Suggests Blood Libels Based in FactOfri Ilany and AP
A Bar-Ilan University historian has raised a storm by alleging in a new book that some blood libels – accusations that Jews killed Christians in ritual murders to add their blood to matza and wine on Passover – may be based on real ceremonies in which the blood of Christians was actually used.
“Pasque di Sangue,” by Ariel Toaff, was just released in Italy. It shocked the country’s small Jewish community – in part because he is the son of Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi who welcomed Pope John Paul II to Rome’s synagogue two decades ago in a historic visit that helped ease Catholic-Jewish relations after centuries of tensions.
The author, who is considered an international expert on Italian Jewry, delves into allegations that resulted in torture, show trials and executions, periodically devastating Europe’s Jewish communities.
Historians have long dismissed the allegations as racism, but blood libel stories remain popular in anti-Semitic literature.
Jewish and Catholic scholars have denounced Toaff’s work, saying he simply reinterpreted known documents – and has given credence to confessions extracted under torture.
In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Toaff responded angrily to his critics, saying, “My research shows that in the Middle Ages, a group of fundamentalist Jews did not respect the biblical prohibition and used blood for healing. It is just one group of Jews, who belonged to the communities that suffered the severest persecution during the Crusades. From this trauma came a passion for revenge that in some cases led to responses, among them ritual murder of Christian children.”
Italian rabbis issued a statement recalling that Jewish law has always banned ingesting blood or using it for rituals.
Toaff’s 91-year-old father said he was looking forward to reading his son’s book and examining the documents, but stressed that according to the Torah and tradition, the consumption of animal blood was strictly prohibited, not to mention that of humans.
In an interview Friday with The Associated Press, Toaff said, “There is no proof that Jews committed such an act.” But he added that the confessions do hold some truth – as when the accused recount anti-Christian liturgies that were mainly used on Passover, when the Israelites’ liberation from ancient Egypt became a metaphor for Judaism’s hope for redemption from its suffering at the hands of Christians.
“These liturgical formulas in Hebrew cannot be projections of the judges who could not know these prayers, which didn’t belong to Italian rites but to the Ashkenazi tradition,” he said.
The 65-year-old Toaff, a rabbi who holds dual Italian and Israeli citizenship, said, “I wanted to see how the Jews felt in this climate of hatred.”
Monsignor Iginio Rogger, a church historian who in the 1960s led the investigation into the murder of a 2-year-old Simon of Trento, for which 16 Jews were hanged, said many scholars have concurred that the confessions were completely unreliable.
“I wouldn’t want to be in [Toaff’s] shoes, answering for this to historians who have seriously documented this case,” he said. “The judges used horrible tortures, to the point where the accused pleaded: ‘Tell us what you want us to say.’”
Hebrew University historian Professor Israel J. Yuval, a blood-libel expert, said, “From the information I have received, Professor Toaff’s interpretation sounds trumped-up.”
The Anti-Defamation League chairman, Abe Foxman, said, “It’s hard for me to believe that someone, especially an Israeli historian, would legitimize the baseless claims of the blood libels.”
Bar-Ilan University spokesman, Shmulik Algrabli, said, “Professor Toaff is one of the greatest scholars in his field, and we have confidence in his scientific method. The contentions of the study will be clarified when the author returns to Israel.”
[Editor’s note: Toaff answers these accusations here.]
A Ha’aretz article the next day reports a response from Toaff’s employer, Bar-Ilan University:
Bar-Ilan to Order Professor to Explain Research Behind Blood Libel Book
Ariel Toaff’s book alleges accusations of Jews using Christian blood may be based on real ceremonies.
The Associated Press and Ofri Ilan, Haaretz
Bar-Ilan University on Sunday said it would order Professor Ariel Toaff to explain the research behind his new book about the centuries-old charge that Jews killed Christians in ritual murder.
University historian Toaff has raised a storm by alleging in his book that some blood libels – accusations that Jews killed Christians in ritual murders to add their blood to matza and wine on Passover – may be based on real ceremonies in which the blood of Christians was actually used.
The university said in a statement that “Bar-Ilan University – its officers and researchers – have condemned, and condemn, any attempt to justify the awful blood libels against Jews.”
The university said that as soon as Toaff returned from a trip abroad it would ask him for explanations regarding his research, adding “until then… we should refrain from relying on baseless reports that have been denied by Prof. Toaff himself and which, apparently, lack any connection to the research itself.”
“Pasque di Sangue” was just released in Italy. It shocked the country’s small Jewish community – in part because he is the son of Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi who welcomed Pope John Paul II to Rome’s synagogue two decades ago in a historic visit that helped ease Catholic-Jewish relations after centuries of tensions…
Another article provides Toaff’s own words, defending his research and conclusions:
Bar-Ilan Professor Who Claimed Jews Used Christian Blood in Passover Ceremonies Defends His Book: ‘I Will Fight for My Truth, Even if I Am Crucified’
[This is the specific article referenced in the Miftah blog item]
The author of a book on the use of blood by Jews in Ashkenazi communities in the Middle Ages said yesterday, in the face of the furor its publication aroused, “I will not give up my devotion to the truth and academic freedom even if the world crucifies me.”
In an interview with Haaretz from Rome, Professor Ariel Toaff said he stood behind the contention of his book, “Pasque di Sangue,” just published in Italy, that there is a factual basis for some of the medieval blood libels against the Jews. However, he said he was sorry his arguments had been twisted.
“I tried to show that the Jewish world at that time was also violent, among other things because it had been hurt by Christian violence,” the Bar-Ilan history professor said. Of course I do not claim that Judaism condones murder. But within Ashkenazi Judaism there were extremist groups that could have committed such an act and justified it,” he said.
Toaff said he reached his conclusions after coming across testimony from the trial for the murder of a Christian child, Simon of Trento, in 1475, which in the past was believed to have been falsified. “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.
“Over many dozens of pages I proved the centrality of blood on Passover,” Toaff said. “Based on many sermons, I concluded that blood was used, especially by Ashkenazi Jews, and that there was a belief in the special curative powers of children’s blood. It turns out that among the remedies of Ashkenazi Jews were powders made of blood.”
Although the use of blood is prohibited by Jewish law, Toaff says he found proof of rabbinic permission to use blood, even human blood. “The rabbis permitted it both because the blood was already dried,” and because in Ashkenazi communities it was an accepted custom that took on the force of law, Toaff said. There is no proof of acts of murder, Toaff said, but there were curses and hatred of Christians, and prayers inciting to cruel vengeance against Christians. “There was always the possibility that some crazy person would do something.”
Toaff said the use of blood was common in medieval medicine. “In Germany, it became a real craze. Peddlers of medicines would sell human blood, the way you have a transfusion today. The Jews were influenced by this and did the same things.
“In one of the testimonies in the Trento trial, a peddler of sugar and blood is mentioned, who came to Venice,” Toaff says. “I went to the archives in Venice and found that there had been a man peddling sugar and blood, which were basic products in pharmacies of the period. A man named Asher of Trento was also mentioned in the trial, who had ostensibly come with a bag and sold dried blood. One of the witnesses said he was tried for alchemy in Venice and arrested there. I took a team to the archives and found documentation of the man’s trial. Thus, I found that it is not easy to discount all the testimony,” he added.
Toaff, who will be returning to Israel today, said he was very hurt by accusations that his research plays into the hands of anti-Semitic incitement. “I am being presented like the new Yigal Amir. But one shouldn’t be afraid to tell the truth.” Toaff also said, “unfortunately my research has become marginal, and only the real or false implications it might have are being related to. I directed the research at intelligent people, who know that in the Jewish world there are different streams. I believe that academia cannot avoid dealing with issues that have an emotional impact. This is the truth, and if I don’t publish it, someone else will find it and publish it.”
Still, Toaff says he is sorry he did not explain some of the points in his book more clearly.
He claims that he has been making the same arguments for a long time. “After 35 years of research, I have not become a stupid anti-Semite, and have not published a book to make money.”
In any case, Toaff says he believes his findings have current implications. “Extremists in the past brought disaster on us by false accusations. I wanted to show that hatred and incitement of this kind can develop, because there will always be someone who will take advantage of it.”
Meanwhile, Bar-Ilan University announced yesterday that its president, Professor Moshe Kaveh, will summon Toaff to explain his research. The university’s statement said it strongly objected to what was implied in media publications regarding Toaff’s research, and condemned “any attempt to justify the terrible blood libels against the Jews.” However, the university also reiterated that Toaff was among the senior lecturers in his field in Israel and internationally.
Over the weeks following, Ha’aretz produced a large number of articles about Toaff’s book and the controversy it had engendered.
On the other hand, the organization that helped sponsor Rep. Tlaib’s (canceled) trip to the Palestinian territories merely made a single reference, years ago, to the book (and this was taken down).
A year later, Professor Ariel Toaff published a new, edited version of the book:
Historian Recants Theory That Jews Killed Christian Child in Ritual Murder
Ariel Toaff caused controversy with claim that possible 15th century Jews killed youth for his blood.
A Jewish historian over the weekend published an edited version of his book on the killing of a Christian child in the Italian city of Trento in 1475, denying that the Jews implicated in the murder were in any way involved.
In the new edition, Bar-Ilan University Professor Ariel Toaff writes: “Jews were not involved in ritual murder, which was an entirely Christian stereotype.”
“There was no relationship whatsoever between the so-called ‘ritual of blood’ and ritual infanticide,” Toaff stated.
Toaff caused controversy when he wrote in his 2007 book that he did not rule out the possibility that the murder was carried out by Jews who intended to use the youth’s blood in a Passover ritual.
The remark sparked a huge backlash from Israeli and foreign historians who said his claims were unsubstantiated and demanded its immediate removal.
In response, Toaff agreed to pull the book from stores and write a new introduction that clarified his opinion that the Jews of Trento were not involved in the murder.
In his new introduction, the scholar wrote that some on the fringe of Jewish Ashkenazi society often used dried blood in religious ceremonies.
“In the rural reality of medieval Germany, Jewish households, like Christian ones, often had a vial of blood, recommended for use in diverse eventualities,” Toaff wrote.
According to Toaff, blood was often donated by living people, sometimes children, who were paid for their services. It was then dried and used in ointments and powders.
In the wake of the uproar surrounding the book’s publication, Toaff left Israel and is currently residing in Italy. His father, a revered and well-known Italian rabbi, presided over Rome’s Jewish community after World War I.
Before he published his second edition, Toaff rejected a request to change the book’s provocative title “Pasque di Sangue” (Passover of Blood), but agreed to change the illustration on the cover.
Ha’aretz articles chronicled the unfolding story:
Bar-Ilan under pressure to fire controversial author By Ofri Ilany 13.02.2007
Bar-Ilan turning aside pressure to fire author of blood libel book University says that despite ongoing controversy, it will not restrict Prof. Ariel Toaff’s academic freedom. By Ofri Ilany00:00 13.02.07
Blood-libel prof pledges book revenues to ADL By Ofri Ilany00:00 15.02.07
And if it’s not good for the Jews? By Lily Galili00:00 18.02.07
The real blood of Passover By Ronnie Po-chia Hsia00:00 18.02.07
And supposing they did drink blood? Let’s stop pushing ourselves onto the defendants’ bench like Diaspora Jews do. By Michael Pellivert00:00 20.02.07
The wayward son (quoted above)The Jewish community in Italy is struggling to understand how the son of a legendary rabbi could give credence to the blood libels. The father of Prof. Ariel Toaff, Rabbi Elio Toaff, is equally bewildered. By Adi Schwartz00:00 22.02.07
Toaff retracts claim that Jews killed Christians for Passover By Adi Schwartz00:00 26.02.07
MKs demand the author of blood libel book be prosecuted Prof. Toaff to retract claim that Jews killed Christians for their blood, made in book ‘Pasque di Sangue.’ By Ofri Ilany and Adi Schwartz00:00 26.02.07
MKs seek to try Prof. Toaff over claims in blood libel book Kadima MK Solodkin: There are grounds to indict Toaff and file civil suits for harm to the Jewish people. By Ofri Ilany00:00 27.02.07
So unwelcome in his home A member of the Toaff family got married this week. The professor did not come to the wedding. By Adi Schwartz00:00 01.03.07
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. By Adi Schwartz00:00 01.03.07
A blood-stained version of history A moment before the first edition sold out and the author, Israeli historian Ariel Toaff, decided to halt circulation, Roni Weinstein got his hands on a copy of the book. By Roni Weinstein00:00 01.03.07
Historian recants theory that Jews killed Christian child in ritual murder (quoted above) Ariel Toaff caused controversy with claim that possible 15th century Jews killed youth for his blood. By Adi Schwartz00:00 24.02.08
In addition to Ha’aretz, other Israeli newspapers carried similar news reports, e.g. the Jerusalem Post’s “HISTORIAN GIVES CREDENCE TO BLOOD LIBEL.
Toaff’s mixed recantation
While the new version is only available in Italian, Toaff has provided an English translation of a new section that he had added to the book. In this section he discusses the controversy that accompanied the book’s original publication.
He defends and explains his findings, and addresses the various criticisms of the conclusions he had drawn. Among other things, he explains in considerable detail why he feels that the confessions he quotes contain factual information despite the fact that they were acquired under torture.
He also recants his original findings, while, in some ways, repeating them.
“…First, I shall clarify that the so-called ‘ritual homicides or infanticides’ pertain to the realm of myth/ they were not rites practiced by the Jewish communities living and working in the German-speaking lands or in the North of Italy, and of which they were accused in the Middle Ages and the periods hereafter. That type of ritual murder is and always has been a slanderous stereotype.
But in the next sentence Toaff states:
Nevertheless, one cannot exclude the possibility that certain criminal acts, disguised as crude rituals, were indeed committed by extremist groups or by individuals demented by religious mania and blinded by desire for revenge against those considered responsible for their people’s sorrows and tragedies.”
He explains his goal in writing the book:
“…I intended to reconstruct and revivify the popular beliefs of mediaeval Ashkenazi Judaism: an underground world, awash with superstition and magic, and animated by visceral anti-Christianism; a world which, more or less intentionally, has until recently been left in oblivion.”
Censorship and deception
The above information, and more, has been widely available to readers of the Israeli press. Americans, who are being led incorrectly to believe that Omar and Tlaib are connected to a bigoted organization purveying offensive nonsense, deserve to know the full story.
An Italian historian complained about the banning of Toaff’s original book. “The question is not whether Toaff is right or wrong,” he wrote. The important thing is to ensure that no historian can be the object of a “fatwa,” no matter its source. “I am tired of talking about books that I could not read and will never be able to read, at least not in their original version.”
Such suppression censors potentially important information from public awareness, preventing an informed discussion. This then leads some individuals to develop an exaggerated, inaccurate belief about what was suppressed. Neither result is beneficial.
Alison Weir is executive director of If Americans Knew, president of the Council for the National Interest, and author of Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the U.S. Was Used to Create Israel.
This article draws on a wide variety of sources. Links to articles above are for purposes of information on the topic and do not imply endorsement of the writers, their websites, or their views.