The Myth of Ritual Murder: Jews and Magic in Reformation Germany
Virtually every reasonably well integrated community requires a scapegoat who is in some sense an outsider; without his services, the miseries and accidents of life would have to be blamed on a member of that community, with sadly disruptive consequences. In Europe, and more especially in Central Europe, that role was for centuries filled by the Jews: they moved into it with the revival of Christianity during the twelfth century, and they played it out in the revival of barbarism during the twentieth. Of course, they suited it exceptionally well. Found in every town but everywhere unassimilable, living in a separation that reflected both choice and imposition, distinctive in dress and behavior, both mysterious and familiar, they slotted easily into the position of the dangerous outsider, rampant within the community of insiders.
Their wealth, real as well as imagined, was supposedly gained from wicked practices barred to good Christians. Their own gloomy addiction to magical dreams and to demonology—the cabala is full of devils—seemed to confirm their essential malice and power to do harm. (Dr. Hsia briefly introduces also a leading light of beneficent magic, Rabbi Loew of Prague, maker of the Golem and allegedly one of my ancestors; why he insists on misspelling the name as “Leow” remains a mystery.) Above all, this alien body of people had known the Christian God before anyone else did but had, so the Church maintained, rejected him: they had killed Christ and therefore deserved both unending suspicion and frequent punishment. Thus the universal desire for a scapegoat was given specific direction by the passions of a faith supposedly dedicated to the Prince of Peace. No one, incidentally, seems ever to have reminded Christian Europe that Jesus could not have taken the sins of the world upon himself by suffering unless someone made sure of his execution. Should the Church not have been grateful to the Jews (if indeed they were guilty of the death of Christ) for giving the Christian religion its start in life? Well, there is no accounting for ingratitude, and things do not work out like that in religion.
Admittedly, this attitude to the Jews was not universally found throughout medieval Europe but became the preserve largely of German and Slavic lands. England was saved from the poison of endemic anti-Semitism by the very early decision (1290) to expel all Jews from the realm; the ones that by stages drifted back, even before Puritan respect for the Old Testament opened the realm once more to Jews in the days of Oliver Cromwell, seem never to have encountered anything like their Central European experience. Indeed, a few scattered Jews would not have served well as scapegoats. Anti-Semitism in England has always been of the kind familiar in the United States, but much less noisy and widespread.
France, after relative immunity for centuries, at the end of the nineteenth century somehow managed to pick up Central European attitudes, with the national church’s energetic assistance. Italy, on the other hand, pretty…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.