How can educated, functional adults swallow venomous and fantastical narratives about their neighbors and compatriots? Five years ago that question might have seemed quaint; widespread belief in demon-worshiping sects or malevolent secret societies presumably belonged to the pre-Enlightenment past. Today many of us are asking it on a regular basis. A daunting number of people living otherwise seemingly normal lives, including public figures in positions of power, are embracing toxic and bizarre claims—that political elites are members of a satanic pedophile cult; that cabals employ space lasers to spark fires; that a coalition of Jews, feminists, and minorities is seeking to “replace” white populations through immigration or manipulated birth rates; even that lizard people are taking over the planet.
Explaining the apparently sudden explosion of irrational conspiracy theories has become something of a cottage industry as journalists, philosophers, and political scientists look for answers in rising inequality, changing demographics, and new communication technologies. But though such trends have contributed to the proliferation of political paranoia, conspiracy theorizing cannot be fully pinned on recent crises any more than it can be relegated to the Dark Ages. The long continuities underlying present fantasies are perhaps most powerfully demonstrated by the nefarious controlling role all too frequently assigned to Jews, whether George Soros, the Rothschilds, or the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society: disturbing echoes of centuries-old anti-Semitic allegations that found their fullest destructive force in the twentieth century.
Two recent, very different books on the most virulent of all anti-Semitic slanders—the claim that Jews murder Christian children for ritual purposes—offer insights into the persistence of dangerous delusions. Magda Teter’s Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth is a five-hundred-plus-page magnum opus that traces the ritual murder charge (as well as its relative, the blood libel, which holds that Jews need Christian blood for Passover rites) over seven centuries of European history, from around 1150 to around 1800. Edward Berenson’s The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town is a more compact exploration of a little-known episode closer to home: a short-lived but chilling twentieth-century evocation of the blood libel in upstate New York. Both books make only brief reference to recent events, yet resonances with current concerns are inescapable. Together, the two works suggest that in any era truth sits on a precarious perch, and that a slight shift in political or social winds can send reason and fact toppling into a conspiratorial void.
Blood Libel opens with the earliest recorded ritual murder accusation against Jews, in twelfth-century England. Teter draws from her examination of this and subsequent medieval and early modern episodes an important, and to many readers likely surprising, conclusion: though the blood libel and ritual murder charges were born in the Middle Ages, they did not flourish until after the period had ended. The myth spread not in spite of modern “progress” but because of it: the dominant themes of Blood Libel are the parts played in the deployment of the libel by print technology, new forms of archival and legal “evidence,” and political transformations that eroded Jews’ traditional protections.
The first ritual murder charge was spurred by the death of a twelve-year-old boy named William in Norwich, England, in the week before Easter, 1144.1 Making use of the best recent scholarship, Teter, a professor of history and Judaic studies at Fordham University, provides a clear and persuasive account of this complex and often misunderstood affair.
Although the tragedy was real enough—William’s body, showing signs of violence and found in the woods just outside of town, intimated a violent and painful end—the boy’s demise initially seemed to spark little concern beyond his immediate family. After William’s death, however, his uncle, a priest, appeared before a meeting of clerics to accuse “the Jews” of the murder. His reasons for blaming Jews are unknown; he offered no explanation or evidence, and the accusation found little traction. There was no popular anti-Jewish outcry, and no actions of any kind, legal or extralegal, were taken against Norwich Jews. This may be because, like all English Jewish settlements, the small but commercially important Norwich community enjoyed a special relationship with the king, paying him direct taxes in exchange for a degree of legal autonomy, royal enforcement of Jews’ business contracts, and physical protection.
But it is also possible that Norwich Christians simply did not find the charge convincing. There was no prior history of anti-Jewish hostilities in Norwich (or anywhere in England, for that matter), and Jewish-Christian relations seemed to be civil and even on occasion cordial, if not intimate. Jews, who constituted perhaps 4 percent of Norwich’s population of about five thousand, lived in the center of town, sharing streets and apartment buildings with Christians, with whom they inevitably had many business and presumably personal contacts. William himself had reportedly worked for Jewish employers.
But in 1150, several years after William’s death, a monk called Thomas of Monmouth, newly arrived in Norwich, decided to take up the uncle’s cause. His goal evidently was to create a saint’s cult that would attract pilgrims to his priory. Thomas insisted that the boy was a martyr worthy of veneration, lobbied the bishop to move his body from the cemetery where it had been buried to a more prominent position in the cathedral, and began to compose an account of William’s life, death, and posthumous miracles. This work, The Life and Passion of William of Norwich, took between fifteen and twenty years to complete, reaching its final form sometime after 1170.
The Life and Passion of William of Norwich is a strange text, mixing local gossip with echoes of hagiography and the Gospels. Though Thomas did what he could to vaunt the purity and piety of his common-born and apparently unremarkable hero, with a flair for the dramatic he allotted the real starring role not to the victim but to the putative villains, the Jews. The text lingers on their cruelty and enmity, and presents the murder as a ritualistic reenactment of their alleged killing of Christ, complete with a conspiracy of Jewish elders, a “traitor” who consigns the victim to death for money, sadistic forms of mockery, and torture, all culminating in a crucifixion.
Teter, following the scholar John McCulloh,2 points out that for all its biblical resonances, The Life and Passion of William of Norwich was in many ways “a treatise against doubt.” There was no precedent for the ritual murder charge, and few people seem to have been swayed. Thomas consequently worked hard to make his claims stick, scolding those who were skeptical of William’s sanctity, refuting those who doubted the Jews’ culpability, and rationalizing details that deviated from the Gospel descriptions of Christ’s Passion. In fact, though a local cult of William did develop, and rumors about the ritual crucifixion of a Norwich boy trickled through monastic circles in England and on the Continent, Thomas’s efforts had limited success. William was never canonized. No Jews were prosecuted for his murder (nor was anyone else). The treatise itself seems to have had little if any circulation.
The basic narrative and main themes of the ritual murder charge did find wider purchase, however. The moment was ripe for a tale of persecuted innocence: in the twelfth century a new form of Christian piety was spreading across Western Europe, which emphasized Christ’s vulnerability and humanity and called for compassion for the weak and suffering. Writers and artists created elaborate narratives itemizing the agonies inflicted on Christ and the apostles.
A concomitant effect of this trend was to generate rage against those responsible for Christ’s Passion. Miracle collections began to feature tales in which Jews, driven by their hatred for Christ and Christianity, abused crucifixes or slaughtered Christian children. New elements were added in the thirteenth century, most notably assertions that Jews used their victims’ blood for ritual purposes (usually as an ingredient in Passover matzah)—a touch probably inspired by the growing centrality of the Eucharist in Christian thought and practice.3
Most of these tales were told for entertainment and edification, set in distant lands or long-gone days, and had little real-world effect. But they also inspired anti-Jewish criminal accusations. The outcomes of the dozen-plus medieval ritual murder charges varied widely, from disbelief or indifference to an expulsion (from the Île-de-France in 1182) to massacres, both judicial and extrajudicial (in Blois in 1171, in the central German town of Fulda in 1235, in Lincoln in 1255, and in the Rhineland in 1287).
Though the recurrence of such charges across England and the Continent provides obvious evidence that rumors of Jewish ritual murder traveled widely, and though they undoubtedly caused many Jews considerable suffering, Teter argues that the libels did not significantly alter the balance of Jewish existence in medieval Christendom. Christian theology, which enjoined the toleration of Jews within Christendom, and medieval political traditions, whereby Jewish communities were directly subject to and safeguarded (as well as exploited) by rulers, held firm.
With a few exceptions, Jews’ appeals to authorities elicited strong protections, including from the Holy Roman emperor and the pope; both issued decrees refuting the blood libel, noting that Jewish dietary laws banned the eating or drinking even of animal blood, and forbidding its repetition. Attempts to launch cults to presumed martyrs were discouraged. Overall, Teter highlights the extent to which “Jews were able to rely on the known legal and political landscape shaped by medieval law”—an important contribution to scholarship on the ritual murder charge in the Middle Ages.
The event that would fatally rock this equilibrium was the first blood libel to transcend local importance—the alleged murder of a three-year-old boy named Simon in the northern Italian city of Trent in 1475. Anti-Jewish rumors circulated as soon as the toddler was reported missing (on the Thursday before Easter) and even before a body had been found. When Simon’s body was discovered on Easter Sunday in the water conduit underneath the house of one of Trent’s three Jewish families, eight Jewish men were immediately arrested; more arrests ensued. Had the episode followed the pattern established in the preceding centuries, Simon’s death could have ended with the quashing of the charges, the acquittal of the Jews, or the execution of some or even most Jewish community members, but it would have remained a painful but obscure affair without further repercussions.
The prince-bishop of Trent, however, a man named Johannes Hinderbach, had both motive and means to turn the episode into a cause célèbre. Hinderbach was a newcomer to Trent, a German-speaking subject of the Holy Roman emperor whose election to the bishopric had been opposed by the Italian pope. Realizing the boost to Trent’s stature and his own influence that a successful cult of Simonino (“Little Simon”) could provide (and perhaps relishing the problems it would cause the pope, given the traditional papal protection of the Jews), Hinderbach lost no time in inflaming passions. He ordered his substantial staff to collect, document, and notarize reports of “miracles” worked by Simon, and he commissioned his physician to write an account of the “murder” even before the interrogation of the Jews had ended. This account, whose stated goal was to eliminate Jews “from the whole Christian world,” constructed a highly imaginative report of the kidnapping, circumcision, and crucifixion of Simon. It also included descriptions of the torture sessions to which the Jews were subjected, in which they begged to be told what they should confess to.
The physician’s work became the foundation for a “multimedia campaign” orchestrated by Bishop Hinderbach, which included poems about and woodcuts of the ostensible torture and crucifixion of Little Simon. This campaign had considerable success. Challenges to the legality of the trial lodged by the duke of Tyrol (the overlord of both Bishop Hinderbach and the small Trent Jewish community) and by Pope Sixtus IV met resistance from Hinderbach’s allies and the residents of Trent. Trentine authorities produced a voluminous documentary record, tailored (in some cases forged) to defend Hinderbach’s actions and show that the trial satisfied exacting legal requirements. The Jewish men were executed, the women and children coerced into converting to Christianity. The pope was eventually forced to clear the bishop of wrongdoing and concede the legitimacy of the legal proceedings against the Jews.
Most importantly, as a result of Hinderbach’s propaganda almost all of Europe heard about the “martyrdom” of Simonino. Blood Libel is largely devoted to tracking the tale’s spread; its signal achievement is to explain how a rapidly modernizing Europe came to accept a horrific medieval fantasy. With the dogged persistence of a detective committed to seeing justice done, Teter painstakingly follows what she calls the libel’s “memory trail” across the Continent over the next three centuries.
This trail was chiefly paved with books. The Trent case occurred just a few decades after the invention of printing, and the medium was fully exploited by promoters of Simonino’s cult. The boy’s “martyrdom” made its way into a late-medieval best seller, a World Chronicle, published in Nuremberg in 1493 and reprinted many times in both Latin and German. By Teter’s count, no fewer than thirty-three published versions of the Trent case were in circulation by 1500, as well as innumerable printed images of the “martyred” boy, most based on Bishop Hinderbach’s broadsheets.
The authority accorded the new technology was such that, as Teter puts it, “rumors and lore became ‘facts’ once they entered reputable printed books.” Simon’s fame, moreover, stimulated interest in earlier presumed ritual murder victims (including William of Norwich), whose long-forgotten stories were exhumed and published, and whose images were remade in Simonino’s likeness.
But technology alone does not provide a full explanation. Teter’s analysis extends beyond print culture, as she traces the ways “knowledge” enshrined in printed histories was received and mobilized in different regions and periods, depending on political, social, and intellectual circumstances.
In German-speaking lands, accusations of ritual murder and the blood libel spiked in the decades immediately after the Trent case but subsided in the later sixteenth century. Teter attributes this decline to debates between Protestants and Catholics over biblical interpretation and proper Christian ritual. These debates initiated intensive scholarly study of Hebrew texts—a kind of ethnographic project that provided reliable information about Jewish practice. Familiarity with Judaism did not by any means erase anti-Semitism—the scholars’ purpose was to highlight the “strangeness” of Judaism and provide tools for converting Jews, and many themselves harbored anti-Jewish prejudices—but it did serve to undermine myths of Jews’ use of Christian blood.
In Italy, interest in the Trent case waned quickly, only to revive after 1583, when Simon’s feast day was inserted into the newly revised Catholic calendar of martyrs, probably at the instigation of the then bishop of Trent. Pope Sixtus V soon authorized a liturgy in Simon’s name. New images of the “Blessed Simon” were circulated, and new versions of the myth appeared, some in the form of “scientific” accounts of the Trent affair, based firmly (if selectively) on archival evidence and all carrying the apparent imprimatur of the papacy.
But this revival did not spark anti-Jewish allegations in Italian territories. The revitalized cult focused almost exclusively on Simonino’s sanctity; images showed the beatified boy triumphant in heaven, with no torture or tormenters. A renewed push to convert Jews in Italy, while deeply critical of the Jewish religion, eschewed polemics about Jewish “crimes” as counterproductive.
In Eastern Europe, however, the revival of Simon’s cult had pernicious effects. Because the Reformation did not take hold, Teter notes, there was less debate about Church ritual and so no flowering of Christian Hebraism in Catholic Poland. Polish scholars seeking to learn about Judeo-Christian history consulted neither Hebrew books nor the substantial Jewish communities in their midst. Rather, they translated recently published Latin and German chronicles, many of which recorded the blood libel. These sources were supplemented with “information” about and images of Simonino brought home from Italy by Polish pilgrims who passed through Trent on their way to Rome. Polish clerics found they could discourage Jewish-Christian contacts—and rally popular support for the Church—by employing anti-Jewish rhetoric and highlighting tales of Jewish cruelties, including ritual murder.
Little wonder that accusations followed. Ritual murder charges would plague Jews in Poland-Lithuania for more than two hundred years. In what Teter calls a “feedback loop,” prosecutors cited medieval chronicle narratives of alleged ritual murders as proof that Jews did commit such crimes; these early modern prosecutions were then cited as evidence in later accusations.
Polish Jewish communities were not passive in the face of the allegations. As Jews had throughout the Middle Ages, they (and their few defenders) responded to each charge with arguments citing the strong prohibitions against consuming blood in Jewish dietary law and denunciations of the libel by medieval popes. But they were hampered in their efforts by the silence of the contemporary papacy, which had not formally repudiated the blood libel since 1540 and had implicitly accepted it with the approval of a liturgy for Simon. In 1751 papal endorsement was extended to yet another putative ritual murder victim, when the supposedly enlightened Pope Benedict XIV, a scholar who condemned slavery and admired Montesquieu, granted a mass and office to a boy who had died centuries earlier.
Finally, in 1756 another accusation prompted Polish Jews to appeal directly to the Holy See to condemn the libel. This supplication resulted in an extensive report, written by Cardinal Lorenzo Ganganelli, which labeled as false the charge that Jews killed Christian children to obtain their blood. The report was never published, however; its conclusions were potentially embarrassing to a papacy that had recently sanctioned cults to boys allegedly martyred by Jews. The document remained hidden in the archives of the Inquisition until the nineteenth century and did little to stem ritual murder prosecutions, which continued for another few decades.
Teter proffers several reasons for the eventual waning of the accusations in Poland toward the end of the eighteenth century. Judicial reforms discredited confessions extracted through torture. The king of Poland, seeking to counter the image of his country as “backward,” condemned the ritual murder libel as a “medieval superstition.” Some clerics joined this chorus, but by and large the Church played little part in quashing the blood libel.
Although Teter ends her account with the Polish reforms, this was not, as she notes, the end of the ritual murder charge or the blood libel. It resurfaced in rumor, texts, or trials all too many times in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in Russian lands, Damascus, and most notoriously Nazi Germany. Indeed, it persists to this day. In April 2019 the manifesto of the gunman who attacked a synagogue in Poway, California, killing one person and injuring several more, declared, “You are not forgotten Simon of Trent, the horror that you and countless children have endured at the hands of the Jews will never be forgiven.”
Blood Libel is not an easy read. It delves deeply into early modern publishing history, moves forward and back in time, and recounts behind-the-scenes politicking and legal wrangling at considerable length. Its subject matter is painful. But it is a tour de force of historical research, reconstruction, and analysis that casts new light on well-known stories and unearths episodes almost entirely forgotten.
Readers depressed by Teter’s disturbing material, or overwhelmed by the vastness of her canvas, might turn in some relief to The Accusation, which investigates a single, transient episode. Its story, disquieting but blessed with a happy ending, is quickly told. On Saturday, September 22, 1928, in Massena, New York, just south of the Canadian border, a four-year-old girl wandered into the woods looking for her older brother. The girl, Barbara, did not return by dinnertime and a search was launched, eventually involving the state police and three hundred town residents.
At some point in the evening, as the search was still ongoing, someone suggested that Barbara might have been kidnapped and ritually murdered by Jews. (About twenty Jewish families resided in Massena.) Rumors circulated, and the morning after Barbara disappeared the mayor and the ranking state trooper went so far as to summon Massena’s sole rabbi to the town hall to ask if Jews offered human sacrifices. The rabbi reproached the mayor and the policeman for entertaining such a “foolish, ridiculous and contemptible question,” at which point the officials shamefacedly insisted that a “foreigner” had raised the possibility.
The president of Massena’s synagogue alerted Louis Marshall, the president of the American Jewish Committee, and Rabbi Stephen Wise, head of the American Jewish Congress. But the next afternoon Barbara was found, tired and disheveled but healthy, and it became clear that she had simply lost her way. Although sensationalist coverage in national and local newspapers lasted for another week, and Marshall and Wise worked to obtain apologies for somewhat longer, the episode essentially ended there.
Though the accusation died quickly, the fact that it was even aired in the twentieth-century United States is startling enough, prompting the question that motivates Berenson’s book: How could such a thing have happened here? In attempting to answer it, Berenson, a professor of modern French history at NYU, reaches out in several directions, exploring the history of the blood libel, the economy and demographics of Massena, American anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant agitation, and the presidential election of 1928.
The most original and engaging sections of The Accusation are those with the tightest focus. Berenson, who was born in Massena, is able to offer something of an insider’s tour of the town, sharing family memories of the case and photographs from the era and sketching a textured portrait of Barbara’s hometown. A village of about 10,000, Massena was largely white, Protestant, and agricultural until 1902, when a canal along the St. Lawrence River brought an aluminum smelting plant and immigrant laborers from Eastern and Southern Europe. A handful of Jews arrived as well, most of whom opened small shops. Berenson sees this dynamic—the intersection of native-born, mostly Protestant farmers, foreign-born (mostly Catholic) factory workers, and recently settled Jewish tradesmen—as central to the sprouting of the blood libel on soil where it had never taken root.
Four succeeding chapters address the historical and geographical background. An overview of medieval and early modern blood libels, which skims over material covered in greater depth by Teter, is followed by a synopsis of modern European accusations. In summarizing this history, Berenson deploys the concept of “social knowledge,” whereby a deep well of beliefs regarding ritual murder existed in European culture, which at moments of crisis or social strain “bubbled back to the surface,” to be exploited by opportunistic clergymen, journalists, and politicians. This rather organic characterization of the process seems fair but incomplete, and less satisfying than Teter’s careful investigation into specific and identifiable agents and modes of transmission.
Berenson then examines the immigrant communities in Massena, noting that the town’s industrial workers came from places where social knowledge of the ritual murder accusation was strongest—Germany, Austria-Hungary, Greece, Romania, and also Canada, which saw a surge in anti-Semitism in the 1910s and 1920s. This diverse demographic underlies the claim of the state police officer that the ritual murder accusation had first been raised by a “foreigner.” Yet, as Berenson proceeds to note in a chapter surveying American anti-Semitism, resentment and suspicion of Jews were by no means absent from the US in the early twentieth century.
Anti-Semitism was pronounced among Populist opponents of the gold standard in the 1890s, anti-internationalists during World War I, and racist and anti-immigration agitators in the 1920s. But ritual murder was not a component of American anti-Semitic rhetoric, even at the trial of Leo Frank, a Jewish man accused of killing a Christian girl in Atlanta in 1913 and lynched two years later. This prompts Berenson to diagnose “a general American immunity to the blood libel.”
The final setting in which Berenson places the Massena affair is the presidential election of 1928. Its relevant features are the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant rhetoric directed against the campaign of Al Smith, the progressive Catholic governor of New York, who had several high-profile Jewish aides and supporters. Berenson notes that the registered voters of Massena, mostly native-born Protestants, overwhelmingly supported Smith’s Republican opponent, Herbert Hoover, who, while waging a gentlemanly campaign, was slow to disavow the bigotry of his followers.
Having established what amounts to a list of suspects, Berenson returns to the Massena affair. But in the absence of evidence beyond the state trooper’s claim that a “foreigner” mentioned ritual murder, he can offer only hesitant suggestions about the culprit. Though Berenson notes that members of Massena’s fire department (who helped search for Barbara) probably belonged to the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, which that spring had burned crosses behind Massena’s Jewish-owned department store, he seems inclined to ascribe the rumor to either French-Canadian or Eastern European immigrants. This is possible, maybe even likely. But Berenson is perhaps too ready to accept this shifting of blame onto “foreigners,” on the assumption that the native-born Massenans would never have heard of the blood libel.
Teter has demonstrated the extent to which the libel spread via printed works. A range of sources, from history books to Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale,” could have introduced Massenans to the myth. But one could also learn of the libel without opening a book. A quick scan of The New York Times’s archive reveals that the paper dedicated significant coverage to European ritual murder charges in the 1910s and 1920s. Just two days before Barbara’s disappearance, a Times headline screamed, “ANTI-JEWISH AGITATION IS LAID TO HUNGARIANS : Yugoslav Authorities Doubt if Originators of Ritual Murder Rumors Can Be Caught.”
None of this clarifies who in Massena first aired the ritual murder charge. But it does suggest that we should be cautious about labeling the libel a foreign import. Marshall and Wise, the Jewish leaders who intervened in the affair and whose actions are examined in Berenson’s last chapter, did not focus their attention on Massena’s immigrant community. Instead they directed their efforts toward town and state elites, writing an outraged letter to The New York Times, prodding Governor Smith to condemn the actions of the mayor and the state police officer (which he quickly did), and working vigorously to extract a public apology from the former and the dismissal of the latter.
The strange, intense, and short-lived story told in The Accusation seems ideal for a microhistorical investigation that aims to illuminate the general through the particular. In the end, however, the book is oddly unsatisfying. The motivations and feelings of the main players—the mayor, the state trooper, the anonymous searchers who circulated the rumor, the townspeople who may or may not have gathered threateningly around the rabbi as he walked to the town hall—remain opaque. Perhaps it is unfair to fault Berenson for this; people’s motivations are often unclear even to them.
But as Blood Libel demonstrates, what people read and what they hear from their leaders can shape what they believe. Though Berenson relates the general history of the blood libel and American anti-Semitism, he does not tell us how this history affected the Massena case. More information about the town’s intellectual and political culture, library holdings, school clubs and curriculum, and church leaders, as well as the ideology and orientation of its newspaper and the pressing issues debated among local politicians and civic groups, might have shed light on why town officials and residents entertained such a horrific accusation, albeit briefly.
Different as these two books are, they offer similar lessons. Both demonstrate how readily misinformation can triumph over experience. Whether in fifteenth-century Italy, eighteenth-century Poland, or twentieth-century New York, living near and personally knowing Jews did not stop Christians from believing preposterous anti-Jewish slanders. But the triumph of myth is not automatic or inevitable; few people believed the ritual murder charge in twelfth-century Norwich, largely because they had never heard it before. The well of gullibility has to be primed through frequent repetition, especially with the backing of seemingly authoritative sources. As Teter notes, the blood libel is a classic example of confirmation bias: Christians trained by centuries of sermons, narratives, and the liturgy to fear and suspect Jews embraced the statements they agreed with and ignored or rejected opposing ones.
A related observation is that “enlightenment” and “progress” offer little bulwark against irrational hatred. The ritual murder charge and the blood libel cannot be dismissed as simply the superstitious fever dreams of ignorant masses. In early modern Europe, scholarship and “modern” rules of evidence, far from eradicating the myths, were used to confirm it. From the fifteenth through the eighteenth century, wherever the ritual murder charge was pursued, it was facilitated by texts produced or cited by educated elites. The modern world proved little more resistant to the myth. Leo Frank may not explicitly have been accused of ritual murder, but the libel surely undergirded his baseless prosecution and subsequent lynching. The Nazi paper Der Stürmer dedicated a special issue to the ritual murder charge in 1934; in that same year two German Nobel laureates in physics published an article entitled “National Socialism and Science,” which criticized Einstein’s theory of relativity and extolled Aryans’ alleged “respect for facts and aptitude for exact observation.”
The most important insight to be gleaned from Blood Libel and The Accusation is the difference that individuals can make. As Teter notes in her epilogue, whether a rumor turned into an accusation or an accusation into persecution depended largely on the actions of leaders. Two of the most notorious Polish ritual murder trials, near the turn of the eighteenth century, were driven by one man, a priest named Stefan Żuchowski. But in Verona in 1603, a Jew accused of ritual murder was released when officials declared the charge to be “vain and false.” In the Massena case, the forceful statement issued by Governor Smith and the apology swiftly elicited from the mayor surely helped forestall any anti-Jewish agitation.
These two histories offer both hope and a warning. Hatred, either of neighbors or strangers, is not inevitable. With responsible leadership, misinformation can be countered and inflammatory rumors can be defused. But in a year when crowds waving the QAnon flag invaded the US Capitol and a person alleging that Hillary Clinton committed satanic child murder is seated in Congress, how can we rely on an American immunity to the blood libel, or confidently say, “It can’t happen here”?
September 23, 2021
Conceiving the Future
The Well-Blown Mind
See Eamon Duffy, “The First Blood Libel Against the Jews,” The New York Review, October 27, 2016. ↩
John M. McCulloh, “Jewish Ritual Murder: William of Norwich, Thomas of Monmouth, and the Early Dissemination of the Myth,” Speculum, Vol. 72, No. 3 (July 1997). ↩
See Stephen Greenblatt, “Witness to a Mystery,” The New York Review, June 11, 2020. ↩