Blood libels are sensationalized allegations that a person or group engages in human sacrifice, often accompanied by the claim that the blood of victims is used in various rituals and/or acts of cannibalism. The alleged victims are often children.
Some of the best documented cases of blood libel focus upon accusations against Jews , but many other groups have been accused, including Christians, Cathars, Carthaginians, Knights Templar, Witches, Christian heretics, Roma, Wiccans, Druids, neopagans, and Satanists. Despite the increasing tolerance of diversity, accusations of blood libel continue to be advanced by and against various groups today. Overcoming the fears and resentments of different cultures, and developing the understanding that we are all part of one human family, is needed to dispel these notions and end such persecution.
The first blood libel recorded comes from Ancient Greece in which the Alexandrian grammarian Apion accused Jews of holding one Greek prisoner in their temple in Alexandria, feeding him until he became supple and then killing him, drinking his blood and eating his body.
There are no seriously documented cases after this until the twelfth century legend surrounding William of Norwich, first recorded in the Peterborough Chronicle. The libel afterward became an increasingly common accusation. Blood libels against the Jews were a common form of anti-Semitism during the Middle Ages. In many subsequent cases, anti-Semitic blood libels served as the basis for a blood libel cult, in which the alleged victim of human sacrifice was venerated as a Christian martyr. Many Jews were killed as a result of false blood libels, which continued into the twentieth century, with the Beilis Trial in Russia and the Kielce pogrom in Poland. Blood libel stories persist in the Arab world.
When the Christianization of Greece occurred, there was an attempt to portray all sacrifices as blood sacrifices, but contrary to ancient Christian propaganda sacrifices to the Greek gods were typically in the forms of wealth. Human blood sacrifices were illegal in Greek cities. Early Christians spread propaganda about the children of Christians being abducted and having their throats slit in various temples. Such propaganda bore similarity to blood libel accusations against Jews. Virtuvian blood sacrifices were seen by the Greek people as barbaric, and laws against them were believed to be part of what separated the Greeks from those they considered barbarians, even after Romanization occurred.
During the first and second centuries, some Roman commentators had various interpretations of the ritual of the Eucharist and related teachings. While celebrating the Eucharist, Christians drink red wine in response to the words "This is the blood of Christ." Propaganda arguing that the Christians literally drank blood based on their belief in transubstantiation was written and used to persecute Christians. Romans were highly suspicious of Christian adoptions of abandoned Roman babies and this was suggested as a possible source of the blood.
In general, the libel alleged something along these lines: a child, normally a boy who had not yet reached puberty, was kidnapped or sometimes bought and taken to a hidden place (the house of a prominent member of the Jewish community, a synagogue, a cellar, or such) where he would be kept hidden until the time of his death. Preparations for the sacrifice included the gathering of attendees from near and far and constructing or readying the instruments of torture and execution.
At the time of the sacrifice (usually night), the crowd would gather at the place of execution (in some accounts the synagogue itself) and engage in a mock tribunal to try the child. The boy would be presented to the tribunal naked and tied (sometimes gagged) at the judge's order. He would eventually be condemned to death. Many forms of torture would be inflicted during the boy's "trial," including some of those used by the Inquisition on suspects of heresy. Some of the alleged tortures were mutilation (including circumcision), piercing with needles, punching, slapping, strangulation, strappado, and whipping, while being insulted and mocked throughout.
In the end, the half-dead boy would be crowned with thorns and tied or nailed to a wooden cross. The cross would be raised and the blood dripping from the boy's wounds, particularly those on his hands, feet, and genitals, would be caught in bowls or glasses. Finally, the boy would be killed with a thrust through the heart from a spear, sword, or dagger. His dead body would be removed from the cross and concealed or disposed of, but in some instances rituals of black magic would be performed on it. This method, with some variations, can be found in all the descriptions of alleged ritual murder by Jews.
The earlier stories describe only the torture and agony of the victim and suggest that the child's death was the sole purpose of the ritual. Over time and as the libel proliferated, the focus shifted to the supposed need to collect the victim's blood for mystical purposes.
There are many possible explanations for the blood libel. Although the time frames do not match, there has always been a cannibalism taboo within Christianity, and it is feasible that the blood libel is based upon a misunderstanding of Hebraic tradition involving blood. Simple racism may be the cause, as the Jews have been persecuted for many centuries and it is customary for those who persecute to ascribe false charges against whom they are persecuting. For centuries there has been stories of creatures that drain people of blood and life energy, vampires from distant lands, and it is also possible that superstitious fears of such creatures may also have been somehow applied to the Jews.
Professor Israel Jacob Yuval of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem argued that the blood libel myth may have originated in the twelfth century from Christian views of Jewish behavior during the First Crusade. Some Jews committed suicide and killed their own children in acts of martyrdom rather than be subjected to forced conversions. (The Zealots on Masada and their reported mass suicide is perhaps the most famous example.) Yuval investigated Christian reports of these events and found that they were greatly distorted with claims that if Jews could kill their own children they could also kill Christian children. Yuval rejects the blood libel story as a Christian fantasy that was impossible due to the precarious nature of the Jewish minority's existence in Christian Europe.
Blood and sacrifice are very important in Jewish tradition, and it is perhaps that misunderstandings, either literal or unintentional, helped fuel blood libels. Animals were in fact sacrificed by ancient Jews, yet the Tanakh (Old Testament) and Jewish teaching portray human sacrifice as one of the evils that separated the pagans of Canaan from the Hebrews.(Deut 12:31, 2 Kings 16:3) Jews were prohibited from engaging in these rituals and were punished for doing so (Ex 34:15, Lev 20:2, Deut 18:12, Jer 7:31). In fact, ritual cleanliness for priests prohibited even being in the same room as a human corpse (Lev 21:11).
The kosher dietary laws, in which blood is properly drained from the animals before being consumed and covered with dirt(Lev 17:12-13) may have applied to the draining of blood from humans, but man is not considered a Kosher animal. In addition, the use of blood (human or otherwise) in cooking is prohibited by the Kosher dietary laws. According to the book of Leviticus, blood from sacrificed animals may only be placed on the altar of the Great Temple in Jerusalem (which no longer existed at the time of the Christian blood libels). And finally, the Ten Commandments in the Torah forbid murder.
Since Jews have not been the only target of blood libels (but were in fact the most frequent and wide-known) it is more probable that the accusation comes not from a misunderstanding of Judaism in general, but from the instinctual response to any religion, tradition, or culture that is alien and exotic to the observer. Frequently, anyone associated with consuming either the blood, body, or life-force of another human being is seen as evil and so blood libels are an easy vehicle to persecute a group that does not conform to the majority rule.
In many persecuted cultures, stories emerge that sometimes mix the fantastic with the real in order to provide hope to those oppressed or as metaphors for the eventual justice to come against those who persecute. One interesting off-shoot of the blood libel is the legend of Rabbi Loew and his Golem. According to the legend, the Jews in Prague were being persecuted by the Christians, who often accused them of ritually murdering children so they could use their blood to make matzah bread. Some of their persecutors even stole into the Jewish ghetto to deposit the body of a child on the street in an attempt to further incite people against them.
Rabbi Loew, always devoted to the welfare of his people, prayed for a vision to tell him how to stop these false accusations, and was told by Heaven to "make a human image of clay." The rabbi took his son-in-law and his favorite student down to the river, and formed the shape of a man from clay. They each walked around the figure seven times, reciting a Kabbalistic formula, and the golem was brought to life. The golem appeared to be a man of thirty, and the Rabbi clothed him and named him Joseph. Through the use of a talisman, the golem could appear invisible, and was sent out to stop anyone carrying a large parcel. When a person was found intending to deposit the body of a dead child in the Jewish streets, the golem would tie up the offender and the evidence, and carry both to the authorities. Once the blood libel was declared to be groundless and persecutions became forbidden, Rabbi Loew removed the breath of life from the golem by walking around the figure seven times, repeating the same words in reverse order.
There have been many blood libel accusations and trials of Jews beginning in the first century and continuing through modern times. A few of them are discussed here.
In 1171, Blois was the site of a blood libel accusation against its Jewish community that led to 31 Jews (by some accounts 40) being burned to death .
The case of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln is mentioned by Chaucer, and thus has become well known. A child of eight years, named Hugh, son of a woman named Beatrice, disappeared at Lincoln on the 31st of July. His body was discovered on the 29th of August, covered with filth, in a pit or well belonging to a Jewish man named Copin or Koppin.
On being promised by John of Lexington, a judge, who happened to be present, that his life should be spared, Copin is said to have confessed that the boy had been crucified by the Jews, who had assembled at Lincoln for that purpose. King Henry III, on reaching Lincoln some five weeks afterward, at the beginning of October, refused to carry out the promise of John of Lexington, and had Copin executed and ninety-one of the Jews of Lincoln seized and sent up to London, where eighteen of them were executed. The rest were pardoned at the intercession of the Franciscans.
Christopher of Toledo, also known as Christopher of La Guardia or "the Holy Child of La Guardia," was a four-year-old Christian boy supposedly murdered by two Jews and three Conversos (converts to Christianity). In total, eight men were executed. It is now believed that this case was constructed by the Spanish Inquisition to facilitate the expulsion of Jews from Spain. He was canonized by Pope Pius VII in 1805. Christopher has since been removed from the canon, though once again, a handful of individuals still claim the validity of this case.
The only child-saint in the Russian Orthodox Church is the six year old boy Gavriil Belostoksky from the village Zverki. According to the legend supported by the church, the boy was kidnapped from his home during the holiday of Passover while his parents were away. Shutko, a Jew from Białystok, was accused in bringing the boy to Białystok, poking him with sharp objects and draining his blood for nine days, then bringing the body back to Zverki and dumping at a local field. A cult developed, and the boy was canonized in 1820. His relics are still the object of pilgrimage.
On April 1, 1882, Eszter Solymosi, a 14-year-old Christian peasant girl who was a servant in the home of András Huri in Tiszaeszlár, a Hungarian village situated on the Tisza river, was sent on an errand from which she did not return. After a fruitless search, a rumor was circulated that the girl had become a victim of Jewish religious fanaticism. Hungarian agitators, whose leaders, Géza Ónody, representative of Tiszaeszlár in the Hungarian Parliament, and Győző Istóczy, MP, who later founded the Antisemitic Party, had proposed the expulsion of the Jews in the House of Deputies, excited the public against the local Jews, resulting in a number of violent acts and pogroms. They spread the charge that the Jews had killed the girl in order to use her blood at the approaching Passover (April 4). On May 4 her mother accused the Jews before the local judge of having murdered her daughter. A corrupt investigation followed, in which Jews were coerced and threatened into admitting guilt, which set off a wave of anti-semitism in Hungary for decades.
In a similar case, Leo Frank, a Jewish manager at a local pencil factory was accused of raping and killing 12-year-old Mary Phagan. Though he was never accused of using her blood in any kind of ritual, there was a consistent yellow journalism campaign to portray Frank as a pervert and a sadist. After he was pardoned by the governor in 1915 Frank was lynched by a group calling themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan, which would become the kernel of a revived Ku Klux Klan. The Leo Frank lynching was also related to racist tensions and policies in Georgia, as many other people had been lynched there.
The Kielce pogrom against Holocaust survivors in Poland was sparked by an accusation of blood libel. The fundamental motivation for the Kielce pogrom, however, was that Jewish survivors of the Holocaust had returned to reclaim their land and property, which their Polish neighbors had stolen. The Poles would not relinquish their stolen goods and instead murdered the Jews.
Accusations of ritual murder are being advanced by different groups to this day. One stated that physicians in the People's Republic of China who perform abortions consider the fetus a delicacy and eat it. The story, reported from Hong Kong by Bruce Gilley, was investigated by Senator Jesse Helms, and gruesome artwork reminiscent of traditional depictions of blood libel was featured in several anti-abortion campaigns. Eventually the story was proven to be false.
Another contemporary blood libel in the United States alleged, falsely, that both neopagans and Satanists used human blood, sexual abuse, or ritual murder, especially of children, in their rituals. Often Satanism, all of the diverse neopagan religions, the role playing game Dungeons & Dragons, and sometimes Roman Catholicism and liberal or non-fundamentalist Christian denominations, are portrayed as expressions of one monolithic and ancient global conspiracy of Satan-worshipers.
Blood libel stories have appeared a number of times in the state-sponsored media of a number of Arab and Muslim nations, their television shows and websites. Books alleging occurrences of Jewish blood libel are not uncommon. The Matzah Of Zion was written by the Syrian Defense Minister, Mustafa Tlass in 1986. The book concentrates on two issues: renewed ritual murder accusations against the Jews in the Damascus affair of 1840, and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Multiple branches of the Syrian government, including the Damascus Police Command and the Department of Antiquities and Museums, the security ministry, the culture ministry, created an anti-Semitic television TV series called Ash-Shatat ("The Diaspora".) This series originally aired in Syria and in Lebanon late 2003, and was broadcast by Al-Manar, a satellite television network owned by Hezbollah. This television series is based on the anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, showing the Jewish people as engaging in a conspiracy to rule the world, and presents Jews as people who murder Christian children, drain their blood, and use this blood to bake matzah.
King Faisal of Saudi Arabia made accusations against Parisian Jews which took the nature of a blood libel. In a twist on the libel of Jews using blood in matzah, a Passover food, in 2002, a Saudi newspaper  claimed that Jews use blood in homentashn, triangular cookies eaten on the Jewish holiday of Purim. The story celebrated on Purim, recounted in the Book of Esther, takes place in ancient Persia (modern-day Iran). A 2004 story from Iran speaks of Jewish doctors stealing organs of Palestinian children in Israeli hospitals.
It should be noted that some Arab writers have condemned these blood libels. The Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram published a series of articles by Osam Al-Baz, a senior advisor to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Amongst other things, Osam Al-Baz explained the origins of the anti-Jewish blood libel. He said that Arabs and Muslims have never been anti-Semitic, as a group, but accepted that a few Arab writers and media figures attack Jews "on the basis of the racist fallacies and myths that originated in Europe." He urged people not to succumb to "myths" such as the blood libel.
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