The blood libel, an accusation that Jews kidnapped and killed non-Jewish children, using their blood to bake unleavened bread, or matzah, for Passover, is one of the key anti-Semitic tropes. During the seven-day Passover holiday, which ends tomorrow, Jews mark the exodus from Egypt by abstaining from eating leavened bread, or leaven in general, commemorating the fact that the Jews were in a hurry and didn’t have time to hang around for their bread to rise. The first blood libel trial in twelfth century Norwich had nothing to do with unleavened bread, though the alleged murder took place around Passover. Later, however, the use of blood in matzah was seen as “a major motivation of the crime,” according to the Dictionary of Genocide, as cited in Wikipedia.
A few months ago, while perusing my favourite newspaper archive website (yes, I do that sometimes), I came across a 19th century report of blood libel-type allegations in the Middle East. It was in the first ever issue of The Occident and American Jewish Advocate a Philadelphia-based monthly published from 1843 to the late 1860s. The publication described itself as “A Monthly Periodical Devoted to the Diffusion of Knowledge on Jewish Literature and Religion.” The Occident‘s founder, Isaac Leeser, was “the most famous leader and spokesman of traditional Judaism in Antebellum America,” according to the Historical Jewish Press website, and it was read by English-speaking Jews in various countries.
In “The Jews of the East,” an article comprised of extracts from letters by a correspondent of the World Jewish Gazette in what was then Constantinople, the reporter – aside from lamenting the “entire absence of mental progress in the Eastern Jews as a nation,” and other gems of Western European superiority – discussed a number of blood libel incidents from that time. First, they referred to the 1840 Damascus affair, when eight notable Jews were imprisoned and tortured after being accused of murdering a Christian monk. It would be a “great mistake” to regard what happened in Damascus as an “isolated occurrence,” they wrote, going on to cite two other incidents in “Central Asia” and Constantinople. Here, especially for Passover, is the text below (which I found somewhat chilling to read, tucked in there among the theoretical discussion of whether Jews should set up a colony in America, or the piece about the fifth anniversary of the “Sunday school for religious instruction of Israelites in Philadelphia”):