Historian's study of 'blood libel' angers fellow Jews
Italian-Israeli historian suggests some ritual murders of Christians might have really been committed by Ashkenazi Jews seeking revenge for massacres; professor's university says it has 'always condemned any attempt to justify the awful blood libels against the Jewish people'
In a statement released Sunday, Bar-Ilan University said it had "severe reservations" concerning news reports surrounding Professor Ariel Toaff's research. Stressing that the university had not yet seen Toaff's book, the statement said that the university's "senior officials and researchers condemned in the past and condemn today any attempt to justify the awful blood libels against the Jewish people."
The university said it had not been in contact with Toaff since the book's publication in Italy on Thursday and that on his return to Israel, the professor would be summoned to a meeting with the university's president, Professor Moshe Kaveh, to explain his research. Until then, the statement continued, the university would not comment on the book.
Toaff's work, "Pasque di Sangue" - Bloody Passovers - just released in Italy, shocked the country's small Jewish community - in part because he is the son of Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi who welcomed the late pope John Paul II to Rome's synagogue two decades ago in an historic visit that helped ease Roman Catholic-Jewish relations after centuries of tension.
The author, who teaches medieval and Renaissance history at Bar-Ilan University delves into the charge Jews added the blood of Christian children to wine and unleavened bread for Passover - allegations that resulted in torture, show trials and executions, periodically devastating Europe's Jewish communities over the years.
Historians have long disputed the medieval allegations, dismissing them as racism. But "blood libel" stories remain popular in anti-Jewish literature today.
In his book Toaff cites confessions from Jews accused of ritual murder to expose what he claims was a body of anti-Christian literature, prayers and rites among Jewish communities of central Europe.
Jewish and Roman Catholic scholars have denounced Toaff's work, saying he simply reinterpreted known documents - and has given credence to confessions that were extracted under torture.
'Nothing in Jewish religion allows such activity'
In interviews with the Italian news media and in parts of his book, Toaff has suggested some ritual murders might have really taken place, committed by Ashkenazi Jews seeking revenge for massacres, forced conversions and persecutions suffered by German Jews from the First Crusade of 1096 onwards.
Such acts were "instinctive, visceral, virulent actions and reactions, in which innocent and unknowing children became victims of the love of God and of vengeance," Toaff wrote in the book's preface.
"Their blood bathed the altars of a God who, it was believed, needed to be guided, sometimes impatiently pushed to protect and to punish."
Fearing the book would fuel anti-Semitism, Italy's Jewish community has condemned the work. Italian rabbis issued a statement recalling Jewish law has always banned ingesting blood or using it for rituals.
"It is absolutely improper to use statements extracted under torture centuries ago to construct eccentric and abhorrent historical theses," the statement said.
The Anti-Defamation League called the claims “baseless and playing into the hands of anti-Semites everywhere.”
"It is incredible that anyone, much less an Israeli historian, would give legitimacy to the baseless blood libel accusation that has been the source of much suffering and attacks against Jews historically," said ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman.
"Toaff’s citing the ‘testimony’ of Jews allegedly admitting to the use of Christian blood for Jewish ritual purposes is absurd on its face since these Jews were tortured and anything they said was under duress and not to be taken seriously ... There is absolutely nothing in Jewish religion law that remotely suggests or allows such activity."
Toaff's 91-year-old father has been silent about the book and didn't sign the statement but news reports and Jewish community officials said he agreed with the criticism.
The first few thousand copies of the book were released Thursday and publishing house Il Mulino said it had already ordered a reprint. There were no immediate plans for editions in other languages.
Historian says he is misunderstood
In an interview Friday, Toaff said his work had been partly misunderstood. He said he did not intend to imply ritual murders really occurred.
"I believe that ritual murders never happened," he said.
"There is no proof that Jews committed such an act."
But Toaff said the confessions do hold some truth - as when the accused recount anti-Christian liturgies that were mainly used on Passover, when the celebration of 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 with a strong anti-Christian tone cannot be projections of the judges who could not know these prayers, which didn't even belong to Italian rites but to the Ashkenazi tradition," he said.
Toaff said in the interview he believes Jewish converts to Christianity spoke about these liturgies and helped spark the "blood libel" accusations.
Toaff's work looks mostly at "blood libel" stories in northeastern Italy, focusing on the 1475 death of a two-year-old called Simon in the town Trento. Many court documents on the case survive.
After Simon's body was found around Easter in a canal near a Jewish home, all members of the tiny Jewish community of German descent were arrested. Nine Jews who signed confessions after weeks of torture were tried and burned on the stake or beheaded.
Simon was canonized a century later but was removed from the list of saints and his cult banned in 1965 after a Church investigation concluded the Jews were innocent.
The 65-year-old Toaff, a rabbi himself who holds dual Italian and Israeli citizenship, said he hadn't considered the book's "possible exploitation" by those wishing to reopen the debate on "blood libel."
"I wanted to see how the Jews felt in this climate of hatred," he said.
While medieval Jewish texts containing disparaging remarks about Jesus and Christians have long been known to scholars, it is unscientific to use the Trento confessions as proof of widespread hatred, said Anna Foa, a modern history professor at Rome's La Sapienza University who has read Toaff's book.
"They used formulas in Hebrew only because they had to give the judges something plausible," Foa, who has written books on the trials of witches, Jews and heretics, told the AP.
"You cannot reconstruct the image the Jews had of the world based on what they said to the Inquisition."
Msgr. Iginio Rogger, a church historian who in the 1960s led the investigation into Simon's case, said many scholars have concurred 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."'