Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The More You Know: Blood Libel

I was thinking this morning about all of the random questions I've received when people discover that I am (a) Jewish or (b) hold a degree in Bible (the response to the latter is always far more interesting and frightening, but that's a story for another time). Often these questions are along the lines of, "So in the mornings you tie yourself up in leather to pray?" (No, that's a different club... oh! Tefillin! Well... let me explain.) In the interest of saving time explaining things over and over again, I have decided to begin posting my answers on our blog. Recently, I've heard the term "blood libel" bandied about. Considering its use, I must assume that people either do not know its meaning or its history.

"Blood libel" refers to the medieval Christian accusation that Jews killed Christian children and used their blood for matzos. (Wikipedia has an interesting article on blood libel that expands the definition beyond the accusation of Jews for this travesty; I cannot verify its accuracy.) As you may or may not know, the laws of kashrut forbid the use of blood in food (not even blood sausage, you kooky Germans!) as well as cannibalism. Not to mention that we have the same "Thou shalt not kill" commandment as Christians (although, given that medieval Christian scholars believed that we killed their god, I suppose an accusation of infanticide was mild in comparison). The Israelites were actually the first Ancient Near Eastern religion to ban the common practice of child sacrifice several hundred years before JC (Jesus Christ) was born (check out Leviticus 18:21). " 'Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God." That's some pretty straight-forward Scripture, if you ask me.

So who's been bandying about "blood libel"? To Chris Floyd of (a libertarian blog), the new blood libel is the assertion, "that those who oppose the Bush Administration's unconstitutional actions are opening the door to a new 9/11." Here, blood libel has taken on the meaning of a false accusation that paints the opposing party as the enemy.

Recently, Alan Dershowitz referred to "the new blood libel" in describing the Cardinal Jozeph Glemp's accusations that an American rabbi murdered nuns in Poland (ostensibly, to stop the construction of a nunnery near Auschwitz). Apparently, now any anti-Semitic accusation related to murder in any way is blood libel. It's not that I care about maintaining the purity of the phrase in describing child-murder for the sake of matzo meal, but if we're going to decry anti-Semitism, let's not mix metaphors. Clearly, nun-murder is not blood libel, it's nunicide (alright, Dash, what's the real word for killing nuns?). Let's get our labels straight, people.

The New York Times correctly uses the phrase when illustrating the resurgence of anti-Semitism in recent years, particularly in the Arab world and on Arab television (we'll expand upon their brief history of Jewish treatment under Arab/Muslim rule another day). The article notes that the old blood libel accusation has risen in popularity, bandied about by reporters and television stars alike, making it almost "background noise.' One 2003 Syrian series, ''Al Shatat,'' depicts bearded Jews slitting the throat of a Christian baby. What troubles me most, beyond, you know, the blood curdling fear of anti-Semitism and the anger I feel at being falsely associated with such a nefarious accusation: Why a Christian baby? Not to argue the logic of hatred, but wouldn't generalizing the blood libel accusation to Islam make more sense, i.e. depicting the dirty Jews killing a Muslim baby?

Alright, I guess I'm not doing much for our case to argue that point, but it highlights two central facets of this heinous myth: 1) that it's completely absurd and 2) that it's a myth based on the idea that Jews killed the holiest child, God's only son, JC. Historically, the accusation of blood libel went hand in hand with that of desecrating the host because both represented the murder of Christ (with Eucharist desecration being the more serious charge because the logic of transubstantiation determined that the Jews were literally re-enacting Jesus' death).

In conclusion, anti-Semitic Muslims should find their own myths and stop borrowing tired, medieval Christian falsehoods. Also, writers should learn what a phrase means before applying it willy-nilly. Unless you are talking about Christian baby murder, I don't want to hear the phrase "blood libel." Got it?


rokhl said...

I'm voting for monicide (the yiddish word for nun is monotchke. come to think of it, people might get confused with monicide, killing poppy seeds...)

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Anonymous said...

So interesting! I think people use Jewish or Yiddish references because they are wonderfully colorful, passionate, real, alive. Ms. Palin is suprisingly ignorant and not a bit interested in checking herself before using new phrases. On the other hand, my mind wanders and wonders if, early on, people dismissed Hitler as kooky and ignorant.