Passovers of Blood
By Ariel Toaff
Translated into English by
G. M. Lucchese and P. Gianetti
Clemens & Blair, 2020, paperback, 350 pages.
For centuries, Jews have been accused of something called “blood libel” or “ritual murder”: the killing of non-Jews, often children, to use their blood in bizarre religious ceremonies or to make food. As far back as 300 BC, writers have asserted that Jews sacrificed human beings in their religious practice, but it was not until the Middle Ages that such charges became the basis for civil action. Blood libel trials resulted in many Jewish deaths.
Naturally, Jews have denied such charges. The Bible, they said, forbids killing and prohibits the use of blood. Anyone making such claims is merely whipping up anti-Semitism and inciting anti-Jewish action. Even today, the mainstream view is that all such charges are mere “anti-Semitic canards” comprising a most dangerous sort of Jew-hatred. Blood libel, say the Jews, has no basis in fact.
But is that true? Until recently, few would have disagreed. But then in the early 2000s, a Jewish-Italian historian, Ariel Toaff, undertook extensive research into the matter. He concluded that not all blood libel cases could be automatically dismissed, and that certain sects of Ashkenazi Jews may well have manifested their hatred of Gentiles in a ritual use of non-Jewish blood. Blood libel, it seems, has a substantial factual basis.
Passovers of Blood is certainly one of the most controversial books of the 21st century. If certain Jews did—and perhaps still do—harbor an intense hatred of Gentiles, and if they did—and perhaps still do—use human blood in certain religious rituals, then this has very ominous implications for present-day relations between Jews and non-Jews around the world.
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Foreword, by Thomas Dalton
Chapter 1: AT VENICE WITH HOLY ROMAN EMPEROR FRIEDRICH III
Chapter 2: S. DA PIOVE, PREDATORY FINANCIER
Chapter 3: ASHER, THE BEARDED JEW
Chapter 4: PORTOBUFFOLÈ, ETC.
Chapter 5: FROM ENDINGEN TO REGENSBURG
Chapter 6: MAGICAL AND THERAPEUTIC USES OF BLOOD
Chapter 7: CRUCIFIXION AND RITUAL CANNIBALISM
Chapter 8: DISTANT PRECEDENTS AND THE SAGA OF PURIM
Chapter 9: SACRIFICE AND CIRCUMCISION
Chapter 10: BLOOD, LEPROSY, AND CHILD MURDER IN THE HAGGADAH
Chapter 11: THE DINNER AND INVECTIVE
Chapter 12: THE MEMORIAL OF THE PASSION
Chapter 13: TO DIE AND KILL FOR THE LOVE OF GOD
Chapter 14: “DOING THE FIG”
Chapter 15: ISRAEL’S FINAL DEFIANCE
Thomas Dalton, PhD
To call the present book controversial is perhaps the understatement of the decade. These days, any book casting a negative light on Jews is in for trouble. But a well-researched and thoroughly-documented book that implicates Jews in the killing of Gentiles, especially children, and for reasons of religion, is sure to cause an uproar. And that’s exactly what happened with Passovers of Blood.
The topic at hand is ‘ritual murder’—that is, the Jewish killing of non-Jews, often youths, simply in order to use their blood in various bizarre religious ceremonies. For centuries, Jews have been accused of ritual murder; and for centuries, ritual murder has been dismissed as so much anti-Semitic clap-trap. The very accusation has routinely been condemned as lies and slander against European Jews, as a weapon used solely for the purpose of inciting hatred and violence against them. Given that much of the alleged killing occurred centuries ago, in the Middle Ages, when investigators had few tools at their disposal, and given the strange and secretive lives of European Jews, the situation was understandable: both that such accusations might occasionally appear, and that they might be believed by the populace. At the time, such charges were taken very seriously; trials were initiated, witnesses interrogated, suspects detained, and judgements pronounced—often fatally, for the Jews. But in more modern times—say, the past 50 years—researchers, mostly of Jewish origins, have almost uniformly denied the reality of such claims. ‘Blood libel’ is now officially an ‘anti-Semitic canard’ of the first order, and anyone asserting a factual basis for it is surely a maniacal Jew-hating fanatic.
Or so they said—until a Jewish-Italian researcher and historian, Ariel Toaff, decided to investigate the matter a bit more deeply in the early 2000s. Delving into primary sources in Hebrew, German, and Latin, and including transcripts of Medieval trials, Toaff came to a different conclusion: that certain extremist Ashkenazi Jews—those of Polish-Germanic background—might indeed have engaged in such ritual murder. At a minimum, it was certain that Jewish hatred of Christians and non-Jews was so intense in those communities that they may well have felt justified in such action. Human blood—sometimes liquid, often dried and powered—was seen as having magical powers, including of physical rejuvenation, and was viewed as giving tremendous potency to ritual curses against the Gentiles. That some Jews would thus engage in such practices is unsurprising, in retrospect.
But no matter how compelling the evidence, one cannot say so—at least, not in English, German, Italian, or Spanish—that is, in any language that might gain circulation in the contemporary West. In today’s world, one in which the Jewish element has so much authority in media and politics, one cannot accuse “the Jews” of anything, let alone involvement in ritual killing of children. But that’s precisely what a 65-year-old Toaff did in 2007, with his publication, in Italian, of Pasque di Sangue—“Passovers of Blood.” The reaction was predictable and savage.
Even before its actual release in February of that year, the media was on the story. On 6 February, the pending book received a very positive review in the Italian paper Corriere della Serra. This prompted a short article the next day in the Jerusalem Post, which reprinted portions of the Italian story in English and cited one prominent Jewish critic, who denounced Toaff’s “bizarre and devious historical theses” and who “expressed dismay at the sensationalism” in the Italian story. A few days later, on 12 February, the Israeli paper Ha’aretz managed to arrange a short interview with Toaff, who held firm to his principles; “I will not give up my devotion to the truth and academic freedom even if the world crucifies me,” he said. “I do not claim that Judaism condones murder,” he added. “But within Ashkenazi Judaism, there were extremist groups that could have committed such an act and justified it.”
Sadly, Toaff’s brave face quickly wilted, and just two days later, on 14 February, he literally stopped the presses. That day, the AP carried the story, “‘Blood libel’ author halts press”; apparently Toaff had directed his Italian publisher, Il Mulino, to stop distribution until he could “re-edit” certain key passages that had been the basis of “distortions and falsehoods.” It seems that Toaff’s employer, the Israeli university Bar-Ilan, had expressed “great anger” over the book and was highly perturbed that “its contents might have offended the sensitivities of Jews around the world.” Toaff quickly issued an apology and then set to work revising the offensive passages. A sanitized version was released, by the same Italian publisher, in 2008. What follows below is an English translation of the original, 2007 edition.
And yet, even the withdrawal of the book did not pacify the critics. Experts like Ronnie Hsia of Penn State, and Kenneth Stow, formerly of Haifa University, were enlisted to write scathing critiques. Toaff, they said, engages in too much speculation, and seems too certain of his conclusions. He extrapolates from a few extreme cases and, by implication, impugns all Jews. Perhaps worst of all, they said, he relies heavily on the truth of statements by Jewish suspects who were subject to torture. In many cases, Jews “admitted” to their crimes under duress, but at that time, in the Middle Ages, that was considered sufficient evidence to convict. Today, of course, such a thing is completely prohibited in legal proceedings, but it does continue to occur in the military and in the pursuit of “terrorists.” The reason that the military continues this brutal practice is, of course, that sometimes it works—sometimes they do get valuable and accurate information from tortured captives.
This, in fact, is precisely Toaff’s defense: that sometimes the tortured Jews admitted the truth—a truth that can be confirmed independently. Simply because they were tortured, it does not follow that everything they said is entirely false. Much may be, but much may be true. The challenge for the contemporary historian is to sift out the truth from the falsehood.
The Author Responds
At the close of the revised, 2008 edition of Passovers, Toaff included a new and lengthy Afterword which serves as an extended reply to his critics. His main points, in brief, include the following: (1) Some critics did not actually read the book, but based their judgments on promotional blurbs, interviews, and news stories. (2) He now admits that “so-called ritual homicides or infanticides pertain to the realm of myth,” but he also adds that “nevertheless, one cannot exclude the possibility that certain criminal acts, disguised as crude rituals, were indeed committed by extremist groups or by individuals demented by religious mania.” (3) Most usage of blood was in fact paid for, sold by willing (and often poor) Christian donors; few if any donors were killed in the process. (4) As mentioned above, it cannot be assumed that tortured Jews always lied; and indeed, the truths of Jewish hatred of Christians were often verified and well-known. (5) Other researchers—most notably, Israel Yuval in his book Two Nations in Your Womb (2000)—have documented the Jewish “ritual of curses” against Christians and Gentiles, which are very close in nature to the tortured confessions—suggesting some truth in them. (6) The hate-filled rituals “were not ordinary Passover ceremonies, but rather peculiar rites performed by fringe German-Jewish groups [Ashkenazi] characterized by a virulent anti-Christianism.” (7) His use of allegedly “discredited” sources was careful and selective, not indiscriminate; again, even questionable sources contain some measure of truth. (8) Jewish authors have, for centuries, “practiced rigid self-censorship” regarding such hateful rituals, “erasing or omitting facts and events that might tarnish the image of the Jewish people”—explaining why there are so few historical sources on this troublesome topic.
Continuing in his self-defense, Toaff then explains the widespread use of blood in the Middle Ages. Owing to the superstitions of the time, “Christians and Jews unhesitatingly consumed animal and human blood, cooked, dried, and reduced to powder, to which they attributed extraordinary magical powers.” The Jews, though, had a problem: The Bible expressly prohibits drinking—and implicitly, using—blood. For example, already in Genesis we find: “You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Gen 9:4). Then more explicitly in Leviticus, “Moreover you shall eat no blood whatever, whether of fowl or of animal” (Lev 7:26), and “If any man…eats any blood, I [God] will set my face against that person who eats blood… No person among you shall eat blood” (17:10-12). And yet again, “You shall not eat the blood of any animal…” (17:14). As well, we find this recurring later, in Deuteronomy: when hunting animals, “be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh” (Deut 12:23).
Toaff raises two points here. First, and granted that humans are animals, the Bible seems to place a greater prohibition on (non-human) animal blood than on that of humans—which is not apparently banned at all. If medieval Jews could be assured that they were using human blood, they could avoid God’s condemnation. Toaff cites one Jewish sect “that went so far as to allow the consumption of human blood, if it was evident and verified that it was not animal blood.” Such a practice, he says, is “entirely coherent” with Medieval confessions under torture. Second, it is not clear that dried blood is prohibited; and in fact, many rabbis made explicit exceptions for this. Thus, concludes Toaff, it is “not at all improbable” that “the use of Christian blood during the Passover supper” occurred—again, likely in the form of dried blood of a willing (and living) donor.
Looming over this whole discussion is the issue of Jewish hatred of Christians and Gentiles, which was widespread and deeply-rooted. Toaff gives a few examples of such ‘ritual curses’: “may our enemies be destroyed”; “the hanged man, Jesus the heretic”; “in contempt and shame of the hanged Jesus, and may this befall all our enemies.” That similar testimony emerged from torture, and in error-ridden Hebrew, suggests to Toaff that they were “authentic” phrases, not added simply to please the inquisitors.
Toaff closes his Afterword by reiterating that “certain fringes of Ashkenazi Jews developed a virulent and unyielding anti-Christianism” and that “some…were prepared to take revenge,” in the form of violence. He then cites an intriguing but unpublished—too controversial—essay by Philippe Ben Natan, which emphasized the medieval Jews’
determination to wreak vengeance on the alien and oppressive society that surrounded them… Perhaps only still unclear, regarding the image of the Jews and their vengeance, was how ferocious their vengeance would be. … Could the Christians have hoped that the Jewish vengeance would not be relentless and unbearably cruel, and would not be unleashed against innocent victims as well? Judging from testimonies drawn from Jewish sources originating among the pietists of Germany and northern France…one has serious doubts that these questions can be answered in the affirmative. And such doubts are strengthened by the evidence on lesser-known social and moral features of the Ashkenazi Jewish community which have been uncovered in recent years; evidence which reveals that a substantial number of Jews engaged in criminal activities.
Though worded in a typically academic, roundabout way, Ben Natan’s point is clear: Jews felt aggrieved by their treatment in a majority white, Christian society, and they therefore were determined to take revenge on the white Christians—a revenge “relentless and unbearably cruel.” (This, of course, is merely a continuation of 2,000 years of Jewish misanthropy, that is, hatred of the human race—see Dalton 2020.) Christians, in turn, could reasonably expect that these vengeful Jews might indeed kill, both in order to exact revenge and to acquire the much sought-after magical blood. It was this very “medieval Ashkenazi Judaism,” says Toaff, “animated by a visceral anti-Christianism,” and driven by “extremist groups…of crazed delinquents capable of savage killing rituals,” that was the factual basis behind blood libel claims.
The translation here was originally done in 2007 by Lucchese and Gianetti, then modified in 2016. The editor of this edition is grateful for their diligent work. Further minor revisions to the text were made by the editor to improve readability. Also, in order to provide for a more compact presentation, the illustrations and lengthy Appendix (mostly in Latin) have been deleted.
For his part, Prof. Toaff seems to have gone into hiding. He has produced no new works since 2008, and apparently has made no public appearances. We can only hope that he has been hard at work, writing the next iconoclastic book on the Jews.
References and Further Reading
Dalton, T. 2020. Eternal Strangers: Critical Views of Jews and Judaism through the Ages. Castle Hill.
Luther, M. 2020. On the Jews and Their Lies (T. Dalton, ed.). Clemens & Blair.
Toaff, A. 2008. Pasque di Sangue (in Italian). Il Mulino.
Toaff, A. 2008. “Afterword: Trials and historical methodology.” https://www.medievalists.net/files/ 08111401.pdf
Yuval, I. 2008. Two Nations in Your Womb. University of California Press.