Jewish worshippers gather during Passover at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on April 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Amir Cohen
Jewish worshippers gather during Passover at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on April 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Amir Cohen

With Passover and “fake news” in the news, consider the “blood libels” that Jews and other groups have long been subjected to. The accusations against Jews first appeared during the 12th century AD. They spread during the 13th and 14th centuries, trials reaching their highest number in the Holy Roman Empire two generations before the Reformation.

The number of accusations, inquests and convictions then declined, though one took place in 1882 in Tisza-Eszlar, Hungary, and another a century ago in Kiev –  the Beilis case of 1911. One may add Josef Stalin’s cases against Jewish physicians to the list – different ideology, similar accusations – and recent more insidious ones against Israel.

In 1236, after a year of massacres and riots against Jews, Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, appointed a public committee to investigate charges of ritual murder of infants. The decision was unequivocal: There was no evidence whatsoever and there was nothing either in the Old Testament or the Talmud that allowed Jews to drink human blood.

In 1247 Pope Innocent III investigated the same question and came to the same conclusion. To no avail: The fake news became myth, deeply rooted in ballads, legends and woodcuts, the last having been the equivalent of tabloids and propaganda blogs now.

Jews were not the only ones accused of committing “ritual murder”. Romans accused early Christians of the same. As late as the 19th century, similar accusations were heard in such places as China, Indochina and French Madagascar. How to make some sense of this regularity?

All of the above examples took place in illiterate societies. In such societies, people spoke of someone who abandoned the tribe’s customs as having “died”. Traces of this use of language survive to this day among very religious Jews. If a family member marries outside the Jewish religion, the very religious family sits “shiva” (the mourning ritual) as if the member died. The sentence “my child died, his heart eaten by members of another religious group” was a metaphor for abandoning tradition for another religion or Western values. After all, customs and traditions are one’s “heart and eyes”, and it is the younger generation that abandons them.

Myths of oral cultures were then recorded by members of literate societies. Later generations took the accusations literally. Literacy has huge benefits, but it has costs too – it induces rigidity, as our occasional literal interpretations of texts written millennia, centuries or decades ago shows. Words then shape thoughts and actions – for some drawing on the Bible, for others on recent mortals, Marx or Keynes, take your pick. One century’s language becomes a new century’s memory and superstition, shaping imaginations of generations – in particular if the language helps political and religious interests, who subsidize its spread.

During the Middle Ages, Lutheran and Catholic churches in Germany had such interests and sustained the blood-libel myth, among others, because before the 12th century, conversions to Judaism were not exceptional. A ninth-century Christian reformer, Archbishop Agobard, complained that Christians did not object to praying in synagogues: “Things have reached a stage where ignorant Christians claim that Jews preach better than our priests … some Christians even celebrate the Sabbath with the Jews and violate the holy repose of Sunday…. Men of the people, peasants … regard the Jews as the only people of God, and consider theirs … a truer faith than ours.”

Written memories of conspicuous conversion survived (though most might have been destroyed on purpose, not by time). The chaplain of the duke Konrad (a relative of Henry II) converted to Judaism in 1005, and the duke of Sens in 1015. It was customary for servants and serfs to follow their masters. This was one reason the Church forbade Jews to have Christian servants, although the rules were not enforced, and were occasionally changed. In 1084, Ruediger, bishop of Speyer, delivered a charter to the Jewish population stating explicitly that their presence added to the city’s reputation and allowed them to own land an arms and to have Christian serfs and servants.

But prohibition of having Christian servants became strict in the 12th century, which coincides with the emergence and spread of the blood-libel myth. Whereas most texts in the past were in sacred Latin, incomprehensible to the vast majority, now they were distributed in German translation.

Misinterpretation of languages originating with occasional lethal combination of illiterate people – children in this next example – with blinded literate ones happened in the 1990s in the Amirault case in Massachusetts, during the mass hysteria that struck the US about “daycare abuses”. The courts relied on stories of a four-year-old, whose words about being abused in fantastical ways “therapists” filtered through academic gobbledygook, never mind that physicians testified that there were no physical signs whatsoever to lend them credibility.

The courts, the state attorney and Massachusetts’ governor, drawing on academic “churches” promoting unfalsifiable ideas of children’s “repressed memories” and those of adults too (who love to blame others for their own failures in life) – never mind physicians’ testimonies – first put the Amiraults in jail, then denied them parole.

Very few stood up against the mass hysteria, Superior Court Judge Isaac Borenstein, presiding over a widely publicized hearing into the case, being an exception. He stated: “Every trick in the book had been used to get the children to say what the investigators wanted.” And Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, which had not taken an editorial position on a case until this one, concluded that the prosecutors “seemed unwilling to admit they might have sent innocent people to jail for crimes that had never occurred”.

This happened in the 20th-century United States.

Back to Jews and today’s Europe. Ivan Fisher wrote his opera The Red Heifer about the aforementioned 1882 Tisza-Eszlar affair when Jews were accused of killing a Christian girl in a religious frenzy. Fisher said Hungary’s politicians now wanted to reopen the case, stating in 2012 that the acquittal of the Jews in 1882 had been a whitewash. In a recent New Yorker profile, composer Márton Gyöngyösi, the deputy parliamentary leader of Jobbik, who got 20% of the votes in 2014, is quoted as saying that the opera was “sheer provocation”. This is the same gentleman who proposed in a 2012 speech that the Hungarian government should “tally up people of Jewish ancestry” because they “pose a national-security risk”.

Not that Hungary is the only place where old fake news is insidiously revived. Israel is being singled on a variety of issues that no other country, society or tribe has ever been, the headlines about how many Palestinian children have died in particular, even though accidental, relative to the numbers Shiites and Sunnis kill willfully and with abandon for the last few years – the constant attacks on Christians in particular. Perhaps the Middle East population is now not as illiterate as its Middle Ages counterparts, but myths close literate minds too – and not only in the Middle East, as Harvard-trained Massachusetts academics’ involvement in the Amirault case showed.

And now we have US President Donald Trump’s tweets: a new method of communication and a style certainly not meant to be taken literally – but which often has been, bringing much unnecessary diversion between the “140-character-tweeter communicators” on one side, and journalists and academics on the other, a new version of well-documented miscommunication between those used to oral communication and those whose minds become trapped by words.

The more things change, the more some things stay the same.

Reuven Brenner is a governor at IEDM (Institut Économique de Montréal). He is professor emeritus at McGill University. He was the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, was awarded the Canada Council's prestigious Killam Fellowship Award in 1991, and is a member of the Royal Society.

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