Blood libel backgrounder


Blood libels: Anti-Semitism in Action

The term blood libel refers to the accusation that Jews murder Gentiles and use their blood in religious rituals. The first blood accusation on record happened in the first century AD, when certain Greeks claimed that the Jews annually fattened a Greek in the Temple of Jerusalem, killing the victim, offering his body as a sacrifice, and eating his organs.

The first case in which Jews were accused of ritually murdering a Christian child happened in Norwich, England in 1144. Following that incident, blood libels started cropping up throughout England and elsewhere in Europe, including Germany and France.

In the thirteenth century, a blood libel strongly contributed to the expulsion of all Jews from England. A Christian boy named Hugh from the village of Lincoln disappeared, and his body turned up in a Jew’s water well, where the real murderers had secretly disposed of him. The Jew underwent torture until he confessed to kidnapping Hugh, fattening him, beating him, crucifying him and drinking his blood. By the time it was all over, twenty Jews were publicly hanged and another twenty imprisoned in the Tower of London. In 1290, all the Jews in the country were banished for 400 years.

Blood accusations flourished in the Middle Ages and beyond, with thousands of Jews being tortured and murdered in so-called revenge. The blood libel was one of Hitler’s propaganda tools, as well. For example, the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer (literally, "The Stormer") ran a special issue devoted to promoting the blood libel. The headline read “Jewish Murder Plan against Gentile Humanity Revealed” and featured a drawing of four rabbis sucking the blood of a Christian child through straws.

Unfortunately, blood accusations are still happening. In 2002, for example, a student demonstration at San Francisco State University featured posters of a soup can whose label showed dripping blood, a dead baby with its stomach sliced open, and the words “Made in Israel, Palestinian children meat, slaughtered according to Jewish rites under American license.” Believe it or not, this blood lie was made on the campus of a public American university by students using public funds.

Also in 2002, the Saudi government-run newspaper Al-Riyadh ran an article describing how Jews go about getting the blood of teenagers to use in their Purim holiday pastries: “For this, a needle-studded barrel is used. [These needles] pierce the victim’s body from the moment he is placed in the barrel…the victim’s blood drips from him very slowly. Thus, the victim suffers dreadful torment – torment that affords the Jewish vampires great delight as they carefully monitor every detail of the blood-shedding with pleasure and love…”

Shortly before Passover 2008, posters appeared all over Russia’s third largest city, Novosibirsk, warning residents to keep a close eye on their children, lest they fall victim to Jews seeking blood to mix in their matzos. The posters read: “These vermin are still performing rituals, stealing small children and draining their blood to make their sacred bread.” The posters also attributed a recent spate of child disappearances and murders to Jewish ritual sacrifices.

In 2009 the prominent Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet published a story claiming that the Israeli army kidnaps and kills Palestinians in order to reap their organs. Similarly, in 2010, a Canadian Muslim newspaper accused Jews of kidnapping “some 25,000 Ukrainian children…over the past two years in order to harvest their organs.”

The Massena Blood Libel

The blood libel that inspired The Blood Lie was the first – and, until recently, the only – blood libel ever reported in the entire Western Hemisphere. Here’s what happened in Massena.

On the day before Yom Kippur in September 1928, four-year-old Barbara Griffiths went into the woods near her Massena home. She didn’t come out by nightfall, despite the efforts of a search crew and the involvement of the state police. As the hours stretched on with no clue to the girl's fate, an ugly rumor started and quickly spread. There was a Jewish holiday coming up, wasn’t there? And wasn’t there something about the Jews needing Christian blood in their rituals? Could there be a connection between the blood practice and little Barbara's disappearance?

The first Jew that the police questioned was probably 21-year-old William Shulkin. Later, the town’s rabbi, Berel Brennglass, was called for questioning; he used the forum to sharply denounce anyone who would accuse the Jews of ritual murder.

The next afternoon, little Barbara, who had simply gotten lost in the woods, wandered out of the forest and was noticed by someone along the road, less than a half mile from her home. Hungry but unharmed, she was happily reunited with her family.

But what would have happened if she hadn’t been found, or if she’d been found dead or injured?

Nothing about the incident ever appeared in the Massena Observer – not a news story, not an editorial word of apology. There seemed to be a consensus to hush the whole matter up.

A little background on Massena: the village is located on the St. Lawrence River in Northern New York State, just a few miles from the Ontario border. A longtime farming community, the opening of an aluminum smelting plant there in the early 1900s brought industry to the area. Jews started arriving from Russia and Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s, seeking to escape the pogroms, official governmental persecution, and poverty of their homelands. By 1920, there were about 20 Jewish families, a rabbi, and a small synagogue.

The Bigger Picture: Hate Crimes in America

Hate crimes – crimes targeted against victims based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity/national origin, or physical/mental disability – are a sad reality in America. The FBI first began investigating hate crimes around the time of World War I, focusing on Ku Klux Klan activity such as lynchings and cross-burnings. Starting with the 1964 Federal Civil Rights Law, the U.S. legislature has sought to protect people against hate crimes. Most recently, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard Act (October 2009), which expands existing hate crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The measure was conceived as a response to two 1998 murders: that of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, who was tortured and murdered in Wyoming because he was perceived as gay; and that of James Byrd, Jr., a black man in Texas who was tied to a truck by two white supremacists, dragged from it, and decapitated.

The Massena blood libel, then, is part of a long and sobering history of hate crime in our country, a history that doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. Plainly, it takes more than laws and police officers to create tolerance. What else does it take? That is a fertile topic for discussion.