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Part One

The story of the blood libel is well known. Namely, the accusation that Jews kill Christian children for ritual purposes. During the Middle Ages these accusations often resulted in pogroms and violence against the Jewish communities. However, it is not commonly known that this continued in modern times and even into the twentieth century.

We often associate blood libels with antiquated medieval communities. In fact, the earliest mention of a ritual murder accusation appears in the writings of Josephus, from the first century CE. An Alexandrian anti-Semite, Apion, claimed that Jews would annually kidnap and murder a Greek. Under the Christian Church, this claim became far more widespread. It adapted to include a child victim and became connected to the baking of matzot for the festival of Pesach.


The first medieval ritual murder accusation took place in 1144 in Norwich, England. This was followed by several similar cases, including Gloucester (1168), Bury St Edmunds (1181), Bristol (1183), Winchester (1192) and most famous of all, Lincoln (1255). These resulted in violent attacks against the small Jewish communities. This violence was recently brought to light by the discovery of 17 skeletons in a medieval well in Norwich. Investigations suggested that these were most likely Jewish victims of persecution in the 12th or 13th centuries. Chaucer’s “The Prioress’s Tale”, one of the 24 stories of his Canterbury Tales (written in the late fourteenth century), immortalised this ritual murder accusation in medieval English consciousness. 

This happened in Europe too. The earliest recorded ritual murder accusation was in Blois, France in 1171. The entire community was condemned to death and 32 people, including 17 women, were killed after refusing the alternative - converting to Christianity. This had such a profound effect that Rabbenu Tam (grandson of Rashi, the famous medieval scholar) declared a fast day.

It was only in the thirteenth century that this accusation was developed, by Cardinal Odo of Chateauroux, to include the allegation that Jews consume the blood of their victim during this ritual murder. This spread, sparking incidents throughout Europe. For example, in 1235 five children were killed in Fulda, Germany. The

Jews were blamed and 34 Jews were subsequently killed by Crusaders. From now on, the ritual murder accusation took the form of a blood libel.


Despite repeated attempts by practising Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity to defend the religion from these unfounded allegations, they continued to spread throughout Europe. Sometimes, when Christian children disappeared, they were turned into martyrs. In some instances they were even canonised by the Church as saints, such as Little St Hugh of Lincoln. The Church of England formerly apologised for this accusation in 1955, placing a plaque next to his shrine in Lincoln Cathedral. It was only in 1965 that the Vatican stripped Simon of Trent (the victim of the most famous ritual murder case in Italy) of his status as a martyr.


Throughout history there have been hundreds of ritual murder cases – mostly followed by arrests, violence and often massacre. Unfortunately, they are not limited to the medieval era. For instance, between 1887 and 1891 there were 22 cases formally raised in Europe. This series will look at some of the modern blood libels and their impact on Jewish communities. For example, the Tiszaeszlar Affair of 1882-1883 (Hungary), the Beilis Affair of 1911-1913 (Kiev) and that of 1928 in Massena, New York.

Part Two
Tiszaeslar Affair 1882-1883

In this article we will discuss the blood libel of Tiszaeszlar - a small Hungarian village, with a population of approximately 2700. On Shabbat HaGadol, 1 April 1882, a Christian girl named Esther Solymosi, disappeared. Rumours swiftly spread that she had been kidnapped and murdered by Jews and that her blood had been used to make matza.

The investigators searched the synagogue and even dug up the graves in the Jewish cemetery, but they found no evidence to support the claim. However, a Jewish boy was arrested. Under interrogation and possibly torture, he admitted that the girl had been ritually murdered in the shul and her blood had been collected in a vessel. He even named members of the community who were allegedly involved and the entire male population of Jewish community was arrested.


Esther’s body was discovered in June 1882 on shore of the river. There were no marks or damage on her body whatsoever, indicating that she had drowned rather than been slaughtered. The investigators claimed this was not Esther. Instead, they alleged that the Jewish community had murdered another girl and dressed her in the same clothes as Esther to cover their tracks.


The trial took place in 1883 and the judges asked to visit the original scene of the crime together with the Jewish boy who had testified that he had witnessed the murder. They asked him to retell all the details of the events, explaining where everyone had stood, including himself. They ruled that it was impossible for him to have witnessed the events from the place that he claimed to have stood. The trial fell apart and all were acquitted in August 1883.


Despite this, the damage was done. To this day there are those who believe that the Jewish community had been guilty of this murder. Research carried out among the locals in the 1970s indicated that the murder by the Jewish community still had a permanent place in collective memory.[1] In fact, a Hungarian MP from the far-right Jobbik party discussed the affair in the Hungarian Parliament in 2012, claiming “the Jewry and the leadership of the country were severely implicated in the case”.[2]


One interesting aspect of the Tiszaeszlar Affair was the impact on Jewish texts at the time. In the late 19th century anti-Semites used a section of the Babylonian Talmud (Ketubot 102b) to support blood libel accusations. This passage discusses the tragic story of a child murdered by his step brothers for their father’s inheritance. It states that the boy was killed “on the eve of Pesach” (ערב הפסח). This was used as proof that the Jewish community would even kill Jewish children before Pesach to use for baking matzot.  How much more so would they murder Christian children for this!


The Vilna edition of the Talmud (the print used widely today) was printed for the first time between 1880 and 1886. Tractate Ketuvot was published in 1884 and this phrase is abbreviated to ער"ה. A footnote explains that it means ערב הראשון “on the first night” and that earlier editions mistakenly wrote “erev HaPesach”. This would indicate that the child was murdered by his family on the first night he was with them, with no connection to Pesach at all. It is reasonable to assume that this change was made to protect the Jewish community from accusations of blood libels, especially considering that this was printed in the immediate aftermath of the Tiszaeszlar Affair.

[1] See Andrew Handler, The Blood Libel at Tiszaeszlar (1980) p.182-187.


Part Three
Beilis Affair 1912-1913

The Beilis Trial in Kiev caused uproar world-wide. The blood libel charge stood at the forefront of the case[1]. Moreover, the government appeared to back the accusation. The Beilis Affair has been described as the “most notorious case in the twentieth-century”.

On 20th March 1911, the body of a twelve year old boy, who had been missing for over a week, was found in a cave outside Kiev. He had forty-seven wounds on his body and had lost most of his blood. At his funeral a week later, an anti-Semitic group handed out leaflets claiming the boy had been a victim of Jewish ritual murder. All the evidence pointed towards a local gang of professional thieves killing him, as they suspected that he was reporting their activities to the police. However, in August 1911, Mendel Beilis, a Jew who worked at a factory near to where the body was found, was arrested. He was charged with ritually murdering the boy and was kept in prison for two years before the trial.

In the end, a total lack of substantial evidence led to Beilis’s acquittal. However, the question of ritual murder having caused the boy’s death was left open.

In 1935, Alexander Tager published a book on the events, based on his research at the archives of the Czarist government. He stated that the “whole plot was nothing short of diabolical” and that government officials “closed their eyes, shielded the real culprits and indicted the Jewish people and their religion”.

The trial sparked unprecedented world-wide protest, with remonstration from Jews and non-Jews alike. The British public, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were generally far less inclined to believe the reports of Jewish ritual murder than their European neighbours.

In June 1911, the Times reported on a meeting of UK Rabbis. They expressed sympathy with their Russian brethren in light of the recent revival of the blood libels, which “constitute a foul and unfounded slander”.[2] This was not the first item on their agenda at the meeting, indicating that the Rabbis were not too alarmed, perhaps never believing it would reach trial. This was presumably due to incredulity that events would go so far, rather than to indifference.

In Spring 1912, The Times published the British appeal, with 240 signatories. These included the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Speaker of the House of Commons, prominent members of both Houses of Parliament and the heads of many universities. The British manifesto read:

“The question is one of civilisation, humanity and truth. The “Blood Accusation” is a relic of the days of witchcraft and Black Magic… an insult to Western culture and a dishonour to the Churches…endangering many innocent lives in the crowded Jewries of Eastern Europe.”[3]

[1] In fact, according to Klier, the prosecution spent more time trying to prove the reality of Jewish ritual murder than to convict Beiliss as the actual murderer (Klier 215).

[2] "Jewish Ministers In Conference." Times [London, England] 13 June 1911: 4. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 24 July 2012.

[3] "The Blood Accusation In Russia." Times [London, England] 6 May 1912: 7. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 24 July 2012. Also see Roth 101-102.

Part Four
Beilis Trial 1913

In this article we will discuss the British response to the Beilis trial in Kiev. Mendel Beilis was a local Jew charged with the ritual murder of a 12 year old boy. The trial led to widespread demonstrations. One such demonstration was held in Trafalgar Square, London on 2nd November 1913. Lord Nathaniel Rothschild (1840-1915) tried to aid the outcome of the trial itself. He wrote to the Vatican to confirm the authenticity of the Papacy’s past statements against the blood accusations. The prosecution of the trial claimed that the Vatican had never openly spoken of the falsehood of the charges made numerous times in the past. This was incorrect, as Cardinal Ganganelli, later Pope Clement XIV, in 1759 produced a memorandum proving that the blood libels had no basis, as had other Popes in the past.

Rothschild asked the Vatican to affirm these previous statements. The positive reply and subsequent correspondence was published in all newspapers. It is unclear how much of an impact this affirmation from the Vatican had. The Russian government did not allow it to be used as evidence in the court and the jury had no outside contact at this time. However, it was certainly of major importance in boosting pro-Beilis public opinion and in further ridiculing the prosecution of the trial in the world press.

The political situation at the time meant that any criticism of the affair was seen as an attack upon the Anglo-Russian Entente, which was an attempt to patch up shaky relations between the two countries. Consequently, many politicians were wary of making public statements regarding the affair.

Despite these concerns, the majority of the British press did come out against the Beilis Affair. When reporting upon the proceedings on the 15th October 1913, The Times’ Kiev correspondent recorded that the last witness for the prosecution had that day broken down in court and admitted to her testimony being false. The reporter stated that it “seems incredible that the Imperial authorities will allow the nauseous case to proceed further”.

When reporting the final verdict, The Times’ reporter stated that “unfortunately the verdict is not one of acquittal only” and continued to respond to the insinuation of the verdict that the ritual murder charge is true:

“that this legend should find credence… is the most astonishing and the most humiliating feature in the whole of this amazing trial… civilised State should have suffered such a case to go to trial… a trial for witchcraft could hardly have been a greater shock to the Western world.”[1]

We have seen the supportive response of the British public to the Beilis affair. Appeals, protests and (in the case of Rothschild) direct action was arranged. The opinions of the British press were generally sympathetic to Beilis and showed their contempt for the trial proceedings.

It is shocking that little more than a century ago, the Jewish community were publicly accused of ritual murder at government level. However, we can be reassured that at least the British public did not quietly accept these allegations.

[1] "'Ritual Murder.'." Times [London, England] 12 Nov. 1913: 9. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 24 July 2012.

Part Five
Massena, New York and Beyond

Perhaps the most shocking of all blood libels is the story of Massena, New York. On Saturday 22nd September 1928, four year old Barbara Griffiths disappeared. That night, as villagers searched for her, a theory spread that she had been a victim of Jewish ritual murder. The police interviewed a number of Jewish residents and even summoned the Rabbi of the town for questioning. The Jewish community, fearful of what lay in store for them, contacted national Jewish organisations for protection and support.

Barbara was found twenty four hours later, tired and hungry, but otherwise unharmed. It appeared she had lost her way in the woods and fallen asleep. However, some still claimed that she had been kidnapped by the Jewish community and was only released when they realised how seriously her disappearance had been taken. The incident soon quietened down and the local newspaper never even reported the blood libel accusation.


However, the national Jewish organisations mobilised, demanding that the Mayor and head of Massena Police apologise for the “outrageous rumour”. After several weeks they did apologise, but both remained in their jobs. Whilst overall, the Massena Affair was fairly minor, it does show a widespread willingness to accept the blood libel accusation, even in the relatively liberal and welcoming atmosphere of 1920s America. That this remains the only incident of a ritual murder accusation in America is somewhat reassuring.


Massena was not the last blood libel accusation. A similar incident in Poland, in 1946, sparked the far more violent Kiecle Pogrom. On 1st July 1946 a nine year old boy left home without informing his parents. He returned two days later and, in order to avoid punishment, he claimed to have been kidnapped by the Jews and held in a cellar underground. He referred to a building that housed Polish Holocaust survivors who had returned home, searching for relatives. Whilst his story quickly unravelled, for instance the building he indicated had no cellar, an angry mob gathered outside and violence soon began. The ensuing riot left 42 Jews dead and 40 injured. This sadly reflects the precarious position of eastern European Jewry post World War Two, yet for our discussion also indicates the strength of the blood libel accusation even halfway through the 20th century.


The blood libel accusation has had a long term impact on our halachic practice. According to the Shulchan Aruch, it is better to use red wine for the four cups of wine on Seder Night (Or HaChaim 472:11). However, the Taz, writing in 17th century Poland, explains in his commentary that communities no longer use red wine due to blood libel accusations. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838-1933), writing in his halachic work the Mishna Berura, adds that where we still need to worry about blood libels, we use white wine. Thankfully, the widespread custom today is to use red wine on Pesach without fear of reprisals. However, the presence of these allowances in our halachic works is a permanent reminder of how far-reaching this danger has been through much of our history.

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