- Hardcover: 246 pages
- Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press; 1 edition (October 18, 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0299202801
- ISBN-13: 978-0299202804
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,889,087 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Blood Libel: The Damascus Affair of 1840 Hardcover – October 18, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
On February 6, 1840, Father Thomas, a Capuchin monk, and his assistant disappeared in the vicinity of Damascus after paying a not unusual visit to the city's Jewish quarter. Within a day, the small, multidenominational Christian community banded together, claiming, "The Jews sacrificed the Father." This blood libel (the charge that Jews killed Christians to use their blood in religious rituals) shattered the relative peace in which the Jewish community had lived under Muslim rule. Two Jews confessed under torture and then died in prison, unleashing a massive assault in which 65 Jewish schoolboys (some as young as five) and 75 men were imprisoned. As the situation dramatically escalated—a noted rabbi converted to Islam and the French, British and American consuls became involved with the prosecution—the case became an international cause célèbre and eventually a goad to political change in the area. This is great material, and Florence, a novelist (Zeppelin) and historian, handles it with dramatic flair and meticulous documentation. While this is not as complete a historical account as Jonathan Frankel's magisterial 1997 The Damascus Affair, it's an excellent work of popular history.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
"These days, when old, outdated anti-Semitic lies are being used in too many circles against the Jewish people, this book is important to all those who feel compelled to denounce them."—Elie Wiesel
"There are few more dramatic stories of nineteenth century Jewish history than that of the Damascus affair. Ronald Florence tells a mesmerizing tale with all the flair of a master story-teller, blending the story of what happened in Damascus—and the horrifying torture of the Jews there—with the parallel and equally compelling story of the international struggle among the world's great powers that ultimately determined the Jews' fate. The epic clash of Jews, Muslims, and Christians of over a century and a half ago, the Damascus case resonates all too painfully today. Filled with mystery and suspense, Blood Libel is an engrossing read."—David Kertzer, author of The Popes Against the Jews and The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara
"Florence shapes his work around the history of events in Damascus in 1840, pulling readers in from the beginning in a way that characterizes a well-told novel while never giving way to the temptation to abandon historical accuracy and well-grounded research."—Maud Mandel, author of In the Aftermath of Genocide: Armenians and Jews in Twentieth Century France
"The blood libel legend [is] one of the most pernicious pieces of traditional folklore ever created. This splendid book could well serve as a valuable cautionary tale warning of what terrible consequences such malicious legends can cause."—Alan Dundes, editor of The Blood Libel Legend: A Casebook in Anti-Semitic Folklore
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Top customer reviews
The book is loaded with informative background material about the politics and geography of the area. There is a lot of local color detail, both the good (descriptions of the sights and smells of the markets) and the bad (lack of sanitation and some famous participants and the treatment of their buttock postules).
I must admit that whenever the author leaves Damascus and takes us to Paris and London for diplomatic arguments about whether or not to interfere, I found myself speedreading to get through those chapters. What I wanted to know was...were the Jews executed or released? We think we live in enlightened modern times, but one has only to read a few chapters of this book to realize that the more things change, the more they stay the same, especially when we're talking religious groups trying to exist side-by-side.
The only error I found was on page 18, where "principle" is used for "principal." Otherwise, it is very well-written and edited. No matter what your religion is, you will probably be outraged by what happens to the people of this book.
Within two days, the Chief of Police and a detachment of soldiers and police informed the Jews they were under suspicion, searched and ransacked the Jewish quarter, and dug-up graves. A Muslim prisoner, Sa'id-Muhammad-al-Talli was released on condition he help the authorities find the missing monk. The next day, al-Talli, with soldiers and police, arrested four Jews.
Sherif Pasha, Governor of Syria, and adopted son of Muhammad Ali, Viceroy of Egypt, summoned the chief Rabbi, telling him "It is obvious to me that you killed him [Father Thomas] to take his blood and that's your custom." To the contrary, a Jewish witness, Isaac Yavo, claimed he saw the Father and his servant exit the city at the same time he was alleged to have disappeared in the Jewish section.
The French consul Ratti-Menton took special interest in the case because Father Thomas was a French protégé. When Jewish leaders came to the Consulate to negotiate, Ratti-Menton decided to interrogate one of the delegates, Solomon al-Hollag. After three days without a "confession," Ratti-Menton turned al-Hollag over to local authorities "who undoubtedly can employ more numerous and decisive methods of investigation than any foreign agent." After being tortured, al-Hollag "confessed" he saw the Father killed and his blood collected, at the house of David Harari. More arrests were made.
Isaac Yavo, the witness who saw the monk leave the city, was next interrogated. When he didn't confess after three days, he was flogged until he did. He also named those who "suborned" his previous testimony. Two days later, he died from torture.
Sherif Pasha arrested 65 boys at a Hebrew school - one of whom "confessed" his father took part in the monk's murder - and arrested another 70 Jewish men. The cycle of arrests, torture, "confession," and naming co-conspirators, continued.
With the French consul believing Jews take "human blood to mix with the flour for the Passover dough," Christians took to the streets for Father Thomas' funeral (sans body), carrying a tombstone inscribed "... assassinated by the Jews the 5th of February of the year 1840." (The Arabic translation of the tombstone, which still stands at the Franciscan church in Damascus, reads "Jews slaughtered him on the fifth of Isb?t.")
French consul Ratti-Menton promoted an interpretation of Jewish response to torture that allowed if they confessed, they were guilty of murder, but if they did not confess, they were guilty of keeping the "secret" of blood sacrifice - a practice so secret most Jews were not even aware of it! An example of the torture used to extract confessions and name co-conspirators is the ordeal of Rabbi Moses Salonicli:
He was repeatedly whipped on the soles of his feet until he was unable to walk. Reeds were inserted under his fingernails until his fingers were twisted and knotted. He was paraded through hostile Christian crowds on a donkey, then prepared to be decapitated. Sherif Pasha granted a last minute reprieve, but had the rabbi thrown into a tank of freezing water. When he rose for air, he was beaten with sticks until unconscious. When he regained consciousness, he was beaten unconscious again. The pasha then ordered a tourniquet tightened around the rabbi's head until the rope broke and the rabbi "dropped like a corpse before the whole crowd." A rope was then tied to his penis and used to drag his body around the palace courtyard. His genitals were crushed until he lost consciousness. He was bound to two poles, tossed into the air, and allowed to crash onto the stone pavement.
He didn't confess.
Another rabbi, Moses Abulafia, who was similarly tortured - at one point, while his wife and infant child were made to watch - became so distraught, he not only "confessed," but converted to Islam. Renamed Muhammad Effendi, he actually served as an ally to the French consul and Sherif Pasha in their prosecution of the Jews.
Ironically, it was the Austrian consul-general, Anton von Laurin, who first opposed the situation with the Jews in Damascus. (By contrast, the American consul wrote the Secretary of State that "a most barbarous secret for a long time suspected in the Jewish nation ... at last came to light in the city of Damascus, that of serving themselves of Christian blood in their unleavened bread at Easter, a secret which in these 1840 years must have made many unfortunate victims ... have been discovered which proves that they were accustomed in that house [of David Harari] to such like human sacrifices.")
In fact, there was no evidence other than tortured confessions. Father Thomas' body, and the blood purportedly drained from it (or any derivative of it), were never found.
Pressured by England's support of the Ottoman Empire, Muhammad Ali instructed his son, Pasha Sherif, to release the Jewish prisoners, and vacate warrants for the arrests of others who were in hiding. A proclamation was issued declaring the charges against the Jews to be "pure calumny" and that "the Jewish nation shall possess the same privileges as are granted to the numerous other nations who submit to our authority. The Jewish nation shall be protected and defended."
Despite the new Ottoman position, a Vatican official reported "the people about the Pope [Gregory XVI] were persuaded that the Jews had murdered Father Tamasso and even if all the witnesses in the world were brought before the Pope to prove the contrary, neither he nor his people would be convinced."
In the end, four of the Jews imprisoned and tortured died of their wounds, the rest were released, crippled and ruined. A sizable portion of the Jewish community fled Damascus, never to return. The relationship between the city's Christians and Jews were forever strained, never the same. With the Ottomans in charge of Syria, Jews were reappointed to administrative positions they lost to Christians under Muhammad Ali and Sherif Pasha. The Christians blamed the Jews. When Muslims rioted in 1860, murdering as many as 6,000 Christians while leaving the Jews untouched, Christians blamed the Jews.
The Damascus affair was more than a century and a half ago, but people still believe in such absurd and dangerous ideas as the Blood Libel. Would that they also took responsibility for the horrible consequences of their beliefs.
The story is told well, and crisply covers all the majors incidents, and the tale is an important incident in the emergence of the anti-semitism of the later nineteenth century.