Thursday, August 7, 2014

Blood Libel and Hamas

Blood libel is back in the headlines. Pro-Hamas Muslims on Facebook have been spreading blood libel. I found this image of Benjamin Netanyahu on the Facebook page of Mohammed Zeyara linked here. Hamas Spokesman Osama Hamdan advances blood libel. Video, below.

Blood libel is a folk belief that one group consumes the blood, or, in related belief, exploits the body parts, of another group. Blood libel has been used as an excuse to murder Jews. Jewish Holocaust survivors in Kielce, Poland were stoned to death, link here. Blood libel may have played a role in the lynching of Leo Frank in the US, linked here.

Below are the paragraphs from my book "Bieganski, the Brute Polak Stereotype," that directly address blood libel.

Application of Bonacich and Chua to Poland illuminates one of the ugliest expressions of anti-Semitism: the blood libel, which Jan Tomasz Gross labels a "medieval prejudice" and, in a quote from another author, a "medieval myth" (152, 260) to which the Jewish Times adds, of "vile Christian fantasies about Jews" (Rifkin). Gross' work is excellent and needed, but in his discussion of the blood libel, Gross reveals no knowledge of folklore scholarship. Gross proceeds, rather, from tunnel vision and from the concept of human progress – Poles are anti-Semitic because they are of the past; Poles are uniquely anti-Semitic because they, uniquely, believe in and act on the blood libel in the modern era, an era that has put away such things. The solution is for Poles to abandon their essential anti-Semitism, along with their nationalism and Catholicism, and to evolve – that is, to join the modern, secular, West.

There are many things wrong with this picture. Poland was not a significant site of blood libel in the Middle Ages; the West – England and Germany – was. Blood libel increased in Poland during the Enlightenment, the era during which trends such as democracy, secularization and science increased, to reach their peak in modernization. The Catholic Church did disseminate the blood libel, in sermons, books, and art, for example in the notorious mural in Sandomierz Cathedral, but the motif is not Christian. Muslims currently spread blood libel. Popes repeatedly condemned blood libel (Innocent IV, Gregory X, Martin V, Paul III, Clement XIV). In the eighteenth century, Poland's Jews appealed to the Vatican for protection and Vatican officials interceded on behalf of Jews against Poles. This family of beliefs did not last inspire murder in Kielce. Innocents were murdered as recently as 2000, and probably have been since. Something other than an essential Polish, Catholic, medieval essence is at work here, and it must be understood.

Blood libel is part of a family of related folklore items, involving charges of human sacrifice and cannibalism, that members of one group use to discredit, and express anxieties about, another group. This folklore family predates the birth of Christ. Pagans in the Classical World leveled blood libel charges against Jews, and then, Christians. Pagans reported that Christians drank baby blood as part of Christian ritual. In 1750, the French king was accused of bathing in children's blood. Chinese accused French missionary nuns of extracting liquid from Chinese orphan's eyes in order to make photographs. The Talmud cautions against a non-Jewish midwife attending the birth of a Jewish child, as she may shed the child's blood; it cautions against a non-Jew serving as wet nurse as she might rub poison on her breasts to murder the Jewish baby. The emphasis on bodily fluids – blood, breast milk, tears – reflects the folk belief that the essence of life is a liquid (Dundes "Wet").

Charges of blood libel, cannibalism, and the exploitation of human body parts are expressions of the teller's sense of being exploited, and of one group's alienation from another. In reference to blood libels in Africa, classicist James Rives wrote:

When Arens began doing fieldwork in Tanzania, he found himself the object of some suspicion among the natives because of a story, remarkably detailed and widely believed, that Europeans consume the blood of Africans … [this story] could be taken as an essentially correct, if simplified and dramatic, assessment of the modern political situation. (Rives 66)

In his discussion of Pagan charges of blood libel leveled against early Christians, Rives wrote:

There was a certain amount of justification for these attitudes. The Christians had after all ostentatiously set themselves apart from their fellows both socially and in religious usages. To all appearances, they had barbarized themselves, renouncing their membership in Graeco-Roman society. In fact, while the stories about child sacrifice were no doubt false, their underlying message was true: Christians were indeed people who had in many respects distanced themselves from their general cultural context. (Rives 74)

Veronique Campion-Vincent, writing of beliefs that Americans exploit Third World children's body parts, wrote:

Even though it may not be true that the American USIA/CIA is involved in supporting an organ-theft ring, it cannot be denied that these American agencies have played a powerful manipulative role to the detriment of poor Third World countries…the narrative lore that finds resonance in a population does not have to be factual to be true. Even though the accounts are not factual, they nevertheless demonstrate symbolic truth. (Campion-Vincent 32)

The above excerpts are not adduced as correct or ethical interpretations of exploitation lore, but as examples of how this ugly lore is understood by many professional ethnographers. In fact, not just peoples an ethnographer might understand as oppressed can assess themselves as such, and express that assessment through exploitation lore. American organ theft legends often depict white American males, a relatively privileged group, as having been victimized by dark-skinned, ethnic-minority females, relatively disempowered group members (Goska "Kidney"). Obvious facts must be stated: Poles' victims in Kielce were innocent and defenseless Holocaust survivors. A better understanding of how ugly folklore arises, and the circumstances under which it becomes deadly, does nothing to mitigate the guilt of perpetrators.

In recent years, Guatemalan villagers have circulated oral accounts of "Gringos" stealing Guatemalan children in order to exploit their organs. In 1994, environmental journalist June Weinstock was accused of having kidneys in her backpack. Villagers beat, stoned, and ultimately left her for dead. She never fully recovered (Torchia). A Japanese tourist and a bus driver were stoned to death in 2000. "At least 71 people … were killed by mobs in peasant villages in 1999" (BBC). To explain these horrors, journalists did not resort to a posited pathological Guatemalan essence, religious or cultural. Journalists pointed out that Guatemala had been the site of lengthy warfare and that the killers – Maya Indians – were a disempowered population (e.g. Bounds, Miranda). Applying that logic to Poland, one sees that blood libels became most frequent in the period after the "Deluge," when Poland was attacked by Swedes, Turks, and Cossacks. The cathedral in Sandomierz features not just images of Jews, but of Swedes and Muslims killing Poles.

Not only disempowered, ethnic minority villagers invest in this vile family of folklore. Highly educated persons in the West do, as well. High-level Government officials, including Communists (not Christian), arts' boards, adoption agencies, and humanitarian organizations, including those under UN auspices, have given full credence to demonstrably false legends of children being kidnapped and robbed of their bodily organs. Films claiming to document these legends have won prizes. In sharp contrast to Gross' characterization of blood libel as "medieval," Campion-Vincent cites characterizations of organ theft legends as "sadly emblematic and exemplary of the horrors of modernity" (19). Both commit the error of tunnel vision – this folklore is neither medieval nor modern; it is timeless. It expresses a timeless aspect of human character. 


  1. To the poster who submitted a message. I cannot post your message. It contains material that is false and antisemitic.

  2. The specific comments I did not want to post are that Jews kill their own children and that Jews are vengeful.

  3. This is a good demonstration of how the rules change when it comes to Poland.

    As you point out, the early Christians too were accused of drinking human blood.

    Tertullian (c. 160-230 C.E.): “Let your unnatural ways blush before the Christians. We do not even have the blood of animals at our meals, for these consist of ordinary food. . . . At the trials of Christians you [pagan Romans] offer them sausages filled with blood. You are convinced, of course, that the very thing with which you try to make them deviate from the right way is unlawful for them. How is it that, when you are confident that they will shudder at the blood of an animal, you believe they will pant eagerly after human blood?”—Tertullian, Apologetical Works, and Minucius Felix, Octavius (New York, 1950), translated by Emily Daly, p. 33.

    Minucius Felix (third century C.E.): “So much do we shrink from human blood, that we do not use the blood even of eatable animals in our food.”—The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, Mich.; 1956), edited by A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, Vol. IV, p. 192.


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