Within the last year, three serious Jewish historians have published books on religiously motivated violence in historical Jewish communities, a subject rarely written about in the past. Can this be a coincidence? Not according to the scholars themselves, since each has explained his interest in the subject in a similar manner.
The first of these works to appear, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence, was published last spring by Elliot Horowitz, a professor at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. A study of the manifestation of hostile Jewish feelings toward Gentiles in the carnivalesque atmosphere of the holiday of Purim, Reckless Rites was stimulated, Horowitz wrote in his introduction, by Baruch Goldstein’s Purim-day murder of 29 Palestinians in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994. Although the book was well-researched, its claim of having unearthed a widespread pattern of Jewish religious violence over the centuries was—as I wrote in my review of it in the June 2006 COMMENTARY—greatly exaggerated in terms of the evidence presented.
Next, this past winter, came the Italian-language Pasque di Sangue (“Passovers of Blood”) by Ariel Toaff. To the astonishment, if not the horror, of those who read about it in the newspapers, Toaff—also a professor at Bar-Ilan—was alleged to have argued, based on the case of a Christian two-year-old named Simon who was murdered in the city of Trent in northern Italy in 1475, that Jews in medieval Europe did indeed kill Christian children for ritual purposes, just as they had been accused of doing both in the Middle Ages and later. Faced with withering criticism from his fellow historians, Toaff subsequently withdrew the book from circulation and denied having written in it that such killings actually took place. What he had wanted to do, he told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, was “to deal with verbal religious violence, which can lead to destructive consequences” (emphasis added). All around him, the paper reported him as saying, he had seen
extremist Jewish elements that are distorting the spirit of Judaism, with curses and attempts at excommunication, and this, in his opinion, could end badly. As, for example, in the cases of the pulsa denura (kabbalistic death-curse) ceremonies that were the background to the  assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir.
Finally, we have A Murder in Lemberg: Politics, Religion, and Violence in Modern Jewish History,* a newly published work by Michael Stanislawski of Columbia University. This is an investigation of the 1848 poisoning by Orthodox Jews of Rabbi Abraham Kohn in Lemberg (the city known in Polish as Lwow and in Ukrainian as Lviv) in Galicia, the Austrian-ruled region of southern Poland. “The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin on 4 November 1995,” Stanislawski writes in his preface to the book,
sent shockwaves through the world. . . . A Jew had killed the prime minister of Israel! How could this have happened? How could the religious and political divides within Israel have descended to this low? How could a Jew kill another Jew for political and religious reasons? . . . The Rabin assassination only gave me added incentive to study in depth an earlier, almost unknown, case of an internal Jewish assassination that had intrigued me for years.
In short, Horowitz, Toaff, and Stanislawski all attest to having been spurred in their research by contemporary events and, specifically, the resort to violence by Jewish religious nationalists and settler groups in Israel. All three—two teaching at the same Orthodox-sponsored university in Israel at which Yigal Amir was a student—profess to be shocked by this. All seek its roots. And all come to the conclusion that these roots lie buried deep in the Jewish past, relegated to a collective Jewish unconscious from which we are now witnessing, as it were, the deadly return of the repressed.
“Almost unknown” as a description of the Kohn murder case is a bit of an overstatement. Nearly a century ago this murder was discussed by the renowned Jewish historian Simon Dubnow in his multi-volume History of the Jewish People, and others have dealt with it since. Yet it is certainly true that it has never before been considered more than a minor episode, and Michael Stanislawski, with the help of recently opened Ukrainian state archives, is the first to investigate it in depth. Let us take a look at what he has found.
Abraham Kohn was born in 1807 in a small town in Bohemia, today part of the Czech Republic; had a traditional Jewish upbringing; studied philosophy and rabbinics in Prague; and received an Orthodox ordination from the chief rabbi of that city in 1832. His first pulpit was in the small town of Hohenems in the Austrian Tyrol, where he officiated for the next eleven years. While he made no attempt to introduce non-Orthodox practices into the religious life of the Hohenems community, his sermons and writings from this period, unearthed and analyzed by Stanislawski, were highly critical of what he considered to be Orthodoxy’s exclusive emphasis on ritual observance at the expense of moral principle and conduct. In this respect, Kohn was intellectually close to the leaders of the new German Reform movement. When a group of prominent Lemberg Jews founded a Reform-style temple that opened its doors in 1843, he accepted their invitation to be its rabbi.
Although mid-19th-century Lemberg was situated in a region of Eastern Europe inhabited by Poles, Ukrainians, and largely hasidic Jews, it was, as the Austrian administrative capital of Galicia, a partially Germanized city. Besides its many Austrian bureaucrats, businessmen, and professionals, it had a Jewish community whose modernizing elements identified with German culture and with the German-Jewish Haskalah or “Hebrew Enlightenment.” It was these modernizers, or “progressives” as Stanislawski calls them, who invited Kohn to head the new synagogue.
He did so with great success. Not only was he a gifted preacher who called both for internal religious reforms and for full civic equality for Galicia’s unemancipated Jews, including abolition of the special government taxes imposed on them. He was also an ambitious educator, under whose direction the temple’s school, which conducted its classes in German and taught secular subjects alongside Jewish ones, quickly reached an enrollment of over 700 children—an impressive figure in a Jewish community of some 20,000.
Nevertheless, the great majority of Lemberg’s Jews did not belong to Kohn’s congregation or send their children to its school, and some were fiercely hostile to it. In dividing the city’s Jewish community into a number of different social and religious categories, Stanislawski places two of these in the hostile camp. One, he writes, was composed of
the extreme traditionalists . . . who opposed both Hasidism and the Haskalah, and were prepared to use all means at their disposal to extirpate these groups from Lemberg Jewry. This group included the richest Jews in the city, who made their fortunes through the collection of the special kosher-slaughtering and candle taxes incumbent on the Jews, which also depended on control over the official registers of the Jewish population, the so-called metrical books. These men, not surprisingly, therefore steadfastly opposed any changes to the traditional mode of record-keeping and tax collecting in the Jewish community.
The second center of opposition to Kohn was formed by Lemberg’s Hasidim. Hasidism, which had originated in the late 18th century as a movement of popular pietism in nearby southwestern Ukraine, had by Kohn’s day made great inroads in Galicia, especially among the Jewish lower classes. Its followers, Stanislawski writes,
opposed the rabbinic establishment of both [the traditionalist and the modernizing] Lemberg Jewish communities, and often denounced them to the Austrian authorities, especially charging unfairness in the assessment and collection of the taxes incumbent on the Jews.
Kohn was thus disliked by a significant portion of Lemberg’s Jews for both religious and economic reasons. As a modernizer, he was viewed as a threat to traditional Jewish life; as a campaigner for Jewish political emancipation, he jeopardized the financial interests of the Orthodox sector’s upper class. And the dangers he represented grew greater when, in 1847, he was appointed by the Austrian authorities to be Kreisrabbiner or chief rabbi of the Lemberg district, a position that gave him a wide range of powers. As antagonism toward him grew, so did the pressures on him to resign: money was offered to get him to leave, threats were made on his life, and on one occasion he was attacked and beaten.
None of this lessened Kohn’s determination to remain at his post. Finally, in September 1848, in the midst of that year’s revolutionary ferment, which spread to Galicia from the rest of the Austro-Hungarian empire and in which Kohn was politically active in the liberal ranks, a hasidic Jew named Abraham Ber Pilpel entered the Kohn family’s apartment, asked the cook for permission to light his cigar from the flame on the kitchen stove, and poured arsenic into a pot of soup. All of the Kohns were poisoned. Abraham Kohn and an infant daughter died; his wife and four other children survived.
A large part of A Murder in Lemberg is spent tracing the Austrian authorities’ investigation and prosecution of the Kohn murder case, which ended in a travesty of justice with Pilpel’s acquittal by an appellate court. This verdict, Stanislawski argues, was connected to the ultimate collapse of the 1848 uprising in Galicia and to the resurgence in Vienna of reactionary forces that backed the anti-progressives in Lemberg’s Jewish community. One of Stanislawski’s two main conclusions, indeed, is that
the Kohn assassination reveals a fundamental aspect of modern Jewish history that has heretofore remained all but unstudied: the alliance in many times and places between Orthodox (and other forms of traditionalist) Jewry and conservative and even reactionary political forces and states—even in unexpected places like late-Czarist Russia, where we have just begun to understand the growing coalition that emerged between the government and the leadership of Orthodox Judaism. More well-known is the [20th-century] alliance between the Agudath Israel party and the increasingly anti-Semitic government of late-interwar Poland, and we are just now beginning to have studies on such alliances in contemporary Israel and even, most recently, in the United States as well.
Stanislawski’s second generalization has to do with the murder itself. Although there were cases before Kohn’s of Jews in Eastern Europe being killed by other Jews in a communal context, this was almost always for informing on Jews to the government, as when two men were murdered in Russia in 1840 for disclosing the names of Jews evading military service. “So far as we know,” writes Stanislawski,
no Jewish community in medieval or early modern Europe ever ordered a heretic killed, as opposed to excommunicated, on the basis of his or her beliefs. . . . The assassination of Rabbi Abraham Kohn was a radical turning in Jewish history because, for the first, but alas not the last, time we encounter the murder of a Jewish leader by another Jew on the basis of political-cum-religious motivations.
Thus, in the case of the Rabin assassination, Stanislawski continues,
Although the vast majority of Orthodox Jews in Israel and abroad abhorred [Yigal] Amir’s actions, he and his supporters (almost exclusively from extreme right-wing groups in Israel that combine religious Orthodoxy and absolute opposition to the peace process) continue to insist that he was working in the name of the Lord. And, all too tragically, the debate about the extent to which Jewish law permits or prohibits such murders continues to this day (these words are being written [in 2005] in the immediate aftermath of the withdrawal of Israeli settlers and armed forces from Gaza).
And so, from the murder of Abraham Kohn to the Rabin assassination, and from there to settler lawlessness aimed at the Palestinians and the “peace process,” the line of intra-Jewish political violence, Stanislawski thinks, runs straight and clear. The Kohn murder case—a distinctly modern phenomenon that could not have taken place before the age of the Haskalah, when “progressive” Jews first challenged the Orthodox monopoly on Jewish religious life, leading to a new kind of politicized fundamentalism in reaction—was an early harbinger of far worse things to come.
But was it really? One may be permitted to be skeptical. The Kohn murder was a local and quickly forgotten incident that never served as a precedent for later events. And as for the extremist rabbis who in 1995 gave their blessing to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, they did so, contrary to Stanislawski’s assertion, precisely on the basis of rabbinic laws regarding the “case of the informer” (din moser) and the “case of the menace to Jewish life” (din rodef ). The issue, as far as these rabbis and their followers were concerned, was Rabin’s policies, not his beliefs, which in themselves would never have endangered him.
But neither, for that matter, would mere beliefs have endangered Abraham Kohn. To claim that he was killed for his opinions rather than for the changes he sought to bring about in Galician Jewish life by political means is to fly in the face of everything that Stanislawski himself tells us. Moreover, in depicting the traditionalist camp in Galicia as consistently benighted, avaricious, and aggressive, and the “progressives” as high-minded, idealistic, and defending themselves from attack, Stanislawski paints a highly one-sided picture. The truth was far more complex.
Jewish Galicia, in the first half of the 19th century, was a battleground between two main forces: the Haskalah, which came from the West and attracted a strong following in the Jewish intelligentsia and bourgeoisie, and Hasidism, which arrived from the East and quickly established itself among the poorer classes. It goes without saying that the Hasidim, who were even more fiercely opposed to modernization and secular education than were anti-hasidic Orthodox Jews, viewed the Haskalah as a mortal enemy. Yet the opposite was no less true. In the eyes of Galicia’s Jewish modernizers, Hasidism was a blight that had to be fought tooth-and-nail. Besides keeping the impoverished masses of Galician Jewry in a state of cultural and economic backwardness while thwarting their participation in general society, Hasidism, as the “progressives” saw it, threatened to tar all Jews, themselves included, with the brush of belonging to a separatist minority to whom it was pointless to grant equal rights because it did not wish to be and could not be integrated into the life around it.
Throughout the early 19th century, therefore, the modernizers, as represented by intellectuals, educators, and pro-Haskalah Jews like Herz Homberg, Joseph Perl, Judah Leib Mieses, Solomon (not “Samuel,” as Stanislawski refers to him) Judah Rappoport, and others, used their influence to persuade the Austrian government to adopt a series of draconian measures that were meant to curtail the hasidic movement and ultimately quash it. These measures, largely ignored by Stanislawski, included banning the publication and circulation of hasidic books; outlawing hasidic prayer groups; restricting the movement and residence rights of hasidic rabbis; requiring the Hasidim, who were monolingual Yiddish speakers, to demonstrate a proficiency in German in order to obtain marriage licenses and other things; and so on and so forth. Also placed on the books but never enforced were laws forbidding hasidic dress and prohibiting the use of Yiddish for religious education. Nor did the modernizers shrink from the widespread use of informers to monitor the Hasidim and report on their infractions.
Indeed, although Stanislawski speaks of an “alliance” in Galicia between Jewish traditionalism and Austrian absolutism, there was, in the battle against Hasidism, at least as much collusion between the government and the Jewish “progressives.” As the noted historian Raphael Mahler observes in his book Hasidism and Haskalah:
In their unconditional submission to the absolutist monarchy, all [the modernizers] were in agreement. . . . Unlike the anti-hasidic traditionalists [who also supported the monarchy], the modernizers had a clear political ideology that viewed [a benevolent] absolutism as the ideal form of social and political rule.
The politics of Abraham Kohn, who appeared on the scene a decade or two after the period referred to by Mahler, were different. And yet Kohn, too, was quite ready to enlist the power of an autocratic Austrian government to further his “progressive” ends. One of his first acts upon being appointed to the position of Kreisrabbiner, indeed, was to demand that the government enforce the long-disregarded ban on traditional hasidic clothing.
While Stanislawski acknowledges that “this recommendation, coming from another Jew, was undoubtedly shocking to contemporary traditional Jews,” he fails to comment on what it tells us about the potentially Jacobin nature of Kohn’s and others’ “progressivism,” or on how justified was the traditionalists’ fear of Kohn’s role as Kreisrabbiner. Take, for example, the question of the “metrical books.” Stanislawski attributes the opposition to Kohn’s gaining control of these population registries solely to the traditionalists’ fear of losing tax income. And yet aside from disclosing who was taxable, the registries revealed who was eligible for military service. Since being a conscript in the Austrian army, in addition to its other physical and psychological hardships for previously cloistered observant Jews, required them to eat non-kosher food and violate the Sabbath and other sacred principles of Judaism, it is no wonder that the Orthodox were desperate to evade it and often avoided recording male births.
Knowing that Kohn, like other Jewish modernizers, was scrupulously opposed to such chicanery and expected Jews to fulfill their civic obligations, the Orthodox had good reason to believe that putting the Lemberg-district records in his hands would mean compelling young Jews to abandon their faith. This in itself would have sufficed to classify him as an informer who was legitimately subject to the death penalty in halakhic terms.
The battle between modernization and Orthodoxy in Galicia, soon to spill over into the rest of Eastern Europe, may have been one between light and darkness, but Stanislawski tends to forget that light can also ravage while darkness can nourish and protect. Although the Galician modernizers fought for some worthy goals, the forces of tradition standing in their way, particularly Hasidism, had, in addition to their superstition and simony, positive features that Haskalah thought and German-style Reform lacked: religious passion, emotional vitality, communal solidarity, a deep sympathy for the poor and for the working-class Jew, a refusal to kowtow to the Gentile world. While Reform was serving the Jews of Germany and Central Europe as a transit point to full assimilation, Orthodoxy and Hasidism were everywhere keeping alive a powerful sense of Jewish peoplehood. Had they not done so, Zionism, when it arrived on the scene a half-century later, would have had no popular base—even young socialist and anti-religious Zionists came largely from Orthodox homes, and the hasidic influence on their devotion to the Zionist cause was great—and there would be no state of Israel today.
Indeed, although it is Stanislawski’s stated aim in A Murder in Lemberg to illuminate the Jewish present by means of the Jewish past, he has actually done the opposite: he has chosen to understand the traditionalist-modernist conflict in 19th-century Galicia in terms of his own identification as a “progressive” Jew aligned with the Israeli “peace camp.” Just as he views the clash between Left and Right in Israel as a simple matter of right and wrong, so he regards the Galician Kulturkampf as having been black-and-white. Ironically, though he, like Horowitz and Toaff, is critical of apologetic Jewish historians for sweeping under the rug some of the less attractive features of traditional Orthodoxy, his own apology for Abraham Kohn’s brand of 19th-century Jewish liberalism is no less a whitewash.
Stanislawski’s thesis notwithstanding, the question of who killed Abraham Kohn is hardly of general interest today. The same cannot be said for the murder of two-year-old Simon of Trent. Of all the repeated accusations made against Jews over the centuries, none has been more horrendous than the blood libel—the belief, first appearing in the English town of Norwich in 1144, that Jews regularly murdered Gentile children, sometimes crucifying them in imitation of the crucifixion of Jesus and extracting their blood for the baking of matzah on Passover. Apart from the charge of murdering the son of God, to which the blood libel is thematically related, nothing has more inflamed anti-Semitic passions through the ages or contributed more to the anti-Semitic image of the Jew as an inhumanly satanic creature.
Nor has any anti-Semitic accusation continued more persistently into modern times, leading to the notorious Mendel Beilis trial in Russia in 1911 and criminal proceedings in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s, and still resonating in today’s Arab and Muslim worlds—and all this despite the fact that no other charge has been more repeatedly refuted. Indeed, all medieval and modern historians have long considered the blood libel to have been a total calumny, propagated by psychological hysteria and religious and socio-economic motives. The Catholic Church, too, although it endorsed a number of blood libels in the Middle Ages and beatified some of their alleged victims, Simon of Trent among them, has—however tardily—admitted their speciousness. Simon’s status as a religious martyr was withdrawn in 1965 as part of Pope Paul VI’s Nostra Aetate proclamation at the Second Vatican Council.
And so, when Ariel Toaff, a scholar of medieval and Renaissance history, and the Italian-born son of Rome’s chief rabbi Elio Toaff, published his Pasque di Sangue in early February, it made instant headlines. Abetting the publicity was a review by the Italian Jewish historian Sergio Luzatto, who praised it in Italy’s prestigious Corriere della Sera as a “magnificent book of history.” Toaff, wrote Luzatto, had established that
from 1100 to about 1500 . . . several crucifixions of Christian children really happened, bringing about retaliations against entire Jewish communities—punitive massacres of men, women, children. Neither in Trent in 1475 nor in other areas of Europe in the late Middle Ages were Jews always innocent victims.
Yet Luzatto’s review proved to be the only one written by a serious academic in Toaff’s defense. Other Italian historians, including Diego Quaglioni of the University of Trent and Anna Foa of the University of Rome, published blistering attacks on Pasque di Sangue, faulting it for sensationalism and sloppy methodology, especially in taking at face value the testimony given under torture by the sixteen Jews tried and convicted of killing Simon and preparing unleavened bread with his blood. Furious protests followed from many quarters. The Jewish world professed outrage; colleagues of Toaff at Bar-Ilan demanded his dismissal; and his own father all but disowned him.
In response, though first declaring that he would stand by his book “even if crucified,” Toaff proceeded to beat a hasty retreat, declaring that he had been misunderstood and ordering his publisher not to reprint Pasque di Sangue after its first edition of 1,000 copies had sold out in a single day. When I sought to obtain the book in late February, I was told it would cost 300 euros, and in the end I had to make do with a pirated text.
Even before considering Pasque di Sangue itself, there is much that is puzzling about Toaff’s behavior in regard to it. How could an Israeli historian not have anticipated the intensity of the reaction to such a book? And if he did anticipate it, why did he back down so quickly when it occurred? Moreover, if he believed he had been misunderstood, why did he not keep the book in print and let it speak for itself rather than withdraw it from circulation? And if, as he has said, he intended it as a purely scholarly work and had no interest in publicity, why did he write it in so popular a style?
This style, clearly meant for a general audience, is the first thing to strike one about Pasque di Sangue, which begins with a scene-setting description of the grand entrance into Venice in 1469 of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. The entire first chapter of the book is devoted to sketching the background against which the Trent trial took place—a sketch that, although no scholar would have need of it, introduces the lay reader to the Jewish community of northern Italy from which the trial’s accused came.
This was a community that was Ashkenazi and Yiddish-speaking, composed of relatively recent immigrants from the Germanic lands beyond the Alps, and throughout Pasque di Sangue, Toaff contrasts it with the “real” Italian Jews to the south of the Po River who had lived in the country for centuries or more and were well-integrated. Unlike the southerners, the Ashkenazim of the north, who had a long history of Christian persecution going back to the massacres of the First Crusade, were, in Toaff’s description, insular, conspiratorial, hostile toward Gentiles, highly competitive in their business practices (many engaged in banking and money-lending), and extreme in their religious beliefs.
The dichotomy between the relaxed, at-home-in-the-world Italian Jew and the rigid, xenophobic northerner is central to Toaff’s book. While it may reflect certain realities of the period, it also impresses one as a projection back into time of Ashkenazi-Sephardi tensions in the Israel of recent decades, with all the stereotypes engendered by those tensions. (Although Italian Jewry was never, strictly speaking, “Sephardi,” it was closer in its rituals and liturgy to the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean than to those of the European interior.) Toaff’s “real” Italian Jews are the “good Jews” of his story as opposed to the “bad Jews” from beyond the Alps, with their “aggressive economic entrepreneurship” and “lack of respect for the laws of the country.” Jews south of the Po, Pasque di Sangue repeatedly stresses, never suffered from the blood libel that was repeatedly hurled against the Jews of German-speaking lands, and they had none of the fascination with suffering, martyrdom, and blood that runs through the religious culture of late-medieval German Jewry.
This fascination, rather than the Trent trial itself, is the main focus of Pasque di Sangue, and Toaff does a thorough job of documenting it. Citing liturgical texts, rabbinic homilies, memoirs, and iconographic evidence, he makes a good case for the argument that, shaped by bitter experience, Ashkenazi Jewry at the time of the trial, as in the generations that preceded it, believed that blood shed for the faith had a redemptive value in God’s eyes. Salvational and purifying, it was closely linked in the Ashkenazi religious imagination with such traditions and rituals as the biblical binding of Isaac, the sacrifice of the paschal lamb and the painting of Israelite doorposts with its blood at the time of the Exodus, animal sacrifice in the Temple, and the blood of the circumcision ceremony.
Moreover, Toaff demonstrates that human blood—taken from living donors, dried and powdered, and trafficked-in commercially—was widely considered in the age of the Trent trial, by both Gentiles and Jews, to have medicinal and magical properties, the blood of children being especially valued for its rejuvenating powers. Sometimes used homeopathically to stanch the bleeding after a circumcision, such powders were countenanced by some rabbis—despite the strict biblical prohibition on the consumption of blood—on the grounds that they had been transformed into a different substance.
So much for the Trent trial’s background. From here on, Toaff’s reasoning runs as follows: since we know that the Ashkenazi Jews of northern Italy harbored hatred and disdain for Gentiles and felt unconstrained by the law of the land; since we know, too, that they were obsessed with blood and considered its use to be religiously and medically efficacious; since the imagery of blood plays an important role in the story of Passover, where it also appears in the plague of blood in Egypt and in the verse from Ezekiel in the Haggadah, “In thy blood thou shalt live, in thy blood thou shalt live”; since in Trent and at other blood-libel trials, Jews confessed to having murdered Christian children so as to use their blood on Passover; and since these confessions included accurate details of Jewish prayers and ceremonies that the defendants’ interrogators could not have invented, why automatically consider them false just because they were made under physical duress? Why not admit the likelihood that at least some of them could have been true?
Toaff is right when he insists that Pasque di Sangue nowhere states in so many words that the confessions given at the Trent trial are reliable. What his book does do, again and again, is give the impression that they are reliable. It has several ways of conveying this impression, the most common being the use of conditional verbs to treat the hypothetical as though it were the probable. Thus, to take a typical example, after citing one of the Trent confessions, Toaff begins a new paragraph with the sentences: “The crucifixion of Simon would have been carried out [sarebbe stata effettuata] on a bench in the women’s section of the synagogue. . . . The body of the child, still alive, would then have been transferred [sarebbe stato poi trasferito] by beadles to the central hall of the synagogue and laid on the cantor’s podium,” and so forth. The clear implication is that most likely this is what actually happened.
Elsewhere, “evidence” given under torture is made to seem credible by Toaff’s insertion of seemingly innocent qualifiers. Frequently he makes statements like, “The use of the blood of small Christian children in the celebration of Passover was apparently the object of a normative minority [of Ashkenazi Jews], at least to judge by the depositions of the defendants at the Trent trial” (emphases added). In other places, he dons the mantle of a judicious neutrality, observing that there is no way of determining whether the confessions were true or not, or ironically suggesting that it would be naïve to dismiss them out of hand, as when he writes: “Whether we are talking about [no more than] a fairytale worthy of the Grimm brothers, meant to terrorize little children and keep them awake at night, we cannot know [non sappiamo].”
Nowhere, moreover, does Toaff seriously contend with the powerful arguments against accepting the reliability of the Trent confessions, or of the confessions made at similar trials. He never acknowledges the overwhelming body of forensic evidence that tortured individuals will confess to anything; never asks why, if the Jewish murder of Christian children in the Middle Ages and afterward was so common, there is absolutely no hint of it in Jewish sources, in which we would expect to find at least some rabbis condemning it, if only in cryptic language to avoid Christian investigation; never notes that, if Ashkenazi Jews were obsessed with blood and sacrifice in the late Middle Ages, they were far less so than was most of Christian Europe, where worship of a man-god crucified by Jews, his transubstantiated blood consumed in the communion ceremony, became a veritable cult of suffering and sado-masochistic fantasy; never seriously inquires into the ways in which such fantasies might have led to accusations of Jewish child murder; never weighs the likelihood that most or all of the murdered children were the victims of local pedophiles, who in some cases may themselves have started the rumor that Jews were responsible; never dwells more than perfunctorily on the fact that, besides losing their lives, the Jews condemned at blood-libel trials had all their wealth confiscated by the authorities, who thus had a strong motive for accusing them falsely.
And so, long after the Christian world has exonerated the Jews of the blood libel, Toaff disregards practically every reason for the exoneration. His claim to have been misunderstood is, quite simply, dishonest. It adds cowardice to his other faults, as does his withdrawal of Pasque di Sangue from circulation after first swearing to defend it, “even”—a revealing association in the context of blood libels!—“if crucified.”
Pasque di Sangue is in fact an impossible book to defend. And yet the damage done by it is already great and will increase with time. Toaff has given anti-Semites and enemies of Israel a gift they could never have dreamed of: a work by a reputable Jewish scholar, the son of a leading rabbi, “proving” that the most hideous of all anti-Semitic charges is true. From now on, whoever believes in Jewish vampirism, whether literally or figuratively, as in the notorious caricature in Britain’s Independent of Ariel Sharon as an ogre eating a Palestinian child, need only cite Pasque di Sangue as his reference. Even if Toaff were to destroy every copy of it, pirated editions, translated into various languages, will no doubt soon be turning up beside The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Indeed, Toaff’s attempted suppression of it will only be taken as proof of the Elders’ power. No sooner has the truth about Jewish child murder been revealed than it is banished by them from the bookstores!
Pasque di Sangue is thus a harmful and irresponsible book in a way that neither Horowitz’s Reckless Rites nor Stanislawski’s A Murder in Lemberg can be said to be. Nor are all three about the same thing, for whereas the first two purport to uncover historic patterns of systemic Jewish violence toward Gentiles, the third deals with the murder of a single Jew.
And yet all three of these books share, to one degree or another, the same tendency. In each a knowledgeable Jewish scholar, reacting to the extremes of religious nationalism in Israel, distorts the past in an attempt to understand a present that alarms him. “How could this have happened?” asks Stanislawski of the Rabin assassination with a palpable sense of shock. In reply, he points to Abraham Ber Pilpel as Yigal Amir’s forerunner, just as Horowitz links Baruch Goldstein to vengeful Purim Jews, and Toaff views northern Italy’s barbaric Ashkenazim as the predecessors of today’s settlers.
Stanislawski’s question, however, is an odd one for a historian to ask. Why, after all, should it not have happened? Why should a Jew in Israel not be capable of assassinating a prime minister believed by him to be leading his country to disaster? Has not practically every nation on earth, including those we think of today as the most civilized, had its extreme religious and political movements, its civil wars and assassinations, its bloody conflicts with its neighbors, often in recent historical times? What is there to make a historian think that Jews should be immune to such things or so to shock him when they appear in a Jewish state as to affect his judgment of what happened hundreds of years ago?
Accompanying this shock, I think, is a kind of dialectical reasoning. It starts with the belief that the Jews, at least since outgrowing their ancient warrior spirit, have indeed been historically more civilized, more rational, and more “progressive” than other peoples. Next, it turns its attention to the state of Israel in which, by contemporary liberal standards, many Jews seem distressingly unlike this image of them. How, the question is asked, can a Jewish state that oppresses Palestinians and is in thrall to a territorially expansionist settler movement driven by a fanatical religious nationalism have emerged from a past guided by such different values?
The problem, then, is to reconcile these seemingly opposed aspects of Jewish experience. One way of doing so would be to acknowledge that Jewish values in the past have never been quite what they are now taken to be, and that the belief in a historically “progressive” Jewish people is largely an illusion of the modern liberal Jewish imagination. A close scrutiny of Jewish history would provide ample basis for such a conclusion.
Yet, for some Jewish historians, their own sense of Jewishness has been too shaped by that imagination for them to accept this possibility. A different solution must be found.
It is this solution, it seems to me, that Horowitz, Stanislawski, and Toaff, each in his different way, have hit upon. It is the solution of what one might call the “hidden gene.” The Jews, we are told, have indeed been, ever since reaching national maturity, a “progressive” people. Yet within the body of this people there has always been a defective element, a genetic throwback, as it were. This element has surfaced at different times in Jewish history in different guises and has been repressed each time in an act of collective denial. But that denial has come at the Jewish people’s peril, since the “hidden gene” continues to reside recessively within it, always with the potential to crop up again, as in Israel’s settler movement—which, precisely because its antecedents were forgotten, was slow to be recognized and combated. It is thus incumbent on the Jewish historian to search for these antecedents and to expose them, for both explanatory and prophylactic ends.
This, however, is poor history and poor politics. It is a Manichean approach to both, according to which there is a “good” Jewish people and a “bad” Jewish people, or a “good” and “bad” Jew within every Jew, so that, in order to maintain the balance between them, the better the “good” Jew is (the “real” Italian Jew south of the Po, the modernizer in Lemberg, the Israeli supporter of the “peace process”), the worse the “bad” Jew must be made to seem. And yet just as this does not yield an accurate picture of 19th-century Galicia or 15th-century Italy, so it does not yield one of Israel today.
What is ultimately lacking in such historians is the kind of Jewish self-acceptance that would enable them to feel comfortable with the totality of Jewish experience rather than with just those parts of it that they identify with. This is not a matter of liking everything. It is one of understanding and having empathy for everything—the ability, so crucial in the writing of history, to get under the skin even of what one disapproves of and to fathom its inner world. Neither Horowitz, Stanislawski, nor Toaff is able to do this with historical Jewish populations they perceive negatively, just as they seem unable to do it with religious nationalism in Israel today. If they could, they would realize that, no less than the Orthodox and the modernizers in 19th-century Galicia, the Israeli religious Right and the Israeli secular Left are as much profoundly complementary as they are bitterly opposed. It would take a historian more inclusive in his sympathies to grasp this: one more aware of the deeper dialectic of Jewish history.
* Princeton, 160 pp., $21.95.