The Damascus Blood Libel (1840)

The Damascus Blood Libel (1840)

By: Dr. Dov Levitan

Introduction

"The lot was cast … concerning … every month, [until it fell on] the twelfth month, that is, the month of Adar" (Esther 3:7).  Adar is the sixth month in the Hebrew calendar, counting from Tishre, and the last month (12) when counting from the month of Nisan.  The name Adar was brought into the Hebrew language by those Jews who returned from the Babylonian exile (in the beginning of the Second Temple period), and apparently comes from the Akkadian adura, meaning threshing floor, and the Ugaritic u'dar, meaning heroism. In Aramaic it appears as idra.   Adar also appears in Scripture as a personal name:  "And Bela had sons:  Addar, Gera, Abihud" (I Chron. 8:3).

"Just as one reduces rejoicing in the month of Ab, so one increases rejoicing in the month of Adar."[1]  This commandment to rejoice in the month of Adar appears in Tractate Ta`anit (dealing with fast days), and not where we would expect to see it, in Tractate MegillahAdar, of all the months of the year, is considered the month of rejoicing for two reasons:

1)      Purim falls in this month.

2)      This month ushers in the spring; hence its Akkadian connection, adura, i.e., the time for preparing the threshing floors in anticipation of the spring harvest.

Adar is marked for bad things turning good.  Therefore the Sages recommended that a Jew who has legal or business dealings with a non-Jew should get out of them in the month of Ab, since that is a month of bad luck, and should try to have his legal or business dealings fall in the month of Adar, since that is a month of good fortune for the Jews.[2]

Due to the proximity of Adar to the month of Nisan the Sages established the first of Adar as the time for "announcing the contribution of the shekel [a head tax]." This money was used to repair the roads, improve the wells, and provide for the needs of those on pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the upcoming festival, easing their travel and time spent in the city.[3]

 As early as Talmudic times the rabbis made sure to mark Adar by a spirit of gaiety; however the repeated emphasis that the holiday was indeed observed – "these days are recalled and observed in every generation:  by every family, every province, and every city" (Esther 9:28) – hints at the difficulties initially encountered when Mordecai asked that the Purim miracle be recognized as a holiday which would be celebrated by all subsequent generations, by Jews everywhere.  The Jerusalem Talmud also hints at similar difficulties in the Land of Israel, getting the Sages to acknowledge Purim as a national holiday to be celebrated by all Jews:

What did Mordechai and Esther do?  They wrote a letter and sent it to our rabbis…  They [the rabbis] said to them:  do not the troubles besetting us suffice, that you wish to further burden us with the trouble of Haman?  So they wrote to them again.[4]

Persecution of the Jews on a variety of pretexts did not come to an end with the hanging of Haman.  In every generation people arise who wish to annihilate us.  One such bitter occurrence is described below.

The Damascus Blood Libel – a Review of the Incident

In 1840 there was a terrible blood libel in Damascus that shook up Jewry throughout the world.  As in every year, the Jews of Damascus were preparing to usher in the month of Adar properly with extra rejoicing, but instead of mourning turning to rejoicing, their rejoicing turned woeful mourning.

Damascus had been conquered by Mohammad Ali, ruler of Egypt, who was supported by France.  He had fought against the Ottoman Sultan, who was aided by Britain and Austria.  The background to the blood libel was the disappearance of the French monk, Father Thomas, along with his Moslem servant after posting a notice in the Jewish market of Damascus, on the first of Adar (5 February, 1840).

Ratti Menton, the French Consul in Damascus and a well-known anti-Semite, came out in "defense of the Catholics," exploiting the situation in order to blame the monk's disappearance on the Jews.  French Prime Minister Adolphe Tiers supported his diplomat in Damascus.  In a conversation with James de-Rothschild he even declared, "If in the Middle Ages the Jews engaged in ritual murder, as it turns out, why should the benighted Jews of Damascus not do the same in our time?"[5]

The backdrop to the blood libel was provided by Christian jealousy of the Jews and their economic standing.  Competition between Jews and Christians for government positions was well-known in Moslem lands that sought to staff government offices with well-educated workers from among these two minority groups.

The authorities arrested a Jewish barber and tortured him until he confessed and gave the names of seven notable members of the community who supposedly had also been involved in the act.  The seven were immediately arrested, some of them were tortured to death and others confessed.  The prime suspect was Haim Farhi, a wealthy and venerated merchant who greatly aided the Jewish settlement in the land of Israel and supported the yeshiva community.  Although he was severely tortured, in the end the authorities had to release him for lack of proof.  Also Rabbi Jacob Entebi, the leader of the Damascus Jewish community, was severely tortured but managed not to break.

At the same time, bones were found in the Jewish neighborhood of Damascus and even though they were apparently the bones of some animal they were reputedly identified as the bones of the monk who had disappeared and were brought to burial in a religious ceremony.  The authorities had no compunction about using any means to prove the guilt of the Jews, who they claimed had murdered the monk in order to use his blood to bake their matzah.  The authorities even kidnapped and tortured sixty Jewish children between the ages of three and ten in order to extort confessions from their parents.

Word of this terrible blood libel reached Jewish communities outside Syria.  Moses Montefiore and other Jews of note and influence rose to the call to save their brethren who were languishing in prison in Damascus.  The formerly Jewish German poet Heinrich Heine, who lived in Paris, vociferously protested the wrong done to the Jews of Damascus.  Jews turned to several international bodies.  Adolphe Crémieux[6] led a delegation of Jews from France to meet with Mohammad Ali, ruler of Egypt, and ask him to intervene.  The Rothschild family, with the help of the Austrian consul, managed to uncover documents pertaining to the affair and publicized them in the international press.  The Ottoman sultan, although he did not actually rule in Damascus, condemned what had been done and issued a firman [edict][7] flatly forbidding dissemination of the blood libel.  The government of Britain also responded to the call and worked to help the innocent Jews.  Ultimately this energetic international response bore fruit.  In the wake of public outrage in Europe, the seven prisoners who remained alive were finally freed after many months of severe torture, while the ruler of Damascus was executed.  Thus, the end of the incident at least bore some resemblance to the Scroll of Esther.

One hundred and forty-three years later, in 1983, then Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass published a book called The Matzah of Zion, in which he repeated the false charges of the Damascus blood libel, that the Jews of Damascus had indeed killed Father Thomas in order to use his blood for baking matzah.

Analysis and Implications

Many Jews were imprisoned, tortured, and killed in the course of the great groundswell of anti-Semitism in Syria.  Historically this was not a new phenomenon.  There had been blood libels before the Damascus incident and they continued after it, but never before in modern history had Jews of note throughout the world arisen to the cause.  For the first time Jews had shown solidarity and organized on an international level, publicizing a wrong that had been done in a distant state and influencing world public opinion.  This also led to considerable strengthening of the ties between the eastern Jewish community and their brethren in Europe.[8]  The precedent established in the Damascus affair found expression later in the kidnapping of Edgar Mortara, in Bologne, 1858.  Then, too, prominent Jews spoke out, including the Rothschilds from London and Moses Montefiore and his wife Judith, who protested vociferously and succeeded in putting the affair on the international agenda.[9]

The firman issued by the Turkish sultan, which put an end to the Damascus blood libel, was greatly influential and had a mitigating influence on another two blood libels that took place seven years later, one in 1847 in the Maronite Christian city of Dir el-Kamar, Syria (now in Lebanon), and the other, the same year, in Jerusalem.

  

 

[1] Ta`anit 29a.

[2] Ta`anit 29b.

[3] Mishnah Shekalim 1.1.

[4] Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1.4.

[5] Blood libels had been common in Europe since the 12th century, but in Moslem lands they are known only since the mid-19th century.

[6] Isaac Adolphe Crémieux (1880-1796) was a French Jewish jurist and statesman who worked extensively to defend the rights of persecuted Jews.  Crémieux served at various times as president of the Consistoire Central des Israelites de France, was a member of the French parliament and Minister of Justice.

[7] A firman is a royal edict, customarily issued by Moslem countries during various historical eras, including the time of the Ottoman Empire.

[8] Jonathan Frankel, Dam u-Politika:  Alilat Damesek, ha-Yehudim ve-ha-Olam, Zalman Shazar Center, Jerusalem 2003.  The novelist, Alon Hilu, wrote a book entitled Death of a Monk, about the Damascus blood libel.

[9] See Dov Levitan, "The Kidnapping of Edgar Mortara," Parasha page, Va-Yeshev 2010.

 

Last modified: 21/10/2018

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