ROME: An Italian-Israeli historian has angered fellow Jews by taking on a subject that has long haunted his people: alleged anti-Christian hatred he says fueled medieval accusations that Jews killed Christians in ritual murders.
Ariel Toaff s book, just released in Italy, shocked the country s small Jewish community – in part because he is the son of Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi who welcomed Pope John Paul II to Rome s synagogue two decades ago in a historic visit that helped ease Catholic-Jewish relations after centuries of tensions.
The author, who teaches medieval and Renaissance history at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, Israel, delves into the charge that Jews added the blood of Christian children to wine and unleavened bread for Passover – allegations that resulted in torture, show trials and executions, periodically devastating Europe s Jewish communities over the years.
Historians have long disputed the medieval allegations, dismissing them as racism. But blood libel stories remain popular in anti-Semitic literature today.
In his Pasque di Sangue – Bloody Passovers – Toaff cites confessions from Jews accused of ritual murder to expose what he claims was a body of anti-Christian literature, prayers and rites among the communities of central Europe.
Jewish and Catholic scholars have denounced Toaff s work, saying he simply reinterpreted known documents – and has given credence to confessions that were extracted under torture.
In interviews with the Italian media and in parts of his book, Toaff has suggested that some ritual murders might have really taken place, committed by Ashkenazi Jews seeking revenge for a slew of massacres, forced conversions and persecutions suffered by German Jewry from the First Crusade of 1096 onwards.
Such acts were instinctive, visceral, virulent actions and reactions, in which innocent and unknowing children became victims of the love of God and of vengeance, Toaff wrote in the book s preface. Their blood bathed the altars of a God who, it was believed, needed to be guided, sometimes impatiently pushed to protect and to punish.
On Sunday, Bar-Ilan University said it would order Toaff to explain his research. It said it condemned any attempt to justify the awful blood libels against Jews. Fearing the book would fuel anti-Semitism, Italy s Jewish community has condemned the work. Italian rabbis issued a statement recalling that Jewish law has always banned ingesting blood or using it for rituals.
It is absolutely improper to use statements extracted under torture centuries ago to construct eccentric and abhorrent historical theses, the statement said. Toaff s 91-year-old father has been silent about the book and didn t sign the statement, but news reports and Jewish community officials said he agreed with the criticism.
The first few thousand copies of the book were released Thursday, and publishing house Il Mulino said it had already ordered a reprint. There were no immediate plans for editions in other languages.
In an interview Friday with The Associated Press, Toaff claimed that his work had been partly misunderstood. He said he did not intend to imply that ritual murders had really occurred.
I believe that ritual murders never happened, he said.
There is no proof that Jews committed such an act. But Toaff said the confessions do hold some truth – as when the accused recount anti-Christian liturgies that were mainly used on Passover, when the celebration of the Israelites liberation from ancient Egypt became a metaphor for Judaism s hope for redemption from its suffering at the hands of Christians.
These liturgical formulas in Hebrew with a strong anti-Christian tone cannot be projections of the judges who could not know these prayers, which didn t even belong to Italian rites but to the Ashkenazi tradition, he said.
Toaff said in the interview that he believes Jewish converts to Christianity spoke about these liturgies and helped spark the blood libel accusations.
Toaff s work looks mostly at blood libel stories in northeastern Italy, focusing on the 1475 death of a 2-year-old called Simon in the town of Trento. Many court documents on the case survive.
After Simon s body was found around Easter in a canal near a Jewish home, all members of the tiny Jewish community of German descent were arrested, including women and children.
Nine Jews who signed confessions after weeks of torture were tried and burned on the stake or beheaded.
Simon was canonized a century later but was removed from the list of saints and his cult banned in 1965 after a Church investigation concluded that the Jews were innocent.
The 65-year-old Toaff, a rabbi himself who holds dual Italian and Israeli citizenship, claimed that he hadn t considered the book s possible exploitation by those wishing to reopen the debate on blood libel. I wanted to see how the Jews felt in this climate of hatred, he said.
While medieval Jewish texts containing disparaging remarks about Jesus and Christians have long been known to scholars, it is unscientific to use the Trento confessions as proof of widespread hatred, said Anna Foa, a modern history professor at Rome s La Sapienza University who has read Toaff s book.
They used formulas in Hebrew only because they had to give the judges something plausible, Foa, who has written books on the trials of witches, Jews and heretics, told the AP. You cannot reconstruct the image the Jews had of the world based on what they said to the Inquisition. Monsignor Iginio Rogger, a church historian who in the 1960s led the investigation into Simon s case, said many scholars have concurred that the confessions were completely unreliable.
I wouldn t want to be in [Toaff s] shoes, answering for this to historians who have seriously documented this case, he said. The judges used horrible tortures, to the point where the accused pleaded: Tell us what you want us to say.