A blood li­bel in Amer­ica

‘The Ac­cu­sa­tion’ tells the grip­ping true tale of an age-old an­ti­semitic farce in the ‘Gold­ene Me­d­ina’

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • ME­NACHEM SHLOMO

It’s a story all-too fa­mil­iar to Jews around the world. A four-year-old Chris­tian girl goes miss­ing in a small subur­ban town. The com­mu­nity bands to­gether to search the forests for her as her fam­ily hopes for the best but plans for the worst.

And then, as the op­ti­mism be­gins to fade, ru­mors spread that the small Jewish com­mu­nity is at fault; that they had likely murdered her to use her blood for a re­li­gious rit­ual. The town’s au­thor­i­ties get in­volved.

While this ex­act story, or one like it, has oc­curred count­less times through­out his­tory – lead­ing to pogroms and ex­pul­sions, mur­ders and tor­ture – this time it didn’t hap­pen in Ukraine or Poland. This time it’s the Jewish com­mu­nity in a small town in up­state New York that gath­ers in its syn­a­gogue to also hope for the best but plan for the worst.

The blood li­bel that oc­curred in Septem­ber 1928 in Massena, New York, is the only recorded blood li­bel to oc­cur in the United States.

Why did it hap­pen? And per­haps even more con­fus­ing: Why hasn’t it hap­pened again?

New York Univer­sity his­tory pro­fes­sor Ed­ward Beren­son at­tempts to an­swer this ques­tion in his fas­ci­nat­ing book The Ac­cu­sa­tion: Blood Li­bel in an Amer­i­can Town. The 229-page page-turner re­counts the de­tails of the event and the ram­i­fi­ca­tions that re­sulted from it.

The book of­fers a grip­ping tale of a com­mu­nity of im­mi­grants and for­eign work­ers deal­ing with fear and xeno­pho­bia while the coun­try is in the throes of a heated elec­tion sea­son. At a time when El­lis Is­land was packed full of Yid­dish-speak­ing men and women seek­ing a new life in the Gold­ene Me­d­ina (the “Golden” or “Promised Land”), the coun­try was fac­ing a bat­tle for its very iden­tity. The Ku Klux Klan was gain­ing promi­nence, and the bat­tle be­tween Catholics and Protes­tants was reach­ing a fever pitch.

On the cusp of what would be the be­gin­ning of the Great De­pres­sion, the time was ripe for peo­ple to be­gin blam­ing the stranger in their midst, to look for a scape­goat to pin the coun­try’s prob­lems on. The time was ripe for big­otry, racism and re­bel­lion.

But Beren­son also takes you back to the very source of this deadly an­ti­semitic con­spir­acy, widely be­lieved to have oc­curred in Eng­land in the mid-12th cen­tury, and doc­u­mented by a monk named Thomas of Mon­mouth. The monk re­counts that a friend of his, Theobald, had told him that the Jews of Nor­wich “brought a Chris­tian child be­fore Easter and tor­tured him with all the tor­ture that our Lord was tor­tured with; and on Good Fri­day hanged him on a cross.” Theobald also told him that the Jews prac­ticed this mu­ti­la­tion each year, select­ing a new lo­ca­tion each time.

Thomas of Mon­mouth took Theobald at his word be­cause Theobald had been a Jew him­self. The story came from a “con­verted en­emy [who] had been privy to the se­crets of our en­e­mies,” Thomas wrote, re­fer­ring to the Jews.

As the years went on, this story would grow wings and be used as a source for Jews to be blamed for the deaths of chil­dren all through­out Europe. Beren­son de­scribes many of the most fa­mous cases. Some led to rea­son­able towns­peo­ple dis­miss­ing the claims but all too of­ten led to pogroms, tor­ture and death.

Nearly 500 years later, as Jews be­gan to re­set­tle en masse in the United States, they thought they were leav­ing the an­ti­semitic horrors ex­pe­ri­enced in Europe be­hind. But the Massena case shows how sto­ries can spread and travel across oceans de­spite all odds, and de­spite the un­like­li­ness of their fac­tu­al­ity.

In de­scrib­ing the events of Massena in 1928, Beren­son re­minds the reader how vul­ner­a­ble the mi­nor­ity can be and how quickly a com­mu­nity can turn against one of its very own. At a time when the United States has suf­fered the blood­i­est year of an­tisemitism ever – with Jews hav­ing been gunned down in Pitts­burgh and Poway – the mes­sage could not be more ap­pro­pri­ate.

Beren­son’s book chal­lenges the reader to ask the tough ques­tions: Are Jews truly safe in the United States? Can age-old con­spir­acy the­o­ries re­gard­ing the Jewish peo­ple be­come widely held be­liefs once more?

The Ac­cu­sa­tion acts as a re­minder of the dan­ger of mak­ing claims about a peo­ple from a place of re­sent­ment, fear or xeno­pho­bia. Jews and non-Jews must read this book and take the mes­sages from the past to heart, en­sur­ing that old wives’ tales re­main just that.

(ll­lus­tra­tive photo, Amir Co­hen/Reuters)

SWEDISH JOUR­NAL­IST Don­ald Bostrom speaks at a con­fer­ence in Di­mona. His story on al­leged trans­plant-or­gan theft, pub­lished in a Swedish news­pa­per, pro­voked out­rage in Is­rael.

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