Antisemitism: The Power of Myth - More than a Lie
described some slanders as not merely lies but "malignant new myths"
that link "classic anti-Jewish slanders with contemporary anti-Israel
politics." How do such myths become weapons in a war of words? What
power do words have to turn neighbor against neighbor? Nowhere have
these questions been more heatedly debated than on college campuses,
places where young people traditionally encounter new ideas and are
encouraged to challenge old truths.
In the spring of 2002, college campuses in northern California were at the center of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations over the crisis in the Middle East. Feelings ran particularly high at schools like San Francisco State and the University of California at Berkeley. Both schools have a long history of social activism and many students with ties to the Middle East.
In April, a flier caused an uproar at San Francisco State. After seeing it, Robert A. Corrigan, the president of the university, demanded that the flier be removed from campus. In a message to students, faculty, and staff on April 12, Corrigan explained why:
Earlier this week, major campus rallies dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict drew audiences as large as 1000 to Malcolm X Plaza. We had on and off-campus speakers, strong and often hostile words, and a march. In marked contrast to events on other campuses, these were non-violent-a tribute to many people of differing views who united to make sure this was so.
There was, however, one absolutely unacceptable action. Some of you have heard of it, and I am writing to let you know what happened and how we have responded. A flier put out by several student groups promoting one of the rallies contained an ugly, antisemitic section. I do not want to give its words or images further visibility by describing them in detail; suffice it to say that they referred to the ritual slaughter of babies. I have written individual letters to each of the groups and University Dean of Human Relations Ken Monteiro is meeting with them as well. We are repeating a familiar message: Hate speech is not free speech. Antisemitism is as ugly and unallowable as racism or scapegoating of Muslims, Arabs, or any other group. None are protected unless all are protected. We remain wholly committed to maintaining this campus as a place where all feel safe and supported.
In reporting on the incident in The New Republic, journalist Karen Alexander writes:
The head of the Muslim Students' Association at SFSU, in a qualified apology to the university president, placed blame for the April "blood libel" flier on non-students despite the fact that the poster was advertising an event sponsored by his group. "Please understand that the flier was actually designed by a non-student community member," one student leader wrote. "We in no way intended nor desired to have this obviously offensive and injurious phrase on our flier." But Jewish students complain that the apology was never sent to any of the Jewish groups on campus. And when SFSU President Robert A. Corrigan condemned what he called "[a] small but terribly destructive number of pro-Palestinian demonstrators, many of whom were not SFSU students" for "abandon[ing] themselves to intimidating behavior and statements too hate-filled to repeat," pro-Palestinian activists from SFSU and [the University of California at Berkeley] held a joint press conference to denounce Corrigan for "capitalizing on the atmosphere of fear and fostering intolerance against Arabs and Muslims on campus."1
A libel is a slander-an image or statement that maliciously damages the reputation of an individual or a group. "The blood libel" is a lie about Jewish ritual practice that has led to the murder of countless Jews over the centuries.
Some scholars trace the story to Norwich, England in 1144. That year, Christians there claimed that the Jews had kidnapped a Christian child, tied him to a cross, and then crucified him. The charge was false. There was no evidence that anyone had been murdered, let alone murdered for religious purposes. Although the accusation was false, its long-term consequences were devastating. Throughout the 1100s, similar accusations were made against Jews not only in England but also in France. By the 1200s, the libel had spread to Spain and Germany. In almost every instance, the accusations resulted in the torture and death of Jews.
In the town of Fulda, the site of a famous German monastery, the lie took a new turn in 1235. On Christmas Day, a miller and his wife returned from church to find their mill burnt to the ground and the charred bodies of their five sons in the ruins. The Jews of Fulda were immediately accused of the crime. According to various chroniclers, they not only murdered the boys but also drew off their blood and placed it into waxed bags. The chroniclers offered no proof in support of their accusation. Although most did not even suggest a motive for such a horrendous crime, a few claimed that the Jews needed the blood for medicinal or religious purposes.
The chroniclers did describe how the townspeople placed the bodies in a cart and carried them to the emperor, Frederick II, as evidence of what the Jews had done. At a time when few people traveled more than two or three miles from home in a lifetime, Christians from Fulda made a 150-mile journey to the emperor's castle. At every stop along the way, they told their story. Medieval historian Gavin I. Langmuir describes what happened next:
[Because] rumors were flying around Germany, [Frederick] summoned the magnates of the empire to discuss the charge. Since they expressed diverse opinions, he then sent letters to the kings of Europe, asking them to send converts from Judaism to Christianity to determine the truth. He did all this very quickly, for on 24 February 1236 Henry III of England wrote back to Frederick, remarking that he had never heard of such a crime before.
When the converts Frederick had requested assembled in Germany in the spring of 1236, they declared that both the Bible and the Talmud made clear that Jews were not greedy for human blood, but rather considered any blood to be polluting, and human blood even more so. Nor, as they commented acutely, would Jews endanger themselves by such conduct. Frederick then proclaimed the accusation false. In July of 1236 at Augsburg, Frederick issued the famous imperial bull [an edict or order] that extended to all Jews of Germany the privileges granted by Frederick I to the Jews of Worms, and which categorized the Jews of Germany as serfs of the imperial chamber. At the end of the privilege, he reported the results of his investigation, absolved the Jews of Fulda and Germany of the charge against them, and forbade any cleric or laymen to make such accusations against Jews in the future.2
Despite the emperor's order, the accusations continued. In March of 1247, two Franciscans accused the Jews of Valréas near the French border of crucifying a child and using the youngster's blood for ritual purposes. Several Jews in the town were tortured and many others were killed. The survivors appealed to the pope for help and he responded. Langmuir writes:
On 28 May 1247, Innocent IV condemned the persecution in strong language. Then on 5 July, 1247, he responded to the pleas of the Jews in Germany who were being attacked in various localities because they were alleged to share the heart of a murdered child while solemnizing Passover. Innocent declared the accusation false, and four days later, on 9 July, he reissued the general papal bull of protection for Jews with a new addition. Noting that Jews had been killed at Fulda and in several other places because they were accused of using human blood in their religious rites, he expressed his disbelief and strictly forbade such accusations in the future.3
Despite the pope's order, the accusations and the punishment of Jews continued well into the 20th century and beyond. Why? Langmuir notes that the first blood libel occurred at a time of great political and social unrest. It was also a time when the pope and other religious leaders were encouraging monks and abbots to build support for a new crusade against the Muslims and other "non-believers." In their zeal, some told horrifying stories about the religious practices of heretics or unbelievers, including Muslims and Jews.
As a result of such stories, "the Jew" became "a symbol of depravity and sub-humanity." In many European countries, Jews were now required to live in a ghetto-a section of a city or town that was enclosed by high walls and guarded by Christian gatekeepers. As Langmuir notes, that isolation "made it all the easier for people outside to perceive them, not as individual human beings, but as walking symbols of those social and personal threats that people could not confront in themselves but could attack directly when projected toward Jews."4
How did a lie that originated in Germany in the 13th century reach a California college campus in the 21st century? The answer can be found on the Internet. In June of 2002, San Francisco State closed the website of the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) because it was linked to sites that promoted antisemitism. Among those sites was "the Muslim directory"-which contains articles referring to the Holocaust as "the lie of the century" and claims of a Jewish ritual murder in Chicago in 1955. According to reporter Joe Eskenazi, the GUPS site was also "linked to the Hamas Web page, the Holy Land Foundation - a "charitable" organization whose assets were frozen by the United States for allegedly operating as a terrorist front- and an online copy of the anti-Semitic hoax "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion."5
What limits did Corrigan place on free speech at San Francisco State? Where is the line drawn at your school? Where do you draw the line? How do you distinguish between free speech and hate speech?
What does Corrigan mean when he tells students, faculty, and staff, "None are protected unless all are protected"? How is he defining the university's "universe of obligation"? What is he suggesting about the impact of hate speech on the university as whole? On society as a whole? What is the role of a leader in creating a community where everyone feels safe?
A leader of the Muslim Students' Association at San Francisco State claimed his group was unaware that the flier slandered Jews. He placed the blame on a "non-student community member" who designed the flier. What responsibilities do groups have for words issued in their name, including words that appear on posters and fliers? Is it enough to say, "We didn't know"?
Why do you think the pro-Palestinian groups that distributed the flier apologized only to the president of San Francisco State? Should they have apologized to Jewish organizations on campus? Israelis? All Jews? How important are such apologies?
What distinguishes a libel from other lies? What does this reading suggest about the way a lie becomes a "malignant myth"?
In her novel, A Boy of Old Prague, Sulamith Ish-Kishor imagines the effects of the separation of Jews from Christians on a young Christian boy named Tomas in the 1500s. (Multiple copies of the book are available from the Facing History Resource Center.) Tomas grows up accepting without question all that he has heard about the Jews until the day his master sends the frightened boy to work for a Jew. Convinced that he will be killed so that the Jews can drink his blood, he gradually discovers that Jews are not demons but people much like he is. How does Tomas's story explain why the words of leaders like Frederick II and Innocent IV did not have greater impact? What does the story suggest about the power of myth? How does one counter a myth? Is it enough to expose it as a lie?
During the Middle Ages, rumors spread from person to person. Inexpensive books, magazines, and newspapers speeded up the process in the late 1800s. In the 20th century, radio and television accelerated the rate at which rumors traveled even more. How has the Internet affected the way rumors spread in the 21st century from person to person, community to community? In your experience, what is the best strategy for separating fact from fiction on the Internet or anywhere else that rumors fly? Share your ideas with your classmates and as a group develop a list of strategies that you and others can use to make useful distinctions.
The "blood libel" is not the only slander with a long and murderous history. In the 20th century, the Russian secret police concocted their own myth about the Jews- The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. They offered the document to the world in 1905 as "proof" that "the Jews" were plotting to take over the world. In doing so, the secret police hoped to strengthen the position of tsar Nicholas II by exposing his opponents as part of a massive conspiracy. The police took the story from a novel written by Hermann Goedsche, a German antisemite. He, in turn, plagiarized the work of Maurice Joly, a French writer who, in 1864, wrote a political tract accusing the followers of Napoleon III of conspiring to take over the world. Goedsche's contribution was to replace French plotters with Jewish ones.
The document was exposed as a fake as early as 1921. Yet throughout the 20th century, leaders used the Protocols for political advantage. For example, Adolf Hitler cited the Protocols as "proof" that Jews were dangerous. In recent years, the book has been translated into Arabic where it has found a new audience. In 2002, Dream TV, one of Egypt's two privately-owned stations, produced a 41-part TV series that traces the history of the Middle East from 1855 to 1917 by incorporating ideas from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Why would a TV station in the 21st century use a known forgery as the basis for a history of the region? One of the writers told Al Jazeera television that whether or not the document is authentic is not the issue: "Zionism exists and it has controlled the world since the dawn of history." He insisted that many of the book's predictions have been borne out and that it would be "stupid" not to consider the possibility that the book is true, even if the chance was "one in a million."
According to Samir Raafat, a writer in Cairo, "Once it goes on television it enters everyone's living room, and that's where the danger is. You are spoon-feeding them more hate propaganda. This is not conducive to tolerance of the other or knowing the other. There's a price going to be paid." What is that price? What does the history of the Protocols suggest about the way leaders use myth to enhance their own power by turning neighbor against neighbor?
1 "San Francisco Dispatch: West Bank" by Karen Alexander. The New Republic Online, posted June 14, 2002.
2 Toward a Definition of Antisemitism by Galvin I. Langmuir. University of California Press, 1990, pp. 264-265.
3 Toward a Definition of Antisemitism by Galvin I. Langmuir. University of California Press, 1990, p. 265
4 Toward a Definition of Antisemitism by Galvin I. Langmuir. University of California Press, 1990, p. 309
5 "SFSU Yanks Pro-Palestinian Web Site Denying the Holocaust" by Joe Eskenazi. Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, June 21, 2002.