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Damascus Affair

DAMASCUS AFFAIR, a notorious *blood libel in 1840 in which Christian antisemitism and popular Muslim anti-Jewish feelings came to a head and were aggravated by the political struggle of the European powers for influence in the Middle East. Syria was then ruled by Muhammad Ali of Egypt, who had rebelled against Turkey. France supported Muhammad Ali, while the other powers, especially Austria and Great Britain, were interested in preserving Turkish power and in preventing the extention of French influence.

On February 5, 1840, the Capuchin friar Thomas, an Italian who had long resided in Damascus, disappeared together with his Muslim servant Ibrahim ʿAmāra. The monk had been involved in shady business, and the two men were probably murdered by tradesmen with whom Thomas had quarreled. Nonetheless, the Capuchins immediately circulated the news that the Jews had murdered both men in order to use their blood for Passover. As Catholics in Syria were officially under French protection, the investigation should have been conducted, according to local law, by the French consul. But the latter, Ratti-Menton, allied himself with the accusers, and supervised the investigation jointly with the governor-general Sherif Padia; it was conducted in the most barbarous fashion. A barber, Solomon Negrin, was arbitrarily arrested and tortured until a "confession" was extorted from him, according to which the monk had been killed in the house of David Harari by seven Jews. The men whom he named were subsequently arrested; two of them died under torture, one of them converted to Islam in order to be spared, and the others were made to "confess." A Muslim servant in the service of David Harari related under duress that Ibrahim ʿAmāra was killed in the house of Meir Farḥi, in the presence of the latter and other Jewish notables. Most of those mentioned were arrested, but one of them, Isaac Levi Picciotto, was an Austrian citizen and thus under the protection of the Austrian consul; this eventually led to the intervention of Austria, England, and the United States in the affair. When some bones were found in a sewer in the Jewish quarter, the accusers proclaimed that they were those of Thomas, and buried them accordingly. An inscription on the tombstone stated that it was the grave of a saint tortured by the Jews. Then more bones were found, alleged to be those of Ibrahim ʿAmāra. But a well-known physician in Damascus, Dr. Lograso, refused to certify that they were human bones, and requested that they be sent to a European university for examination. This, however, met with the opposition of the French consul. The authorities then announced that, on the strength of the confessions of the accused and the remains found of the victims, the guilt of the Jews in the double murder was proved beyond doubt. They also seized 63Jewish children so as to extort the hiding place of the victims' blood from their mothers.

The news of the atrocities in Damascus aroused the concern of the Jewish world. The first Jewish attempt to intervene in the tragic situation came from Alexandria in the form of a petition addressed to Muhammad Ali, as a result of the initiative of Israel *Bak, the Jerusalem printer. At the same time, the Austrian consul general in Egypt, A. Laurin, received a report from the Austrian consul in Damascus and also petitioned Muhammad Ali to stop the torture methods used by the investigators. Muhammad Ali agreed, and instructions were accordingly issued to Damascus by express courier. As a result, the use of torture came to an end on April 25, 1840. However, the accusation itself was not rescinded and the investigation against the Jews continued. Laurin tried to influence the consul general of France in Egypt to restrain Ratti-Menton, who was his subordinate, but he was unsuccessful. He then acted in a manner contrary to diplomatic practice by sending the report he had received from Damascus to James de Rothschild, the honorary Austrian consul in Paris. He also requested Rothschild to intervene with the French government. This did not bring any result. In order to alert public opinion in France and in the civilized world, James de Rothschild, without the authorization of Chancellor Metternich in Vienna, published the report in the press. In Vienna, his brother Solomon Rothschild approached Metternich on the issue. The latter reprimanded Laurin, but nevertheless consented to his activity, as it caused embarrassment to the representatives of France in Egypt and Syria. Laurin was then joined by the British consul general in Egypt, as well as by other European consuls, who supported him in his dispute with the French. As a result of his efforts, an order was sent to Damascus on May 3, 1840, requesting protection for the Jews from the violence of Muslim and Christian mobs.

In the meantime, Western Jewry had been shocked by what had happened, and vigorous protests were voiced. Western European Jews and, especially, the Jews of France and Britain, saw signs of a return to the darkness of the Middle Ages. The events also alarmed assimilated Jews, as was evident from their reactions, even of such Jews as the young *Lasalle, who had completely broken away from Judaism. Enlightened non-Jews also protested against the accusation through the press and mass meetings. A Jewish delegation, whose members included Moses *Montefiore, his secretary Louis *Loewe, Adolphe *Crémieux, and Solomon *Munk, left for Egypt and was received by Muhammad Ali. The delegation requested that the investigation should be abandoned by the Damascus authorities and transferred to *Alexandria for judicial clarification or that the case be considered by European judges. This request was not granted as war was imminent between Egypt and Turkey. Both Muhammad Ali and the French wished to prevent an investigation into the events in Damascus. The Jews, whose first concern was the release of their coreligionists, decided to accept the simple liberation of the prisoners without any judicial declaration of innocence. In the end it was, however, explicitly stated that their liberation was an act of justice and not merely a favor granted by the ruler. The liberation order was issued on August 28, 1840, and those prisoners who were still alive in Damascus were saved.

Montefiore and his delegation left Egypt for Constantinople, where they appealed to the sultan for the publication of a firman which would proclaim blood libels fallacious and prohibit the trial of Jews on the basis of such accusations. Nevertheless, the Catholics of Damascus continued to tell tourists, for many years, about the saint who had been tortured and murdered by the Jews, and how the Jews had been saved from the gallows by the intrigues of Jewish notables from abroad. The Damascus Affair also aroused Jewish awareness of the need for intercommunal cooperation, finally resulting in the establishment of the Alliance Israélite *Universelle.


S. Posener, Adolphe Crémieux, 1 (Fr. 1933), 197–247, 259–60; D. Salomons, An Account of the Recent Persecutions of the Jews at Damascus (1840); L. Loewe, The Damascus Affair (1940), diary 1840; Szajkowski, in: Zion, 19 (1954), 167–70; Brawer, ibid., 5 (1940), 294–7; A. Galanté, Documents officiels turcs concernant les Juifs de Turquie (1931), 157–61, 214–40; Meisl, in: Festschrift… S. Dubnow… (1930), 226–36; J. Jacobs, in: The Jewish Experience in America, 2 (1969), 271–80; JHSET, index; Milano, Bibliotheca, nos. 2450–51; Aceldama (It., 1896), treats Thomas as martyr. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Frankel, The Damascus Affair (1997); Y. Harel, Be-Sefinot shel Esh la-Ma'arav (2003).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.