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Arab/Muslim Anti-Semitism: The Damascus Blood Libel


The Damascus Blood Libel, or Damascus Affair, was a notorious blood libel that originated in 1840. Christian anti-Semitism and popular Muslim anti-Jewish feelings came to a head that year 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 Ali, while the other powers - notably Austria and Great Britain - were interested in preserving Turkish power and in preventing the extention of French influence.

The Libel is Born
The Libel Spreads
Broader Repercussions

The Libel is Born

On February 5, 1840, Capuchin friar Thomas, an Italian who had long resided in Damascus, disappeared together with his Muslim servant Ibrahim ʿAmāra. The monk was known to have been involved in shady business and the two men were probably murdered by tradesmen with whom Thomas had quarreled. Nonetheless, the Capuchins immediately circulated news that 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 by the French consul per local law. But the consul, Ratti-Menton, allied himself with the accusers and supervised the investigation jointly with the governor-general Sherif Padia; and 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 Farhi, in the presence of Farhi and other Jewish notables. Most of those mentioned were arrested, but one of them, Isaac Levi Picciotto, was an Austrian citizen and under the protection of the Austrian consul. His citizenship 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.

The authorities also seized 63 Jewish children so as to extort the hiding place of the victims’ blood from their mothers.

The Libel Spreads

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 Laurin general in Egypt received a report from the Austrian consul in Damascus and also petitioned Muhammad Ali to stop the torture methods used by the investigators.

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, however, did not bring any result. In order to alert public opinion in France and around the world, Baron de Rothschild published the report in the press. In Vienna, his brother Solomon Rothschild approached Chancellor 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 England, 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.

Broader Repercussions

What caused extraordinary anxiety among the Jews of the West in 1840 was not only the danger facing their co-religionists in the Middle East but also, and probably even more, the fact that the accusation of ritual murder in Damascus was initially accepted as proven fact by almost the entire press in the constitutional states of Continental Europe. Typical was a report appearing in innumerable newspapers in April declaring:

Today the truth is known: of the nine accused [Jews] … seven are united in admitting everything … the body [of Father Thomas] was suspended head down; one [of the Jews] held a tub to collect the blood while two others applied pressure to facilitate the flow. Then, once the source of blood had dried up, all of them, maddened, threw themselves on the corpse, cutting it to bits.

In England, such reports were treated with greater skepticism, but the country’s leading newspaper, The Times, persistently advanced the thesis that given the prima facie case against their religion, the onus of disproving the ritual murder charge fell squarely on the Jews. The Times, like the influential German Leipziger Allgemeine Zeitung, now extensively reproduced the arguments frequently elaborated upon in Christian polemics since the 13th century that passages in the Talmud prescribed the sacrifice of Gentiles. Thus, an editorial article in The Times in June 1840 declared:

[The affair is] one of the most important cases ever submitted to the notice of the civilized world … Admitting for the moment [the accusation to be true] … then the Jewish religion must at once disappear from the face of the earth … We shall await the issue as the whole of Europe and the civilized world will do with intense interest.

Adding still further to the sense of embattlement and shock that now overtook large segments of European Jewry was the situation that had developed in France by the summer of 1840. Not only was the charge of ritual murder emanating from the French diplomatic delegation in Damascus persistently and vociferously supported by the entire ultramontane Catholic press led by the influential daily l’Univers but, making matters much worse, the French premier, Adolphe Thiers, likewise gave his – albeit more guarded – backing to the consul in Syria, the Comte de Ratti-Menton. (Replying in June to critics in the Chamber of Deputies he declared, for example, that “you protest in the name of the Jews and I protest in the name of a Frenchman who until now has carried out his duties with honor and loyalty.”) It was in the wake of the debate in the French parliament that the representative bodies of Jewry in France and Britain, the Consistoire Central and the Board of Deputies, took the difficult decision to dispatch the high-level delegation led by Adolphe Crémieux and Moses Montefiore to the Middle East. It had become all too clear, stated one prominent member of the Anglo-Jewish community, that at stake was “whether the flame of persecution … lighted up in the East … be so fed with bigotry that it shall increase … and go forth like some monster, destroying and to destroy, until the very name of Jew should be heard only with horror and disgust and their persons shall sink under cruelty, oppression and contempt … It is not merely … for humanity [and] our oppressed brethren that we are called upon to act; it is our own battle we fight.”

Jewish historiography (as typically in the above entry) tended to downplay severely the extent of the verbal battering unleashed against the Jews in Europe during the course of 1840, and likewise generally ignored the fact that two radically opposed versions of the Damascus Affair were passed down to posterity and to a large extent have continued to follow their own separate courses until today. In the Jewish narrative the crisis for the most part culminated in a “happy ending,” with the release of the surviving prisoners in Damascus; the issue of the firman by the Sultan in Constantinople repudiating the ritual murder myth; and the triumphant return home of Montefiore and Crémieux. However, from very early on, an alternative Judeophobic version of the affair was put into circulation. In 1846 a two-volume book was published in Paris, written by Achille Laurent (almost certainly a pseudonym), Relation historique des affaires de Syrie depuis 1840 jusqu’en 1842, which contained the complete protocols of the interrogation undertaken by the local and French authorities in Damascus during their investigation of the (alleged) murder of Father Thomas and Ibrahim ‘Amara, as well as a large collection of documents marshaled to reinforce the thesis that the ritual murder is prescribed by Judaism (or at least practiced traditionally by some Jewish sects). The entire collection clearly emanated from the coterie which had manned the French consulate in 1840, and thus could be seen as something close to an official publication. Containing as they did a series of confessions describing in great detail how and why the Jews of Damascus had committed the murders – but omitting all mention of the extensive use of torture – the protocols once in the public domain acted over time as an effective counter-weight to the version of the affair preserved in Jewish historiography and collective memory.

In the coming years and decades, the protocols were published in various editions in German, Italian,abic, and Russian. The idea that the ritual murder case had been conclusively proved in Damascus and the prisoners only released for political reasons or because of bribery now became a key theme repeated at length in an extensive series of antisemitic journals and books, ranging from the Jesuit Civiltà Cattolica to Der Stuermer, and from Gougenot des Mousseaux’s Le juif, le judaïsme et la judaïsation des peuples chrétiens to August Rohling’s Talmudjude and to Henri Desportes’ Le mystère du sang chez les juifs de tous les temps. In 1986 Mustafa Talas, the Syrian minister of defense, issued yet another edition of the protocols together with numerous documents related to the case. The idea that the ritual charge had been authenticated conclusively in Damascus in 1840 is repeated from time to time in Arabic-language media and by diplomats representing various Arab states. The tomb (allegedly) housing Father Thomas’ remains still stands in the Franciscan Terra Sancta church in Damascus and carries the statement that he was “murdered by the Jews on February 5, 1840.”


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).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.