On February 13, 1903, a peasant in the Russian town of Dubossary found the body of a 14-year-old boy, Mikhail Rybachenko, in a garden by the Dniester River. Rybachenko had disappeared the Sunday before, after attending church with his grandparents. His corpse was strikingly thin and pale. The body bore multiple bruises and stab wounds; holes appeared by the main arteries. Quickly, a rumor spread that someone had systematically drained his blood. Rybachenko had supposedly last been seen entering a Jewish shop, and an explanation began to circulate: A Christian girl had heard her Jewish employers say that they needed Christian blood to make the matzo for Passover.
The medical examiner disputed these reports—but, since he was Jewish, many did not believe him. The authorities interrogated 30 witnesses, including the Christian woman (who denied that she had heard her employers say anything about blood and matzo). A Christian medical examiner carried out a second autopsy and agreed with his Jewish colleague that the killing had not been a ritual murder. Yet the theory didn’t subside. In fact, it spread, after being picked up by the local newspaper, Bessarabets, and the Novoe vremia of St. Petersburg. Then a Christian housemaid who worked for a Jewish family in Kishinev died, apparently from poisoning herself, and rumor claimed her as a second victim. On Easter Sunday, a two-day pogrom began. Many Jews were killed, many more were injured. For decades to come, Kishinev would symbolize the “blood libel” and the harm it did to innocent Jews.
In recent weeks, the phrase “blood libel” has found its way to the center of our political debate, thanks to Sarah Palin. When pundits criticized Palin and other conservatives for creating a climate of hatred that helped to explain the Tucson shootings, she responded in a Web video: “Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn.”
Palin has been widely denounced for using this historical comparison to exaggerate the attacks against her. And it is true that the metaphor she chose made for an inaccurate description of recent events. But, as a historian, I don’t just worry about people using history to misdescribe the present. I also worry about the damage that such metaphors can do to the history itself.
The belief that Jews murdered Christian boys appeared as early as the twelfth century, when the Jews of Norwich were accused of murdering a tanner named William (later regarded as a saint). The Benedictine Thomas of Monmouth, who wrote a life of William, described it as a ritual killing. In addition to eyewitness testimony by Christians, he cited the supposed words of a Jew named Theobald who had converted to Christianity: “He verily told us that in the ancient writings of his fathers it was written that the Jews, without the shedding of human blood, could neither obtain their freedom, nor could they ever return to their fatherland. Hence it was laid down by them in ancient times that every year they must sacrifice a Christian in some part of the world to the Most High God in scorn and contempt of Christ, that so they might avenge their sufferings on Him; inasmuch as it was because of Christ’s death that they had been shut out from their own country, and were in exile as slaves in a foreign land.”
The pattern was set: Jews had admitted that their religion required them to kill Christians, or so Christian authorities claimed. By 1475, when the Jews of Trent were indicted for murdering a Christian boy named Simon, their interrogators knew a great deal about the Passover ritual and tortured the accused to make them confess that they needed Christian blood. From Norwich to Trent to Kishinev and beyond, the collective fantasy crystallized, found believers, and did its work. It rested—when it rested on anything—on Christian rumors, Jewish testimony extorted by torture, and statements like that of Theobald, the origin of which is not clear.
Still, if the exact origins of these slanders are uncertain, the intentions with which Christians uttered them are not. The blood libel—usually called the blood accusation in older historical and reference works—gave those who hated Jews a reason for their feelings. Accepting it as fact allowed everyone from members of mobs to monastic hagiographers to portray Jews as enemies of the human race and the Christian religion.
Palin was not the only one to use the phrase during the national debate over the Tucson shootings. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Glenn Reynolds accused left-wing pundits of committing a blood libel when they claimed that right-wing pundits were in some way responsible for the killings. Meanwhile, The Washington Times defended Palin for employing the phrase, and, hurling all its comparisons into one basket, even described the attack on her as part of an “ongoing pogrom against conservative thinkers.” It’s a little hard to see what the editorial writers had in mind: Conservatives challenged by the left retain their civil rights, their property, and their absolute right to free speech, which they are exercising vigorously in every forum available. Nor has anyone attempted to indict them for carrying out ritual killings.
In 1946, George Orwell wrote: “When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine.” Used in its proper sense, “blood libel” evokes real history, the fantasies that caused the suffering and death of real, innocent people. If it is applied to the noise of political debate, it will become an empty slogan. And the ghosts who wander the streets of Europe and the former Pale of Settlement, of Syria and Iran, will be left without a name for what they endured.
Anthony Grafton is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article ran in the February 17, 2011, issue of the magazine.