A report on blood libel in Damascus, Syria

March 27, 1840

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It has become customary "folklore" to believe that Jews led a sheltered existence in Muslim lands and suffered no persecution. This is true only relative to the horrors of European persecution of Jews. Though Jews were relatively safer in Muslim lands, there were numerous instances of Pogroms, forced conversions and other manifestations of violent Anti-Semitism and intolerance, as well as a few  blood libels. The blood libel accusation was most likely a late phenomenon due to Christian influence, and in some cases the accusations were encouraged by Western consuls. The other types of persecution were experienced throughout history under Muslim rule. While it may be sterile to argue whether Muslims are inherently anti-Jewish, it is inevitable that any group living as a subject minority and not in control of its own destiny would be exposed to these persecutions. It is therefore foolish to insist that Jewish life under Muslim rule was a perpetual idyll or that return to that state is desirable. The story of  Diaspora life in Muslim lands as in Europe was always the same in the long run, and had to be the same. Jews would move to a place of relative comfort, where they were subject only to sporadic persecutions and perhaps Jewish cultural life would flourish for a time. Eventually however, the Jews were often expelled, converted or killed en masse.

Blood libel is the accusation that Jews capture gentile children and kill them for ritual purposes. This fable originated in pagan Egypt, with the anti-Jewish polemicist Apion, and was eagerly propagated by some of the sainted fathers of the Christian Church. It did not become a feature of Muslim society until the 19th century.  Beginning with the Damascus blood libel of 1840, there was a series of blood libel persecutions in Arab and Muslim lands, some being initiated and carried out by Christians, others involving both Christians and Muslims, and some involving only Muslims.   Massacres of Jews by Muslims were recorded in Aleppo (1850, 1875), Damascus (1840, 1848, 1890), Beirut (1862, 1874), Dayr al-Qamar (1847), Jerusalem (1847)Cairo (1844, 1890, 1901-02), Mansura (1877), Alexandria (1870, 1882, 1901-07), Port Said (1903, 1908), Damanhur (1871, 1873, 1877, 1891), Istanbul (1870, 1874), Buyukdere (1864), Kuzguncuk (1866), Eyub (1868), Edirne (1872), Izmir (1872, 1874) among others. The Shiraz Pogrom and Blood Libel was of especial interest because it did not involve any Christian influence apparently.

The account below tells of the blood libel in Damascus Syria, that abated only after strenuous foreign intervention. It was the work of Christians apparently, aided and abetted by Muslims. The account is a letter that was sent by the heads of the Constantinople Jewish community to Lord Rothschild, relaying a plea for  help that they received from the elders of the Damascus Jewish Community. It is worthy of mention that the probable real suspect in the disappearance of Father Thomas was a Muslim. However, it was more convenient to accuse the Jews, rather than the more numerous and powerful Muslims, and to gain the support and enthusiasm of local Muslims for the accusation against the Jews.

The letter is reproduced in the Diaries of Sir Moses Montefiore and in a slightly different version, the letter of the Damascus elders is recorded in the public records office (London) as document PO 195/162.

The issue is not solely of historic interest. The Minister of Defense of Syria, Mustafa Tlass, published a book in which he alleged that the blood libel is a fact. This work is very well received in Syra and other Arab lands.

Ami Isseroff

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Letter Concerning the Damascus Blood Libel

To Messrs de Rothschild in London,

March the 27th, 1840:

"Independently of the tie which so strongly binds together the whole Jewish community, of which you, gentlemen, are distinguished ornaments, having always been prominent in assisting our distressed brethren, whose appeals to you are not infrequent, your hearts cannot but be greatly to sympathise with two Jewish communities (viz., that of Damascus, under the Egyptian jurisdiction, and that of Rhodes, one of the Ottoman states) oppressed by the tyrrannies of the Pashas who govern them.

"These persecutions originated in calumnies, which the oppressors themselves have invented, and which have been long rankling in their hearts, to the prejudice of the Jewish community. Our brethren are accused of being accomplices in murder, in order to make their Passover cakes with the blood of the murdered men — a thing in itself incredible, as being forbidden in our holy religion. This report has, however, found credence with the governing Pashas of Damascus and Rhodes, and they have oppressed and incarcerated not only several old men and Rabbins, but even a numbers of children, putting them to tortures, of which it makes men shudder to hear. Such is the afflicting picture drawn in the letters of our persecuted brethren, of which, with deep regret, we hand you copies.

"The community now addressing you, although implored by the sufferers to put an end to their persecutions, and to prevent, if possible, their recurrence, is deeply grieved to find itself incapacitated from affording any relief, in consequence of being subject to a Government not on friendly terms with the Pasha of Egypt.

"There remain, therefore, no means of salvation for the oppressed, except an appeal to your innate goodness and pity. We entreat you to interpose your valuable mediation, in such manner and with such persons as you may deem most desirable, for the safety of our unhappy brethren languishing in chains and in prison, so as to obtain, from the Pasha of Egypt, the liberation of the Jews of Damascus, and a compensation, not only from the governing Pasha of Damascus, commensurate with the excesses committed by him, but also from the Consular Agents at Rhodes, who have oppressed persons not subject to them.

"We, the Rabbins and Elders of this place, impressed with the urgency of the case, and moved by compassion for our brethren, and further induced by the report which is current throughout the world, of the generous and philanthropic sentiments which animate you and fill your hearts, ever open to the miseries of the oppressed, feel persuaded that you will xert yourselves to do all you possibly can, in these distressing circumstances.





[Message received from the Damascus Jewish community]

"The Jews of Damascus, addressing Messrs Abram Conorte and Aaron Cohen, Elders of the Congregation at Constantinople, after expressing their wishes for their health, say as follows: —

"To our deep regret, we address you these few lines to inform you of the continued state of misery in which our brethren, inhabitants of Damascus, still remain, as communicated to you in my letter of the 17th of Adar (February), forwarded to you by the steam-packet. We had hoped to advise you in this letter that the circumstances of the murder, respecting which the Jewish community were calumniated, had been ascertained, but in this hope we have been sadly disappointed. We will now, therefore, repeat everything in detail, and it is this:

"On Wednesday, the 1st day of the month of Adar (February) there disappeared from Damascus a priest, who with his servant had dwelt for forty years in the city. He exercised the profession of physician, and visited the houses of Catholics, Jews, and Armenians, for the purpose of vaccination.

"The day following, viz., Thursday, there came people into the Jewish quarter to look for him, saying they had seen both him and his servant in that quarter on the previous day. In order to put into execution their conspiracy they seized a Jewish berber, telling him that he must know all about the matter, and took him to the Governor, who on hearing the accusation, immediately ordered him to receive five hundred stripes. He was also subjected to other cruelties. During the intervals between these inflictions he was urged to accuse all the Jews as accomplices, and he, thinking by this means to relieve himself, accused Messrs David, Isaac, and Aaron Harari, Joseph Legnacio, Moses Abulafia, Moses Becar Juda, and Joseph Harari, as accomplices, who had offered him three hundred piastres to murder the above mentioned priest, inasmuch as the Passover holidays were approaching, and they required blood for their cakes. He said that he did not, however, give ear to their instigations, and did not know what had happened to the priest and his servant.

Upon this the Pasha caused the persons named to be arrested as instigators, and punished with blows and other torments of the most cruel nature; but as they were innocent they could not confirm as true that which was a calumny, and therefore, in contradiction, they asserted their innocence, appealing to the sacred writings, which strictly prohibit the Jews from feeding upon any blood, much less that of a fellow-creature, a thing totally repugnant to nature. Nevertheless they were imprisoned with chains round their necks, and had daily inflicted on them the most severe beatings and cruelties, and were compelled to stand upright without food of any kind for fifty hours together.

"Subsequently the Hebrew butchers were cited to appear; they were put in chains together with the Rabbins Jacob Antebi, Salomon Harari, and Asaria Jalfon; and they too were beaten to such an extent their their flesh hung in pieces upon them; and these atrocities were perpetrated in order to induce them to confess that they used blood in making the Passover cakes. They replied that, if such had been the case, many Jewish proselytes would have published the fact. This, however, was not sufficient.

"After this, the same Governor went to the boy's college; he had the boys carried to prison, bound them with chains, and forbade the mothers to visit their imprisoned children, to whom only ten drachms of bread and a cup of water per day were allowed, the Governor expecting that the fathers, for the sake of liberating their children, would confess the truth of the matter.

"Subsequently a Jew, who was still at liberty, presented himself before the Governor, stating that the calumny of our using blood for our Passover cakes had been discussed before all the Powers, who, after consulting their divines, had declared the falsehood of the charge; and he added that either others had killed the priest and his servant, or they had clandestinely absented themselves from the country, and that the barber, in order to save himself from persecution, had stated that which was not true.

"Upon this the Governor replied that, as he had accused other persons of killing them, he must know who the murderers were; and in order that he should confess, he was beaten to such an extent that he expired under the blows.

"After this, the Governor, with a body of six hundred men, proceeded to demolish the houses of his Jewish subjects, hoping to find the bodies of the dead, but not finding anything, he returned, and again inflicted on his victims further castigations and torments, some of them too cruel and disgusting to be described. At last, being incapable of bearing further anguish, they said that the charge was true!!!

"The Governor, hearing this statement, asked them where they had secreted the blood of the murdered men, to which one of them replied, that it had been put in a bottle, and delivered to Moses Abulafia, who, however, declared he knew nothing of it. In order to make him confess he received a thousand stripes, but this infliction not extorting any confession from him, he was subjected to other insupportable tortures, which at length compelled him to declare that the bottle was at home in a chest of drawers. Upon this the Governor ordered him to be carried on the shoulders of four men (for he could not walk), that he might open the bureau. This was opened, but nothing was found in it, except a quantity of money which the Governor seized, asking at the same time where the blood was. Whereupon Abulafia replied that he made the statement in order that the Governor should see the money in the bureau, trusting by this means to escape. Upon this the tortures were again repeated, and Abulafia, to save himself, embraced the Mohammedan religion.

"In this manner they treated all the prisoners who have been for one month in this misery. In Beyrout and in Damascus the Jews are not permitted to go out.

"After this an individual came forward, and stated that by means of astrology he had discovered and ascertained that the seven individuals above named assassinated the priest, and that the servant was killed by Raphael Farkhi, Nathan and Aaron Levy, Mordecai Farkhi, and Asher of Lisbon. The two first were immediately arrested, the others, it appears, sought safety in flight.

"You will judge from this — the Elders of Damascus say — what sort of justice is administered by means of astrology, and how such justice is exercised. And there is no one who is moved to compassion in favour of the unfortunate victims. Even Bekhor Negri, the Governor's banker, unable too bear these afflictions, became a Mussulman.

"Read this, dearest friends, — they continue, — to Messrs Camondo, Hatteni, and Carmona, in order that they may cooperate for the safety of our unfortunate and calumniated brethren, with such persons as they may deem most fitting.


The original French text of the above can be found in Jacob M. Landau, Jews in Nineteenth Century Egypt pp 199-200


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