Advertisement
Articles

How Much Does Historical Truth Still Matter?

How Much Does Historical Truth Still Matter?

By Marina Cattaruzza

Historien, Vol.11 (2011)

archives - photo by Andewa/Wikicommons

Introduction: In February 2007 the prestigious Italian publisher Il Mulino released Italian-Israeli historian Ariel Toaff’s book Pasque di sangue: Ebrei d’Europa e omicidi rituali (Bloody Easter: European Jews and Ritual Murders). The book received a glowing, full-page accolade from the Italian historian Sergio Luzzatto in the Corriere della Sera shortly before its release. It was praised as a gesture of “incredible intellectual courage” and as a brilliant historical achievement.

Luzzatto, nevertheless, remained alone in his praise. In the days that followed the publication of the book and, as they admitted, after a merely superficial reading, prominent experts on medieval, modern and Jewish history such as Diego Quaglioni, Adriano Prosperi, Giacomo Todeschini and Marina Cafiero commented on it in the pages of the most important (and other less important) daily and weekly Italian newspapers. Across the board the book was condemned in no uncertain terms. How can the vehement tone that marked the criticism of Bloody Easter be explained?

Advertisement

Well, in his book Ariel Toaff questioned a deeply rooted, central assumption in medieval anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism studies, namely that the admissions by Jewish defendants to having practised blood rituals were, without exception, made at the suggestion of Inquisition judges and elicited by means of torture. Having been subject to torture, the unfortunate victims were prepared to admit anything their judges wanted to hear. Toaff challenged this assumption. On the basis of an impressive reconstruction of various rituals of Christian and Jewish heretical sects in which the prohibited substance of “blood” played a central role, he claimed that among marginalised, sectarian groups of Ashkenazi Jews, the blood of Christians (usually acquired for a fee directly from impoverished but very much living Christians) was used for Easter rites intended to damn the Christian oppressors.

In a second article in the Corriere della Sera, Sergio Luzzatto argued on Toaff’s behalf, saying that a historian should not consider certain statements as a priori wrong just because they were made under torture, especially if such statements are verified in other sources. But the reaction to Toaff’s arguments was so vehement that the author himself withdrew the book after a week. Among others, the author’s father, Elio Toaff, former head rabbi of Rome’s Jewish congregation, distanced himself publicly from his son’s argument. Ariel Toaff’s employer, the University of Bar Ilan in Tel Aviv, suffered the withdrawal of several million dollars in research money from private donors and the academic senate considered having their controversial colleague dismissed. This threat nevertheless has remained unfulfilled.

Click here to read this article from Historien

Click here to learn more about Passovers of Blood: European Jews and Ritual Homicides

Advertisement

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!