A pretext used during the Middle Ages for doing nasty things to the Jewish population. The claim would be made that Jews slaughter Christian children for their blood, which would generally be said to be used for some ritual purpose, usually making Passover matzo. Such a heinous crime would get the local peasantry in an uproar, yielding some wonderful mob rule and general loss of life and liberty for the local Jewry.

The blood libel was singularly absurd, since the Jewish religion professes a special horror for blood and corpses: the rules for defining kosher meat are extra-picky about it being blood-free.
Also, Jewish funerary ritual makes burying the corpse in a matter of hours a very high priority.
Now, there is a religion where eating flesh and blood is a central tenet ... can you guess which one ?

In the instances noted by baffo, these were very likely case studies in projection; at least it is read as such by many of those who have studied medieval Christian forms of anti-semitism, including many 20th-century Christian writers, such as Paul Johnson. Historic instances of blood libel (sometimes also called blood accusation) have included:

  • Accusations by Antiochus IV, who was said to have found a non-Jew who claimed that Jews kidnapped him and held him for a year, fattening him up to be sacrificed.
  • Norwich, England (1144). Jews accused of kidnapping William, a local child and tormenting him exactly as they had Jesus. Rioting and massacres of Jews followed these accusations.
  • Until the 1600's, the primary Blood Accusation was that Jews needed Christian blood to reenact the crucifixion of Jesus.
  • It was also widely thought that Jews needed Christian blood to cure the side-effects of circumcision and (if my sources are correct) to prevent Jewish men from menstruating. (This is consistent with some widely held Christian beliefs of the time, which persist in some circles to this day, no doubt, regarding Jewish sexuality in general. But that's a topic for a whole other set of nodes.)
  • Although Pope Innocent IV wrote a strong official letter to discredit all of these beliefs, the rumors and related killing of Jews in "retaliation" persisted.
  • In the 17th century, the belief surfaced that Jews needed Christian blood to make Passover matzah. This became the classic Blood Libel accusation from that time onward. Rational proofs by Christian leaders and Jews alike that Jews were forbidden to consume any kind of blood, did little or nothing to stop these accusations or restrain mob actions. This aspect of blood libel is most curious, in light of Christian (or at least Catholic) beliefs regarding transubstantiation. See the note above, regarding projection. The historical timing of this particular element in the blood libel story also may suggest a connection between this myth and the rise of Protestant sects within Christianity? (see: subjects for further research.)
  • Blood accusations were used frequently in Czarist Russia to encourage anti-semitism among the peasantry, and probably relates closely to the high frequency of pogroms in the Pale of Settlement, the area that most Russian Jews were restricted to in Russia under the Czars.
Sources:
  • David E. Lipman. Gates of Jewish Heritage (web essay)
  • Paul Johnson. A History of the Jews (book)
As ridiculous as blood libel is to our modern tolerant sensibilities, accusations of Jewish ritual murder are not confined to the Middle Ages. Since that time accusations of blood libel continue to have been spread, frequently by representatives of the Catholic Church. These ludicrous charges often resulted in arrest, torture and execution of Jewish community leaders.

An allegation of ritual murder in Kiev, Russia in the early years of the 20th century formed the basis of the novel "The Fixer" by Bernard Malamud, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

As late as the waning years of the 20th century, fliers charging Jews with ritual kidnapping and murder of Christian children were circulated on the campus of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. These anonymous fliers added the element of racism by specifically accusing Jews of targetting black children.

More recently, in 2000, the charge of blood libel was raised by an official Egyptian newspaper. The story repeats as historical fact a rumour from 1840 which has a Syrian priest disappearing in the Jewish quarter of Damascus, supposedly tortured and killed for his blood.

The first recorded instances of blood libel actually occurred in pre-Christian times, still leveled against the Jews, but by the pagan Greeks. In 2nd century A.D. it was leveled against Christians by pagan Romans. It wasn't until the 12th century that it was level by Christians against Jews; in 1144 in Norwich, England, a Christian boy was murdered just before Easter, and the local Jews were accused (with no evidence) of crucifying him in a mockery of what happened to Jesus. The legend spread from there, and in the 20th century has been picked up by Muslim anti-semites.

Some of the nonsense that went with the blood libel was that Christian blood was needed for Jewish men to replenish their blood supply, since they menstruated, and also that they needed to make up for the blood the lost from circumcision.

The blood libel accusation has also been made by some protestants against Roman Catholics in the 19th century, and against protestant missionaries by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

Primary source: http://www.religioustolerance.org/jud_blib.htm

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