JERUSALEM — Ariel Toaff may have backed off his explosive claim in a just-published book that European Jews killed Christians to use their blood — adding credence to the ancient blood libel canard — but this week Knesset members were smelling blood: Toaff’s.
In a dramatic development Monday, two historians who have read the book spoke to legislators at a Knesset Education Committee meeting organized to determine whether Toaff should be charged with a crime.
The move touched off a debate among Israeli scholars, historians and culture watchers over whether the courts have any jurisdiction to police academia and penalize ideas, even those that have historically led to violence against Jews.
Toaff, who did not attend the meeting and could not be reached for comment by The Jewish Week, has publicly denied saying that a group of Jewish zealots living in the Italian city of Trento between the 11th and 14 centuries consumed the blood of Christian children to avenge Christian persecution of Jews.
Toaff, a Bar-Ilan University medieval history professor, never thought his book “Pasque di Sangue” (“Passover of Blood”), which has so far been published only in Italian, would lead to calls for his dismissal from the university, or that Israeli legislators would be seeking his indictment.
Although Toaff has, according to a statement disseminated by Bar-Ilan, asked his publisher to stop distributing the book “in order that I may re-edit those passages which comprised the basis of the distortions and falsehoods that have been published in the media,” the furor over its contents continues unabated. He told Haaretz Monday that he never intended to say that European Jews killed Christians to use their blood, and that he will soon publish an article in an academic journal stressing that such blood libels were false.
Michael Corinaldi, an Italian-Israeli law professor at Bar Ilan and one of the historians who spoke before the Knesset committee, told The Jewish Week that the book “says we must examine the possibility that some fanatics committed the blood libel. That, in and of itself is dangerous, even though Professor Toaff isn’t saying it was absolutely the case. Also, the title, ‘Passover of Blood,’ is provocative and could lead to a rise in anti-Semitism. I’m sure he knew the publisher would use that name, and I suspect he was trying to get publicity. I think a case should be brought against him.”
This view was shared by Kadima Knesset member Marina Solodkin, who told the committee, “There is reason to put [Toaff] on trial … for hurting historical truth and the reputation of the Jewish People.”
But according to Haaretz, Toaff will specify in his response to critics that he did not choose the title or book cover illustration, which depicts a bearded man holding a knife to a boy. The picture is meant to be Abraham on the verge of sacrificing his son, an image that can be mistaken for a Jew murdering a Christian child.
In the book Toaff, the son of a former chief rabbi of Rome, analyzes the possibility that confessions of Jews to ritual murder should not be dismissed, citing a particular incident in 1475 in Trent, Italy, in which the body of a 2-year-old boy was supposedly found in a Jewish house. Toaff will reportedly emphasize that Jews did not kill the boy and that human blood could not have been used for any ritual purposes, said Haaretz.
The Israeli paper also reported that the Knesset committee members decided to scrutinize the “review mechanisms” used in Israeli academic circles “in order to ensure “that things that defy logic and morality are not published.”
Prominent Israeli academics say Toaff’s book is extremely dangerous but doubt whether the author could, or even should, be brought to trial.
“The book has touched a Jewish nerve for two reasons,” Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, told The Jewish Week.
“First, the blood libel has gone from being a part of history to a tangible threat to the Jewish people. The blood libel in its widest sense represents the calumnies against the Jewish people and the Jewish state.”
The second reason for the storm of criticism, Halevi said, is that “we are seeing more and more dissonant voices from within the Jewish people siding with our enemies and giving their wildest accusations against us legitimacy.”
For this reason, Halevi says, “to attack Professor Toaff for publishing a book that speculates that maybe Jews were involved in blood libel is entirely legitimate. But threats of academic censure and indictment are ludicrous. Indicted for what, for being a moron? So far as I can see, it’s not a crime in the State of Israel to be a moron. If so, a lot of our leaders would be on trial and our prisons would be a lot more full.”
Former cabinet minister and refusnik Natan Sharansky, who recently assumed the leadership of the Shalem Center’s Stategic Studies Institute, told The Jewish Week that Toaff has exhibited “a very, very high level of irresponsibity.”
In spite of this, Sharansky said, “it is very difficult to indict someone on the grounds that he deliberately falsified information in order to damage the entire nation. There is no doubt that Toaff did awful damage to us, but whether he did it deliberately I cannot say.”
Benny Morris, a professor of Middle East studies and author of the highly controversial book ‘The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949,’ insisted that “prosecuting people for books they publish is something that happens in totalitarian countries. It is wholly unacceptable.”
Morris, who says he was scorned by much of the academic world for writing that Palestinians fled Palestine in 1948 out of fear for their personal safety and not because Arab leaders urged them to go, says that “it is not up to the courts or the government to control academic works. Generally, when scholars publish a book, they should have a peer group to supervise and limit them. Academic publishing houses have experts read the manuscripts and they control, in some vague way, what academics do. That’s how it is in the Western world,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
Like Halevi and Sharansky, Morris would not comment on the book’s content because he hadn’t yet read it.
“I don’t know what happened with this particular book. It was published by an Italian house. I don’t know whether the paper was reviewed. What I can say is that colleagues of Toaff’s do maintain that his previous work was serious and solid. He has a decent reputation in academia,” Morris said.
Regardless of whether or not Toaff is indicted, “as far as we’re concerned, the damage is done,” says Arieh O’Sullivan, spokesman for the Israel office of the Anti-Defamation League. “We think this is one of the most disastrous episodes in our efforts to combat conspiracy theories.”
O’Sullivan says the belief that Jews are masterminding disasters “is not just marginal. Millions of Muslims believe 9/11 was caused by the Jews, you have former President Jimmy Carter saying Jews stifle debate. What matters is that Jew haters will see this as proof not only of blood libel but that Jews control everything, including academia and the media.”
While the ADL has blasted Toaff — ADL head Abraham Foxman likened the confessions of medieval Jewish torture victims accused of blood libel to the confessions of women tried during the Salem witch trials — O’Sullivan says his organization is not pressing for the historian’s indictment.
“We’re not going to get involved in that. That’s for the Knesset members to decide. We’re not looking to punish anyone, just to stop these conspiracy theories.”