Cover image for Blood libel : the Damascus affair of 1840
Blood libel : the Damascus affair of 1840
Florence, Ronald.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Madison, Wis. : University of Wisconsin Press, [2004]

Physical Description:
vii, 257 pages ; 24 cm
Damascus, February 1840 -- The usual suspects -- The Jewish quarter -- Interrogation -- The tumbak seller & the watchman -- The long wait -- Confessions -- Evidence -- The rabbis -- The Talmud -- A brief for the defense -- The geography of information -- Seeking help -- The powers that be -- The richest men in the world -- Inquiries -- Politics -- The mission I -- The mission II -- Muhammad Ali's behind -- Damascus, September 1840.
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DS135.S95 F56 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In Damascus in February 1840, a Capuchin monk and his servant disappear without a trace. By the end of the day, rumors point at the local Jewish community, a tiny minority in the city. Within weeks, the rumors turn to accusations of ritual murder the infamous blood libel. Torture, coerced confessions, manufactured evidence, and the fury of the crowds are enough to convict the accused Jews. By the time the rest of the world learns of the events in Damascus, the entire leadership of the Jewish community is awaiting execution.
"Blood Libel" is a story of unexpected history. If the charges of ritual murder seem familiar similar accusations have been heard in Europe for centuries and are heard in the Middle East today nothing in Damascus happened as we, or contemporaries, might have anticipated. The accusers of the Jews were not the Muslim majority. The French consul, the representative of the nation that had given the world the Rights of Man and had been the first to grant Jews the full right of citizenship, was the chief prosecutor. The British consul, serving under the enlightened Lord Palmerston and the new Queen, aided the prosecution. The American consul supported the charges. The Sultan, famed for the excesses of his court and his arbitrary rule of the vast Ottoman empire, and the Austrians, who tightly restricted the rights of Jews in their own empire, defended the accused Jews. The venerable London Times printed reports that defied its liberal reputation, while conservative Austrian and French newspapers took the equally unexpected opposite stand. As news of the Damascus accusations spread, diplomacy and confused loyalties made for strange bedfellows.
Misperceptions, mutual fears, and isolation fueled the passions in Damascus. When the affair and the implications for the perceptions of world Jewry became a cause celebre in Europe and the Americas, the priorities of diplomacy intervened: a rescue mission forgot the real victims in Damascus, and the fabric of a society that had once stretched to tolerate minorities finally burst in an outrage of fears turned to fury. The legacies of that torn fabric are the divisions of the Middle East today and the continuing myths that feed and sustain the fervor of anti-Semitism."

Author Notes

Ronald Florence is an historian and novelist

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

On February 6, 1840, Father Thomas, a Capuchin monk, and his assistant disappeared in the vicinity of Damascus after paying a not unusual visit to the city's Jewish quarter. Within a day, the small, multidenominational Christian community banded together, claiming, "The Jews sacrificed the Father." This blood libel (the charge that Jews killed Christians to use their blood in religious rituals) shattered the relative peace in which the Jewish community had lived under Muslim rule. Two Jews confessed under torture and then died in prison, unleashing a massive assault in which 65 Jewish schoolboys (some as young as five) and 75 men were imprisoned. As the situation dramatically escalated-a noted rabbi converted to Islam and the French, British and American consuls became involved with the prosecution-the case became an international cause celebre and eventually a goad to political change in the area. This is great material, and Florence, a novelist (Zeppelin) and historian, handles it with dramatic flair and meticulous documentation. While this is not as complete a historical account as Jonathan Frankel's magisterial 1997 The Damascus Affair, it's an excellent work of popular history. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Everyone in Damascus knew Father Thomas. The monk had lived at the Capuchin monastery for thirty-two years, long enough for his distinctive black habit with the white cordon, trim white beard, tonsure, and bag of medical instruments to be familiar in every quarter of the city. He had been trained as a pharmacist, and generations of Christians, Muslims, and Jews--some said as many as twelve to fifteen thousand children and adults--had felt the needle of his smallpox vaccinations. The father did not charge his patients, supporting himself on donations, and he had always been quick to post notices and run auctions to support those in need. Many thought him a saint. The father was originally from Sardinia. Merchants in the suqs and friends in the Christian quarter called him Padre Tomasso, or sometimes il cappuccino. He was a small man, healthy but advancing in age; some found him quick-tempered and overly authoritative. But that was understandable in a man who lived alone in the monastery with only his servant, Ibrahim Amara, for company. When the two of them set off on one of the father's missions to the outlying villages, they looked like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. At noon on Thursday, February 6, the father had been expected for dinner with a group of European prelates at the Christian quarter home of Dr. Massari, the personal physician to the pasha. Father Thomas was a punctual man, no doubt an inheritance of his offices, and when he did not appear at Dr. Massari's even after the dinner hour passed, the other guests were concerned enough to send out a search party. One could never be too cautious in Damascus. The city was fraught with dangers, especially for the non-Muslim minorities. Relentless epidemics of bubonic plague, cholera, smallpox, and impetigo tookperiodic tolls, and visitors found the streets and suqs a parade of the maimed, the blind, and the crippled--their missing limbs, ulcerated skin lesions, and suppurating sores the scars of what had not been or could not be treated. The fear of contagion was so great that visitors were quarantined for weeks in tiny lazarettes, and every letter was dipped in vinegar and water or punched and smoked. Visitors intrepid enough to undergo the arduous quarantine faced the perils of bandits on the roads, the indignities of the infamous Ottoman bureaucracy, and the seemingly whimsical regulations of the courts and pashas. Even long-term residents lived in constant fear: the Christian and Jewish minorities were restricted to residence in their own quarters, where ancient walls, night watchmen, and locked gates were supposed to provide islands of security amidst the overwhelming sea of the Muslim majority. Excerpted from Blood Libel: The Damascus Affair of 1840 by Ronald Florence All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

1 Damascus, February 1840p. 3
2 The Usual Suspectsp. 8
3 The Jewish Quarterp. 16
4 Interrogationp. 27
5 The Tumbak Seller & the Watchmanp. 40
6 The Long Waitp. 45
7 Confessionsp. 55
8 Evidencep. 69
9 The Rabbisp. 76
10 The Talmudp. 90
11 A Brief for the Defensep. 97
12 The Geography of Informationp. 108
13 Seeking Helpp. 117
14 The Powers That Bep. 125
15 The Richest Men in the Worldp. 136
16 Inquiriesp. 148
17 Politicsp. 157
18 The Mission Ip. 166
19 The Mission IIp. 176
20 Muhammad Ali's Behindp. 187
21 Damascus, September 1840p. 195
Epiloguep. 206
Acknowledgementsp. 219
Notesp. 221
Indexp. 247