The blood libel, the myth that Jews ritually sacrifice and use the blood of Christian children as part of our religious practice, has been one of the most consistent tropes of antisemitism since the earliest known accusation was lodged in 1144 against the Jews of Norwich, England. Indeed, the staying power of this patently absurd notion has been remarkable. Even in the 21st century, when you’d think people would know better, blood libel accusations have been used to dehumanize Jews and justify violence against us, most recently—at least according to Wikipedia—on August 22, 2014, when Sheik Bassam Ammoush, a former Jordanian ambassador to Iran and a member of the Jordanian Senate, gave a sermon on the official Jordanian TV channel in which he said the following:
In Gaza we are dealing with the enemies of Allah, who believe that the matzos that they bake on their holidays must be kneaded with blood. When the Jews were in the diaspora, they would murder children in England, in Europe, and in America. They would slaughter them and use their blood to make their matzos…They believe that they are God’s chosen people. They believe that the killing of any human being is a form of worship and a means to draw near their god.
Ammoush’s concluding assertion, that Jews believe we draw near to god through the killing of other human beings, bears a striking resemblance to what Laurent Murawiec says about what he calls “contemporary Islamic terrorism” in his book, The Mind of Jihad:
Gruesome murder and gory infliction of pain are lionized and proffered as models, as exemplary actions pleasing Allah and opening the gates of paradise. The highest religious authorities sanction or condone it, government authorities approve and organize it, intellectuals and the media praise them. From one end of the Muslim world to the other, similar reports abound. (21)
The Mind of Jihad purports to be an intellectual examination of quote contemporary Islamic terrorism unquote. Even in the above, very short passage, however, which conflates the ideology behind such terrorism with the ideological entirety of “the Muslim world,” Murawiec’s flawed assumptions are prominently on display. These assumptions, evident throughout the book, led at least one serious reviewer to call the volume racist.
Nonetheless, precisely because Murawiec’s thinking seems to parallel the logic of blood libel accusations brought against Jews, it’s worth looking a little more closely at what he says. “Islamic terror,” he writes, for example, “in its use of human sacrifice [by which he means things like the beheadings committed by ISIS], has strayed farther and farther away from…the prohibition [of that kind of practice] enshrined in the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Horeb.” As a result—and note the conflation of “Islamic terrorism” with the entirety of Islam—”Islamic practice or, in a way, contemporary Islam [has been reshaped]” (20-21).
Contemporary Islam, in other words, at least according to Murawiec, has become the antithesis of Judaism and Christianity, religions which, if only through their prohibition of human sacrifice, value the inherent humanity of all people. The origin of this transformation, Murawiec argues, can be traced to a moment of literal bloodthirst in November 1971, when Jordan’s Prime Minister Wasfi al-Tell was assassinated by members of the Palestinian group known as Black September. This was how Time magazine, in its December 13th issue, reported the incident that Murawiec finds so significant, “Before security forces could drag him away, one of the assassins knelt beside Tell’s body and sucked up some blood. ‘I drank until my thirst was quenched,’ he said later in a statement to Egyptian police” (Time, “Rancorous Road to Peace,” 45).
It does not matter to Murawiec that Black September was a secular and nationalist organization, not a religious one, or that the assassination was in direct retaliation for al-Tell’s alleged torture and execution of Fatah commander Abu Ali Iyad in the aftermath of the military conflict fought between the PLO and Jordan in September of 1970. Murawiec, in other words, does not even consider the possibility that the assassin’s literal bloodlust was specific and personal and had nothing to do with “pleasing Allah and opening the gates of paradise.” For Murawiec, the moment that assassin drank his victim’s blood is the moment that “the idolization of blood, the veneration of savagery, the cult of killing, the worship of death” become “[i]nseparable from contemporary Islamic terrorism,” reshaping what it means to be a Muslim today into the antithesis of what it means to be a human being (21).
Murawiec, of course, does not put it quite so bluntly, but the people who rely on his ideas certainly do. One of those is our former National Security Advisor, Lt. General Michael T. Flynn, who, in a book called Field of Fight, refers to al-Tell’s assassination, quotes Murawiec, and then writes these three sentences:
Do you want to be ruled by men who eagerly drink the blood of their dying enemies? Such questions are almost never asked. Yet if you read the publicly available ISIS documents on their intentions, there’s no doubt that they are dead set on taking us over and drinking our blood. (158)
The publicly available document to which Flynn refers here—as far as I’ve been able to tell there is only one—is a video posted online in 2014, in which a self-proclaimed ISIS militant declares that “we are a people who love drinking blood.” That lone video, however, especially in the absence of any concrete evidence that the soldiers of ISIS are in fact drinking the blood of their enemies, hardly qualifies as a declaration of an ISIS-wide practice. Nor does it qualify as anything even remotely resembling a religious justification. Indeed, given that there is no concrete evidence to the contrary, it’s hard not to see this militant’s reference to drinking blood as anything other than propagandistic hyperbole. That Flynn would take it literally speaks to how deeply-seated and all-encompassing his hatred of Muslims actually is.
Flynn had to resign as National Security Adviser almost as soon as he was appointed, and so the potential for his ideas to have an obvious and immediate national impact is much diminished; and—as far as I can tell—the same is more or less true for Murawiec’s book, which has been pretty thoroughly discredited. Nonetheless, the fact that the ideas are out there means that they are available for someone to use, and it’s here that the history of the origin of the blood libel against Jews offers an important, and perhaps cautionary, point of reference.
E. M. Rose traces this history in her book The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe. I haven’t read the book, but Madeleine Schwartz’ review in The Nation provides a summary that is adequate for my purposes. In March 1144, the body of a young man named William was found in the forest outside the town of Norwich. No one paid much attention to it until, in the early 1170s, a monk named Thomas of Monmouth wrote The Life and Passion of William of Norwich, which blamed the Jews for William’s murder. This is Schwartz’ summary of Thomas’ absolutely invented account:
[A]s the Jews began to celebrate Passover, they grabbed William from behind and tortured him with a fuller’s tool. They then shaved his head and pricked him with thorns in a cruel imitation of Christ’s Passion. They bound his right foot with chains and pierced his left side. When blood began to flow uncontrollably, they doused the dying boy with boiling water. Finally, after a few days, they hung the body from a tree, until passersby eventually buried it.
Gruesome as that description was, however, it apparently did not capture the imagination of the people of Norwich, who seemed to forget about William pretty quickly. It was not until five years later, in fact, when William’s death was invoked during the trial of Simon de Novers, a knight who stood accused of killing his Jewish moneylender, that the blood libel as we know it today began to take shape. De Novers’ “defense attorney,” though I am sure that was not the title they used back then, was one Bishop Turbe, who built his defense on a narrative in which the dead moneylender turned out to be the person who orchestrated the ritual murder of William of Norwich—just as Thomas of Monmouth had described in his Passion. The strategy was effective; de Novers was released, and, from that moment on, the blood libel became the remarkably consistent antisemitic accusation it continues to be today.
There’s an awful lot that can be said about the medieval blood libel, as there is also, I think, a lot to be learned from comparing and contrasting the different forms that antisemitism and Islamophobia have taken over time1, but that is not why I decided to write this post. I decided to write it because I think it’s important to pay attention: Just like Thomas of Monmouth’s The Life and Passion of William of Norwich gave the blood libel a form that others could and did and do use against the Jews, both Michael Flynn’s Field of Fight and Murawiec’s The Mind of Jihad do the same for a blood libel against Muslims. We should not take it for granted that no one will notice.
- Islamophobia and antisemitism have, of course, their own histories and trajectories, but there are, nonetheless, some parallels that are worth paying attention to. Michael Flynn, for example, is on record as having likened Islam to a malignant form of cancer, and he called on Twitter last year for Arab and Persian leaders to agree with that diagnosis. This is not so different from how the Nazis talked about the Jews. In The Nazi War on Cancer, Robert Proctor offers this example “[from] a 1936 lecture on radiotherapy in Frankfurt, [where] the SS radiologist Prof. Dr. Hans Holfelder showed students in attendance…a slide in which cancer cells were portrayed as Jews (the same slide depicted the X-rays launched against these tumor-Jews as Nazi storm troopers).” Nor did medicalized antisemitism did not originate with Nazi scientists. Paul Anton de Lagarde, an influential German Orientalist of the nineteenth century, for example, believed the Jews to be a cancer and thought, therefore, that they should be exterminated. Indeed, even as far back as the Renaissance, people saw the Jews as, in Richard S. Levy’s paraphrase of Bernardino of Sienna, “a plague attacking the body of the civic commune and all of Christendom.” Not so different from what Flynn and his ilk have to say about Muslims and Islam. [↩]