Sunday, January 26, 2014

Fighting Speech with Speech: A Public Service Announcement from the Middle Ages

Those who don't know history... yeah, yeah, yeah... doomed to repeat...whatever.  I'm not a medieval historian primarily to engage with the modern world. But sometimes my academic expertise comes in handy in contextualizing issues that crop up now and then. Sometimes the Middle Ages and the modern world intersect in wonderful, productive, lovely ways; but other times, it is the ignorance from that period that seems to have survived instead.And my approach to ignorance, hatred and bigotry is not to shout people down or tell them to go google to find out why it's a problem; I'd prefer to put together some answers and resources to address the problem. So consider this a bit of a public service message about a problem that has (like the plague*) survived from the Middle Ages and crops up now and again.


What is blood libel? Blood libel is a false claim that Jews ritually slaughter children for a variety of reasons, including to use their blood to bake matzah for Passover and because of general evilness.

When and where did it originate? The twelfth century, in Norwich, England (Scroll down the linked page for images of the castle keep where Norwich Jews sought protection in vain from their Christian neighbors who suddenly wanted to exact collective punishment.) Over 100 subsequent cases of this libel are documented in medieval Europe. Cases were reported as late as the middle of the nineteenth century, and this libel was one prong of the Nazis' anti-Semitic propaganda.

What typically happened after blood-libel accusations were made? As alluded to in the previous answer, collective punishment was exacted for these crimes that never occurred. Not only were the supposed perpetrators executed, but so were many members of various Jewish communities at large. As recently as this month a French Jew who was executed on the basis of a blood-libel claim was exonerated for his "crime," 350 years after his death.

Why is this still relevant today? This is still a concern because people still believe it. For example, I'm bringing this up now because of a page that is making its way around Facebook that repeats the blood libel and claims to offer proof of many cases of children having been ritually murdered by Jews. A campaign underway to report it to Facebook as hate speech has so far been unsuccessful.

(Click to enlarge to a readable size.)

Why is this still relevant today (Part II, updated 8/29/14)? With the recent rise in anti-semitic attacks that go far beyond the purview of condemning Israel's action in Gaza this summer, the blood libel is one of the major reasons invoked for firebombing and stoning synagogues (as happened while I was in Paris last month) and assaulting Jewish citizens of any and all countries. This video struck me particularly, as a Hamas official tried to hedge for an English-speaking audience, not disavowing his comments that he personally witnessed Jews slaughtering children ritually for matzah-baking purposes, but instead trying to blame the whole thing on medieval Christians. For a very brief period yesterday, Facebook finally classified blood libel as hate speech and removed the pages with "evidence" of ritual murder by Jews. This morning it reversed itself and returned to its previous position that it is a challenging idea, not hate speech.


Part of my goal in writing this blog post is to contextualize a claim that might, on the face of it, just seem gross or mean but in fact has a much deeper historical problem encoded in it. This most current iteration is actually a pretty amateurish one that, consequently, doesn't really scare me. Compare it, for example, to the campaign fliers that were produced a few years ago in San Francisco in support of a proposed law banning infant circumcision (which we are decidedly not going to discuss here). I'm sure that it's possible to run a campaign about that issue without resorting to centuries-old stereotypes about Jews and imagery reminiscent of the way that stereotype played out specifically in Nazi Germany, but this one didn't manage that**:

From random ignorant people posting a few sketchy things on Facebook to slick political machines, this belief persists both explicitly and implicitly in wider discourse about Jewish practice. Without knowing the history, it might not immediately be clear that this kind of claim is, in effect, a call for violence.

What to do about it? My own answer is to let hate speech stand and to combat it not by silencing it but by educating and writing and speaking out just as loudly and a lot more eloquently. We fight speech with speech. Bottom line, end of story. We don't need to value free speech*** to express our desire for world peace or the pleasantness of fluffy puppies. The freedom to speak protects the most marginal, the most outlandish, the most controversial and, yes, the most vile ideas. The purpose of that protection is not to let changing tastes dictate the exchange of ideas, with the consequence that things that would never be a matter of taste are also protected.

But what happens when Facebook considers itself to be a self-contained, private community with its own speech standards that ban hate speech rather than being society at large? First of all, I'm not sure I buy it. Facebook, for better or for worse, is society at large. But if we take it at face value for a moment and call it a community with its own self-regulating norms that do not permit hate speech, then why doesn't the blood libel constitute a prohibited category of speech?

Along with several others, I reported this page as hate speech.  I differ from some of them in that I'm not sure I'd want it taken down. I believe fighting speech with more speech. I want the world to know that it is populated with people who believe that I murder Christian children and bake matzah with their blood. However I would definitely like an explanation from Facebook about what their corporate-community entity considers to constitute hate speech, and I'd like for their arbiters of same to understand why the blood libel is such a big deal.


*The specific nature of the medieval plague bacterium and whether it is in fact co-identified with modern plague is a favored subject of long and loud debate in certain medieval history circles. I'm using the example as a metaphor here and don't really want to derail the conversation with a discussion of Y. pestis.

** As it happened, this particular campaign also couldn't manage to make its point without gay-baiting, either. Regardless of what one thinks about the issue in the abstract, this campaign was deeply problematic and steeped in ignorance and hatred.

***And yes, I know that this isn't a First Amendment issue per se because it's not the government interfering. Whether one wants to make the case that the conglomeration of media outlets means that corporations should also be bound by that protection as a matter of ethics is a separate issue. Nevertheless, we can talk about the freedoms of speech and expression in the abstract as something we value (or don't) as a society.

1 comment:

  1. I would only add to this very good blog post that we do not have to look back to the Middle Ages or even 350 years ago to see the real, and violent, consequences of the blood libel. As is well known, some Jews who survived the Nazi Holocaust were murdered in Kielce, Poland in 1946 because of the blood libel. The information about the Kielce pogrom is documented here: