Blood Libel: Why is Facebook Permitting Antisemitism?

Paul Franks on Facebook’s Refusal to Remove Hate Speech

On 24th March 2020, the Italian artist Giovanni Gasparro posted pictures on Facebook of his painting portraying what he called “the martyrdom of Saint Simon of Trent by Jewish ritual murder.” Gasparro has been celebrated as a great hope for the revival of Catholic art; in the wake of his Facebook post, this judgment has – I am relieved to report – been revised.[1]

Simon was not the first alleged victim of a Jewish ritual that existed only in fantasy, and he was certainly not the last.  But there was something special about the Trent affair in 1475.  Most importantly, according to Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia, it occurred at just the right time to take advantage of the new medium of print. Of course, the story found receptive ears, because it repeated what its audience already thought they knew: that “the Jew” in their midst was the Christ-killer, the one responsible for the blemishes of a world that would otherwise be perfect.  In print, for the first time, it found thousands of these receptive ears, with murderous consequences.  On Facebook, today, it finds millions.

The accusation that Jews engage in the ritual homicide of Christian children, especially in connection with the upcoming season of Passover and Easter, has come to be known as the blood libel, and it has played an important role in the violence perpetrated against Jews throughout the long history of anti-Judaism and antisemitism.  Since the first such accusation, in 1144, many Jews have been burned alive or otherwise killed, sometimes after confessions had been exacted through torture, sometimes on the basis of reported miracles.  In 1255, ninety one Jews from Lincoln were killed; in 1475, fifteen Jews from Trent were burned; in 1903, forty nine Jews of Kishinev were killed and more were raped.  There are about one hundred and fifty known cases in which the accusation that Jews had killed a Christian child in order to use his or her blood on Passover has led to the murder of Jews, sometimes with and sometimes without judicial sanction.  And the blood libel cannot be relegated to the middle ages or to un-modernized cultures.  In 1928, there was an accusation in the USA, in Massena, NY, which dissipated when the missing child was found alive. The antisemitic Nazi newspaper, Der Stürmer, featured the ritual murder charge in a notorious special issue in May 1934 and, in 1983, Mustafa Tlass, Syrian minister of defence, wrote The Matzah of Zion, reviving the accusation of murder that initiated the Damascus affair of 1840, in which four Jews died during torture, and injecting the blood libel into contemporary middle eastern politics.

A painting portraying Jew ritually murdering a Christ-like child, posted before Passover and Easter, is nothing less than a blood libel accusation, an incitement to murder.  Yet Facebook turns a deaf ear to protest and refuses to do anything about Gasparro’s post.

Around 1970, I began to attend, for the first time, a Christian school.  I had spent the four or so years of my life until then exclusively in an Orthodox Jewish environment.  A boy at my new school alarmed me by declaring that I had killed Jesus.  Who was this Jesus?  Had I inadvertently hurt someone in the playground?  After a brief reflection, I was sure of my innocence and replied, “I never even touched him!”  “No,” said the boy, “You’re a Jew.  You killed God.”  This may fairly be said to have blown my mind.  I was no theologian, but my rudimentary idea of God could not accommodate God’s death, and the accusation led to some anxious conversations between me and my parents, and between my parents and the school.

In all blood libel cases, it has been a question, not of the charge that an individual Jew or group of Jews had killed an individual victim, but rather of “the Jew” as the archetypal killer of Christ, the defiler of all that is good and holy in the world.  Who needs evidence when the question of guilt has already been decided, and who cares whether those who are “executed” were personally involved if they belong to a people already known to be guilty?

Like other graphic products of the blood libel, Gasparro’s portrait is the inverse of an adoration of the Christ child.  Instead of being surrounded by adoring angels and angelic people, who keep a respectful distance, the Christ-like child is tormented and mutilated by demonic, cackling Jews, easily identifiable by their prayer shawls, their hats, their peyot, and – is it any surprise? – by their noses.  The date is significant, because March 24th is the feast day assigned to Simon in the old Catholic calendar, before the cult was abolished in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.  How is one to understand Gasparro’s post, in the weeks leading up to Passover and Easter, except as an incitement to renew the seasonal accusation that “the Jews” are Christ killers who deserve death?

Yet Facebook declines to remove Gasparro’s post, whose comments section has become a gathering point for antisemites.

By 1970, the Catholic Church had officially removed references to the collective guilt of the Jews from the liturgy, and had erased the annual day of Simon of Trent and other child-victims of alleged Jewish ritual murder from the calendar.  In “Nostra Aetate”, the Church declared, “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.” [2] But the teaching of over a thousand years is not easily overturned.  Is a curse on the Jews not explicit in Mathew 27.24-5?  “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”  Pope Benedict XIX offered an alternative account: “Jesus’ blood . . . does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation.  It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all. . . Matthew’s reference to blood . . . read in the light of faith . . . means that we all stand in need of the purifying power of love which is his blood.  These words are not a curse, but rather redemption.”

But there is something in the human that thinks it can be satisfied by hate, not love, by the destruction, not the redemption, of the other.  At the highest levels, the Church has always been ambivalent about cults of martyrs to supposed Jewish ritual murder, or even opposed to them.  In the 1470s, to quote Po-Chia Hsia’s masterful account, “The good will of the pope [namely, Sixtus IV] could not prevent antisemitic violence.” A century later, Sixtus V rejected the general notion of Jewish ritual murder, but excepted three cases in which he judged that it had occurred.  One was the case of Simon of Trent.

As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  In 2007, an Italian-Israeli scholar, Ariel Toaff, made the mistake of treating the events at Trent in 1475 as mere historiographical material, fit for the contrarian argumentation of the brilliant historian. In addition to extensive archival work, Toaff drew on obscure references to Jewish folk healing practices.  Notwithstanding the Torah prohibition on the consumption of blood, Toaff noted that folk healing called for the medical and magical use of dried animal or human blood, and some rabbis had permitted the medical use.  To be sure, there was no indication of the ritual use of blood in regular Jewish ceremonies or holidays, and no evidence whatsoever was adduced of Jewish ritual murder .  But a principal defence against the blood libel – that Jews would make no use of blood under any circumstance – seemed to have fallen.  Moreover, the work of Israel Yuval had shown that Jews in an age of persecution and massacre sometimes expressed their resentment of their Christian oppressors in violent language – and who could blame them?  So, Toaff asked provocatively, could the suggestion be dismissed out of hand, as it had been by historians like Po-Chia Hsia, that there were some Ashkenazi Jews – not all, to be sure, but perhaps a fanatical few – who did in fact take blood from Christian children in an act of vengeance?  Might there not be some seed of truth in the Trent allegations?

But the past was not even past.  Toaff was immediately perceived as giving aid and succor to contemporary antisemites.  He retracted his book, and he clarified that he never intended to vindicate allegations of Jewish ritual murder in any way whatsoever.  He acknowledged that he had given insufficient weight to the fact that all the so-called facts on which he had built his intricate interpretation of the events at Trent were based on testimony exacted through torture.  To this day, however, antisemites – especially those who want to revive the cult of Simon of Trent – cite Toaff’s retracted book, which one can easily find on the internet, where nothing disappears, in support of their claims about “the Jews”; and they see the suppression of the book as a Jewish cover-up.[3]

Gasparro knows what Toaff had to learn.  The assignment of an annual day for the commemoration of Simon’s “martyrdom” elevates it to a trans-historical status, preventing it from receding into the past. Gasparro’s post, on the assigned day, the 24th March, can only be seen as an attempt to revive the cult of Simon, to recall it from the past.  And how could one re-present the cult of Simon of Trent without at the same time re-presenting the antisemitic violence that is the cult’s direct implication?  If “the Jews” are in their essence Christ-killers, if they are defilers of all that is holy, not only in the past but to this very day, then how could they not deserve to be exposed and destroyed?  And “the Jews” in Gasparro’s picture are not historical figures.  They are archetypes, and they are just as modern as they are medieval.

According to Facebook’s community standards, “Facebook removes hate speech, which includes content that directly attacks people based on their: race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender or gender identity, or serious disabilities or diseases.” [4] I reported Gasparro’s page for hate speech based on race and religious affiliation.  Facebook responded that the post does not breach community standards, and suggested that I block Gasparro, thereby avoiding being offended.

It is not a question of being offended.  There is every reason to believe that Gasparro’s portrayal of Simon of Trent being tormented and murdered by archetypal Jews participates in the long tradition of anti-Judaic and antisemitic hate speech that starts with William of Norwich and passes through Simon of Trent on its way to Der Stürmer and beyond.  From Trent to Kishinev to the Holocaust, this is a tradition, not only of offensive speech, and not only of hate speech, but of incitement to hateful and murderous violence against Jews.  The time has come for Facebook to delete Gasparro’s antisemitic post, and for Jews and Christians, as well as people of any other and of no religious affiliation, to let Facebook know that we repudiate this shameful and murderous image.  This is a virus that we are able to contain and eradicate.

This article has been updated. It’s original version was an earlier draft of the author’s article, and the changes reflect his final version.

Paul Franks is a scholar, writer, and philosopher. He is a professor at Yale University and teaches in the Department of Philosophy, the Program in Judaic Studies, the Department of Religious Studies, and the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. He is the author of All or Nothing: Systematicity, Transcendental Arguments, and Skepticism in German Idealism and the editor of Franz Rosenzweig: Philosophical and Theological Writings.