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Blood Libel: The Damascus Affair of 1840

The Damascus Affair emphasized to Jewry how precarious their situation was, and motivated them to establish a network of international communications and cooperative organizations to protect themselves from anti-Semitism worldwide.

reviewed by Arnold Fine, Jewish Press

Blood Libel: The Damascus Affair of 1840 - by Ronald Florence

Blood Libel: The Damascus Affair of 1840
by Ronald Florence

"When old, outdated anti-Semitic lies are being used in too many circles against the Jewish people, this book is important to all those who feel compelled to denounce them." — Elie Wiesel

The canard that “Jews use Christian blood to make Passover matzos” plagued Jewish communities worldwide for centuries. The blood libel led to many massacres of Jews throughout the Middle Ages and pogroms in Russia, was revived by the Nazis, and has been used by anti-Zionists to our day. While it is well known that blood libels thrived in Christian Europe, it is less know that this scourge reached Moslem lands as well.

The Ottoman Empire

The following story of the little known infamous Damascus Blood Libel began in Syria in 1840. At that time, the great European powers were gravely concerned about the fate of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Syria was ruled by Muhammed Ali, then ruler of Egypt, and France supported his rule. Austria and Great Britain supported Turkey, and were anxious to prevent the extension of French influence in the Middle East.

A Monk Disappears In Damascus

On February 5, 1840, an elderly Itailian monk, Padre Tomaso de Camangiano, Superior of a Capuchin cloister in Damascus, vanished without a trace, together with his servant. Foul play was suspected. There was a rumor that a few days before the monk’s disappearance, he had been involved in a quarrel with a Turkish mule driver. According to rumors, during the dispute, the Turk heard Father Tomaso blaspheme the prophet Muhammed and had sworn, “that dog of a Christian shall die by no other hand but mine!”

Tomaso’s fellow monks deliberately ignored this rumor, and preferred to spread the story that their Superior had been murdered by the Jews for ritual purposes. The French consul in Damascus at that time was a vicious individual by the name of Ratti Menton. He accepted the blood libel charges, and suggested that the investigation be turned over to the Muslim governor of Damascus, an Arab named Sherif Pasha. The French consul was pleased, because now, he could now manipulate Sherif Pasha, and strengthen his position with the Christian and Muslim population. The Arab was pleased, because this was a convenient way to shift the focus of the blame from the Moslem community.

The Barber’s Confession

At Ratti Menton’s instructions, police arrested a Jew at random. That Jew was a barber by the name of Solomon Negrin. The hapless victim was tortured beyond endurance. Finally, he “confessed” that Father Tomaso had been killed in the house of a Jew named David Harari by seven Jews. These men were the most distinguished leaders of the Jewish community. Their names were: David Harari, his son and brother, Moshe Abulafia, Moshe Salonika, Meir Farhi and Joseph Lafiado. They were arrested and subjected to incredible tortures: their teeth were pulled out, they were burned, beaten, immersed in ice water and forced to stand for 36 hour without food, water or sleep. Some of them had their eyes gouged out and were dismembered.

Unspeakable Torture

Joseph Lafiado, a feeble 80 year old man, died. Moses Abalafia converted to Islam. The rest endured unendurable torture until they “confessed” to the ritual murder. To further the case against the Jews, Sherif Pasha and Ratti Menton arrested a Muslim servant of David Harari and forced him to “confess” that the monk’s assistant, Ibrahim Amara, had been murdered in the presence of the seven Jewish leaders. Among the group of new detainees was Levi Piccioto, an Austrian citizen, who was under the protection of the Austrian consul in Damascus. This brought the Austrian government into the case.

As the case continued, Ratti Menton forced the Jewish barber and David Harari’s Muslim servant to “confess” that the bones of Father Tomaso and his servant had been thrown into a canal in the Jewish Quarter.

The World Finds Out

At this time, one of the prisoners, Isaac Levi Piccioto, who was an Austrian citizen, managed to escape prison, and ran to the Austrian consul in Damascus, by the name of Merlato. Despite heavy pressure, Merlato refused to return Piccioto to jail to be tortured, and he openly criticized the barbaric proceedings. He then sent a special report detailing what was happening to A. Lauren, the Austrian consul-general in Egypt. Lauren petitioned Muhammad Ali to stop the torture, and tried to influence the French consul-general in Egypt to restrain his subordinate, Ratti Menton.

When this proved unsuccessful, he sent the report to James de Rothschild, the honorary Austrian consul in Paris. He asked Rothschild and other prominent Jews to intervene with the French government. When the government ignored all pleas, Rothschild released the report to the European press, and the Damascus Affair became public knowledge. Both the Jews and many Gentiles throughout Europe were horrified by the tales of torture and the reactivation of the medieval ritual murder myth.

Rothschild, Cremieux and Montefiore

In France, the prominent lawyer and orator, Adolphe Cremieux, appealed to the King Louis Philippe and to his Foreign Secretary, Adolphe Thiers, to put and end to the barbaric torture in Damascus. It did not take long for him to realize that the French government was not interested in the plight of the Jews; it wanted to continue to keep Muhammad Ali in power. In Vienna, Solomon Rothschild approached Metternich on the issue. Austira and Britain, always happy to embarrass the French, got involved. As a result, Muslim and Christian pogroms, which had been going on since February, stopped in May. In England, the Jews, including Sir Moses Montefiore and Baron Nathaniel Rothschild approached the English Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, for help. Palmerston promised to empower England’s consulate in Alexandria and his ambassador in Constantinople to use their influence with the Egyptian Pasha and the Turkish Sultan to help.

International Court

Muhammad Ali suddenly found himself the object of international pressure. As a result, he promised to convene an international court of justice to judge the Jews. However, the French Foreign Secretary, Thiers, was opposed because it would weaken French prestige if the brutal behavior of Ratti Menton and Sherif Pasha were found out. At that point, public opinion the world over began shifting in favor of the condemned Jews.

On July 8, 1840, there was a meeting in London at which members of Parliament and Christian clergy protested the medieval blood libel and the torture of the accused Jews. Similar gatherings took place in Paris, New York City and Philadelphia. U.S. President Martin Van Buren sent letters to the U.S. consul in Alexandria and the State Department’s Minister in Turkey to help the Jews in Damascus. The English Jews sent a delegation made up of Adolphe Cremieux, Moses Montefiore and Solomon Munk to Egypt to make a last appeal to Muhammed Ali to help save the Damascus Jews. The French consul-general, following instructions from Thiers, did his best to sabotage that effort. However, as a war between Egypt and Turkey was on the horizon, French influence began to weaken.

The Release

After three weeks of negotiations with the French delegations, Muhammed Ali yielded to the pressure. He ordered Sherif Pasha to release those Jews who had survived the numerous rounds of torture. They were finally freed, broken in body and spirit, on August 28, 1840. Seven of them had been severely mutilated, four had died, and only two had escaped injury.

In the months that followed, Muhammad Ali lost most of his power. Sherif Pasha was captured by the Turks and dragged in chains to Cairo where he was executed. Only Ratti Menton emerged unscathed.

Turning Point In Jewish History

The Jewish delegation now wished to prevent the repetition of the blood libel anywhere in the world. Moses Montefiore traveled to Constantinople, and obtained an audience with Sultan Abdul Megid. The Sultan graciously issued a decree proclaiming that ritual murder was a base libel on the Jewish people, and that henceforth he would protect them from such accusations throughout the Ottoman Empire.

The Damascus Affair can be regarded as the turning point in the history of Western Jewry in the 19th century. Jews became more deeply aware of the deeply ingrained hostility of the Catholic Church towards them. On the other hand, exemplary Gentiles like Adolphe Cremicus, a proud French citizen, regarded it as his obligation to come out against the policy of his government. Not only did he take part in a Jewish delegation that acted on behalf of Jewish interests, but he also helped to create schools for Jewish children in Cairo, which were the forbears of the Alliance Israelite Universelle schools throughout the Mediterranean.

The Damascus Affair emphasized to Jewry how precarious their situation was, and motivated them to establish a network of international communications and cooperative organizations to protect themselves from anti-Semitism worldwide.

Ronald Florence is an historian and novelist. He is the author of The Gypsy Man, The Perfect Machine, and The Last Season. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.


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