Israel has endured a run of scandals unusual even by the country's historically feisty standards. The past year has seen the President (head of state), Moshe Katzav, indicted for rape (no this is not a misprint), and the Justice Minister, Haim Ramon, forced to leave office after he was accused of forcibly french-kissing a young soldier at an official function. That the soldier was apparently in uniform at the time, and that the event took place immediately before the vote to commence the recent Lebanon War, did little to help Ramon's cause.
This past week Israel was hit with a somewhat different scandal, involving no sex but compensating with those two other perennial favorites, politics and religion, and a bit of violence thrown in for good measure. The issue involves a book, Pasque di Sangue
(Passovers of Blood), written by Ariel Toaff, an Israeli professor of Italian descent who teaches at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. Toaff is the son of the former Chief Rabbi of Rome and appears to be related, by blood or marriage, to a sizable percentage of Italian Jewry: to say that he comes from a distinguished lineage is a bit like saying Florence had a lot of painters. Bar Ilan is a religious university although it has had secular professors (including myself) and tries to maintain an open mind on most issues.
The shock was accordingly all the greater when Toaff's book was released by Il Mulino, a prestigious Italian publisher, last week. Without putting too fine a point on it, Toaff's book suggests that so-called "blood libel" accusations--the accusation that Jews ritually killed Christian children for use in making Passover matza (unleavened bread)--were in some limited cases probably true. While Jewish law plainly prohibits such actions, according to Toaff, small communities in northern Italy--motivated by a powerful if in the circumstances understandable hatred of Christianity--may have done so, anyway. The book focuses in particular on the case of Simon of Trent, venerated for centuries as a martyr but whose cult was suspended in the 1960s when Church experts decided the events in question had in fact not taken place. (Interestingly, Toaff places the blame on Ashkenazic or German-oriented rather than mainstream Italian Jews, which is consistent with the Italian view that all evil commences north of the Alps, but that is another story.)
Saying that blood libels may have had even an ounce of truth to them is a bit like saying that some lynchings may not have been wholly unjustified, and the response has been predictable and one-sided. Part of the response has been academic: Toaff has been attacked, in both Italy and Israel, for failing to clearly identify sources and (more seriously) for relying too completely on testimony of Jews derived under torture by Catholic authorities. But there have also been suggestions that he has simply gone too far by raising an issue with such painful repercussions for the world (and especially the Italian) Jewish communities. At last notice Toaff had withdrawn the book, now in a second printing, for unspecified "revisions"--he claims that many of the key passages were mistinterpreted-- and agreed to pay any resulting profits to Jewish organizations. His job at Bar-Ilan appeared safe, although the university called him on the carpet and expressed "extreme displeasure" at Toaff's "lack of sensitivity" and related failures.
I don't know if Toaff's research makes sense, or even if he argues what he is said to argue. (Some of the misunderstanding apparently comes for a sympathetic review by Sergio Luzzatto, an Italian history professor, who arguably exaggerated some of the book's findings.) Nor, since the book is apparently out of circulation, am I likely to find out soon. But I would make the following points.
First, I am always suspicious of people's historical methods being questioned only when they reach unpopular conclusions. If Toaff is such a careless researcher, why was he hired at such a prestigious university, and why weren't his deficiencies discovered at an earlier stage?
Second, Toaff is not the first researcher to question traditional Jewish attitudes toward antisemitism, with respect to blood libels or other issues. Put simply, the attitude frequently expressed in Jewish circles--that Jews are inevitably victims and all anti-Jewish claims are fantasies--seems improbable on several levels. That doesn't mean Toaff is right, but surely he should be permitted to investigate an alternate theory without fear of being accused of betrayal.
Finally, it is to say the least interesting that a number of Toaff's critics cannot possibly have read the book, which has appeared exclusively in Italian, although in fairness some Italian critics (pace Luzzatto) have reached a similar conclusion.
The whole affair confirms my view that ethnic studies programs, be they Jewish, Black, Italian or otherwise, are a dubious innovation with potentially quite negative implications for open scholarly inquiry. In a sense this is an unfair point, since Israeli universities will obviously have an interest in Jewish topics, and there is no necessary reason this should result in reduced academic standards. The problem is that, in practice, scholars who teach "Jewish History" or "African-American Culture" are under enormous pressure to produce conclusions that make their group look good and others, if only by comparison, bad. That even a tiny deviation from this orthodoxy can cause such an uproar--Toaff clearly believes that the overwhelming majority of blood libels were false and in no way rationalizes the resulting antisemitism--is further evidence of this point. Toaff may or may not be right, and he may or may not be silenced; but it's unlikely he'll be the last person to raise this issue.