Arguably the UK’s most successful domestically produced export to Israel has been parliamentary democracy. Arguably its most successful domestically produced export to the Arab world has been the anti-Semitic blood libel, the claim that Jews use the blood of non-Jewish children to bake their Passover matzah or for other ritual purposes. What is curious is that there are so many in Britain for whom the latter “achievement” resonates more and finds expression in new domestic iterations of this hoary, murderous British creation.
The blood libel first appeared in Norwich, England in 1144. A subsequent libel in the same vein, concerning the death of a boy in Lincoln in 1255, was immortalized by Chaucer’s reference to it in “The Prioress’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales. At least into the early twentieth century, versions of the libel could be found in collections and recordings of British ballads.
The anti-Semitic libel enjoyed wide popularity across Europe throughout the Middle Ages and blood libel accusations were often accompanied by the mass murder of Jewish communities. Versions of the libel have persisted in Europe into the present century.
In the Arab world, evidence of successful European introduction of the blood libel can be traced at least as far back as the Damascus blood libel in 1840. But it is particularly in recent decades that the blood libel has won almost ubiquitous currency among Arabs. Former Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass published The Matzah of Zion in 1986, promoting the blood libel as fact, and the book gained a very wide audience and has gone through many reprints . There have been a number of Arab television dramatizations of the blood libel and myriad assertions of the libel’s veracity by Arab religious and political leaders.
In April 2013, the Palestinian non-profit MIFTAH, founded by Hanan Ashrawi and funded in part by the British Council, took President Obama to task for hosting a seder at the White House. MIFTAH complained: “Does Obama in fact know the relationship, for example, between ‘Passover’ and ‘Christian blood’..?! Or ‘Passover’ and ‘Jewish blood rituals?!’ Much of the chatter and gossip about historical Jewish blood rituals in Europe are real and not fake as they claim; the Jews used the blood of Christians in the Jewish Passover.”
During the recent Israeli-Hamas fighting, Hamas official Osama Hamdan declared (translation by MEMRI): “We all remember how the Jews used to slaughter Christians, in order to mix their blood in their holy matzos. This is not a figment of imagination or something taken from a film. It is a fact, acknowledged by their own books and by historical evidence.”
In medieval Europe, both secular rulers, like Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1236, and various popes – Innocent IV and Gregory X in the thirteenth century, Martin V and Nicholas V in the fifteenth century – issued emphatic statements condemning the blood libel and declaring that Jews did not prey on Christian children and did not use blood in their rituals. One would be hard pressed to find equivalently prominent figures in the Arab world condemning the blood libel today.
Prompted by this popularity of the blood libel in the Arab world, and by the anti-Israel slant to Middle East events that prevails in Britain, the theme of Jews preying on non-Jewish children has won new prominence in Britain, particularly within the British chattering classes: in the media and among cultural elites.
To be sure, British invocation of the blood libel does not require an Israel-linked context. For example, in April, 2005, The Guardian published a political cartoon that portrayed then Conservative Party leader Michael Howard, a Jew, with a fang dripping blood as he grinned and held up a blood-filled glass. The caption read: “Are you drinking what we’re drinking? Vote Conservative.” But it is primarily the Arab-Israeli conflict and anti-Israel bias that provide the background for most contemporary British regurgitations of the blood libel.
The faux, bandied justification for British libeling of Israeli Jews as child killers is the claim that Israeli forces target Palestinian children. But this sets reality on its head. In fact, Hamas openly declares its religious duty to kill not only all Israelis but all Jews, including all Jewish children. And the Palestinian Authority, under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, uses its media, mosques and schools to declare that all Palestinians must dedicate themselves to Israel’s destruction and to praise as role models those Palestinians who have carried out terrorist attacks against Israelis, including attacks that targeted children.
In addition, all Palestinian groups have translated their words into deeds. For example, in the years immediately following Yasser Arafat’s launching of his terror war against Israel in September, 2000, more pre-teen Israeli children were killed than pre-teen Palestinian children (that is, children below the age of almost any possible role in hostilities on either side). More broadly, some eighty percent of Israeli fatalities were non-combatants, as compared to about forty-six percent of Palestinian fatalities. Nor can this difference reasonably be attributed, as it sometimes has been, to Palestinians having less precise weapons with which to target Israelis. The Palestinians’ primary weapon during those years was the suicide bomber, a very precise weapon indeed in honing in on a target.
Moreover, Arafat, an authoritarian power whose goal of destroying Israel always took precedence over the welfare of the Palestinian people, diverted Palestinian assets, including the huge contributions received from Europe and the United States, to that goal and away from the needs of his people. In a similar vein, he pursued a policy of using Palestinian civilians, including children, as human shields, knowing any ensuing civilian casualties will redound to his own propaganda gain. (Hamas, since taking control of Gaza in 2007, has pursued the same course and has openly acknowledged its use of Palestinian civilians as human shields.)
But despite this reality, the Observer, in February, 2001, published a poem by Tom Paulin entitled “Killed in Crossfire,” picking up the theme of Jewish targeting of children, and managing, with a poet’s efficiency, to pack the piece with a slew of anti-Semitic tropes:
We’re fed this inert
this lying phrase
like comfort food
as another little Palestinian boy
in trainer jeans and a white teeshirt
is gunned down by the Zionist SS
whose initials we should
– but we don’t – dumb goys –
clock in the weasel word crossfire.
Also during this period, The Independent ran a cartoon depicting a naked Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s prime minister, devouring Palestinian children, and the UK’s Political Cartoon Society subsequently honored the drawing with its Political Cartoon of the Year Award for 2003.
In the 2009 Gaza War, which involved an Israeli incursion after, as with the present war, extensive firing of rockets by Hamas and its allies into Israel, estimated Palestinian fatalities range from around 1200 to about 1400. Hamas stated during and immediately after the war that only fifty of its fighters were killed in the conflict. Israel claimed that Hamas and allied combatants killed numbered around 700, or approximately half of total Palestinian deaths. Only in November, 2010, did Hamas admit that, in fact, between 600 and 700 of its fighters were among the dead and that the Israeli figures were essentially correct.
But British media almost exclusively parroted the figures put out by Hamas (or by the UN, which itself adopted the numbers fed it by Hamas). British media also, then as now, was essentially silent on Hamas’s use of civilians as human shields. The story, then as now, was of Israel targeting Palestinian civilians and, more particularly, the toll on Palestinian children of Israel’s supposedly heartless and inexcusable aggression.
Colonel Richard Kemp, formerly commander of British forces in Afghanistan, stated in an interview on BBC during the war:
“I think – I would say that from my knowledge of the IDF and from the extent to which I have been following the current operation, I don’t think there has ever been a time in the history of warfare when any army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties and deaths of innocent people than the IDF is doing today in Gaza.
“When you look at the number of civilian casualties that have been caused, that perhaps doesn’t sound too credible – I would accept that.
“However, Hamas, the enemy they have been fighting, has been trained extensively by Iran and by Hezbollah, to fight among the people, to use the civilian population in Gaza as a human shield.”
But Colonel Kemp’s perspective, repeated in the context of the current war, was basically ignored by the British commentariat then as now.
Similarly, Hamas’s belated acknowledgment that the ratio of civilian to fighter deaths in the 2009 war was about 1:1 – this compared to, for example, Western campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo, where the ratio of civilian to fighter deaths has most reliably been estimated at between 3:1 (Afghanistan) and 4:1 (Iraq and Kosovo) – had virtually no impact on the popular characterization in Britain of Israeli behavior in the war as entailing intentional killing of Palestinian civilians, particularly children.
Representative of British attitudes, at least among the chattering classes, was a six-minute play by Caryl Churchill produced in 2010 to much critical acclaim and entitled “Seven Jewish Children.” The play consists of seven segments, each entailing actors discussing what should be told to “her” – a Jewish child – about events in the lands they and she subsequently fled, her presence in Israel and the conflict with the Arabs. The play offers up standard anti-Israel, anti-Semitic tropes: that the Jews stole the land, stole Arabs’ houses, steal Arab water, regard Arabs as sub-human and themselves as superior and, of course, kill Arab children and feel justified and pleased to do so.
Don’t tell her the boy was shot…
Tell her we’re entitled…
Don’t tell her how many of them have been killed
Tell her the Hamas fighters have been killed
Tell her they’re terrorists
Tell her they’re filth…
Don’t tell her about the family of dead girls
Tell her you can’t believe what you see on television
Tell her we killed the babies by mistakeTell her about the family of dead girls, tell her their names why not, tell her the whole world knows why shouldn’t she know? tell her there’s dead babies, did she see babies? tell her she’s got nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her they did it to themselves. Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them, tell her I’m not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them… tell her they’re animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out… tell her we’re chosen people, tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her…
A 2011 study, conducted in a number of European countries by a German university, found that 42% of those interviewed in the UK agreed with the statement that “Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians.” (If Israel’s intent has been extermination, it has been uniquely inept at pursuing it. For example, looking primarily at UN statistics covering most of the period of Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza, which began, of course, in 1967, life expectancy for Palestinians rose from 48 in 1967 to 72 in 2000 (compared to an average of 68 in 2000 for all of the Middle East and North Africa); Palestinian infant mortality dropped under Israeli health programs from 60 per 1,000 live births in 1968 to 15 per 1,000 live births in 2000 (compared to 40 in Egypt, 23 in Jordan and 22 in Syria); and Israeli inoculation programs eradicated polio, whooping cough, tetanus and measles.)
What has led people in the UK to this bizarre, bigoted comprehension of Israel? Obviously, beyond what anti-Jewish animus abroad in the society they may have absorbed, the explanation lies in large part in what has been fed to them regarding Israel by biased British media, British academia, British cultural outlets, including the examples already cited.
Coverage of the present war has followed the well-worn path of that same bias. Despite previous experience of Hamas providing distorted casualty figures that overstate civilian deaths and hide combatant losses, British media typically parrot Hamas figures (or those figures as repeated by the UN) and cast Israel as unconscionably targeting civilians, with children being the most notable victims of Israeli policy. (The actual ratio of civilian to fighter deaths, according to Israel, is the low figure for such conflicts of about 1:1, as in the 2009 war, and this will almost certainly prove to be correct.)
British media likewise report very little if anything about Hamas using civilians as human shields, firing rockets from inside or near schools, mosques, hospitals, hotels, and other civilian locations, or about Hamas preventing civilians from leaving areas from which it is firing or from rocket storage sites, rocket manufacturing facilities and command and control centers.
It is true that Hamas monitors the foreign media in Gaza, and journalists who report honestly about these matters would put themselves in some danger. But journalistic integrity obviously would require either factual reporting on what is happening in Gaza, including the intimidation of the foreign press, or no reporting at all. British media, instead, have submitted to Hamas guidelines without reporting their doing so; and, in fact, those guidelines are consistent with the bias British media bring to the story.
The BBC, in a rare brief spasm of journalistic integrity, did, on August 8, post a report by its head of statistics noting difficulties with widely cited claims, emanating ultimately from Hamas either directly or via the UN, concerning the percentage of fatalities in Gaza that were civilians. The numbers – the UN was declaring at the time that at least 72% of the dead were civilians – had been used in many instances as supporting assertions that Israel was simply randomly killing Gazans or even intentionally targeting civilians.
The BBC report states: “An analysis by the New York Times looked at the names of 1,431 casualties and found that ‘the population most likely to be militants, men ages 20 to 29, is also the most overrepresented in the death toll. They are 9% of Gaza’s 1.7 million residents, but 34% of those killed whose ages were provided’… ‘At the same time, women and children under 15, the least likely to be legitimate targets, were the most underrepresented, making up 71% of the population and 33% of the known-age casualties.’”
The report goes on to cite Israel’s claim that at least 1,068 of the dead were combatants and to acknowledge that: “It is important to bear in mind that in Operation Cast Lead [the 2009 war] Hamas and Gaza-based organizations claimed that only 50 combatants were killed, admitting years later the number was between 600 and 700, a figure nearly identical to the figure claimed by the IDF.”
But this exercise in objective journalism was soon replaced by business as usual. For example, five days later the BBC web site, promoting an appeal for funds for Gaza, was declaring that “85%+” of those killed in Gaza were civilians.
And it was business as usual in other British media, in British street demonstrations vilifying Israel, and within other British institutions, where the theme of Israelis/Jews as child killers again enjoyed a particular prominence. As Brendan O’Neill, editor of the British online journal Spiked, noted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed:
“What has been most striking about the British response to the Gaza conflict is the extent to which all the things that were once said about Jews are now said about Israel. Everywhere, from the spittle-flecked newspaper commentary to angry street protests, the old view of Jews as infanticidal masterminds of global affairs has been cut-and-pasted onto Israel.
Consider the constant branding of Israelis as ‘child murderers.’ The belief that Israel takes perverse pleasure in killing children is widespread. It was seen in the big London demonstrations where protesters waved placards featuring caricatured Israeli politicians saying ‘I love killing women and children.’ It could be heard in claims by the U.K.-based group Save the Children that Israel launched a ‘war on children.’ It was most explicitly expressed in the Independent newspaper last week when a columnist described Israel as a ‘child murdering community’ and wondered how long it would be before Israeli politicians hold a ‘Child Murderer Pride’ festival.”
Surely any explaining the popularity of the child murderer trope must acknowledge that central to its appeal is that it titillates the anti-Semitic mind.
Matthew Arnold wrote of Oxford as “whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Age.” Today the last grotesquerie of the Middle Age is not whispered but shouted, from Britain’s newspapers and magazines, its literary journals and professional journals, its theaters and made-for-television dramas, its NGO’s and street demonstrations, its university common rooms and lecture rooms, its union halls and town halls and corridors of national power: the Jew-baiting, blood libel shout.
Kenneth Levin is a psychiatrist and historian and author of “The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People under Siege.”