Death in Damascus

The Damascus Affair
July 25, 1997

On the afternoon of February 5 1840 Father Thomas, a Sardinian monk, was seen leaving the French Capuchin monastery in Damascus, walking in the direction of the Jewish quarter. Neither he, nor his servant, ever returned to their home. The reason for this strange disappearance was immediately obvious to many of the Christian townspeople of Damascus: they had been killed by the Jews for ritual purposes. Within days a number of Jews were arrested by the Muslim authorities and tortured, at which they admitted their complicity in the killing, to obtain blood for "the celebration of their religious mysteries". They further implicated a numberof leading members of the Jewish community who were in their turn arrested and tortured.

It was the revival and reinvigoration of a tradition of ritual murder allegations which began with a case in Norwich in 1144. Indeed, the antiquity of the charge was cited as evidence of its veracity. "Don't you know about the thousands of Jews killed because of this issue?" shouted the governor-general of Syria, while beating the chief rabbi about the head.

Just as interesting as the events in Damascus were reactions to them in Europe, where some English, French and German newspapers were prepared to countenance the ritual murder allegations, and treat both the Jews and their accusers in an equally "balanced" fashion, thus giving credence to the charges.

Jonathan Frankel puts the case in its international context, showing the divisions of power within the Muslim world which kept the affair alive. Most important was the rivalry betweenthe sultan of Turkey and the viceroy of Egypt. The latter had conquered Syria (therefore taking Damascus) in 1831-33 in a conflict which saw the European powers taking different sides. The Damascus affair becamea catalyst to the diplomacy of the foreign ministries of Britain, Austria and France, whichdecided their sympathies not according to the justice of the charges, but to the larger political questions being played out in the Middle East.

The Damascus Affair is a work of long and deep scholarship. It is the first comprehensive, modern account of the events of 1840 and the surrounding controversies, and will become an essential text to anyone interested in Jewish or middle eastern history in the 19th century.

The persecution had been the more surprising, as Jonathan Frankel notes, because the Jews in Damascus had enjoyed an acceptance and autonomy unimaginable in most parts of Europe. Indeed, some Jews in other parts of the world blamed the Damascus Jews for their own downfall, claiming that their lax observance of the laws of sexual purity had brought this persecution as a punishment from God.

While the persecution was taking place it was frequently compared to the intolerance of the past. Only later in the 19th century, as Frankel shows, came the shocking interpretation that such outbreaks of persecution mania were not the final thrashings of a dying anti-Semitic past, but symptomatic of the modern era, and forerunners of a greater persecution to come.

Jad Adams is a writer and television producer.

The Damascus Affair

Author - Jonathan Frankel
ISBN - 0 521 48246 1 and 48396 4
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00 and £15.95
Pages - 491

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