Beware: words can and do kill

July 13, 2001

Some documents are too dangerous for consumption by the general public, Geoffrey Alderman writes.

In 1877 the orientalist Sir Richard Burton penned a treatise titled Human Sacrifice among the Sephardine or the Eastern Jews . It was based largely on the Damascus affair (1840), when a number of Jews were falsely accused of having murdered a Christian priest to use his blood in the baking of unleavened bread (matzah) for the Passover festival. This was a repetition of the classic medieval blood libel against Jews, whose religion prohibits them from consuming blood of any sort.

Burton’s manuscript survived the instruction given by his widow that all his papers be burnt. An attempt to publish it at the end of the century led to

its acquisition by the Jewish Deputies in 1911, with its then president promising that it would be “suppressed forever”.

In the 1980s, as a member of the deputies, I began a campaign to permit bona fide scholars to consult the manuscript. Following interventions on my behalf by the then president of the Royal Historical Society and the then president of the British Academy, I was permitted to read the manuscript after having given an undertaking that I would publish nothing without the board’s permission. Two other historians have read it under similar conditions.

Last month’s attempted auction of the manuscript was irresponsible given the risk of it falling into neo-Nazi hands. I am also against it being made available for any member of the public to consult “as of right”. There is no such right.

This manuscript falls into a special category. Bona fide scholars, whose motives are demonstrably academic, should be able to read it. But we would be foolish to ignore the fact that the blood libel, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent Jews, is still very much alive. As recently as October last year, the Egyptian daily al-Ahram ran a story headlined “A Jewish matzah made from Arab blood”.

Historians have a duty to tell the truth as they see it, even if telling it is upsetting to individuals. I have incurred Jewish communal displeasure by naming Jewish members of the National Front and convicted Anglo-Jewish paedophiles. I am unrepentant.

I deplore attempts by owners of archives to deny access to protect reputations. History is about the exposure of myth. It is the hallmark of an open society that its government and other organisations permit journalists and scholars the freedom to confront “received wisdom” and to consult archives and publish from them.

But freedom is not the same as licence. Words can and do kill. Governments are right to restrict access to archives if they judge that such access may prejudice national security. Communal bodies are similarly entitled to restrict archival access if they judge that unrestricted access is likely to prejudice communal safety.

The Burton manuscript is a dangerous document. In civilised societies, only those appropriately qualified are permitted to practise medicine and to prescribe dangerous drugs. Only those suitably qualified, and who can be trusted to read the Burton manuscript in context, should be permitted access to it.

On Sunday the Jewish Deputies debate these issues. Their forebears were right to suppress access to the Burton manuscript in 1911. They were wrong to do so in the 1980s. The leadership was extremely misguided to attempt to auction the work. Thankfully the manuscript failed to reach its reserve price. Burton’s evil diatribe should be preserved but made available only to those whose business is the pursuit of truth.

Geoffrey Alderman is vice-president of Touro College, New York, and professor at Middlesex University, London.   

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