Charges of ritual murder against Jews were not uncommon in Christian Europe in the Middle Ages, and the case of Leo Frank in Georgia in the early years of the 20th century revitalized this libel in the American South. But the 1840 accusation of ritual murder after the disappearance of a Capuchin monk in Damascus, Syria, provides a unique and complex drama revolving around this age – old calumny. Ronald Florence, a novelist and historian, masterfully recounts the drama of this 19th century epic clash of religions and international politics in a compelling and scholarly chronicle.
The Chief Prosecutor in the “Damascus Affair” was the French consul, aided by his British counterpart. The unlikely defenders of the accused Jews were the Sultan, ruler over the Ottoman Empire, and the Austrians. Even the American representative in Damascus supported the charges brought against the city’s hapless Jews. The facts surrounding the blood libel clearly exonerate the Jewish barber, Negrin, and eight other prominent members of the local Jewish community, who were tortured in order to obtain a confession. On February 5, 1840, Father Thomas, a Sardinian superior of the Franciscan convent at Damascus, disappeared with his servant. The monk, who practiced medicine and who often provided medical care to Christian, as well as Jewish and Muslim, inhabitants of Damascus, was a well – known figure. A few days before Father Thomas’ disappearance, he had engaged in a dispute with a Turkish muleteer who had heard the monk blaspheme Mohammed. The Turk is reported to have yelled: “That dog of a Christian shall die by my hand.” Yet the French consul, Ratti-Menton, a notorious anti-Semite, on advice from some local monks together with the connivance of the governor, Sherif Pasha, commenced investigations of the Jewish quarter when Father Thomas disappeared.
Jewish communities in Europe and America were appealed to, and public meetings and demonstrations were held against the sham “trial” of the “Damascus nine” in London, Paris, New York and Philadelphia. The Austrian consul in Alexandria, Egypt, defended the accused Jews, as did the Sultan Majid in Constantinople. Ultimately Ratti- Menton was exposed for the scoundrel he was when, after an appointment to a consular post in Canton, China, he was accused of corruption and involvement in a smuggling operation. Notwithstanding the scandals that marked the last years of his diplomatic career, Ratti-Menton retired from the French diplomatic corps as an officer of the Legion d’Honneur.
Ronald Florence ably weaves the historical events of 1840, Damascus into a first – rate mystery that, sadly, has echoes in the anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence witnessed in Europe and the Middle East of late. This reviewer highly recommends Blood Libel, not only as an historical monograph, but as a powerful thriller with thought – provoking insights into contemporary anti-Jewish prejudices.