The Accu­sa­tion: Blood Libel in an Amer­i­can Town

  • Review
By – November 11, 2019

On Sep­tem­ber 22nd, 1928, in a small New York town near the Cana­di­an bor­der, a four-year-old girl dis­ap­peared. So begins The Accu­sa­tion: Blood Libel in an Amer­i­can Town by New York Uni­ver­si­ty his­to­ri­an Edward Beren­son. It’s not until the end of the book that we dis­cov­er the girl’s sur­pris­ing fate, but this is not her sto­ry. This is the sto­ry of what his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions could have pos­si­bly led the inhab­i­tants, the state police, and even the may­or of Masse­na, NY to believe, only a few hours after the child’s dis­ap­pear­ance, that she had been kid­napped and killed by Jews for a rit­u­al mur­der — blood libel.

While such accu­sa­tions were not uncom­mon in Europe, this case, Beren­son tells us, was the first and only case of blood libel in the Unit­ed States. So, the author asks, Why Masse­na, New York? And why there but nowhere else in the Unit­ed States … What did the accu­sa­tion and its out­come say about the place of Jews in Amer­i­can life?” The book is a deep explo­ration of the blood libel accu­sa­tion in Europe and how it made its way to the Unit­ed States. This gives us a broad­er overview of part of the his­to­ry of antisemitism.

Beren­son begins with a his­to­ry of blood libel in Europe, which we learn start­ed with two sem­i­nal cas­es. The first took place in Eng­land in 1144, when the Jews of Nor­wich were accused of tor­tur­ing and cru­ci­fy­ing twelve-year-old William of Nor­wich. The sec­ond occurred in Ful­da, Ger­many in 1235, when thir­ty-four Jews were tor­tured and killed in retal­i­a­tion for what was believed to be a rit­u­al killing of five Chris­t­ian boys who died in a fire.

From those ear­ly roots of blood libel, which spread through­out the Holy Roman Empire, the author takes us to the pro­lif­er­a­tion of these accu­sa­tions through­out the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an Empire in the nine­teenth and twen­ti­eth centuries.But this Euro­pean his­to­ry isn’t enough to explain how the hor­rors of that con­ti­nent made their way to the Unit­ed States. For that, Beren­son digs through the his­to­ry of Masse­na, where his own great-grand­fa­ther set­tled in 1898.

Some of the most poignant sec­tions of the book are those cov­er­ing the his­to­ry of anti­semitism in the Unit­ed States, and in par­tic­u­lar the his­to­ry of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK.) Equal­ly grip­ping is the con­nec­tion between the 1928 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the KKK, and two promi­nent rival Jew­ish lead­ers, Stephen Wise and Louis Mar­shall, all of whose sto­ries con­verge around the Masse­na case.

Not long after the young girl’s dis­ap­pear­ance, the case was nation­al news. Its rem­nants can be found in the New York Times archives online. A search for Masse­na from August 1928 to Decem­ber 1928 shows a series of arti­cles about the case in Octo­ber of that year, sand­wiched in between wed­ding announce­ments and sports news.

After the Masse­na case, blood libel accu­sa­tions stopped in the Unit­ed States, but con­tin­ued in Cana­da, Europe, and the Sovi­et Union. Its most cur­rent incar­na­tion, writes Beren­son, lives on in var­i­ous areas in the Mid­dle East, where the blood libel myth has mor­phed from the ver­sion in which Jews use Chris­t­ian children’s blood for rit­u­al pur­pos­es to one in which Jews use Arab children’s blood to make matzah for Passover.

In Berenson’s impres­sive book, he syn­the­sizes cen­turies of Jew­ish his­to­ry into a digestible nar­ra­tive reflect­ed through a long-for­got­ten case in a small Amer­i­can town.

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