I never thought I’d see the day that “blood libel” was trending at Twitter, but here we are. And even though the Wikipedia page for “blood libel” is currently embroiled in a mini edit war over whether to include this most recent popular reference to it under the “Contemporary” trivia section and a simultaneous rush to edit in as many instances of non-Jewish blood libel as possible* , guides to the history of blood libel are popping up all over the web even as I type, so I’m sure you all have adequate tools for determining just how outraged you ought to be over the whole thing without my input. This is all for the best, really, since for the most part I try to keep this blog ambivalently apolitical.**
My only worry is that in all this hubbub, the indexical value of “blood libel” is being overlooked. The reason why we need a special phrase like “blood libel” to denote lies told about what Jews do with the blood of baby Christians is the sheer number of libels which Jews have had to contend over the years.
Take for instance, the “ass libel.” According to Josephus’s Against Apion*** , deep within the holiest of holy chambers in the Temple at Jerusalem Jews secretly keep a golden statue of an ass-headed man which they worship. The Greeks of Late Antiquity and the medieval Christians after them found the idea of worshiping a donkey uniquely hilarious for reasons that escape me, though I suppose it’s just a very specific manifestation of the ever-present Christian fear that the Jews are up to naughtiness when no one’s there to police them.
Then there’s the “leper libel,” which charges that the real reason Moses was allowed to lead the Jews from Egypt was that they were actually a leprous mob that the Egyptians drove out for public health reasons. As descendants of lepers, the Jews’ natural resistance to disease was thought to have been compromised sufficiently that they could no longer safely be around unclean animals like the pig, and thus the Jewish prohibition against eating pork. And further, since they had all been infected with Leprosy Lite since birth, Jews were also thought likely to cause leprosy outbreaks amongst their Christian neighbors.
Leper, ass, and blood form the Big Three of Jewish libels, but we might add to them a demi-relation, the “sow libel,” more properly the story of the Judensau (literally, “The Jew’s Pig”),**** a late medieval German belief that Jews secretly did naughty things to pigs when Christian backs were turned. Jewish rabbis were often depicted lifting a sow’s tails in order to go peering up its ass, while below Jewish children suckled from the teats. Less often, the slur progressed to full on accusations of pig fucking.*****
So as you can see, it’s vitally important we keep our libels straight. If we let us the phrase “blood libel” come to mean any pernicious lie told about a group of outsiders by the majority, the next thing you know we’ll have to start using “ass blood libel” and “leper blood libel,” and then where will we be?
- * I count 103 edits over the last six hours. [↩]
- ** Though I can note that it is probably advisable to avoid the casual usage of inflammatory language when one is making a speech responding to accusations that one uses inflammatory language too casually. [↩]
- *** Or Contra Apionem for purists and Konami fans. [↩]
- **** Which I’ve mentioned here before, back in the waaaay early days of the blog. [↩]
- ***** Wikipedia has a rather extensive Image gallery, for those interested. [↩]