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Looking Back: The Damascus Blood Libel Affair

On February 4, 1840, an Italian monk, Padre Tomaso de Camangiano, Superior of a Capuchin cloister in Damascus, and his servant mysteriously disappeared from Ottoman ruled Damascus.

The monk was known among the city’s Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities. According to reports of the time, the monk had had a dispute with a Turkish mule driver who allegedly said, “That dog of a Christian shall die by my hand.”

Following Tomaso’s disappearance, his fellow monks ignored the rumor and instead spread the blood libel that Jews had murdered Tomaso for ritual purposes. The French consul at Damascus, Ratti Menton, accepted the accusations and called for an investigation in the Jewish quarter into Tomaso’s disappearance, thus sparking public suspicions that Jews had actually been behind his abduction for. Menton turned the investigation over to the Muslim governor of Damascus, a man named Sherif Pasha.

The move pleased the French consul who could manipulate Sherif Pasha while Pasha was pleased because he could focus accusations away from the Muslim community and toward the Jewish community.

Per Menton’s request, police began randomly arresting Jews. A Jewish barber named Solomon Negrin was arrested and tortured until he “confessed” that seven Jews killed Father Tomaso at the home of a Jewish man named David Harari. The men, all notable members of the Jewish community, were arrested and faced inhumane torture. Their teeth were pulled from their mouths, they were burned, beaten, submerged into ice water and forced to stand with out food, water or sleep for thirty six strait out hours. Some were dismembered and had their eyes pulled out.

The torture continued until the men “confessed” to being behind the ritual murder. Sherif Pasha and Ratti Menton also arrested David Harari’s Muslim servant and forced him to “confess” that the monk’s servant had been murdered in his master’s presence. By the end of the ordeal, Menton forced Harari’s servant to admit that his master had thrown the monk’s bones into a canal in the Jewish quarter.

After hearing the news, a pogrom erupted in the suburb of Jobar where members of the local community attacked a synagogue and destroyed its Torahs.

Nevertheless, once news reached the U.S., American Jews demanded a response. The United States consulate in Egypt, also part of the Ottoman Empire, officially protested the incident by order of President Martin Van Buren. Moreover, British philanthropoist and banker Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, French lawayer Adolphe Crémieux, Austrian consul Merlatto, missionary John Nicolayson, and Solomon Munk, led a delegation to the ruler of Syria, Mehemet Ali. Negotiations about the incident took place in Egypt from August 4 to August 28 for the release of the survivors of the incident who were being held in an Ottoman prison. Montefiore eventually persuaded Sultan Abdülmecid to issue an edict to stop the false spread of blood libel accusations in the Ottomon Empire.

Abdülmecid said:

... and for the love we bear to our subjects, we cannot permit the Jewish nation, whose innocence for the crime alleged against them is evident, to be worried and tormented as a consequence of accusations which have not the least foundation in truth...

Despite Abdülmecid’s edict massacres inspired by false blood libels continued across the Ottoman Empire in Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut, Dayr al-Qamar, Cairo, Mansura, Alexandria, Port Said, Damanhur, Istanbul, Buyukdere, Kuzguncuk, Eyub, Edirne, Izmir and others. The case also sparked blood libels across Europe that threatened the physical safety of European Jews.

The Damascus Blood Libel Affairs is regarded as a turning point in the history of 19th century Jewry. While it instilled in Jews the hatred all around them, it also brought forward non-Jews, such as Adolphe Cremicus, who felt that it was their humane duty to come out against such baseless accusations. The events of the affair ultimately motivated Jews to create international cooperative networks to try to shield themselves from blood libels. Unfortunately, the forces of hate too often trumped Jewish efforts to secure the safety.