FEATURE — Fall 2009

  Illuminating Jewish-Christian
(Photo: Joe Angeles)

By looking at 19th-century trials of Jewish defendants accused of ritual murder, historian Hillel Kieval sheds light on the origins of 20th-century anti-Jewish violence.

by Judy H. Watts

The Jewish people have been a complexly integral and dynamic part of civilization’s story, though they have always been a tiny minority of any continent’s population. Their epic history spans nearly 4,000 years and incorporates the great themes of human existence—made intensely particular as Jews over the millennia have adjusted to abrupt shifts and reversals in their home countries’ prevailing social, political, and religious attitudes.

Over the centuries the Jewish people have enjoyed peaceful times of productivity, autonomy, community participation, and the pursuit of their faith—civilization’s first monotheistic religion. Their contributions to knowledge, culture, and society are beyond measure.

Israel’s tribes also have endured enslavement, recurring exiles and dispersions, destruction of temples, massacres, restriction to ghettos, and, in the first attempt at genocide on such a scale, extermination of 6 million of their own, including more than 1.5 million children. Today, the 61-year-old nation of Israel is the subject of a vehement global discussion that includes the entire broad spectrum of political and religious views of Jews themselves.

To this unfolding narrative, Hillel Kieval, the Gloria M. Goldstein Professor of Jewish History and Thought in Arts & Sciences, contributes new and, ultimately, broadly illuminating chapters discovered through his research on transformations in East Central European Jewish life from the 18th century to the Second World War.

This woodcut illustration from the popular Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493 claims to depict the murder by Jews of the young boy Simon, who had disappeared in 1475, from the northern Italian city of Trento (Trent). The incident in Trent was hardly the first case of “ritual murder” against Jews, but its widespread diffusion—thanks, in part, to the invention of the printing press—made the city a site of Christian pilgrimage.

In 2009, Kieval will complete his book Blood Inscriptions: The “Ritual Murder” Trial in Modern Europe, which focuses on accusations of ritual murder brought against Jews in Central and Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century. “These ritual murder trials are particularly interesting to me because they seem to be out of place and time,” says Kieval, former history department chair. “I have always approached historical research as something that ought to be question-driven rather than argument-driven.”

The puzzle is this. Accusations of what is colloquially termed blood libel—assertions that Jews murdered Christians in order to perform Jewish rituals—emerged in Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries, during the Crusades and Jews’ expulsion from many European countries. “These accusations had their heyday in the centuries before the [early-16th-century] Protestant Reformation,” Kieval says. “Afterward, many European Christians—particularly Protestants who saw the accusations as tied to what they would call Catholic superstition—held this belief in Jewish ritual criminality in disrepute. States in Central Europe suppressed such accusations after the late Reformation, and in Eastern Europe during the Enlightenment period—although in popular culture such notions sometimes passed from mother to child or sometimes from priests to congregations.”

Then everything changed again. “Over some thirty to forty years surrounding the turn of the 19th century, Austria, Hungary, the Hapsburg monarchy, the German empire, and eventually the Russian empire completely reversed course. They prosecuted very public, sensational trials—involving considerable resources, energy, and prestige—against Jewish defendants accused of ritual murder. And that raises questions for me.”

For one thing, Kieval “wondered just how the trials worked culturally and conceptually.” Even more puzzling, how could these trials involving social supposition occur in a post-scientific age and even include forensic testimony and examination of evidence?

The answers, says Kieval, lie in “the ways in which science actually combined with the accusation to lend it greater credence and plausibility. I see it as quintessentially modern, not a throwback to the Middle Ages.”

Kieval expects his book, under contract to the University of California Press, to appeal to students, scholars, and intelligent lay readers alike. David G. Roskies, the Sol and Evelyn Henkind Professor of Yiddish Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York City, emphatically agrees, calling it an extraordinary piece of scholarship. “It reads like a thriller!” Roskies says. “And what’s really at stake is a huge question: Where did 20th-century anti-Semitism and Nazism come from? How was it possible that the most advanced societies in Europe embraced these horrific ideas? The trials Hillel covers show you exactly how it happened.”

“And what’s really at stake is a huge question: Where did 20th-century anti-Semitism and Nazism come from? How was it possible that the most advanced societies in Europe embraced these horrific ideas? The trials Hillel covers show you exactly how it happened,” says David G. Roskies, the Sol and Evelyn Henkind Professor of Yiddish Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, referring to Professor Kieval’s forthcoming book.

“Hillel Kieval’s investigation is an important contribution to our understanding of anti-Jewish violence,” says Antony Polonsky, the Albert Abramson Professor of Holocaust Studies, an appointment he holds jointly at Brandeis University and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “And this issue hasn’t gone away: It’s a constant feature of certain Arab and anti-Zionist propaganda.”

“Blood libels aren’t true—that goes without saying,” says Derek Penslar, the Samuel Zacks Professor of Jewish History and director of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Toronto. “But these accusations reflect and feed anxieties about the modern world.”

Eminent historian of modern Jewry
When Kieval was a PhD student of modern Jewish and modern European history at Harvard University, he noticed that some of the most fruitful periods of Jewish culture occurred in an environment of intense national struggle and conflict, especially in urban capitals of Central Europe such as Prague, Vienna, and Budapest.

He decided to focus his doctoral dissertation on events in late 19th- and early 20th-century Prague, a time of rising nationalism. And “to do it right,” he had to access all the Czech sources. The conventional assumption then was that Jews “more or less unanimously” spoke and wrote German during the decades he would study, but “that didn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Kieval says. “I was finding so much material in Czech by Jews for Jews that I suspected much of the existing historiography was coming from people who only read sources in German!”

So Kieval—already fluent in Hebrew, German, and French—proceeded to learn Czech. (He has recently added Hungarian.) Penslar says learning Czech was no mean feat. “You know, everyone learns German in college or graduate school, but who also learns Czech? That is the first thing I would say about Hillel,” Penslar says. Another is that he considers Kieval one of the most eminent historians of modern Jewry in North America.

The ultimate result of Kieval’s efforts was the book The Making of Czech Jewry: National Conflict and Jewish Society in Bohemia, 1870–1918 (Oxford University Press, 1988). Kieval argues in part that many Jews responded to Czech nationalism by openly identifying with the Czech language, culture, and political aspirations—others, by generally advocating a distinctively Jewish cultural position nationally (as opposed to being a religious group only) that would be appropriate in the multiethnic context of Central Europe.

Says Penslar: “Hillel is one of the few scholars who really thinks through the whole problem of the ‘trilemma’ of modern Jewish identity in Europe, where there’s a constant interplay, in the case of his research, between Jewish national identity, German cultural identity, and Czech political identity.”

Other questions led to Kieval’s book Language of Community: The Jewish Experience in the Czech Lands (University of California Press, 2000). One was how Jews used language and notions of community to make themselves at home. He reveals how shifting linguistic identifications affected Jewish culture in the 19th century—as acculturation extended even to synagogues, which adopted forms of worship historically found in churches, such as a central edifying sermon and organ music.

Opening objective worlds to students
A professor whom Penslar calls “a lovely human being,” Kieval teaches graduate courses on Hapsburg Central Europe and undergraduate classes filled with “lots of discussion” of medieval, early modern, and modern Jewish history. These include a senior capstone seminar for the students in the Jewish, Islamic, and Near Eastern Studies program, and a new freshman seminar on Jewish identity in an age of nationalism. The freshmen focus in part on Jewish emancipation, wherein by 1870 individual Jews were formally granted citizenship, with full rights, throughout North America and Western and Central Europe.

“But the process included a trade-off: the destruction of [long-standing] Jewish institutions,” Kieval says. Typically, Jews had had their own courts of law and legally recognized communities in which they taxed their members and provided social services, education, burial, and even limited police functions. Now their identity was narrowly religious. “The notion that Jews and Judaism are a religious denomination is so commonplace today that I try to point out to my students how historically recent this process actually was.”

His freshman class also learned how different the American Jewish experience is—especially since the 1950s—from almost anything that preceded it historically. “One feature is the almost total absence of any serious anti-Semitism,” Kieval says. “Quotas in higher education have disappeared, for example, and Jews are no longer barred from medicine, the law, and most other occupations.”

But one of the most striking aspects of the acceptance of Jews into the American mainstream, Kieval says, is the perception that Jews make good marriage partners—which has produced a crisis of Jewish identity and affiliation. How does one view the phenomenon of one partner being non-Jewish in 52 percent of marriages involving a Jew? What he tells his classes reflects his own concern for objectivity and scrupulous research.

“I say that as young historians, they need to see this in neutral terms as a historical development that Jews have never faced before—one that will present a variety of challenges to the definition of Jewish identity and Jewish culture in the future. New tools of analysis are required to figure out just what to make of the American Jewish experience in the last few decades. One doesn’t treat it judgmentally. It is simply fascinating and begs explanation.”

Judy H. Watts is a freelance writer based in St. Louis and a former editor of this magazine.