Difficult thoughts

Today’s book is a slow read, an absorbing one, and occasionally a very difficult one. It’s Polin, volume 22. Polin is a series of studies of Jewish history from a particular region. Polin 22 looks at social and cultural boundaries, mainly from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century. I’m taking a break from it because reading about the blood libel sucks. It always does. If my life were easier I’d not have to even think about it, but I can’t consider space and boundaries without considering those where there is intentional transgression.

Imagine someone making up a nasty lie. Imagine people being killed over it. Other people say “It’s a nasty lie.” People who support those who invented the lie in the first place don’t listen to the proof of it being a lie, but add torture to the questions posed to prove the victims have done the thing they actually didn’t do. The question in this chapter, I suspect, is whether the innocent people who are being blamed for this thing they didn’t do die from the torture or from the punishment.

I’m reading it to understand how the trial could even take place and how it operates. Is there even a modicum of fairness or justice? None. Not a skerrick. This is why I need to understand the trial itself. This is the chapter I need a break from.

The thing that stopped me in my tracks was the way questioning was done, before any torture. The subject was sprinkled with Christian holy water and forced to wear Christian religious items and made to eat some blessed salt and to say a Psalm. This was to defeat any Jewish lies he might tell. All the alleged child-killer (who was guilty only of being Jewish, and who murdered no-one) did was repeat the same simple truth: there was no requirement in Judaism to drink the blood of children, and it was something that no Jew would ever do. Over and over again he was forced to explain this and over and over again it was disbelieved. I’ve seen reports from blood libel trials where the Jew was blamed even when the child appeared, perfectly alive.

The whole blood libel was an invention and still is, today. When I was accused of it in primary school and of eating unleavened bread that contained the blood of newborn Christian children, I brought a whole box of matzah to school, and made the accusers read the ingredients on the box. The ingredients were water, flour and salt. I was told I was a liar, but other children were there and they passed the box around and everyone read the ingredients aloud. Primary school children believe in the printed word and someone (not one of the accusers) took some of the matzah out of the box, ate it, and we began to talk about its flavour. That particular episode was finished for that moment. My trial was very light.

The chapter brought back that memory. There was no way out for the three on trial in this case. Innocence was irrelevant, but likewise so was the concept of evidence.

At first I kept reading, despite the gut punch because I found a piece of evidence I hadn’t seen before (I wasn’t looking for it, to be honest) and I stopped to think. I wondered… how much of the nineteenth century “Keep vampires away” tricks began as “Keep Jews away.” I’m not sure I want to find out.

I have to read it, because it’s telling me important things about what happens when Jews are victimised at a time and place when things were pretty good, compared with other times and places. I’ll get through it and then take a deep breath and, from the moment the next chapter begins, I’ll be less full of misery. Something deep inside me hurts, every time I read a trial record or a description of one where everything is set up to make the innocent look guilty.

The next chapter is by one of my favourite scholars. I’ve never met her, but I read anything I can get hold of by her. I can’t get hold of much, being in the wrong corner of a far-flung globe, but… I want to skip straight to the Carlebach chapter on a chronograph. I want to skip seeing people hurt and enjoy contemplating time and space.

I’m going to return to reading and I’m going to finish the chapter. That’s the fastest way of not carrying the weight of history on my shoulders.

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