In his scandalous book "Passover of Blood", Jewish historian Ariel Toaff claims that Jews were engaged in the ritual murder of Christian children. Friends and scholars try to explain - is it another case of self-hatred or just a strong desire to stand out

Facsimile of Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

So unwelcome in his home

PUBLISHED IN |  Mar 1, 07

The Italian community in Israel is a small and intimate group. There are no more than 3,000 people who were born in Italy, and altogether the community numbers about 10,000 – counting spouses and children. Somehow everyone knows just about everyone, whether as family or as friends. This one is that one’s cousin, she is the rabbi’s sister-in-law, and someone was in the Bnei Akiva youth movement with that one. This is an esteemed and educated community, but also discreet and respectable, which does not tend to wash its dirty laundry in public, certainly not “on the record.”

During the past two weeks they have had quite a lot of dirty laundry. For this community, the events surrounding the publication of the book by Prof. Ariel Toaff, “Bloody Passovers: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murders,” were almost like a suicide bombing. Perhaps even worse, as Toaff comes from the community’s innermost family circle, a famous rabbinical family, and is the son of the man who has been representing Italian Jewry for more than half a century. It was as though one of the body’s essential organs had decided one morning to turn against the body itself – to consume and gnaw away at it in the most painful place. They know Ariel Toaff; there is simply no other possibility. They have seen him on all kinds of occasions. Or because he is The Rabbi’s son, with a capital “T” and a capital “R.” Or because they studied with him at the university, or were neighbors back in Italy.

But all of this knowledge of theirs, which is so familial, did not prepare the members of the local Italian community for the book that he wrote. A few hundred of them met this week in Jerusalem, at a family celebration: the wedding of Prof. Toaff’s niece, granddaughter of the 92-year-old Rabbi Elio Toaff and the daughter of Miriam Toaff and Prof. Sergio DellaPergola. Last week they discussed among themselves whether Ariel would come to the wedding, whether he would dare show his face in a place that up until three weeks ago had been his natural environment, the warm bosom of the community, or would prefer to avoid the embarrassment.

In the end, he didn’t go. Anyone who asked him just a few days ago heard from him that it was his intention to attend the celebration. But the prevailing assessment was that he would prefer to stay home. Guests at the wedding related that this was a tacit agreement, between him and the family, because his presence was simply not desired. Some of the guests related that the atmosphere was happy and cheerful. The parents looked pleased and one of Ariel’s brothers even came from Italy to participate in the traditional Seven Blessings ritual. No one mentioned the matter of the book aloud in the presence of Miriam, Ariel’s sister; after all, it was her special day. But around the tables this was the sole topic of conversation.

‘We’re going to suffer’

Toaff with his book "Pasque di Sangue"

Toaff with his book "Pasque di Sangue"

The general agreement was: “We’re going to suffer from this.” Someone mentioned Sheikh Ra’ad Salah’s speech during demonstrations in Jerusalem’s Old City, in which – a few days after the book was published – he was already speaking about bloodsucking Jews. Another said that relatives in Italy had heard that people are already saying that “Hitler was right to kill them.” One woman talked about Jewish self-hatred and wondered why it is that the Jews excel at this.

Many members of the community are Holocaust survivors, as is Ariel Toaff himself. They cannot understand how he of all people, who deals with history, decided to play in this dangerous field with such a lack of responsibility. How can it be that he was not aware of the great delicacy of the topic with which he is dealing? It was as though he had ignored everything this community had absorbed during the past 100 years alone. As though he did not know what efforts Jewish and non-Jewish historians had made during the past decades to eradicate accusations associated with the blood libel from the pages of history. As though it had not been his own father who put so much effort into improving relations between the Jews of Italy, and Jews in general, and the establishment that had spearheaded the decrees against them for centuries.

Some of them could relate that senior figures in the Catholic Church, who are identified with its liberal and progressive side, almost fell off their chairs. After people had already admitted that the Trento affair was one big invention, along comes a historian and revives it? And an Israeli, to boot? Toaff’s son?

Initially there was a great deal of curiosity about what exactly he had written. Quickly enough this was satisfied. The press in Italy, and after it in Israel and the United States, was inundated with a long series of articles by the best historians, who expressed astonishment at the flaws in the book. The conclusion that they came to was that apparently this wasn’t a matter of history, but rather something else. Then came the turn of the rumors. Gradually, with the utmost delicacy, people began to wonder about Prof. Toaff’s motives. Perhaps he did what he did for money? Perhaps for fame? Or perhaps, just perhaps, because of something unresolved with his father?

‘Nice’ books

Toaff's book english version

Toaff's book english version

One member of the community, who has known Ariel since childhood, says that he has always loved to be exceptional. A polemicist, a brilliant man, someone who was always attracted to the extraordinary and the unexpected. He belonged to Bnei Akiva in Italy, and studied at the tory books that he wrote, they say in the community, are “nice.” One was about food in the Jewish community and the other, about monsters.

But there is no greater insult to a historian than to say that his books are “nice.” He was always in the wings, looking for the moment to burst onto the stage. A colorful figure, they relate in the community, “a mischievous historian.” Nevertheless, he lived the first half of his life in the shadow of a man who was always in the spotlight and conducted his community’s external relations vis-a-vis the Vatican and other institutions. Who knows how much time he had left to devote to the children?

Nearly everyone is wondering about the possibility that the real reasons are personal, a kind of revenge or hatred directed by Toaff at his father – but immediately the speakers hedge their speculation and say that they aren’t psychoanalysts. In any case, this possibility also poses a problem for them. If this really is the story, then what does it say about the father, the person of whom they are so proud?

One person who has actually expressed this feeling is Prof. Reuven Bonfil, who is considered one of the leading historians of Italian Jewry. In an article he published last week in The Jewish Chronicle, he wrote: “Toaff’s book is an insult to the intelligence … The question of why he proceeded with this project will remain a mystery for all who do not dare enter the minefield of Freudian speculation.”

Now people are curious, waiting for the next issue of Kol Ha’italkim, the magazine of the Italian community in Israel, which is edited by none other than Miriam Toaff, a well-known figure in her own right. The elders of the community have it delivered to their homes, to their mailboxes. And what will Miriam decide to write about the affair? And how will she relate to it as an editor, as Ariel’s sister, as Elio’s daughter?

Some of the community’s members want to drop the whole miserable affair. To stop dealing with it and to hope that in this way, perhaps, it will be erased from the pages of history. In any case there has already been too much talk about it. One of the wedding guests, who is friendly with the Toaff family, said that as far as he was concerned, Ariel has finished his career. He was not referring only to Toaff’s academic career, but also to his whole personal career.

Some of the people still love and admire him, but even they can’t understand this. The damage is simply too great. If only he hadn’t given that horrible title to the book. If only he hadn’t written it at all. And even the new revelations that were published this week in Haaretz, to the effect that Prof. Toaff did not think that the Jews of Trento murdered Simonino, are of no comfort.

You know what they say in Italian, the man says: Sometimes the patch is worse than the hole. What good does it do now, that Toaff is apologizing and explaining? He can say whatever he wants to now. He has already done his damage. The simple people don’t read professors’ articles. The simple people will only remember that Toaff’s son said that Jews murdered Simonino. And we are going to suffer from this.