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Damascus Affair (1840)

DAMASCUS AFFAIR (1840)

Blood libel accusation leveled by Christians at the Jews of Damascus.

On 5 February 1840 a Capuchin friar named Thomas disappeared from Damascus with his Muslim servant, Ibrahim. Their whereabouts were never discovered. The friar was under the jurisdiction of the recently appointed French consul, Count RattiMenton, who supported the accusation of local Christians that the Jews were responsible for the alleged murders in order to obtain blood to make their matzot for Passover. Several prominent Jews of Damascus were thereupon rounded up and subjected to torture; several died, one converted to Islam, and a confession of guilt was extracted.

In March, the Jews of Istanbul, alarmed at the libel of Damascus and a simultaneous libel in Rhodes, alerted western Jewish leaders to the events. An international campaign to rescue the Jews of Damascus and to pressure the Egyptian governor of Damascus, Sharif Pasha, was organized in England. The defense efforts were spearheaded by Moses Montefiore of England and Albert Crémieux of France. Press coverage and parliamentary condemnations of injustices in the East heightened public interest in the Jewish plight in general and Ottoman judicial malpractice in particular. Interventions by Queen Victoria, Lord Henry Palmerston, U.S. Secretary of State John Forsyth, and Klemens von Metternich of Austria to obtain a release of the victims were of no avail.

In the summer of 1840, Montefiore and Crémieux set off for Egypt and Syria to win the freedom of the Jews of Damascus. The fate of the delegation was monitored by the European press as the Damascus affair became a cause célèbre. Newly emancipated European Jewry was haunted by the specter of a return to medieval anti-Jewish prejudice. British parliamentary liberals were also concerned about the continued use of torture and the need for Ottoman judicial reform. Great Britain, additionally, expressed an interest in protecting the Jews of the East as a counterbalance to French and Russian protection of Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians in the Muslim world. In August, Montefiore and Crémieux won the release of the tortured Jews of Damascus, but Muhammad Ali refused to exonerate them. Montefiore then proceeded to Istanbul to obtain the sultan's condemnation of the libel and future protection for Ottoman Jewry. The Ferman of Abdülmecit I of 6 November 1840 denounced the blood libel and stressed "that the charges made against them and their religion are nothing but pure calumny." The sultan further specified that Jews were to be specifically included in the reforms embodied in the Hatt-i Serif of Gülhane and that "the Jewish nation shall possess the same advantages and enjoy the same privileges as are granted to the numerous other nations who submit to our authority. The Jewish nation shall be protected and defended."

Despite Montefiore's success and the imperial rescript, blood libels recurred throughout the Middle East. Libels in Damascus (nine occurred there between 1840 and 1900), Aleppo, Beirut, Chios, Safad, the Dardanelles, Gallipoli, Cairo, Alexandria, Dayr al-Qamar, Hamadan in Iran, Salonika, Smyrna, and elsewhere were instigated by Armenians and Greeks as well as Muslims. The havoc wrought by these repeated accusations was partially responsible for the decline and emigration of Ottoman Jewry beginning in the late nineteenth century. The vulnerability of Ottoman Jewry led as well to the formation of the Alliance Israélite Universelle in 1860.

See also Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU); Ferman.


Bibliography

Dundes, Alan, ed. The Blood Libel Legend: A Casebook in AntiSemitic Folklore. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Gerber, Jane S. "The Damascus Blood Libel: Jewish Perceptions and Responses." Proceedings of the Eighth World Congress of Jewish Studies. Jerusalem: Institute of Contemporary Jewry, 1983.

Parfitt, Tudor. "The Year of the Pride of Israel: Montefiore and the Blood Libel of 1840." In The Century of Moses Montefiore, edited by Sonia Lipman and V. D. Lipman. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

jane gerber
updated by michael r. fischbach

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