Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Blood Libel in the United States

Blood libel is an accusation against Jews that they kill Christian children and use their blood for Jewish religious rituals. As we discussed medieval European blood libel in class today, I was reminded of an incident in 2011 where Sarah Palin controversially accused the media of committing blood libel against her after the shooting in Tucson, Arizona. She was not referring to anyone Jewish, but because the phrase seemed to be part of her vocabulary, I wondered if there was any history of real blood libel in the United States.

There has only been one incident in the United States recognized as an incident of blood libel. In 1928, citizens of a small New York town called Massena accused the Jewish residents of kidnapping and killing Barbara Klemens, a four-year-old girl who had gone missing the same day. It was two days before the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, and when a Greek immigrant suggested to a state trooper that the Jews might have murdered her to use her blood in Jewish foods, the police searched Jewish-owned shops and summoned Berel Brennglass, the local rabbi, to the station. Brennglass told the police that the blood libel accusation was ridiculous, but an angry mob had already formed outside the station, and the Ku Klux Klan had also become involved in the search for Barbara.

Articles from the Messena blood libel case

Barbara showed up by herself the next day. According to her, she simply got lost and slept in the woods. However, Jewish papers around the country had picked up the story and wrote of a "near pogrom" and Jews fearing for their lives. Due to the national outcry, Mayor Gilbert Howes apologized, but he refused to resign. According to some accounts, the incident ended quickly after the apology, but others remember harassment and a boycott of Jewish businesses for weeks after the incident, and the town's Jewish population has shrunk to only 10 people today. 

The Massena incident had most of the same characteristics found in European incidents, specifically the accusation that Jews used Christian blood for religious food. This idea came from a Greek immigrant who would have had experience with European antisemitism. I found another earlier incident in Georgia that occurred 1913-1915, during which a Jewish factory supervisor named Leo Frank was convicted in a high-profile trial of killing a 13-year-old girl who worked in his factory and sentenced to death. When the governor commuted his sentence to life imprisonment, a mob broke into the work farm where Frank was, took him into the woods, and lynched him. The state of Georgia granted Frank a pardon in 1986, and some historians believe that the factory janitor was the real murderer.

The Leo Frank case seemed to have characteristics of both European antisemitism and American racism to me. First of all, lynching a Black man for allegedly raping or sexually harassing a white woman had a long history in the South, and similar allegations were made against Frank, who while not Black, was not white either. Witnesses from the factory claimed that he had made sexual advances towards the girls and boys in the factory, including Mary Phagan, the murder victim, and prosecutors portrayed him as a sexual deviant who tried to rape Mary before killing her. Frank was also a wealthy Northern industrialist, which tapped into Southern resentment that had existed since the end of the Civil War. Some of the sentiments against Frank mixed Southern racism and old stereotypes of Jews from Europe. For example, former US representative Thomas E. Watson described Frank as "a member of the Jewish aristocracy who had pursued 'Our Little Girl' to a hideous death," and wrote "If Frank's rich connections keep on lying about this case, SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN." Historian Albert Lindemann summed up public sentiment of Frank in his book The Jew Accused, "- a rich, punctilious, northern Jew lording it over vulnerable and impoverished working women"(Lindemann 239). 

Leo Frank
Mary Phagan
Some people saw Frank as a rich Jew who controlled the justice system of the country, similar to European beliefs that Jews controlled the financial systems. Just as Europeans resented Jews as their debtors, the people of Georgia viewed Frank as a symbol of financial oppression not only from the Jews but from the North as well, combining antisemitism with regional prejudice. Watson even refers to a "Jewish aristocracy," indicating that this prejudice could have been applied to Jews as a group. 
While the Leo Frank case does not fit the definition of a blood libel since it doesn't involve Jewish ritual murder, it shares many similarities, such as the murder of a white Christian child and resentment of wealthy Jews who supposedly control the country's systems.

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