Why the blood libel has been an effective anti-Semitic weapon for centuries

Andy Oram
25 March 2023

The accusation that Jews kill children and bake their blood into Passover matzah is still extant, some nine hundred years after surfacing in twelfth-century Europe. The absurdity of this claim has often been noted. Among the laws most fundamental to Judaism is “You shall not eat flesh’s life-blood,” given to Noah and his children in Genesis 9:4. Jews who maintain kashrut still drain animals’ blood before eating the flesh.

So why is the blood libel so effective at stirring up violence against Jews? I offer a psychoanalytic explanation.

Every week, and perhaps even more often, observant Christians go to mass and symbolically drink the blood of their Savior. They must be reminded each time that their Savior died for their sins. Drinking the blood re-enacts that crime.

Although I do not believe that either Jews or Christians are guilty of Jesus’s death, the Christians who take the Eucharist seriously must feel that they are. What can they do with that guilt? Place it on the Jews.

Thus, the innocent children whose bread is perportedly added to matzah (for the Passover holiday that coincides more or less with Jesus’s injunction at the Last Supper to drink the blood) stand in for Jesus. The Christians bury, in Jew-hatred, their own guilt over the sins they believe led to Jesus’s death.

Is there a way to resolve the Christians’ unconscious guilt without projecting it on innocent others? One solution is suggested by Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1946 sermon, “The Power and Weakness of God.” In this view, Jesus could have triumphed over the Jewish and Roman captors (because God’s power is infinite) but respected their free will and chose to die by their law. The twelth-century priest Pierre Abélard even suggested that the Romans were righteous because they acted according to the laws of their time. The point to take from Jesus’s death is not guilt for the past, but responsibility for the future; it is up to Christians to exert their free will and finish Jesus’s mission of love and justice.

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