Was Jewish “Blood Libel” the First Fake News?

Libel means false accusation. For centuries, a particularly vicious libel has been leveled at Jews: that they sacrificed Christian children and used their blood for religious rituals. That is why it is called the “blood libel.”

Inspired, perhaps, by Old Testament accounts of Abrahamic sacrifice, the idea first surfaced in the 12th and 13th centuries. But in the last decades of the 19th century, the story roared back to life amid the explosion of anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust of World War II.

A Hasidic Jew praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem
A Hassidic Jew prays at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. (Photo by Wojtek Chmielewski/Shutterstock.com)

The last blood libel

The last blood libel trial was actually held in Tsarist Russia in 1911. Menahem Mendel Beilis, a Jewish brickworker, was arrested and tried for the murder of a 13-year-old boy merely because it had occurred a few hundred yards from the place where Beilis worked. His religion was the only “evidence” that he might have done this.

In the sly, sophisticated way of today’s media attacks, the charges didn’t outright accuse the worker of blood ritual, but merely implied that Beilis had drained the boy’s blood for ritual purposes.

In the trial that followed, the most likely suspect in the killing, a criminal gang leader named Vera Cheberyak, was actually called as the Russian prosecution’s star witness!

The story lives on

Mendel Beilis
Menahem Mendel Beilis, a photo from the 1910s

Ultimately, the jury of Russian peasants defied all expectations and pronounced Beilis innocent—while agreeing that the murder had in fact happened near the brick factory. That last little bit was enough for the anti-Semites to keep the Beilis story alive through World War II and beyond.

As Edmund Levin, a writer/producer at ABC’s Good Morning America, wrote in Slate Magazine:

“In 1926, the official newspaper of Germany’s rising Nazi Party, Volkischer Beobachter, devoted a six-part series to the Beilis affair, calling it a ‘test of strength between the Russian state and people and the Jews.’”

This is the mark of true libel: it is so outlandish that it sticks.

In the 1930s, Julius Streicher, editor of the infamous Nazi weekly Der Sturmer, energetically propagandized for the ritual murder charge, devoting special issues to the subject that listed Beilis in the pantheon of Jewish child-killers.

Heinrich Himmler inspects a prisoner of war.
SS leader Heinrich Himmler inspects a prisoner of war in Russia circa 1940. 

Levin’s story goes on to relate how, in May 1943, SS leader Heinrich Himmler made sure his death squads had their copies of a book on Jewish blood rituals, complete with the Beilis story, to inspire them on their murderous assignments.

Crafting an enduring attack line

Fake news doesn’t come out of a vacuum. It is a carefully promoted story line that serves an agenda.

Scientologists know all about fake news and libel. The movement was opposed by medical vested interests from its very first days in 1950, with the publication of “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Modern Health.”

The biggest and most enduring libel against Scientologists is the “cult” accusation. And yet, the first thing Scientology taught me was to challenge what I encountered and to believe only what was true for me. That is the opposite of “cult” mentality.

This is the mark of true libel: it is so outlandish that it sticks.

Did a Jew ever murder a Christian child and use his blood for rituals? No!

It’s as if the sheer idiocy of the idea actually brought it to life. An inspired-enough fantasy catches on. Accuracy is just a distraction.

A painting depicting blood libel
The death of Simon of Trent, a three-year-old boy who went missing and was murdered in the 1400s, was blamed on Jews charged with ritual murder—or the blood libel—as depicted in the above painting by Michael Wolgemut.

Recycling the machinery of hate

The same centuries-old propaganda machine that produced the Jewish blood libel is alive and well today.

In fact, attackers of Scientology in Germany in the ’90s actually recycled old Nazi posters caricaturing the Jews! Did these people ever pause to think that they were inspired by mass murderers?

Even though the German attacks that unjustly forced Scientologists out of careers and their children out of kindergartens are behind us, the fight goes on. Today, Scientologists are marching for their freedom in Hungary.

Recognizing fake news

How do you know something is libelous, fake news?

Oddly enough, because it is SIMPLE, and it is AMAZING. It has to be both those things to exert the emotional power to last centuries, as in the case of the Jewish blood libel.

So, the next time a headline shocks you, grabs you in your gut, and makes you want to go into immediate attack mode, remember that it was designed to do that, and that makes it very likely fake news.

Remember that before you go ballistic in a social media thread on the latest outrageous story. Instead, take a deep breath, and do something productive with your day. Later, do the research, get the real story, and act on the truth.

T. Riggs Eckelberry
When I was growing up, we lived everywhere, and to this day I can number my friends from school on one hand. I have served as a commercial ship captain, wine importer, film production manager, and above all, technologist. Today, I’m the CEO of a public company that licenses a unique technology for treating water. I believe that technology has the potential to save the world, but also to undermine our rights and our independence. The many people working in the spiritual arena are the vital counter-balance, and I’m proud to be one of these, with my wife, Sigrid.