Vital Lessons in Vile Smears
by Michael Medved
Anti-Israel propaganda seethes and surges on college campuses. “Israel Apartheid Week” demonstrations and BDS (“Boycott, Divest, and Sanction”) activism single out the Jewish state as the worst human rights abuser on the planet. Every Jewish student has confronted the lies: that Israel has perpetrated genocide against Palestinians, or that Israel relentlessly abuses its non-Jewish residents.
Such charges constitute abusive distortions about the world’s only Jewish-majority nation. But the very outrageousness of these campus slanders can help contemporary Jews develop new strength in their own identity and find common ground with Christians as well. They should recall the perspective of a significant nineteenth-century Jewish philosopher who managed to find blessings in the ancient blood libel that brought devastation to his people.
The Blood Libel
The traditional blood libel originated in twelfth-century England, accusing religious Jews of slaughtering Christian children to bake their blood into Passover’s unleavened bread. Within two hundred years this preposterous charge spread throughout Europe, bringing bloody pogroms, mass expulsions, rapes, pillage, and, not infrequently, genocide. As recently as 1913, Mendel Beilis faced a czarist jury on utterly baseless accusations that he had murdered a Russian lad for ritual use of his blood. In our own time, Islamist extremists have revived the ancient accusations and even created a popular miniseries for Arabic TV dramatizing the notion that Jewish observance requires butchery of gentile innocents.
From the beginning, this vile superstition ignored incontrovertible facts about Jewish law. Not only does the Torah forbid murder unequivocally, but also Jewish dietary rules strictly prohibit consumption of even animal blood. Kosher laws insist that after humane slaughter of any beast, blood must be drained entirely before the meat is cooked. The notion of Jews’ using blood to bake ritual bread—let alone human blood—counts as repugnant and absurd.
How could communal leaders ever see such slander as a source of strength and uplift for Jewish identity? During a worldwide flurry of blood libel charges in 1892, the Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am (1856–1927) penned an unforgettable essay entitled “Some Consolation.” In it, he discovered an invaluable lesson in the persistent defamation. “This accusation is the solitary case in which the general acceptance of an idea about ourselves does not make us doubt whether all the world can be wrong, and we right, because it is based on an absolute lie,” he wrote. “Every Jew who has been brought up among Jews knows as an indisputable fact that throughout the length and breadth of Jewry there is not a single individual who drinks human blood for religious purposes. We ought, therefore, always to remember that in this instance the general belief, which is brought to our notice ever and anon by the revival of the blood-accusation, is absolutely wrong; because this will make it easier for us to get rid of the tendency to bow to the authority of ‘everybody’ in other matters. . . . ‘But’—you ask—‘is it possible that everybody can be wrong, and the Jews right?’ Yes, it is possible: the blood-accusation proves it possible.”
The Lesson Hidden in Evil
Today’s Jewish students should remember this observation when confronting vicious anti-Israel propaganda on campus. Of course, some Jews will simply ignore the attacks, while others may join the accusatory chorus in hopes of burnishing their enlightened leftist credentials. Most, however, know better: aside from the minority of young people who have actually traveled to Israel, a probable majority can identify family members or friends who are Israeli. They therefore recognize the cruel distortions in the common caricature of youthful Israel Defense Force soldiers as sadistic brutes bent on wanton cruelty and pointless killing. Israeli society may be stressful, hypercaffeinated, edgy, earthy, and rude, but it is also tender, generous, and obsessed with moral questions.
While leaving most Jewish students unpersuaded, campus hostility to Israel may even encourage some to deeper explorations of their heritage. Inevitably, this means more contact with religious tradition, especially in light of the surging spiritual revival animating Israel itself. The epic story of Jewish exile, endurance, and, ultimately, return may strike skeptics as nothing more than coincidence, but others will note the close correspondence to both warnings and promises in biblical texts. Though most young Jews at major universities have been raised in secular homes, and despite the fact that the modern state of Israel was led in its early years by secular socialists, a deep engagement with the Zionist project involves an unavoidable spiritual component. Could the unparalleled patterns in Jewish history truly count as random?
Which brings us back to Ahad Ha’am’s uncomfortable question: “Is it possible that everybody can be wrong, and the Jews right?” For modern students on campuses where secular liberalism represents the reigning orthodoxy, that question could be paraphrased: “Is it possible that everybody can be wrong, and religious believers right?”
The fatuity and malice of the widely supported anti-Israel extremists suggest an answer of “Yes, it is possible.” And in fastening on that reply, Jews who encounter their own authentic traditions for the first time can also find encouragement in common cause with Christian believers who love Israel and risk derision while pursuing their own journeys of rediscovery. Beleaguered troops consigned to the same foxhole, facing wave after wave of attack, will forge their own durable bonds, whatever their cultural or even theological differences.
In this sense, the agitators who smear the Jewish state and apologize for Arab terror may unintentionally contribute to Jewish reconnection and the development of broader faith communities in hostile campus environments. As Ahad Ha’am sagely observed, “It is fitting that we should always look for the useful lesson hidden in the evil that comes upon us, and find thus at least some consolation.”
Michael Medved hosts a daily syndicated radio talk show that reaches one of the largest audiences in America. He is the author of twelve books, including The Ten Big Lies about America.