Blood of Damascus

When several prominent Jews in Damascus were accused of using non-Jewish blood to make matzah, the Jews of the world banded together to fight back. American Jewry specifically experienced its first taste of successful, united action.

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The earliest collective action by American Jews on behalf of their overseas brethren came in 1840, in response to a false “blood libel” charge in Damascus. That spring, in the ancient capital of Syria, an Italian friar and his Muslim servant mysteriously disappeared. The Capuchin order of monks charged that Jews had kidnapped and ritually murdered the two men to fulfill a supposed Jewish injunction that non-Jewish blood be used in making Passover matzoh. Under torture, two “witnesses” named several prominent Damascus Jews as the “killers.” The accused were arrested, tortured and sentenced to death. Knowing the suggestibility of child witnesses, local officials then seized 63 Jewish children to compel them to “reveal” where the blood was hidden.

Word of these outrages reached the United States in the summer of 1840. American Jews were dismayed that the ancient blood libel–the charge that Jews were ritual murderers–had reared its ugly head. What was American Jewry, so few in number and weak in international influence, to do? While the English and French Jewish communities sent delegations to the Ottoman Sultan protesting the treatment of Damascus’s Jews, American Jewry–numbering no more than 15,000 individuals scattered across a vast nation–had no national organization or recognized leader to Rabbi Isaac Leeserspeak for it. American Jewry had no experience at presenting a united front on any issue of national or international moment.

Rabbi Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia, America’s leading traditionalist rabbi, joined by communal leaders from other major American cities, filled the breach. Leeser helped organize public rallies, meetings of synagogue congregations, and committees of correspondence in New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, and Cincinnati, among other cities. The rallies called on President Martin Van Buren to intervene on behalf of the Jews of Damascus.

(Image to the left: Isaac Leeser. Courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society)

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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