Libels, medieval and modern
By Michael Freund
The Jerusalem Post
April 20, 2004
Situated outside the Swiss village of Montreux, along the shore at the eastern end of Lake Geneva, sits one of the most impressive architectural relics of the Middle Ages.
With its turreted towers and Gothic architecture, the Chateau de Chillon, or Chillon Castle, built on an islet nearly 1,000 years ago, projects an image of beauty and serenity that strikes all who come to see it.
But the dazzling exterior is deceiving, for beneath it lies a dark and sinister secret, one that says a great deal about Europe's relationship with the Jews in the distant past as well as in the present.
The year was 1348, and the Black Death was ravaging the Continent, wiping out entire communities in its wake. The Jews of Europe suffered no less from the plague than did their non-Jewish neighbors, but that did not save them from being blamed for it anyway.
Slander against the Jews, such as rumors of well-poisoning, spread quickly throughout France and Switzerland, laying the groundwork for massacre and persecution.
In September 1348, the Jews of the Swiss town of Villeneuve were taken to the Chateau de Chillon and imprisoned in its dungeons. Horrible tortures were inflicted on them until a Jewish surgeon named Balavignus finally "admitted," under duress, that local Jews had concocted a poison made of Christian hearts and flesh, spiders, frogs, and lizards, topped off with the "sacred host" used in Catholic ritual, with the aim of poisoning Christian wells and rivers.
As a result, Villeneuve's Jews, its men, women and children, were burned alive in the depths of the castle.
As historian Joshua Trachtenberg writes in The Devil and the Jews, "This tale, in one form or other, spread on the heels of the plague and was eagerly seized upon by the terror-stricken populace as an adequate explanation of its origin."
A few months later, in January 1349, 600 Jews in Basel were burned to death.
This horrific pattern repeated itself in all its horror in other communities throughout France, Switzerland and Germany. Back then, Europe's treatment of the Jews was shaped and molded by a ridiculous lie. In that sense, at least, very little seems to have changed.
FOR WHILE Europeans once charged us with the "blood libel," saying we illicitly used other people's blood, they now falsely tar us instead with "land libel," alleging we have taken other people's territory.
Just this past Monday, we were witness to this, when Swiss ambassador to Israel Ernst Iten refused to attend a street-naming ceremony in Jerusalem in honor of a Swiss Righteous Gentile. The reason for the ambassador's rudeness was that the street in question is located in the Pisgat Ze'ev neighborhood, which Israel took in the 1967 Six Day War and Europe considers to be "Arab land."
"Unfortunately," the ambassador wrote in a letter to Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, "the embassy cannot attend a ceremony for a street that is not located within the internationally recognized territory of Israel."
In other words, what His Excellency was really saying was: You Jews are a bunch of thieves because you stole Palestinian land.
This, of course, represents not only the individual view of Switzerland but that of Europe as a whole, which has long pressed Israel to yield control over Judea, Samaria and Gaza to the Palestinians.
Just last week, the EU reiterated its stance on this issue after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with US President George W. Bush in the White House. At an April 15 news conference in Brussels, European Commission spokesman Reijo Kemppinen said that Israel and the Palestinians would have to negotiate an agreement resulting in two "viable and independent states based on Israel's 1967 borders."
"The European Union," he added, "will not recognize any changes to the pre-1967 borders, other than those arrived at by agreement between the parties."
Now the Europeans are free to ignore thousands of years of history and archeology, which prove that the Jewish presence in places such as Hebron and Bethlehem predates that of their own civilization. And if they wish to pay no heed to the Bible and its mandate, which promises the land of Israel to the Jewish people and no one else, that is between them and God.
But they have no right to slander us and cast aspersions on us, falsely accusing the Jewish state of occupying someone else's land. This is not just a question of historical truth, but a matter of life and death.
For just as belief in the medieval "blood libel" legitimized the murder of Jews in the minds of its adherents, so too does the modern European "land libel" lend legitimacy to those who now target us, be they Islamic fundamentalists, Palestinian nationalists, or European anti-Semites.
After all, no one likes a land-grabber, and if, as Europe insists, the Jews are pilferers of Arab territory that would appear to set the stage for transforming them into a justifiable object of hatred and disgust.
Over six centuries ago, it was precisely this kind of attitude that led to innocent Jews being burned in the dungeons of Chillon. In its modern-day incarnation, the result is suicide bombings, synagogue desecrations and shooting attacks. And so, despite the passage of hundreds of years, one thing remains unchanged. Then, as now, Europe is no less culpable for what it has wrought.
The writer served as deputy director of communications & policy planning in the Prime Minister's Office under Binyamin Netanyahu.
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