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13.06.02, Johnson, Blood Libel

13.06.02, Johnson, Blood Libel

Why, I asked myself as I began reading Hannah Johnson's Blood Libel, does a literature scholar study three historians' views of a hagiography about William of Norwich, written by the monastic historian, Thomas of Monmouth? By page three Johnson answered this question by introducing the idea of a definite, indelible, and undeniable relationship between the violence that erupts in 1144 Norwich and Nazi antisemitism that eroded the moral and ethical compass of many European citizens in the 20th century. Johnson needs history to do this work. By page eight Johnson articulates the link between a local medieval anti-Jewish massacre (the William of Norwich event) and a full-scale modern anti-Jewish genocide: each is "a limit case or limit event...a point in historical thinking where questions of cultural meaning and scholarly method surface in tight relation to one another, challenging conceptual boundaries of historical thought" (8; italics hers). Johnson makes these claims equipped with David Nirenberg's and Salo Wittmeyer Baron's arguments against composing lachrymose histories. In Blood Libel Johnson talks about the 1144 William of Norwich case and the 20th-century Shoah as two distinct but equally inter-related moments in history. Johnson is not suggesting that we interrogate the modern present as part of a lachrymose history that begins with the medieval past. Rather, Johnson wants to study the blood libel, in its many medieval and modern iterations, as limit cases.

Chasing down the ways that blood libels are created, Johnson's work performs many things at once: the book is almost an encyclopedic view of the medieval blood libel, a "who's who" page turner, an update on contemporary libelous remarks, and a much-needed unpacking of The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich. Composing a patient analysis of the methods deployed in fabricating a blood libel, Johnson's volume details what is at stake in the libels we research, and in researching, (re)tell. Johnson believes that no study of the subject of the blood libel can produce disinterested scholarship. To prove her point, Johnson accepts the challenge of reading the events of medieval Europe outside (and inside) the "problematic screens of textual representation and symbolism" (19) we have inherited after the 20th-century Shoah.

In the Introduction, Johnson lays out the integral role of ethics and morality in researching the blood libel. By volunteering her own personal narrative and her almost-conversion to Judaism (28-29), Johnson illustrates the significance of knowing scholars' personal and professional commitments or the inherited "problematic screens" (19) to the work we study. In Chapter One Johnson pursues the making of "juridical judgments" (45) by parsing Thomas of Monmouth's craftsmanship in making The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich. Johnson thinks of Thomas of Monmouth's Life in conjunction with Nazi propaganda, especially within Hermann Strack's The Jew and Human Sacrifice and August Rohling's The Talmud Jew. Johnson documents the ingredients deployed in designing a blood libel: relying on common report, fabricating imaginary speeches, pushing faith over reason. Viewing "historiography as the product of specific cultural moments and historical figures" (164), Johnson's book brings readers to three historians' biographies: Gavin Langmuir's in Chapter Two, Israel Yuval's in Chapter Three, and Ariel Toaff's in Chapter Four. Johnson approaches the biographical turn as a place where we can move beyond, rather than reinscribe, the "inevitable intergroup dynamics of suspicion and hatred" (113).

In Blood Libel the biographical turn indicates how deeply intertwined Langmuir's, Yuval's, and Toaff's personal agendas are within their professional writing. Chapters Two, Three, and Four embody the critical importance of being familiar with the private agendas that drive scholarship and, even more, frame the work of Langmuir, Yuval, and Toaff. In Chapter Two Johnson shows us that Langmuir's resistance to giving voice to what Langmuir considers irrational beliefs is embedded in the life he lives: "a Canadian soldier who fought the Nazis and nearly died of wounds sustained on the battlefield" and "the husband of a Holocaust survivor" (81). Chapters Three and Four are united in being studies of two Israeli academics' pursuit of the history of the medieval blood libel. To Johnson, both Yuval and Toaff come to their studies as Israelis who are responding to contemporary Israeli politics and policies. In this regard Johnson admits, "while patterns of influence manifestly matter, it is a difficult task indeed to signal where broad cultural influences leave off and less predictable factors, like personal psychology or idiosyncrasy, begin (115). Yuval's Two Nations in Your Womb, the test case for Chapter Three, is a text explicitly concerned with "structures of mutual implication" between "the dominant Christian majority" and "the denigrated Jewish minority" (101). Johnson hears echoes of Yuval's sentiments about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in his modern history about medieval Christian dominance and Jewish denigration in the past. Chapter Four directs our attention to Toaff's Pasque di Sange (Bloody Passovers)--a book that volunteers the unsettling hypothesis: what if a Jew, or a group of Jews, actually sacrificed a Christian boy? Toaff proposes that there were medieval Jewish communities that continued to perform sacrifices, thus suggesting that the blood libel may have some validity (132-133). Johnson suspects that Toaff deploys the medieval blood libel as a way of responding to current Israeli politics and in this "hold[s] Jewish 'fundamentalists,' past and present responsible for the ills of Jewish history" (132).

Johnson's Blood Libel comes to us as a much needed contribution to the scholarship on blood libel and a fantastic analysis of the way we all touch the subjects of ethics and morality as we write about our research. Worrying over the way that Muhammed al-Dura or William of Norwich died, laying blame on the Other (whether that Other be Christian or Muslim or Jew) clouds our judgment and keeps us unreasonably busy so that we cannot get to the important work of deconstructing the inner machinations of the blood libel and of identifying the cultural clues that surface before the blood libel effectively surfaces. In Johnson's words, "something fundamental eludes our understanding about" the blood libel (9). Johnson rightly cautions us that this issue of antisemitic libel is nowhere near resolved and demands recognition of its historical currency.

How complicit is the medieval church in the blood libel? Did the medieval church's emphasis on Jewish guilt and Jewish criminality underline ritual murder myths (185, n.35)? Why does Yuval, in his Two Nations in Your Womb, bring his readers back to 1096 and the issues of shared accounts of martyrology between medieval Christians and Jews when he is parsing the 1144 Norwich blood libel? Johnson's work makes clear that the subject of the blood libel is far from closed. Tensions between Israelis, Palestinians, and the "Muslim world" (127), for instance, create situations where 21st-century anti- Jewish blood libel continues to surface. As a case in point, Johnson brings her readers to the Muhammed al-Dura affair (125-128), in which al-Dura becomes a new "martyr" (125). The entire al-Dura story, largely another episode in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, began as speculation (what Johnson describes as "speculative reasoning" [126]) and devolved into "an explosive incident immediately tried in the court of public opinion" (126). The al-Dura example serves as the (unfortunate) proof that anti-Jewish blood libel still appears in our contemporary world: "Arabic-language television shows...use the blood libel as a plot show interviews featur[e] historians who refer to it as a documented fact" (204, n.37). Moreover, there are indelible links between the language of the Holocaust deniers and the words of Thomas of Monmouth because the "embedded juridical discourse of guilt and innocence is deeply imbricated in debates about blood libel and extends back beyond the start of the Middle Ages" (52).

This point brings me to 2013 in Oakwood, Ohio. While I was completing my reading of Johnson's Blood Libel for this review, I underwent my own close encounter with the blood libel. In the small city where I live, outside the city limits of Dayton, Ohio, I opened the weekly Oakwood newspaper to discover, in 2013 in the United States, that the blood libel had indirectly touched me by touching a local Jewish family: "Anti-Semitic graffiti was written in red letters on the home, cars parked on the property were damaged and one count of arson was recorded when a lit 'Molotov cocktail' was thrown through the glass window of the home causing a small fire." [1]

I began this book wondering why a literary scholar would play historiographer, but by the end of Blood Libel, I was in awe of Johnson's taking on the difficult task of reading three different historians' personal and political investments in their scholarship to illustrate how deeply invested we all are in the libels we write about.



1. Lance Winkler, "Possible Hate Crime Being Investigated in Oakwood," The Oakwood Register 22/12 (20 March 2013): 1.