Damascus affair

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Jewish prisoner preparing his defence, a Capuchin distant in the doorway. Moritz Daniel Oppenheim - Jewish prisoner of the Damascus Affair.jpg
Jewish prisoner preparing his defence, a Capuchin distant in the doorway.

The Damascus affair of 1840 refers to the arrest of thirteen notable members of the Jewish community of Damascus who were accused of murdering a Christian monk for ritual purposes. The anti-semitic blood libel [1] resulted in the accused being imprisoned and tortured by the Ottoman authorities and the populace attacking and pillaging a local synagogue. The affair drew widespread international attention which resulted in negotiations conducted in Alexandria from August 4 till August 28. The aftermath secured the unconditional release and recognition of innocence for the nine prisoners remaining alive and the issuing of a firman (edict) intended to halt the spread of blood libel accusations in the Ottoman Empire.

Damascus City in Syria

Damascus is the capital of the Syrian Arab Republic; it is also the country's largest city, following the decline in population of Aleppo due to the battle for the city. It is colloquially known in Syria as aš-Šām (الشام) and titled the "City of Jasmine". In addition to being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Damascus is a major cultural center of the Levant and the Arab world. The city has an estimated population of 1,711,000 as of 2009.

Alexandria Metropolis in Egypt

Alexandria is the second-largest city in Egypt and a major economic centre, extending about 32 km (20 mi) along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the north central part of the country. Its low elevation on the Nile delta makes it highly vulnerable to rising sea levels. Alexandria is an important industrial center because of its natural gas and oil pipelines from Suez. Alexandria is also a popular tourist destination.

Ottoman Empire Former empire in Asia, Europe and Africa

The Ottoman Empire, historically known in Western Europe as the Turkish Empire or simply Turkey, was a state that controlled much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia and North Africa between the 14th and early 20th centuries. It was founded at the end of the 13th century in northwestern Anatolia in the town of Söğüt by the Oghuz Turkish tribal leader Osman I. After 1354, the Ottomans crossed into Europe, and with the conquest of the Balkans, the Ottoman beylik was transformed into a transcontinental empire. The Ottomans ended the Byzantine Empire with the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by Mehmed the Conqueror.



Under Ottoman Islamic rule, Christians and Jews were considered dhimmis—a class of non-Muslims possessing some limited rights under Muslim rule—and were allowed to practice their religious precepts. In return, they had to pay a tax, or jizya (a tax on non-Muslims similar to the imposition of Zakat - one of the Five Pillars of Islam, an obligatory wealth tax paid on certain assets which are not used productively for a period of a year), and recognize a lower legal and social status than that of Muslims. In 1831-32, Syria came under the rule of the Egyptians under Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali was said to have ruled at the sufferance of the European powers, led by France, and under his rule, the rights afforded Christians increased. This aroused a grudge among the Muslim majority toward its non-Muslim population. In the economic struggle between the Jews and the Christians, each side needed the backing and support of the Muslim majority, and tried to incite the Muslims against the opposite group. The Christians in Damascus complained about their cruel treatment by the Muslim judges. Fearing an additional wave of Muslim violence, following the return of Ottoman rule in Syria in 1840, they enlisted assistance of priests from Catholic orders, including the Franciscans (Observants) and the Capuchins. These priests reportedly brought the previously European blood libel myth with them. [2]

Christians people who adhere to Christianity

Christians are people who follow or adhere to Christianity, a monotheistic Abrahamic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. The words Christ and Christian derive from the Koine Greek title Christós (Χριστός), a translation of the Biblical Hebrew term mashiach (מָשִׁיחַ).

Jews ancient nation and ethnoreligious group from the Levant

Jews or Jewish people are an ethnoreligious group and a nation, originating from the Israelites and Hebrews of historical Israel and Judah. Jewish ethnicity, nationhood, and religion are strongly interrelated, as Judaism is the traditional faith of the Jewish people, while its observance varies from strict observance to complete nonobservance.

A dhimmī is a historical term referring to non-Muslims living in an Islamic state with legal protection. The word literally means "protected person", referring to the state's obligation under sharia to protect the individual's life, property, and freedom of religion, in exchange for loyalty to the state and payment of the jizya tax, which complemented the zakat, or obligatory alms, paid by the Muslim subjects. Dhimmis were exempt from certain duties assigned specifically to Muslims, and did not enjoy certain privileges and freedoms reserved for Muslims, but were otherwise equal under the laws of property, contract, and obligation.

Incident and arrests

Contemporary drawing of Father Thomas and his servant Ibrahim Amara Tommasoetamarah.jpg
Contemporary drawing of Father Thomas and his servant Ibrahim Amara

On February 5, 1840, Father Thomas, a French citizen and a Franciscan Capuchin friar from the Island of Sardinia, and his Greek servant, Ibrahim Amarah, disappeared, never to be seen again.

The Order of Friars Minor Capuchin is an order of friars within the Catholic Church, among the chief offshoots of the Franciscans. The worldwide head of the Order, called the Minister General, is currently Roberto Genuin.

Sardinia Island in the Mediterranean and region of Italy

Sardinia is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. It is located west of the Italian Peninsula and to the immediate south of the French island of Corsica.

The Greeks or Hellenes are an ethnic group native to Greece, Cyprus, southern Albania, Italy, Turkey, Egypt and, to a lesser extent, other countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. They also form a significant diaspora, with Greek communities established around the world.

Upon Thomas' disappearance the French consul at Damascus, Ulysse de Ratti-Menton, who supported Christian merchants and advisers over Jewish ones, and Christian families seeking economic ascendancy over the formerly empowered Farhi family, instituted investigations in the Jewish quarter giving rise to the suspicion that Jews were behind the priest's disappearance. The Egyptian governor of Syria, Sherif Pasha, wishing to court French sympathies engendered by relations between the French government and the Egyptian pasha, Muhammad Ali, allowed the accusations to take root. A confession was extorted by torture from a Jewish barber named Negrin, and eight of the most notable Jews, among them Joseph Lañado, Moses Abulafia, Rabi Jacob Antebi, and a member of the Farḥi family. Four members of the Jewish community died under torture. In spite of the stoic courage displayed by the sufferers, Sherif Pasha and Ratti-Menton agreed to the trumped up charges. While Ratti-Menton published libels against the Jews in French and in Arabic, Sherif Pasha wrote to his master, Muhammad Ali, demanding authorization to execute the murderers of Father Thomas.[ citation needed ]

Haim Farhi Ottoman military leader

Haim Farhi, was an adviser to the governors of the Galilee in the days of the Ottoman Empire. Among the Jews he was known as Hakham Haim, because of his Talmudic learning.

Also, the populace fell upon the synagogue in the suburb of Jobar, pillaged it, and destroyed the scrolls of the Law.

The Jobar Synagogue was an ancient synagogue complex destroyed in May 2014. Also known as the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue it was situated in the village of Jobar now encompassed by the metropolitan area of the City of Damascus. It was once adjoined to a complex with rooms for the rabbi and other functionaries of the community. The synagogue was built atop a cave traditionally thought to have served the prophet Elijah in hiding. The hall center was said to be the place where Elijah anointed Elisa. During the Syrian civil war it was hit by mortar bombs, looted, and later 2/3 of the Synagogue were totally destroyed at the end of May 2014.

Torah Jewish religious text

Torah has a range of meanings. It can most specifically mean the first five books (Pentateuch) of the 24 books of the Tanakh, and it is usually printed with the rabbinic commentaries. It can mean the continued narrative from the Book of Genesis to the end of the Tanakh (Chronicles), and it can even mean the totality of Jewish teaching, culture and practice, whether derived from biblical texts or later rabbinic writings. Common to all these meanings, Torah consists of the origin of Jewish peoplehood: their call into being by God, their trials and tribulations, and their covenant with their God, which involves following a way of life embodied in a set of moral and religious obligations and civil laws.

This incident, which illustrates the tensions that existed between the Jewish and Christian populations of Syria, was notable for being an exception to the rule of Jewish-Muslim relations which during the Tanzimat era in the Ottoman Empire (1839–1920) were generally much better than Christian-Muslim relations due particularly to the economic ascendancy afforded to the Christian community with the relaxation and eventual elimination of the dhimmi status rules in the 1850s. While occasional outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence erupted during this time, far more serious outbreaks of violence occurred between Muslims and Christians and Christians and Druze. [3]

Tanzimat Ottoman Empire reform period, 1839-1876

The Tanzimât was a period of reform in the Ottoman Empire that began in 1839 and ended with the First Constitutional Era in 1876.

Druze Arabic-speaking esoteric ethno-religious group

The Druze are an Arabic-speaking esoteric ethno-religious group originating in Western Asia who self-identify as Al-Muwaḥḥidūn. Jethro of Midian is considered an ancestor of all people from the Mountain of Druze region, who revere him as their spiritual founder and chief prophet. It is a monotheistic and Abrahamic religion based on the teachings of Hamza ibn-'Ali ibn-Ahmad and the sixth Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, and Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle.

Protests and negotiations

The Rhodes blood libel and the Damascus affair, reported together in The Times, Apr 18, 1840 Rhodes and Damascus affairs, The Times, Saturday, Apr 18, 1840.png
The Rhodes blood libel and the Damascus affair, reported together in The Times , Apr 18, 1840

The affair drew wide international outrage in particular due to the efforts of the Austrian Consul in Aleppo Eliahu Picciotto who made representations to Ibrahim Pasha, Muhammad Ali's son in Egypt, who then ordered an investigation. In 1840, G. W. Pieritz also exposed the matter in The Times to public indignation, after personal representations to the Pasha on 15 May. [4] [5] British politician and leader of the British Jewish community, Sir Moses Montefiore, backed by other influential westerners including Britain's Lord Palmerston and Damascus consul Charles Henry Churchill, [5] the French lawyer Adolphe Crémieux, Austrian consul Giovanni Gasparo Merlato, Danish missionary John Nicolayson, [5] and Solomon Munk, led a delegation to the ruler of Syria, Muhammad Ali.[ citation needed ]

Negotiations in Alexandria continued from 4 to 28 August and secured the unconditional release and recognition of innocence of the nine prisoners still remaining alive (out of thirteen). Montefiore persuaded Sultan Abdulmecid I in Constantinople, to issue a firman (edict) on 6 November 1840 intended to halt the spread of blood libel accusations in the Ottoman Empire. The edict declared that blood libel accusations is a slander against Jews and to be prohibited throughout the Ottoman Empire, and read in part:

"... and for the love we bear to our subjects, we cannot permit the Jewish nation, whose innocence for the crime alleged against them is evident, to be worried and tormented as a consequence of accusations which have not the least foundation in truth...".

Nevertheless, pogroms spread through the Middle East and North Africa: Aleppo (1850, 1875), Damascus (1840, 1848, 1890), Beirut (1862, 1874), Dayr al-Qamar (1847), Jaffa (1876), Jerusalem (1847, 1870 and 1895), Cairo (1844, 1890, 1901–02), Mansura (1877), Alexandria (1870, 1882, 1901–07), Port Said (1903, 1908), and Damanhur (1871, 1873, 1877, 1891). [6]

Influence of the incident and reactions to it

In a new and groundbreaking effort, the American Jewish community of 15,000 [7] protested in six American cities on behalf of their Syrian brethren. "For the first time in American Jewish life, Jews... organized themselves politically to help Diaspora Jewry in distress." Among the new ethnic immigrant populations to the United States, the Jews were the first to attempt to sway the government to act on behalf of their kin and co-religionists abroad; with this incident, they became involved in the politics of foreign policy, persuading but not pressuring President Van Buren to protest officially. [8] The United States consul in Egypt expressed the protest.

According to Hasia R. Diner, in The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, "For the Jews, the Damascus affair launched modern Jewish politics on an international scale, and for American Jews it represented their first effort at creating a distinctive political agenda. Just as the United States had used this affair to proclaim its presence on the global scale, so too did American Jews, in their newspapers and at mass meetings, announce to their coreligionists in France and England that they too ought to be thought of players in global Jewish diplomacy." [9]

According to Johannes Valentin Schwarz, the events also encouraged the growth of the modern Jewish press. "As a result, a sense of solidarity was evoked among the Jewish communities of Europe they had never experienced before. Thus, the Damascus Affair gave birth to modern Jewish press especially in Western Europe, such as to the long-lived papers Les Archives Israélites de France (1840-1935) in Paris or The Jewish Chronicle (1841 ff.) in London." [10]

One major repercussion of the 1840 Damascus Affair was the introduction in the Middle East of the French education system later integrated into Alliance Israélite Universelle. Following his [ who? ] 1840 visit to Damascus and review of the social and education system in Damascus, he decided to give all the Jews of the Ottoman Empire a European education based on the French model to replace the Arabic and Hebrew (mainly religious) curriculum. In a few generations, almost all of the Jewish minorities of the Middle East learned several languages (French, English, Italian and Hebrew, among others) and acquired academic skills that proved extremely valuable to their subsequent integration in the World's economies and emigration to Western countries in the 20th century.[ citation needed ]

Later references

Accusations of the affair were published in the Egyptian daily Al Akhbar in 2000 and again in 2001 in an article titled The Last Scene in the Life of Father Toma. [11] In 2002, the Middle East Media Research Institute reported that some of the 1840 accusations emerged in a 1983 book The Damascus Blood Libel (1840) by the Syrian Minister of Defense, Mustafa Tlass. The book was described as being influential in international antisemitic circles as a reliable source of information on "ritual murder by the Jews." [12] In 1983, Tlass wrote and published The Matzah of Zion, which is a treatment of the Damascus affair of 1840 and repeats the ancient "blood libel", that Jews use the blood of murdered non-Jews in religious rituals such as baking Matza bread. [13] In this book, he argues that the true religious beliefs of Jews are "black hatred against all humans and religions", and that no Arab country should ever sign a peace treaty with Israel. [14] Tlass re-printed the book several times, and he stands by its conclusions. Following the book's publication, Tlass told Der Spiegel that this accusation against Jews was valid and that his book is "an historical study ... based on documents from France, Vienna and the American University in Beirut." [14] [15]

In 2007, Lebanese poet Marwan Chamoun, in an interview aired on Télé Liban, referred to the "... slaughter of the priest Tomaso de Camangiano ... in 1840... in the presence of two rabbis in the heart of Damascus, in the home of a close friend of this priest, Daud Al-Harari, the head of the Jewish community of Damascus. After he was slaughtered, his blood was collected, and the two rabbis took it." [16] A novel, Death of a Monk , based on the affair, was published in 2004.

The blood libel was featured in a scene in the Syrian TV series Ash-Shatat , shown in 2003, [17] [18] while in 2013 the Israeli website Arutz Sheva reported cases of Israeli Arabs asking "where Jews find the Christian blood they need to bake matza". [19]

See also

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  1. Parfitt, Tudor (1985) 'The Year of the Pride of Israel: Montefiore and the blood libel of 1840.' In: Lipman, S. and Lipman, V.D., (eds.), The Century of Moses Montefiore. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 131-148.
  2. Harel, Yaron (2009-04-15). "What are the origins of Muslim anti-Semitism?". Ha'aretz . Retrieved 2009-04-16.
  3. Moshe Ma'oz, "Communal Conflicts in Ottoman Syria during the Reform Era: The Role of Political and Economic Factors" in Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, Vol. II: Arabic-Speaking Lands, edited by Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1982), p. 91-101. "Damascus Affair", Deutsch and Franco (authors), JewishEncyclopedia.com
  4. Frankel, Jonathan (13 January 1997). The Damascus Affair: 'Ritual Murder', Politics, and the Jews in 1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 512. ISBN   9780521483964.
  5. 1 2 3 Lewis, Donald (2 January 2014). The Origins of Christian Zionism: Lord Shaftesbury And Evangelical Support For A Jewish Homeland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 380. ISBN   9781107631960.
  6. Yossef Bodansky. Islamic Anti-Semitism as a Political Instrument Co-Produced by The Ariel Center for Policy Research and The Freeman Center for Strategic Studies, 1999. ISBN   978-0-9671391-0-4, see also The Encyclopedia of World History By Peter N. Stearns, William Leonard Langer p. 527. 2001.
  7. Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, p.366
  8. Alexander DeConde, Ethnicity, Race, and American Foreign Policy: A History , p.52
  9. Hasia R. Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000 , p.176
  10. The Origins and the Development of German-Jewish Press in Germany till 1850 by Johannes Valentin Schwarz. (66th International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) Council and General Conference. Jerusalem, Israel, 13–18 August 2000. Code Number: 106-144-E
  11. The Blood Libel Again in Egypt's Government Press (MEMRI Special Dispatch Series - No. 201) April 2, 2001
  12. The Damascus Blood Libel (1840) as Told by Syria's Minister of Defense, Mustafa Tlass (MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis Series - No. 99) June 27, 2002
  13. An Anti-Jewish Book Linked to Syrian Aide, The New York Times , 15 July 1986.
  14. 1 2 "Literature Based on Mixed Sources – Classic Blood Libel: Mustafa Tlas' Matzah of Zion". ADL. Archived from the original on 13 April 2011. Retrieved 5 July 2012.
  15. Blood Libel Judith Apter Klinghoffer, History News Network , 19 December 2006.
  16. Lebanese Poet Marwan Chamoun: Jews Slaughtered Christian Priest in Damascus in 1840 and Used His Blood for Matzos (MEMRI Special Dispatch Series - No. 1453) February 6, 2007
  17. Anti-Semitic Series airs on Arab Television, Anti Defamation League, 9 January 2004
  18. Clip from Ash-Shatat , MEMRI
  19. Blood Libel Alive and Well in the Muslim World, Arutz Sheva, 25 March 2013

Further reading