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The Damascus affair was an 1840 incident in which the accusation of ritual murder was brought against members of the Jewish community of Damascus. This event is part of a long history of false blood libel charges against Jews.

Background

Under Ottoman rule, Christians and Jews were considered dhimmis and were allowed to practice their religious precepts. In return, they had to pay a tax and recognize a lower legal and social status than that of Muslims. In 1831-32, Syria was conquered by the Egyptians under Muhammad Ali of Egypt. Under Mohammed Ali, Christians' rights increased. This aroused a grudge among Muslims toward the non-Muslim population, and Muhammad Ali was said to have ruled at the sufferance of the European powers, led by Francemarker. 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 Damascusmarker complained about cruel treatment by the qadis. Fearing a wave of Muslim violence following the return of the Ottoman regime to Syrian rule, they enlisted priests from Catholic orders, including the Franciscans and the Capuchins. The priests brought with them the blood libel myth.

Incident and arrests

On Feb. 5, 1840, Father Thomas, originally from Sardinia, and the superior of a Franciscan convent at Damascus, disappeared with his servant. This monk, who practised medicine, was well known in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim quarters.. Some days previous he had had a dispute with a Turkish muleteer, who allegedly had heard him blaspheme Muhammad, whereupon the Turk is reported to have said: "That dog of a Christian shall die by my hand."

Upon Thomas' disappearance the French consul at Damascus, Ratti Menton, who supported Christian merchants and advisers over the Jews, along with the 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 governor, 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 Farḥi, were imprisoned and tortured. Their teeth and beards were pulled out, they were burned, and finally tempted with gold, to persuade them to confess an imaginary crime. Lañado, a feeble old man, died under this treatment. Moses Abulafia became a Muslim in order to escape the 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.

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

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.

Protests and negotiations

The affair drew wide international attention in particular due to the efforts of the Austrian Consul in Aleppo Eliahu Picotto who made representations to Ibrahim Pasha in Egypt who ordered an investigation. In a groundbreaking effort, 15,000 American Jews protested in six American cities on behalf of their Syrian brethren. The United States consul in Egyptmarker expressed an official protest by the order of President Martin Van Buren. Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, backed by influential westerns including Britain's Lord Palmerston, the French lawyer Adolphe Crémieux, Austrian consul Merlatto, missionary John Nicolayson, and Solomon Munk, led a delegation to the ruler of Syriamarker, Mehemet Ali.

Negotiations in Alexandriamarker continued from August 4 to August 28 and secured the unconditional release and recognition of innocence of the nine prisoners still remaining alive (out of thirteen). Later in Constantinoplemarker, Montefiore persuaded Sultan Abdülmecid to issue a firman (edict) intended to halt the spread of blood libel accusations in the Ottoman Empire:
"... 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...".


Aftermath

Massacres of Jews by Muslims were recorded in Aleppo (1850, 1875), Damascus (1840, 1848, 1890), Beirut (1862, 1874), Dayr al-Qamar (1847), Jerusalem (1847), Cairo (1844, 1890, 1901-02), Mansura (1877), Alexandria (1870, 1882, 1901-07), Port Said (1903, 1908), Damanhur (1871, 1873, 1877, 1891), Istanbul (1870, 1874), Buyukdere (1864), Kuzguncuk (1866), Eyub (1868), Edirne (1872), Izmir (1872, 1874) - these are just key cases.

Influence

According to Daniel Pipes,
...the real impact of the Damascus affair ... lay in Europe, where it led to a formidable backlash against Jews, the greatest in years. Jews found themselves completely unprepared for the tribulations they suffered but learned from this tragedy to organize and lobby, and from that came the first stirrings of modern Jewish solidarity, the basis of the formidable institutions that followed.


The events 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.


The Damascus affair prompted French Jews to establish the Alliance Israélite Universelle in 1860.

Later references

Mahmoud Al-Said Al-Kurdi wrote two articles in the Egyptian daily Al Akhbar repeating accusations of the affair. The first article appeared on October 20, 2000. The second, titled The Last Scene in the Life of Father Toma appeared in the March 25, 2001 issue.

In 2002 it was reported that the 1840 accusations re-emerged in a recent book "The Matzah of Zion" by a Syrianmarker official, The Damascus Blood Libel (1840) as Told by Syria's Minister of Defense, Mustafa Tlass. In the introduction to the book he writes, "My intention in publishing this book is to bring to light some of the secrets of the Jewish sect... the hateful fanaticism and their implementation of the teachings of the Talmud." The book has become a best seller in the Arab world.

In his interview aired on TeleLiban TV on January 30, 2007, Lebanese poet Marwan Chamoun alleged "... 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."

A fictional gay retelling of the Damascus Affair by the Israeli novelist Alon Hilu, emphasizing the contribution of Jews themselves to the false accusations, and claiming that Father Thomas died from a heart attack during intercourse with a Jewish young man, was published in 2004 in Hebrew and English under the title Death of a Monk.

References



See also



Further reading




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