[published in Midstream (New York), February-March 2003]
FROM DAMASCUS TO JENIN
by Elliott A Green
Still fresh in every informed person's mind is how --upon the fall of Jenin to Israeli forces in April-- journalists of both the print and the electronic media were industriously buzzing about the massacre of "thousands" or only "hundreds" in the Jenin refugee camp, a charge first made by Palestinian Authority officials. But there was a problem. Where were the bodies? CNN, BBC, and Sky anchormen in London anxiously or impatiently asked colleagues on the ground about the bodies of allegedly massacred Arabs there that had not yet been found. The charge would be more convincing of course if there were actual bodies to display. Some journalists did not ask --or wait for inquiries-- but eagerly took up the Palestinian Authority's lie claiming a massacre. Despite the contradictions among PA spokesmen (Arafat claiming "thousands" of victims, then only "1,500," Saeb Erekat claiming only "500"). Nevertheless, some denizens of the Fourth Estate relished repeating the lie on TV. But the hoped for bodies were never found.
In Damascus too there was a search for bodies of innocents alleged to have been slain by Jews -- but never found. The search in Damascus took place in 1840, proving the French adage, Plus a change, plus c'est la même chose. The more things change the more they stay the same.
In Damascus, a Roman Catholic monk and missionary from Sardinia, Father Thomas, and his servant had disappeared. A mass of local Christians --later joined by a mass of Muslims-- accused the local Jews (not yet called Zionists) of murdering the two in order to bake their blood into matsot for Passover. This charge was translated into a demand by the European consuls in the city, representing France, Britain, and Austria, that the local government investigate the Jewish role in the murder, a Jewish deed by foregone conclusion. Floors were dug up in Jewish homes and many Jews, estimated to be about seventy men and sixty boys (from five to twelve years old), were flogged and jailed for various lengths of time.[i]
France was the protector of Roman Catholics in the Ottoman empire, according to old treaties, and its consuls had the right to take part in investigating and punishing crimes committed against these protected persons. Thus the French consul, Count de Ratti-Menton, took the lead in both pressuring the local governor and undertaking police operations on his own, not only because France was the great power ally of Muhammad Ali of Egypt, then ruling Syria, but on account of his own Judeophobia. Further,
"... the small group of European businessmen and diplomats in the city, Protestants as well as Catholics, English and Italian as well as French, unreservedly endorsed the actions taken by the Count de Ratti-Menton and the governor-general."[ii]
Several prominent Jews who lived in the Jewish Quarter were arrested and told to produce the corpses. When the Jews protested their innocence, they were subjected to torture, not only with the warm approval of the French consul, but with his active participation. Hundreds --in some case thousands-- of lashes per prisoner plus other tortures too gruesome to mention, did their work. Jewish women and children too were beaten and lashed, by Ratti-Menton and the local police. Thus, confessions were obtained from several Jews. Eventually, some bones of dubious provenance were found in a sewer near Jewish homes and deemed to belong to Father Thomas. Here was proof of Jewish guilt. Ratti-Menton "enthusiastically insisted on the death penalty being carried through," another diplomat reported.[iii] As a matter of fact, the death sentences were not executed, but four Jews died under torture, while eight others were taken from a caravan in the nearby mountains and murdered, apparently by Christian rebels.[iv]
After the news reached Europe, the French government continued to support the "investigation" carried out by its regional ally, Muhammad Ali, through his pasha governing Damascus. The Vatican though kept silent. Yet, a Catholic writer sympathized with the Muslims as fellow victims at the hands of the Jews:
"Driven from their fatherland, dispersed across the entire surface of the globe, the Jews swore an implacable hatred for all the nations which gave asylum to them... the deicidal people is the irreconcilable enemy of the Christians and the Muslims."[v]
The press of the time was a platform for reports about cruel, atavistic Jewish practices and abounded with denunciations of Jews, although there were other voices, even in France. A British Anglican paper saw both Middle Eastern and Eastern European Jews as having "dark traits of their character."[vi] A French Catholic paper justified persecutions of Jews, since the Jews "dispersed among" "our forefathers" were "avid for their money; trafficking in their liberty; and at times stained with their blood... those persecutions [of Jews]... constituted legitimate self-defense."[vii] Although. as stated above, the Vatican did not take a public stand, the hierarchy privately sympathized with Ratti-Menton for discovering the "truth."[viii] Nevertheless, a British Catholic paper, the Tablet, defended the Jews, drawing an analogy with Protestant persecutions of Catholics.[ix]
Of course, there were some harsh opinions in France. One newspaper wrote that "in the East, the Jews have preserved this custom of murdering a Christian during their festivals."[x] Thiers, the French prime minister (known as a liberal), asked in private conversation whether, since Jews in Europe in the Middle Ages had committed ritual murder, the benighted Jews of Damascus weren't capable of doing the same in 1840? On another occasion, he told the Jewish leader, Adolphe Crémieux, "Those people are guilty. They wanted a priest's blood and you do not know how far the fanaticism of the Eastern Jews goes."[xi] Thiers' agent in Damascus, Ratti-Menton, likewise seems to have believed in progress, as well as in Europe's superiority in this regard. He wrote:
"... nothing has shown that the Jews of civilized Europe had any knowledge of these acts of revolting fanaticism... given my principles in favor of this section of humanity, I would be sadly disillusioned if... there was connivance... between the Jews of Europe and those of Asia."[xii]
We recall that Ratti-Menton took part in beating and torturing Jews. Knowing this, Thiers publicly backed him, insinuating a warning to French Jews --in parliamentary debate-- not to protest the persecutions lest they stir up public outrage against themselves. In 2002, French president Jacques Chirac warned Israel and the Jews not to speak up against French anti-semitism, lest there be "consequences."[xiii]
Meanwhile, the Damascene Jews received some relief from unexpected sources. Once the matter came to public attention in Europe, Britain and Austria --as well as would-be enlightened Russia and lesser powers-- went over part way to defense of the Jews, since they opposed Muhammad Ali's expansionist ambitions (backed by France) at the expense of the Ottoman empire. In this context, the Austrian consul changed his attitude and gave support to local Jews, whereas the British consul continued for some time to support persecution of the Jews, against his government's position.
In any case, on the ground, the Muslim authorities and much of the Christian and Muslim population, plus the French consul, were determined to find where the Jews had hidden the bodies. They were not going to let contrary evidence get in the way. When a Jewish tobacco peddler came to the French consulate with the rabbi to report that he had seen the monk and his servant walking out of the city far from the Jewish Quarter, he was held captive in the consulate for three days, then delivered to the Pasha and tortured to get him to change his testimony. When he did not recant, the torture continued until he died (5,000 lashes reported).
The story really does not have a happy ending, albeit that after several influential Western Jews (Moses Montefiore, Cremieux, etc.), representing their communities, got involved in the affair, they were able to persuade Muhammad Ali to issue a decree to have the remaining Jewish prisoners in Damascus released. When they met Muhammad Ali in Alexandria, they also enjoyed the support of the consuls in the city (excepting the French). Nevertheless, aside from releasing the prisoners, they could not get him to declare the prisoners innocent, nor to undertake a new investigation to find the actual murderers, nor to reject the blood libel (that Jews use human blood in matsoth) as such. Thus, in September 1840, eight months after the arrests began, the surviving Jewish prisoners were released; only four had died in jail under torture. But there was no cancelling the verdict that Jews had a practice of using Christian blood in matsoth.
This was the notorious Damascus Affair, which rates a mention in every serious book on modern Jewish history, but never got a thorough, comprehensive treatment before Jonathan Frankel's recent work, The Damascus Affair: "Ritual Murder," the Jews and Politics in 1840 (1997). Frankel's book should serve as a study companion while considering the Jenin massacre mania. Hanokh Marmari, editor of HaAretz, an Israeli newspaper, has rightly spoken of "the obsession of the Western press" with finding the bodies in Jenin (HaAretz, English ed., 7 June 2002), much like Ratti-Menton's passion for finding the bodies in Damascus.
The journalists' anguish over the missing corpses (and eagerness to find substitute crimes) went on for more than a month. Substitute atrocities and war crimes were found, based on reports by Jenin residents. Yet, the credibility of atrocity reports from Jenin denizens may be judged by a scoop one of them offered to a Jerusalem Post photographer. The man led the journalist into a building in the Jenin camp, then proceeded to lie on the floor, freezing his body movements to mimic death, and waited to be photographed. The photographer forewent the scoop.[xiv] Another time, several women "walk over the rubble toward us [journalists]. As soon as they see the camera they begin wailing and make gestures with their arms."[xv]
Jenin became a Mecca for self-styled human rights and humanitarian activists too. The same ones that overlook the mass murders by Arab states in southern Sudan and Iraqi Kurdistan. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch joined the search in Jenin. Indeed they confirmed that there was no massacre. But they still needed --psychologically or politically-- to charge Israel with war crimes in the battle of Jenin.[xvi] Hany Megally, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, exemplified this attitude after Israel raised objections to the make up of the investigating commission appointed by UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. "Suspects shouldn't be able to choose their investigators," Megally pontificated.[xvii] In a state of law and justice that would be true. But the international system is hardly a state of either law or justice, much less both. Yet HRW and Amnesty both insisted that Israel cooperate with the UN commission, conveniently forgetting that the UN is made up overwhelmingly of tyrannies where human rights --and truth-- are of little account. Indeed, a cruel and bloody Arab tyranny, Syria, sat on the UN Security Council at the time.
An Arab "human rights" group, LAW, also had to find other offenses, although their accusations of "war crimes" derived from stories that were often rather dubious on their face, aside from witnesses not being identified.[xviii]
Indeed, some of the charges made at the time were simply bizarre. Ann Clwyd, a British MP, who journeyed to the Holy Land to support "suffering Palestinians," claimed to have been told by a UN employee in Gaza that there was "an Israeli colonel who, unless he managed to shoot seven Palestinians in the leg each day, considered that he had had a bad day."[xix] Does belief in such a claim require a childish mentality or simply deep prejudice and fanaticism combined with ignorance, on the order of the accusers in old Damascus? A more cynical claim was made by Terje Larsen, Kofi Annan's special representative to the Middle East peace process. Visiting Jenin, Larsen offered his expert opinion that "evidently there are lots of other corpses still to be found."[xx] In fact, there were not "lots" more.
Now the unreliability of Arab atrocity claims against Israel has been repeatedly demonstrated. Consider claims in UN forums (let alone the Arab press), such as the claim in the Human Rights Commission that Israel spread AIDS to children, or claims that Israel put aphrodisiacs in chewing gum, or used depleted uranium and poison gas [claimed by Suha Arafat], etc.).
As far as back 1948, Kenneth Bilby, reporting for the New York Herald-Tribune, found an Arab claim of a massacre to be groundless. Bilby asked Dr Yussef Haikal, mayor of Jaffa, later Jordanian ambassador to the United States, why most Arabs had left his city.
"Haikal... told me that hundreds of Arab men and women had been trapped in the Manshieh [quarter of Jaffa] and then ruthlessly slaughtered by the Jews. I never found the slightest shred of evidence to support this contention and I examined Manshieh carefully just after the battle."[xxi]
Bear in mind that Arab propaganda after 1948 did not promote the notion of a Jaffa massacre, instead focusing for many years on the alleged Deir Yassin massacre, which several Arab scholars have lately admitted to have been a distorted account of a battle. Therefore, it seems that Larsen and other international personalities involved in the conflict should have learned the lesson long ago. Perhaps they did not want to learn it.
In the Jenin case, another charge was that Israel forces there prevented free movement of "Palestinian Red Crescent" ambulances, a charge true to an extent. But it overlooks the frequent use of these ambulances to transport explosives, weapons, and terrorists, thus canceling the protection that the Red Crescent emblem provides under international law. Two CNN feature stories by seperate journalists (Wedeman and Holmes, March and April 2002) focussed on the ambulance issue more broadly. Yet these CNN features tried to deny or belittle facts that didn't fit, while neglecting to mention the terrorist murder of an Israeli paramedic with the Red Magen David --Israel's Red Cross counterpart; the paramedic was murdered while treating the wounded at the scene of a terrorist attack. This young man, by the way, had been in the news when he met Sen. Hilary Clinton on her visit to Israel in February 2002, about a week before his murder.
Of course the Jenin massacre mania is not exactly the same as the 1840 Damascus Affair. The Israelis are not explicitly accused in the European press of using the blood of the alleged victims for baking matzot, although, the lie or paranoid delusion of Jewish ritual murder is common in Arab intellectual life, and is the explicit theme of writings by none other than the Syrian minister of defense. European critics of Israel do not make this claim explicitly, yet Nazi-like Arab Judeophobic claims do not seem to elicit any significant criticism in Europe of the Judeophobic Arab media and schools, nor of the Syrian government in particular. Those who tax Israel with racism seem deaf to these bigoted Arab utterances. Nicolas Weill explained this, pointing out that the Arab-Israeli
"struggle is no longer perceived as a question of territory but of values -the 'war of the gods' that Max Weber spoke of- in the end the good old religious references spurt out of the pens once again... a hybrid theology where the revolutionary ideal mixes with a vague mysticism."[xxii]
In other words, the old prejudices and hatreds lie not far below the surface in contemporary Europe's anti-Israel hate mood, including the "Left."
To resume comparison with 1840, France is again on the wrong side, although, unlike 1840, Britain is too. Now Western Europe as a whole seems united against Israel through the European Union, although some member governments may be reluctant. However, we see the same widespread eagerness among journalists and politicians to believe the worst about Jews, a hunger for defamatory information about Israel that PLO/PA spokesmen are happy to feed with lies. Now, no matter how implausible some of these lies have been over the years, PLO/PA and other Arab spokespersons continue to be treated as credible sources by the Western press and politicians. The Jews are still considered guilty until proven otherwise. As in Damascus, a Jew's testimony is worthless. As if we were still in 1840.
Then, France was allied with Muhammad Ali's nascent empire; in 2002 there is another alliance of Christian and Muslim powers, the European Union with the Arab League against Israel. The EU does not endorse all Arab charges or demands made on Israel. Yet, the EU's positions are all too close. Public opinion in EU states, guided by the media, is generally hostile to Israel (although there are other voices) in the ongoing war. Meanwhile, few journalists assert a Jenin massacre anymore, but they do not admit or apologize for their earlier gullibility and slander.
Syrian defense minister, Mustafa Tlas, recently studied for a doctoral degree in France, and his patron, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (son of the late Hafez al-Assad), has been received by President Chirac in Paris. Mustafa Tlas has continued to promote the notion that Jews practice ritual murder of which Father Thomas was, he claims, just one victim. Tlas has written books "proving" the 1840 Damascus murder was a Jewish deed, and ritual murder was a Jewish practice. Assad Junior delivered a very public Judeophobic diatribe when the Pope visited Syria in 2001 (the Jews "conspired" to kill Muhammad, etc.). Syria continues to shelter Nazi war criminal Alois Brunner, rejecting calls for his extradition. There are no audible calls in Europe to censure or boycott Syria or the Assad regime on account of its Nazi-like hatemongering or its protection of war criminals, or its tyranny towards its own population -- unlike European calls to boycott Israel.
Meanwhile, Tlas' interpretation of the 1840 event is supported by an inscription in a Damascus Catholic church. The Franciscan Order's church contains a tomb holding bones alleged to belong to Father Thomas (the possibly human bones found in the sewer). The epitaph reads (in Italian): Here rest the bones of Padre Tommaso... murdered by the Jews."[xxiii]
The past is still with us.
[i]. Jonathan Frankel, Damascus Affair (Cambridge 1997), p 38.
[xiii]. Jerusalem Post, 12 May 2002. Hubert Vedrine, Foreign Minister in Lionel Jospin's socialist cabinet, is the son of a high Vichy official, Jean Vedrine. See his statement in Jerusalem Post, 14 May 2002.
[xiv]. Robert Plotkin, Jerusalem Post, 24 April 2002.
[xv]. Margot Dudkevitch in Jerusalem Post, 18 April 2002.
[xvi]. Ibid., 19 April 2002
[xix]. Ibid., 19 April 2002
[xx]. HaAretz, 19 April 2002.
[xxi]. Kenneth Bilby, New Star in the Near East (New York 1950), p 30.
[xxii]. Nicolas Weill, Le Monde, 10 April 2002.