In 1144, the Jews of Norwich were accused of ritual child murder after a boy, William of Norwich, was found murdered on Good Friday. Thomas of Monmouth then explained that every year an international council of Jews picked a country where a Christian child would be killed so that they could one day return to the Holy Land. Jews in England were promptly massacred. Similar beliefs spread throughout Europe, triggering waves and waves of violence that have never disappeared. The idea that Jews thirst for the blood of innocents for their own ritualistic ends, and should die for it, is known as the blood libel, and it dates back to ancient times.
Anti-Semitic tropes never go away, and since October 7 we’ve seen pretty much all of them in full swing – especially the blood libel. And it’s not just the baying mobs accusing Israel and Jews more generally of invading Gaza to indulge their bloodthirsty craving for the murder of innocents (Britain’s streets no longer expect the pretence of a distinction between Jews and Israel).
Rather, it is how the whole counter-offensive in Gaza is being reported, portrayed and responded to by everyone from the most esteemed media outlets (of which the Telegraph has been a noble exception) to the great and the good of international statesmanship. French president Emmanuel Macron outed himself good and proper recently when he tweeted in favour of a ceasefire because Israel had “no justification” for bombing “these babies, these ladies, these old people” in Gaza. Sorry Monsieur President, but such comments are pure blood libel.
From week one, with the extent of the horror still emerging in Israel, patrician foreign correspondents, think tank leaders and elite academics have demanded to know how one could not be disgusted/horrified/desperate at Israel’s (Israel’s!) “indiscriminate killing of civilians”; and zest for “collective punishment” of Palestinians in Gaza. It is as though nothing whatsoever had happened to necessitate Israel’s entirely just, and even “legal”, war aim of eradicating Hamas once and for all. And it didn’t take long for the crowds in the streets and stations of the West– or on X, formerly Twitter – to start insisting that the evidence of Hamas beheading Israeli babies is false. For blood libellers, it can only be the Jews who go after babies.
The blood libel is baked into almost all the anti-Israel discourse we are seeing, even the most respectable, including from those Parliamentarians who last week rebelled against Sir Keir Starmer for refusing to demand a ceasefire. Peel back what they actually mean: that it is illegitimate and outrageous of Israel to try to ensure that the second Holocaust attempted by Hamas does not, in fact, happen. That Israel should stop fighting the organisation obsessed with annihilating it. That it should give Hamas a chance to regroup. But if you believe Israel, the country whose flag is a star of David, is driven by those who love to drink the blood of innocents, then of course you’ll want Hamas to gain the upper hand.
You will also crave to believe that it goes after the sick and weak for kicks. In two major crimes of reporting, Israel has been accused of bombing Gazan hospitals – “targeting” them, seemingly for fun. One alleged Israeli hospital bombing of a hospital in Gaza was actually a Palestinian rocket misfiring in its car park, but it took days for this to be corrected, and then only petulantly.
Last week’s widespread reporting that Israel had gleefully gone after Shifa Hospital – with its rooms full of babies in incubators that the IDF (only cynically) offered to move and protect – was also pitch-perfect blood libel. The BBC has since had to apologise for reporting that the IDF was “targeting” medical teams and Arabic speakers when in fact it was doing the exact opposite: the entry into the hospital “included” medical teams and Arabic speakers.
One could call the BBC’s error a telling detail of a bigger picture. Headline after headline, from the New York Times to the Guardian to CBS and CNN – screams about Israel going into Gazan hospitals but withholds the reason. In the case of Al-Shifa, massive weaponry was found stowed in MRI machines and other medical equipment, because Hamas, not Israel, enjoys using the sick as cover for its pursuit of the blood of innocents. More importantly, the IDF suspected, and seemingly found, a massive tunnelling system built by Hamas right under the hospital.
The thing to be clear about – incredible that one has to spell this out in Britain of 2023, as if it were still 1144 – is that absolutely none of these insinuations, beliefs or accusations are true. On the contrary. The IDF is bound by a strict and sophisticated code of ethics that insists on great lengths to avoid the killing of civilians. Israel-haters laugh mockingly when I point this out, but the code is serious and binding.
All the other hallmarks of a decent army are there too. In fact, the IDF does more than any other armed force on the planet to limit harm to civilians. Last week a Gazan dentist living in a tower block told how Israeli intelligence agents spent hours on the phone with him instructing him to warn other residents and guiding him through the necessary evacuation steps, so that when it later struck the complex, which housed Hamas infrastructure, not a single life was lost.
It has dropped millions of flyers, and sent millions of warning texts to Gazans. Against its own interests, it kept extending the evacuation deadline so that people could flee south. It has agreed to humanitarian pauses. Every concession to the importance of Palestinian human life leads to the death of Israelis and still they do it. As the Israeli tech guru Eli David put it: “If Israel didn’t care about civilian life, the war would have been over on October 8”. Quite. But the blood libel, sadly, insists otherwise.