MARCH 1144 AND 2019 by Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah, SJN, March 2019

Purim begins this year on evening of 20th March. As most of us are aware, this minor postbiblical festival celebrates a victory against anti-Semitism and the scheme of a demagogue, intent on destroying the Jewish minority scattered throughout the vast empire of King Achashveirosh.

There is no external evidence that the particular events described ever happened. Indeed, the Book of Esther reads like a classical ‘once upon a time’ fairy tale. Nevertheless, the story resonates with the reality of the vulnerability of Jewish existence in the diaspora over millennia. And for generations of Jews the happy ending was welcome respite. What fun to get drunk and revel in a revenge fantasy in which the Jewish heroes turn the tables on their enemies.

And then, a real-life Haman arose in the form of Adolf Hitler. The ‘Thousand-Year Reich’ was defeated after twelve years; but not before six million Jews had been murdered and tens of thousands of Jewish communities destroyed across the continent of Europe. No happy ending for Jewish life in that particular diaspora.

Here in Britain, we were at one remove from the horror. Thanks to a narrow strip of water and the courage of British airmen, Hitler did not reach these shores. Yet, Britain, too, has a hinterland of anti-Jewish persecution, fuelled by familiar anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish power. Just a day after Purim this year, it will be the anniversary of the first ritual murder libel, which took place at Norwich 875 years ago in 1144. The historian Cecil Roth wrote: “A boy of 12 or 13, named William, apprenticed to a skinner at Norwich, was found dead on Easter Eve in a wood near the city. According to a story afterwards recounted, he had been enticed away by the Jews on the previous Monday and was crucified by them in a mockery of the Passion after their service in the synagogue, on Wednesday, the second day of the Passover (March 22nd, 1144). This was the first instance in Europe of the infamous Ritual Murder accusation …. In this case the essential element of the Blood accusation was lacking, as no suggestion was made the blood was used in the manufacture of the Unleavened Bread or for other ritual purposes” (The Jewish Book of Days, pp. 70-71). Roth also wrote of these accusations continuing ‘down to the present day’. The book was published by Edward Goldston Ltd of London in 1931… Did Roth have any idea of what was to follow? And would he have believed that anti-Semitism would continue to be a menace in ‘the present day’ of March 2019?