The great British philanthropist Moses Montefiore embarked on a voyage to the Levant to plead for the release of Jewish prisoners unfairly accused on the killing of a monk and his servant in Damascus .
The 19th century Damascus affair was a landmark crisis in the lives of Jews in Arab and Muslims lands, testifying to their absolute helplessness in the face of arbitrary accusations. What David B Green does not say in his Haaretz piece written on the affair’s 173rd anniversary, is that no less than 18 blood libel accusations against the Jews were subsequently made throughout the Ottoman empire*.
On February 5, 1840, Father Tommaso, the Franciscan Capuchin monk
who headed a monastery in Damascus, Syria, disappeared, along with his
servant. This event led to what became known as the Damascus Affair, in
which a group of Jews in the city found themselves falsely accused of
murdering the priest. The affair aroused great public passions within
the Muslim world, and became one of the first cases in which Jewish
collective activity on an international level worked to end an injustice
– in this case, a blood libel – against a Jewish community.
Syria at the time was under the rule of Egypt, led by Pasha Muhammad
Ali, who had broken away from Ottoman control. Because Catholic citizens
were protected by France, investigation of the case fell to the French
consul in Damascus, Ulysse de Ratti-Menton, who was known for his
Acting on claims from the Capuchins that the priest had been killed by
Jews who intended to use his blood for the upcoming Passover holiday,
Ratti-Menton began rounding up residents of the Jewish Quarter. One of
those arrested implicated eight other Jews under torture; they were
arrested and also subjected to terrible physical abuse. Two died and a
third converted to Islam, in order to have his life spared.
The Egyptian governor of Syria, Sherif Pasha, accepted the French
findings and approved of the sentence issued to the Jewish defendants. A
local crowd attacked and ravaged a Damascus synagogue. In the meantime,
local authorities arrested 63 Jewish children, in an effort to force
their parents to reveal where the blood of Tommaso was being stored.
A sympathetic Austrian consul in Damascus passed information about the
tortures being imposed on the Jews to James de Rothschild, the honorary
Austrian consul in Paris. This led to a series of intercessions by
various European diplomats, and also aroused the sympathies of a wide
variety of Jews both in Europe and the United States, some of them
otherwise quite assimilated.
A delegation that included Moses Montefiore and Adolphe Cremieux
traveled to Egypt to meet with Muhammad Ali. They asked the ruler to
order the re-investigation of the affair by more objective authorities,
and the release of the prisoners. Muhammad Ali refused to have the case
reopened, but did act to have the Jews under arrest freed, on August 28,
The same delegation then traveled to Constantinople, where they
prevailed upon the sultan, Abdul Mejid I, to issue a firman (edict),
declaring blood libels untrue and prohibiting trials on the basis of
Although the success of the Jewish delegation in effecting the release
of the prisoners was celebrated in the Jewish world, the charges were
never officially repudiated. Consequently, they continued to be
circulated and widely accepted, not only in the Middle East but also in
Europe, particularly France. In 1846, a two-volume set of the complete
records of the French consul’s investigation was published in France,
and subsequently in Arabic, German, Russian and Italian. To this day,
the Damascus blood libel is repeated in the Arab world, most notably in a
1983 book by the then-Syrian defense minister, Mustafa Tlass.
At the same time, the affair is remembered for the impact it had on
Jewish communities, not only in Europe, but also in the United States,
where Jews began to organize politically in order to lobby the
government to intercede on behalf of their brethren in Damascus. And
indeed the American consul in Alexandria expressed a protest to that
effect to the Egyptian ruler.
*p158, The Jews of Islam by Bernard Lewis