9 Jews Freed After Damascus Blood Libel
A painting depicting a Rabbi in demascus preparing his defence from the Talmud as aprt of the Damascus Affair. Painting: Moritz Daniel Oppenheim

September 6, 1840

The nine surviving Damascus Jews accused of killing a Franciscan Capuchin friar and his servant to harvest the blood are freed by order of Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman pasha who controls an area from Syria through Palestine to Egypt and Sudan. Having caused an international furor, the case is remembered as the Damascus Affair.

The monk, a native of Sardinia known as Father Thomas, and his servant disappeared Feb. 5, 1840, and the French consul in Damascus, Ulysse de Ratti-Menton, launched an investigation within the city’s Jewish quarter. Using torture, authorities extracted a confession from a Jewish barber, Solomon Negrin, who implicated prominent Jews, including rabbis. Thirteen men were arrested, four of whom died of torture and abusive jail conditions. Ratti-Menton and Ottoman authorities spread the story that the Jews committed the double murder to obtain human blood for Passover matzah.

By June, European Jews were active in demanding that the Ottoman Empire reject the blood libel and free the Jewish defendants. The demonstrations of support spread to the United States, where Jews in six cities protested during the summer to win U.S. government intervention in the Damascus case. It’s the first time the American Jewish community acts in support of fellow Jews overseas.

Moses Montefiore, a leader of the English Jewish community, led a delegation to Alexandria, Egypt, to meet with the pasha, and negotiations from Aug. 4 to 28 resulted in Muhammad Ali’s decree declaring the accused men innocent and freeing them.

At Montefiore’s urging, the Ottoman sultan, Abdulmecid I, issues an edict Nov. 6 that bans the blood libel throughout his empire as a slander against the Jews. The edict reads in part: “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 that have not the least foundation in truth.”

The case leads to the founding of the Alliance Israélite Universelle to help Ottoman-ruled Jews improve through education.

Modern references to the Damascus blood libel include articles in the Egyptian newspaper Al Akhbar in 2000 and 2001, books written since 1983 by Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, and an interview given by Lebanese poet Marwan Chamoun in 2007.