Edward Berenson - Blood Libel USA
Professor of history at NYU and NYU's Institute of French Studies
Senior Fellow at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum
Decorated by French President Jacques as Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite, 2006
American Historical Association's Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award, 1999
The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town, New York: W. W. Norton, 2019
Europe in the Modern World, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016
The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story (Icons of America)
The French Republic: History, Values, Debates, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011
Q: Tell us a little about your background and how you became interested in the subject of blood libels?
A: I’m from the place where this happened. Massena, New York, a small town in upstate NY on the border with Canada. The story has been in my family and I grew up hearing about it. It's a strange story because the blood libel, this terrible, terrible accusation against Jews, is common in European history but essentially unknown in US history. There is this exceptional case and it happened to take place in the town I was born in. So I decided this was something to investigate. How and why did this happen? Why was it essentially a unique event in American history?
Q: What is the general background of the history of blood libels?
A: It's a long history that goes all the way back to the early middle ages. The case that most historians who study these things think initiated this accusation against Jews took place in England in the middle of the 12th century. And in this case a young boy turned up dead. and without any evidence, the notion took hold that the Jews kidnapped this young boy, crucified him ritually. It was a monk named Thomas who created this story and it became something that was widely believed. This story caught on and bounced over to the European continent. And from the middle of the eleven hundreds on, this became a regular occurrence. The notion, the crazy notion, is that Jews need to use the blood of Christian children for their religious rituals.
Q: What exactly happened in Massena NY in 1928?
A: In Massena NY, at the end of September 1928. a little girl, 4-year-old girl, goes out to play with her friends but doesn't return home. Her parents are worried and they start looking for her; they search for her and can't find her. Night falls, and at some point rumors start to circulate that the Jews kidnapped this girl, named Barbara Griffith, killed her and used her for their ritual purposes. It was the eve of Yom Kippur. Accusations start to fly. The next day the mayor and the police officials call the rabbi, Berel Brenglass, to the city hall and start integrating him. “Are your people the kind who would commit ritual murder? The Jews were scared, and horrified. I interviewed someone at age 102 who was 16 when this happened. and she told me that they believed there was going to be a pogrom.
Q: What were the antecedents that led to this accusation?
A: That was the big question. Given that this was not an American phenomenon, so how and why did this happen? It seems to me there are four or five factors that are really important. One of them is immigration, Eastern European immigrants, who came from places where there had been ritual murder accusations, to work at the Alcoa smelting plant. Workers from nearby Quebec, where there was huge amount of anti-Semitism. Another factor, is the massive revival of the Klu Klux Klan. Another really big factor was the influence of Henry Ford; as well as the 1928 presidential election.
Q: How did NY politicians and leaders react to this event?
A: Al Smith (governor and presidential candidate)) was phenomenal, He agreed to put out a statement that this can't happen, that he totally rejects it, and that he was going to punish the state police officials that were involved. So he did the right thing right from the start. Local officials had to be cajoled to do the right thing and apologize.
Q: How do you view the Massena event from the perspective of today?
A: There are two possibilities. One is that this story has a happy ending, the child didn't get killed and it was clear to everyone that this accusation was completely false. Public opinion came down heavily in favor of the Jews. As far as anyone knows, there was never again been a blood libel in the US. From that point of view, we can have a measure of optimism.
On the other side of things, it seems to me that one of the main reasons that you had this accusation at the end of the 1920’s was there were organs of the press that fueled really awful anti-Semitic notions. Sadly, nowadays, we have all kinds of organs of communications, all kinds of extremists, that have the ability to put out really awful hostility towards Jews.