Ariel Toaff: More commentary in Chronicle of Higher Ed

Historians in the News

[HNN Editor: Last week the Chronicle published a brief article on Toaff. This week brought a more extended discussion. This excerpt lists the main new details.]

Mr. Toaff's initial public statements varied widely as the controversy played out. In an interview with the newspaper La Stampa two days before the book's release, he claimed that the trauma of persecution in the Middle Ages had instilled "some fringe groups of fundamentalist Jews" with a "desire for revenge that in some cases produced, in those fringe groups, a series of counterreactions that included the ritual homicide of Christian children." Three days later, he told the Associated Press: "I believe that ritual murders never happened." Then, on his last day in Rome, he told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: "There was always the possibility that some crazy person would do something."

In his interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Toaff said that his first duty was to tamp down the controversy. "When I became aware that my explanations had no effect with a press that nourish a theme that every day became more dangerous for the Jewish people," he said, "I decided it was my duty to do two things: first, to block the book; secondarily, to take an action to show that it was not done, at least not by me, with speculative intentions. So I renounced all proceeds. ... I won't make a lira from this, and those proceeds will go to the struggle against anti-Semitism."

The controversy did not harm the book's sales before Mr. Toaff announced its withdrawal from distribution. While declining to reveal the number of copies sold thus far, Il Mulino did confirm to The Chronicle that a second printing had been ordered only four days after the book's release.

Critics, however, questioned the book's scholarly conclusions. An article in Corriere della Sera, written by the editors of a scholarly edition of the trial transcript in the 1475 Trent case, attacked Mr. Toaff for what they called the uncritical use of confessions extracted under torture and of propaganda works dedicated to the cult of "little Simone." The Roman Catholic Church prohibited the veneration of Simone following an investigation led by Msgr. Iginio Rogger, a church historian who concluded that there was no evidence for the guilt of the Jews who were executed for the boy's murder.

Mr. Toaff said he hoped to recast the book eventually, but he added that his "basic error was to think that a subject of this kind could be addressed in an antiseptic, scientific manner. Instead, it's not possible, because it's linked to so many emotions, so many memories, and so many associations including with recent events that have happened to our people."
Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education

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