THE ROAD FROM DAMASCUS

June 20th, 2024

On February 5, 1840, the Jewish community of Damascus was rocked by an accusation that exploded onto the consciousness of the Levant and soon began to reverberate around the world. An Italian priest, Padre Tommaso, and his servant Ibrahim Amara, had disappeared, and local Christians were quick to accuse the Jewish community of murdering them to use their blood for Passover—an accusation based on an ancient and baseless charge that Jews need gentile blood for the preparation of matza for Seder night.

The local authorities in Damascus, then under Ottoman rule, immediately arrested several prominent Jews and subjected them to cruel torture to extract confessions. This incident, known as the Damascus Affair, plunged the Jewish community in Syria into a state of fear and despair.

The charges were completely unfounded, rooted in a long history of antisemitic blood libels designed to incite violence and hatred against Jews. Despite the spurious nature of the accusations, the situation grew increasingly dire as torture-induced confessions were used to justify further persecution, and the Jewish community faced widespread violence.

Padre Tommaso, a Capuchin friar who had been living in Damascus for many years, was known for his work as a physician, frequently interacting with the diverse communities of the city. Despite his professional engagements and spiritual calling, Padre Tommaso harbored intense anti-Jewish sentiments and had a long history of stirring trouble against the Jews. His sudden disappearance—and the fact that he was never seen again, neither dead nor alive—provided a convenient pretext for those seeking to incite further antisemitic fervor.

The role of the French consul in Damascus, Ulysse de Ratti-Menton, was particularly insidious. He played a pivotal and pernicious role in escalating the Damascus Affair, actively encouraging and supporting the accusations against the Jewish community and lending his official status and influence to validate the baseless charges. Ratti-Menton sanctioned the use of torture to extract confessions from the arrested Jews. His approval and encouragement of these brutal methods led to the forced confessions, which were then used to further incriminate the Jewish community.

As news of the Damascus Affair spread beyond the Middle East, the global Jewish community recognized the urgency of the situation. Among the most notable figures who rose to the occasion was Sir Moses Montefiore, the distinguished British Jewish philanthropist and communal leader. Montefiore coupled his devout observance of Judaism with a pragmatic understanding that achieving results required a strategic blend of faith, diplomacy, and advocacy.

Montefiore, together with Adolphe Crémieux, a French Jewish lawyer and president of the Consistoire Central Israélite de France, embarked on a diplomatic mission that took them to Alexandria and then to Constantinople, where they sought the intervention of the Ottoman Sultan.

Their primary goal was to ensure the release of the imprisoned Jews and to put an end to the baseless blood libel accusations. Montefiore leveraged his extensive network of connections, engaging with influential political figures such as the British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, and key members of the French government. His diplomatic efforts brought significant international attention to the plight of the Jews in Damascus, highlighting the need for justice and protection.

Long before the advent of social media and livestreaming TV, Sir Moses Montefiore understood the power of public opinion. He organized petitions and mobilized Jewish communities across Europe, who rallied in support, sending letters and appeals to their respective governments, urging them to take action against the injustice being perpetrated in Damascus. Ultimately, Montefiore and Crémieux’s relentless efforts led to the release of the imprisoned Jews and a firman (royal decree) from the Ottoman Sultan, reaffirming the rights and protection of Jews under Ottoman rule.

Even Martin Van Buren, the 8th President of the United States, played a role in responding to the Damascus Affair. When news of the event reached America, due to Montefiore’s extraordinary efforts to get the truth out as widely as possible, the Jewish community in the United States sought governmental intervention. In response to a petition from the Jewish community, Van Buren instructed the U.S. consul in Egypt, Colonel David Porter, to make representations to the Ottoman government in support of the persecuted Jews in Damascus.

The parallels between the Damascus Affair and what is happening right now in the aftermath of the October 7th massacre are too numerous and too obvious to ignore. Once again, the blood libel against Jews—falsely accused of genocide against Palestinians—has gathered pace and exploded onto the international consciousness.

Jews around the world are being punished for the perceived “crimes” of their coreligionists in Israel, and the knives are out for Jews everywhere. The glee with which antisemites have seized upon the anti-Israel narrative, while far worse crimes against humanity continue to blot the international scene, says more about the endurance of the world’s oldest hatred than it does about anything that Israel has done, now or ever.

But it is the lesson of Sir Moses Montefiore in the wake of the Damascus Affair that must inspire us all. The man who said, “Never be afraid to do what is right and just; we are not alone,” and “We must do our duty, and leave the rest to God,” understood that when everything seems to conspire against justice and truth, and when those who revel in lies and falsehood appear to have the upper hand—that is exactly the time when we must use our faith reserves along with every advocacy resource we have as the platform to fight back. God is truth, and God always prevails.

In Parshat Behaalotecha, we encounter the powerful verses of “Vayehi Binesoa Ha’aron,” which describe the journey of the Ark of the Covenant as the Israelites traveled through the desert (Num. 10:35): וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה קוּמָה ה’ וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ מִפָּנֶיךָ – “When the Ark set out, Moses would say: ‘Arise, God, may Your enemies be scattered; may Your foes flee before You.’”

These verses symbolize the divine presence guiding and protecting the Jewish people throughout their journey. According to Rashi, the preeminent medieval Jewish commentator, the scattering of enemies symbolizes the overcoming of obstacles and adversaries of the Jewish people through divine intervention.

Ramban (Nachmanides) adds, based on a passage in the Talmud, that these verses are like a separate book within the Torah, a reminder that God’s presence is central to Jewish success and survival, providing both physical protection and spiritual guidance.

Drawing from the strength of our heritage, and inspired by the enduring example of proactive faith and advocacy demonstrated by heroes like Sir Moses Montefiore, we must confront the challenges of today with renewed determination.

The lessons from Parshat Behaalotecha remind us that divine guidance accompanies those who believe in and pursue righteousness and justice, even when the world seems to have gone mad and abandoned reason. By standing united and maintaining our faith, we can ensure that truth and righteousness will ultimately prevail.

The parallels between the Damascus Affair and the current crisis facing Jews globally are striking. Once again, we are called to stand firm in our faith and advocate fiercely for justice as we suffer the torture of blood libels and inexplicable hatred.

The enduring power of “Vayehi Binesoa Ha’aron” teaches us that with divine guidance and proactive leadership, we can overcome adversity. And we will. Just as the efforts of Sir Moses Montefiore, like those of his illustrious namesake Moses, led to the triumph of truth and justice in the aftermath of the Damascus Affair, so too our united actions will ensure that we overcome the overwhelming challenges we face.

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