Popular Anti-Jewish Beliefs

In the Middle Ages, many delusional beliefs about Jews gripped the European masses, some of which were later modernized by the Nazis. There were at least 10 such superstitions, traces of which can still be found today.

The Blood Libel and Ritual Murder

In 1144, in Norwich, England, a 12-year-old child named William disappeared in Thorpe's Wood, a forest near the town, and was found dead. A Jewish convert to Christianity, a monk named Theobald, testified that the Jews tortured the child, stabbed him, and nailed him to a cross, reenacting Yeshu's death. Since this event took place around Pesach, and the Christian days of Good Friday and Easter, rumors spread that the Jews needed to sacrifice a Christian child on Pesach. William quickly became St. William, the first of many Christian child martyrs, and his tomb became a popular site for religious pilgrimages. As Christianity became more fixated on the power of Yeshu's blood, considering it even as the Korban Pesach, Jews were accused of slaughtering Christian children in order to obtain their blood for matzah and red wine of the seder. Pesach then became a dread time for Jews in Europe, for fanatic priests would whip up the masses into frenzied mobs.

Unlike the accusation of usury, which had a semblance of truth, the blood libel was completely false. Jewish law, as is well known, prohibits the consumption of even the smallest amount of blood, and not even one blood libel was proven to be true. Frequently, Christians killed one of their own children and tried to plant the body in a Jewish house. Although the popes repeatedly stated that this accusation was false, it remained entrenched in the mind of the general Christian public for centuries.

The ritual murder charge even appears in classic English literature. The great medieval English writer, Geoffrey Chaucer, relates such a story in his Canterbury Tales. The Prioress' Tale tells of a little Christian child who happily sang Christian hymns as he walked. Chaucer describes what happened when the child walked through the Jewish quarter of town:

The serpent, our first foe, who has his nest
Of hornets in Jews' hearts, puffed up and said,
"O Hebrew people, is it for the best
That a mere boy, just as he likes, should tread
Your street, and bring contempt upon your head,
And sing to such a purpose, for a cause
That is against the reverence of your laws?"

From this time on the cursed Jews conspired
This innocent boy out of the world to chase.
A murderer for their purposes they hired
Who in an alley had a secret place,
And as he went by at his childish pace,
This Jew seized on him, and held him fast, and slit
His neck, and threw his body in a pit.

Into a privy they threw the boy, I say,
A place in which these Jews purged their entrails.
O cursed people, unchanged since Herod's day,
What think you that your foul design avails?
Murder will out, for certain; it never fails,
The more so when the honor of G‑d's name
May spread! The blood cries on your deed of shame!

The distraught mother, after much searching, found the child in the pit. Miraculously, the child, even with his throat slit, began to sing hymns. The amazed Christians called for the magistrate:

The magistrate at once put every Jew
To death with torment and with shamefulness.
He spared not one that of this murder knew.
He would not palter with such wickedness.
"He that deserves ill, he shall have no less,"
And so he ordered that wild horses draw
Their flesh, and then he hanged them by the law.

The child instructed the monks how to cause him to stop singing. After the child died again, he was buried as a holy martyr in a special tomb. Referring to another such child, Chaucer concluded his story:

Young Hugh of Lincoln, you who were also
Slain by accursed Jews, notoriously,
For it was a little while ago
Pray for us; in our fitful errancy...

From Norwich, the blood libel rapidly spread all over Europe. In 1171, after the Jews of Blois, France, were executed on account of such an accusation, Rabbeinu Tam declared the 20th of Sivan as a fast day. In all, more than 150 accusations of ritual murder are recorded, many leading either to massacre or expulsion of the Jews. From the 1200s to the 1400s, most of these cases occurred in Germany. Later, the blood libel moved to Poland and Russia. In 1840, a famous blood libel took place in Damascus, Syria, and in 1913, the notorious Beilis blood libel trial was conducted in Russia. The Nazis made it a cornerstone of their anti-Jewish propaganda. In 1946, the Kielce blood libel broke out in Poland, killing numerous Jews, including Chaim Hirschman, one of two survivors of the Belzec death camp, which itself took 600,000 victims. Sadly, the blood libel is still believed in many parts of the world, even in the United States. Tourists still visit the Child-Devouring Fountain in Berne, Switzerland (Kinderfresserbrunnen), dedicated to a young boy who vanished from the city in 1294, prompting a pogrom that killed all Berne's Jews. In the words of the Catholic historian Edward Flannery, "The ritual murder calumny stands in the judgment of history as the most monstrous instrument of anti-Jewish persecution in the Middle Ages."

Desecration of the Host

In 1215, the Church announced the dogma of transubstantiation, meaning that the consecrated wafers (host) and sacramental wine consumed by Christians represented the body and blood of Yeshu. Soon Jews were accused of stealing wafers from churches and torturing them by sticking pins in them, thus crucifying Yeshu again. According to some reports, blood gushed from such wafers as they moaned in agony. Other accounts had the hosts flutter in the air, producing butterflies, angels, and doves. The entire matter would be laughable, except that more than 100 such accusations were made, resulting in the massacre of countless Jews. In 1298, a notorious Jew-hater named Rindfleisch spread the calumny throughout Germany and Austria. Within a short period of time, 150 Jewish communities were destroyed, causing the deaths of more than 100,000 Jews.

Jews as Devils

The association of the Jews with the devil can be detected in the Christian Bible, which describes the devil as the father of the Jews. In the Middle Ages, when superstition was rampant, the devil was a terrifying reality to the masses of Christians. Jews were portrayed in woodcuts as pigs (Judensau), depicted as swarthy and hook-nosed, and presumed to have a tail and horns. Jews were seen as sorcerers and magicians, expert in the black arts of the occult. The Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer reproduced a number of such woodcuts, reinforcing this belief in modern times. Many eyewitnesses report that Germans regularly asked : "Are you Jews? You are human beings who work! Where are your horns?"

The Jewish Smell

Since the Jews were associated so closely with the devil, they were believed to share his characteristics, notably his smell of sulfur. If Jews did not smell of it, Christians claimed they used Christians’ blood to rid themselves of it. Indeed, the belief about a unique Jewish odor was so powerful that it not only persisted throughout the ages, but also became the object of study by Nazi scientists.

The Wandering Jew

Christian legend relates that Yeshu cursed a Jew to endless wandering who had mocked him. The mythical Wandering Jew became known by the name of Ahasverus (sic), and reports of his sighting spread throughout Europe for hundreds of years. In 1602 a German Lutheran minister published Brief Description and Tale of a Jew Named Ahasverus, and the book became so popular that it went through 50 editions in just a few years. This myth, too, has persisted throughout the ages. The Wandering Jew was reported in Upper New York State in 1898. In 1940, a man believing himself to be the Wandering Jew visited the New York Public Library and had his borrower’s card printed as T. W. Jew.

Polluted Jewish Blood

Christians in the Middle Ages believed that the Jews were sickly and weak people, possessing blood diseases that could only be cured by an infusion of Christian blood. Thus, the Jews were always looking for opportunities to intermarry with pure Christians and pollute their lineage. This canard became the most powerful of all Nazi beliefs about the Jews, and it was employed as a justification for annihilating the entire Jewish people.

Well Poisoning

In the mid-1300s, the Black Death swept throughout Europe, decimating perhaps 50% of the population. Jews, too, were greatly affected, although not to the same degree as the Christians, due to traditional Jewish emphasis on personal cleanliness and burial of their dead. Soon a rumor spread that Jews brought about the plague by poisoning wells. Although Pope Clement issued a papal bull contradicting the allegation, and numerous rulers stated likewise, the superstitious Christian masses believed that the plague was the work of the devil through his children, the Jews.

The populace also believed that the Black Death was Divine punishment for their sins. Christian penitents, known as flagellants, went from town to town, whipping themselves with iron rods until the flagellants bled, all to expiate their sins and those of the people. After performing in city squares to the awed attention of the populace, they then led the people against the real villains, the Jewish well poisoners. In countless communities, especially in Germany, nearly all the Jews lost their lives.

Jewish World Conspiracy

This belief, which is still quite prevalent today, originated in the Middle Ages. It was claimed that a council of rabbis from Spain met secretly every year to cast lots regarding which city should supply the Christian victim for the annual sacrifice required by the Jewish religion. Later, this myth changed the Jewish goal from human sacrifice to world financial domination, as found in the 19th-century publication of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Currently, this lie is being spread by Arab regimes into countries that have had little or no previous encounters with Jews.

Jewish Stubbornness

Naturally, the Jews were seen as a stubborn people for absolutely refusing to convert and accept Yeshu as the Messiah. Such a refusal was particularly infuriating to the Christians, who believed that the Second Coming of Yeshu was contingent upon the Jews accepting Christianity. Thus, as the Jews were seen as blocking the Final Redemption, special effort has been expended through the ages to enable them to see the so-called light of Christianity, either by the Jews’ own volition or by force.

Jewish Laziness

This accusation held that Jews did not engage in productive occupations, preferring instead to live off honest Christian labor by engaging in money lending and shady transactions. (For their part, Christians were invariably seen as productive farmers and craftsmen.) What was conveniently forgotten was that Jews were not permitted any form of manual labor. Of course, the myth that Jews become rich at the expense of hard-working, poor Christians has persisted to today, and is strongly held by many people.


During the Middle Ages, the Jews were expelled at one time or another from virtually every country in Europe. Many times, they were driven out of a city and had to seek sanctuary in another town. Usually, these expulsions, even from entire countries, were not permanent, and the Jews were able to return after several years — sometimes even sooner than that. However, when the Jews were expelled from England in 1290, they were not permitted to return until the late 1600s. (It is interesting to note that William Shakespeare, who caricatured Jews as rapacious in The Merchant of Venice, may have never seen a Jew.) Of course, the most famous of all expulsions is known as The Expulsion — the forced departure of the Spanish Jews in 1492.