One of the main things that prompted me to set up this site was last year’s re-emergence of the anti-Semitic child killer trope. Although my emphasis is on the new forms of anti-Semitism I was struck by how old images often reappear in new guises.
For those not familiar with Jewish history the idea that Jews set out to murder children has a long past.
For example, one of the most prevalent forms of this myth is the blood libel. This is the idea that Jews used the blood of Christian children to bake matzot (unleavened bread) for the festival of Passover.
Although this myth is said to predate Christianity it often played a role in Christian anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages. The fact that Passover falls at about the same time as Easter helped to reinforce this myth. For example, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
"The first case of the blood libel in Europe in the Middle Ages was that of William of Norwich in 1144. The Jews of Norwich, England, were charged with ritual murder after the body of a young boy (William) was discovered stabbed to death in the woods. In this case, the Jews of Norwich were alleged to have ‘bought a Christian child [the 'boy-martyr' William] before Easter and tortured him with all the tortures wherewith our Lord was tortured, and on Long Friday hanged him on a rood in hatred of our Lord’.”
What has all this got to do with 2021? It was then that the idea of Jews as child killers came back with a vengeance. To be sure it had never completely gone away but it took a particularly high profile during the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist terrorist group based in Gaza, in May.
Even such high profile institutions such as the New York Times implicitly endorsed it. For instance, on 28 May it ran a front page with the headline “they were just children” (see image above). It was illustrated with headshots of 47 Palestinian casualties under the age of 18. This helped set the tone for a huge number of sneers and insinuations in relation to the motivation for Israel’s actions.
Since this is an understandably emotive subject it is important to be precise about what was being claimed. If the critics were simply saying that the existence of child casualties was a tragedy that would clearly be true. Even if they argued that Israeli carelessness had resulted in a high number of child deaths that could be debated.
But something much more far-reaching was being said, or at least implied, here. It was that the Israeli military systematically set out to murder children. That was despite the lack of evidence to substantiate this argument. On the contrary, there were good reasons to accept the official Israeli claim that it tried its best to minimise civilian casualties.
For a start Israel had the military capacity to inflict a huge number of casualties on Gaza if that was its goal. Israel has an advanced air force which could unleash a devastating aerial bombardment. And the Gaza strip, with about two million inhabitants, is one of the most densely populated areas in the world.
Of course if Israel had decided to mount such an attack it would have been morally abhorrent. It would also have rightly condemned worldwide. So even if Israel had been inclined to act so brutally it would not have been in its interests to do so. In any case it was not remotely close to what actually happened.
In the event there were 256 Palestinian casualties including 66 children according to UN estimates. Of course the loss of human life is always a tragedy. However, these figures are not anywhere near high enough to support charges of systematic child killing or genocide.
Second, Hamas bore a large part if not all of the moral culpability for the conflict. It should not be forgotten that Israel’s air attacks on Gaza were a reaction to Hamas rocket attacks on Israel. These caused some Israeli casualties, including two children, albeit the figures were much lower than those in Gaza.
Israel was arguably exercising its sovereign right of self-defence against an enemy which, by its own admission, is in favour of genocide against Jews. Hamas’s covenant – never rescinded - advocates such a murderous course of action. In addition, one of its top leaders openly called for Palestinians in Jerusalem to decapitate Israelis during the latest round of fighting.
It is also undoubtedly the case that some Gaza casualties were the result of Hamas rockets falling short of their targets in Israel. In addition, at least one but almost certainly more of the under-18s killed by Israel were fighting for Hamas. Even the New York Times, to its credit, later acknowledged that one of those it had pictured on its front page was a 17-year-old Hamas combatant.
Finally, it is important to note that Gaza has a particularly young population. The average (median) age is about 18 according to an estimate from the US Central Intelligence Agency. So if Israel had just randomly bombed the Gaza strip it would be expected, statistically speaking, that the average casualty would be about 18-years-old. In the event, even according to UN figures, about a quarter of the casualties were children.
The May 2021 conflict was a calamity for both Israelis and Palestinians. And it was of course part of a longer-running tragedy.
However, it in no way vindicates the charge of Jews as child killers. On the contrary, that is an ugly libel which all reasonable people should reject with all their might.
- PS: In 2012 Nathalie Rothschild, a Stockholm-based journalist, wrote about the blood libel in a contemporary Swedish context. The story involved a respected Swedish magazine repeating the false allegation that the Israeli military was plundering the organs of Palestinians.