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What a Blood Libel on the Saint Lawrence River Reveals about American Exceptionalism

October 7, 2020 | Gary Stein
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In the town of Massena, New York, near the Canadian border, a four-year-old girl disappeared in the fall of 1928—just two days before Yom Kippur. A rumor quickly spread that the town’s small Jewish community had kidnapped her to use her blood for a nefarious holiday ritual. Drawing on Edward Berenson’s recent book on the subject, Gary Stein explains what happened next:

As the search for the missing girl went on, firefighters and villagers shone flashlights into the cellars of Jewish businesses, looking for her body. Instead of immediately squelching the false and fantastical rumors, Massena’s mayor, W. Gilbert Hawes, authorized the police to investigate them. With Hawes’s blessing, state troopers summoned Massena’s rabbi to the town hall, where, after making his way through an agitated crowd, he was interrogated about the Jews’ alleged propensity for human sacrifice on religious holidays. Fearing an imminent pogrom, Massena’s small Jewish community frantically reached out to prominent Jewish leaders in New York City for help.

To Stein, Berenson is correct in his conclusion that these events “ultimately showed that American civilization, at least in relation to its Jewish population, was stronger than many people thought.” There was no pogrom; the girl, who had gotten lost, returned home the next day. Hawes and the police chief eventually apologized, and the ensuing scandal revolved around the fact that such accusations could be raised in the first place. Something can also be learned from local Jews’ vigorous response, which might have made Vladimir Jabotinsky proud.

Massena’s Lithuanian-born rabbi, Berel Brennglass, vehemently protest[ed] the gross prejudice with which he was confronted. When the state trooper Corporal H.M. “Mickey” McCann asked if it was true that Jews offered human sacrifices on holy days, the diminutive rabbi responded with a tongue-lashing that may have reminded McCann, a veteran of the Great War, of his drill sergeant.

“I am dreadfully surprised,” Brennglass barked, “to hear such a foolish, ridiculous and contemptible question from an officer in the United States of America, which is the most enlightened and civilized country in the world. Do you realize the seriousness of this question?” To which McCann could only meekly reply that “a foreigner” had told him so. “It is a false and malicious accusation,” Brennglass assured him, adding, “We shall have to know who the foreigner is, he is dangerous and should be taught a lesson that he is in the United States of America.” Imagine a rabbi giving such a lecture to a uriadnik in Russia or a policjant in Poland, where, as Berenson recounts, the blood libel continued its tragic and murderous path well into the 20th century and even after the Holocaust.

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