The Damascus affair of 1840 refers to the arrest of thirteen notable members of the Jewish community of Damascus who were accused of murdering a Christian monk for ritual purposes. The anti-semitic blood libel resulted in the accused being imprisoned and tortured by the Ottoman authorities and the populace attacking and pillaging a local synagogue. The affair drew widespread international attention which resulted in negotiations conducted in Alexandria from August 4 till August 28. The aftermath secured the unconditional release and recognition of innocence for the nine prisoners remaining alive and the issuing of a firman (edict) intended to halt the spread of blood libel accusations in the Ottoman Empire.
Under Ottoman Islamic rule, Christians and Jews were considered dhimmis—a class of non-Muslims possessing some limited rights under Muslim rule—and were allowed to practice their religious precepts. In return, they had to pay a tax, or jizya (a tax on non-Muslims similar to the imposition of Zakat - one of the Five Pillars of Islam, an obligatory wealth tax paid on certain assets which are not used productively for a period of a year), and recognize a lower legal and social status than that of Muslims. In 1831-32, Syria came under the rule of the Egyptians under Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali was said to have ruled at the sufferance of the European powers, led by France, and under his rule, the rights afforded Christians increased. This aroused a grudge among the Muslim majority toward its non-Muslim population. In the economic struggle between the Jews and the Christians, each side needed the backing and support of the Muslim majority, and tried to incite the Muslims against the opposite group. The Christians in Damascus complained about their cruel treatment by the Muslim judges. Fearing an additional wave of Muslim violence, following the return of Ottoman rule in Syria in 1840, they enlisted assistance of priests from Catholic orders, including the Franciscans (Observants) and the Capuchins. These priests reportedly brought the previously European blood libel myth with them.
Incident and arrests
On February 5, 1840, Father Thomas, a French citizen originally from Sardinia, and the superior of a Franciscan convent at Damascus, disappeared along with his servant.
Upon Thomas' disappearance the French consul at Damascus, Ulysse de Ratti-Menton, who supported Christian merchants and advisers over Jewish ones, and Christian families seeking economic ascendancy over the formerly empowered Farhi family, instituted investigations in the Jewish quarter giving rise to the suspicion that Jews were behind the priest's disappearance. The Egyptian governor of Syria, Sherif Pasha, wishing to court French sympathies engendered by relations between the French government and the Egyptian pasha, Muhammad Ali, allowed the accusations to take root. A confession was extorted by torture from a Jewish barber named Negrin, and eight of the most notable Jews, among them Joseph Lañado, Moses Abulafia, Rabi Jacob Antebi, and a member of the Farḥi family, were imprisoned and tortured. Their teeth and beards were pulled out, they were burned, and finally tempted with gold, to persuade them to confess an imaginary crime. Lañado, a feeble old man, died under this treatment. Moses Abulafia became a Muslim in order to escape the torture.
In spite of the stoic courage displayed by the sufferers, Sherif Pasha and Ratti-Menton agreed to the trumped up charges. While Ratti-Menton published libels against the Jews in French and in Arabic, Sherif Pasha wrote to his master, Muhammad Ali, demanding authorization to execute the murderers of Father Thomas.
In the meantime the populace fell upon the synagogue in the suburb of Jobar, pillaged it, and destroyed the scrolls of the Law.
This incident, which illustrates the tensions that existed between the Jewish and Christian populations of Syria, was notable for being an exception to the rule of Jewish-Muslim relations which during the Tanzimat era in the Ottoman Empire (1839–1920) were generally much better than Christian-Muslim relations due particularly to the economic ascendancy afforded to the Christian community with the relaxation and eventual elimination of the dhimmi status rules in the 1850s. While occasional outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence erupted during this time, far more serious outbreaks of violence occurred between Muslims and Christians and Christians and Druze.
Protests and negotiations
The affair drew wide international attention in particular due to the efforts of the Austrian Consul in Aleppo Eliahu Picciotto who made representations to Ibrahim Pasha, Muhammad Ali's son in Egypt, who then ordered an investigation. In 1840, G. W. Pieritz also exposed the matter in the Times to public indignation, after personal representations to the Pasha on May 15. Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, backed by other influential westerners including Britain's Lord Palmerston and Damascus consul Charles Henry Churchill, the French lawyer Adolphe Crémieux, Austrian consul Giovanni Gasparo Merlato, Danish missionary John Nicolayson, and Solomon Munk, led a delegation to the ruler of Syria, Muhammad Ali.
Negotiations in Alexandria continued from August 4 to August 28 and secured the unconditional release and recognition of innocence of the nine prisoners still remaining alive (out of thirteen). Later in Constantinople, Montefiore persuaded Sultan Abdülmecid I to issue a firman (edict) intended to halt the spread of blood libel accusations in the Ottoman Empire:
"... and for the love we bear to our subjects, we cannot permit the Jewish nation, whose innocence for the crime alleged against them is evident, to be worried and tormented as a consequence of accusations which have not the least foundation in truth...".
In a new and groundbreaking effort, the American Jewish community of 15,000 protested in six American cities on behalf of their Syrian brethren. "For the first time in American Jewish life, Jews... organized themselves politically to help Diaspora Jewry in distress." Among the new ethnic immigrant populations to the United States, the Jews were the first to attempt to sway the government to act on behalf of their kin and co-religionists abroad; with this incident, they became involved in the politics of foreign policy, persuading but not pressuring President Van Buren to protest officially. The United States consul in Egypt expressed the protest.
Influence of the incident and reactions to it
The incident and its repercussions were considerable. According to Hasia R. Diner, in The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, "For the Jews, the Damascus affair launched modern Jewish politics on an international scale, and for American Jews it represented their first effort at creating a distinctive political agenda. Just as the United States had used this affair to proclaim its presence on the global scale, so too did American Jews, in their newspapers and at mass meetings, announce to their coreligionists in France and England that they too ought to be thought of players in global Jewish diplomacy."
According to Johannes Valentin Schwarz, the events also encouraged the growth of the modern Jewish press. "As a result, a sense of solidarity was evoked among the Jewish communities of Europe they had never experienced before. Thus, the Damascus Affair gave birth to modern Jewish press especially in Western Europe, such as to the long-lived papers Les Archives Israélites de France (1840-1935) in Paris or The Jewish Chronicle (1841 ff.) in London."
One major repercussion of the 1840 Damascus Affair was the introduction in the Middle East of the French education system later integrated into Alliance Israélite Universelle. Following his 1840 visit to Damascus and review of the social and education system in Damascus, he decided to give all the Jews of the Ottoman Empire a European education based on the French model to replace the Arabic and Hebrew (mainly religious) curriculum. In a few generations, almost all of the Jewish minorities of the Middle East learned several languages (French, English, Italian & Hebrew among other) and acquired academic skills that proved extremely valuable to their subsequent integration in the World's economies and emigration to Western countries in the 20th century.