When trials against Jews for “ritual murder” reappeared in Central Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, after a hiatus of three centuries, they seemed to be a throwback to the Middle Ages. The truth is, however, that the modern trials were very different. The “rules of the game” had changed: ritual murder accusations, and the criminal examinations that ensued, could no longer be framed in pre-Reformation language and symbols. Prosecutors, magistrates, trial judges, and police investigators shared an implicit understanding that a new universe of knowledge was in place in which academic experts and practitioners of science defined the boundaries of plausible argument and were to be accorded deference. This does not mean that traditional religious beliefs suddenly ceased to be disseminated or no longer influenced courtroom proceedings, but cultural traditions and psychological predispositions would no longer suffice. A new set of arguments and new appeals to authority were now needed to move states to indict or judges and juries to convict.
Hillel J. Kieval is the Gloria M. Goldstein Professor of Jewish History and Thought at Washington University in St. Louis. A historian of Jewish culture and society in Central and Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, his research interests range widely: from pathways of Jewish acculturation and integration to the impact of nationalism and ethnic conflict on modern Jewish identities; from cross-cultural conflicts and misunderstandings to the discursive practices of modern antisemitism; and from theories of Jewish citizenship to the phenomenology of "ritual murder" trials at the turn of the 20th century. Among his numerous books and articles are The Making of Czech Jewry: National Conflict and Jewish Society in Bohemia, 1870-1918 (1988); Languages of Community: The Jewish Experience in the Czech Lands (2000); and, forthcoming, Blood Inscriptions: Science, Modernity, and Ritual Murder in Fin de Siècle Europe.
Educated at Harvard University, Hillel Kieval has taught previously at Brandeis University and the University of Washington. He has also held visiting appointments at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at Penn, the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, the University of Vilnius, and the Universidad Hebraica in Mexico City.
Co-sponsored by the Center for Jewish Studies and the History Department