Friday, May 24, 2019

Philoumenos of Jacob’s Well: The Birth of a Contemporary Ritual Murder Myth

“Philoumenos of Jacob’s Well: The Birth of a Contemporary Ritual Murder Myth”

By David Gurevich and Yisca Harani

Israel Studies
Volume 22, Number 2, Summer 2017
pp. 26-54


In 1979, the Orthodox monk Philoumenos Hasapis was violently murdered in Jacob’s Well Church in Nablus. His death was described as a ritual murder performed by a fanatical Jewish-Israeli group. Philoumenos was later sanctified by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The story gained publicity among Orthodox Christian communities around the world and was accredited by various NGOs and scholars. However, the factual basis of the event dismissed any ritualistic motives or collective accusations for the murder. The development patterns of the popular narrative are assessed against the backdrop of similar accusations levied against medieval Jewish communities in Europe, as well as contemporary framing of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in the media. The conclusions suggest reasons for the wide publicity that the narrative received, based on the cultural context of its target audience, the interests of the Orthodox Church, and the role of political actors involved.

The Death of Saint Philoumenos and Erroneous Accounts

Philoumenos was murdered on 29 November 1979. His assailant, Asher Raby (spelled "Rabi" in some newspaper accounts), a mentally ill 37-year-old resident of Tel Aviv, had intruded the monastery, threw a hand grenade inside, which caused substantial damage. Philoumenos is said by investigators to have been fleeing the explosion and fire caused by the grenade when he was pursued by Raby and hit multiple times with an axe. Investigators stated that Philoumenos appeared to have been trying to protect his face with his hands when a blow to his face or head severed the one finger on each hand. Raby escaped the scene of the crime undetected. Raby was subsequently found to have acted alone, "without any connection to a religious or political entity."

An investigation launched by the Israeli police initially failed to identify the killer. Raby was arrested on 17 November 1982 as he again attempted enter the Monastery at Jacob's Well illicitly by climbing over a wall; he was carrying hand grenades. Raby supplied the police with accurate details of his earlier, previously unsolved, crimes. These were the murder of Philoumenos; a March 1979 murder of a Jewish gynecologist in Tel-Aviv; the murder of the family of a woman in Lod, Israel in April 1979 who claimed to have clairvoyant powers; and an assault on a nun at the Jacob's Well holy site in April 1982. The nun was seriously wounded in the attack. Both she and the gynecologist were attacked by axe, according to prosecutors.

Raby, a newly religious Jew, was described as unwashed, dressed in worn-out clothing, and audibly muttered passages of scripture in a strange manner. Psychiatric evaluations found that he was mentally incompetent to stand trial; he and committed to a mental hospital; details of his subsequent whereabouts are restricted by privacy regulations. At a court hearing after his arrest, an Israeli prosecutor told the court that Raby was convinced that the monastery was the site of the ancient Jewish Temple, and that he made an attempt on the life of the nun "in response to a divine command."
Initial accounts depicted the murder as an anti-Christian hate attack carried out by a group of Jewish settlers, the result was what Maariv described as "a wave of hatred" in Greece. Reports indicating that “radical Jews” had tortured Philoumenos and "cut off the fingers of his hand" before killing him had appeared in Greek newspapers. Maariv also quoted an official in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem asserting that “the murder was carried out by radical religious Jews” claiming that “the Well does not belong to Christians but to Jews”.

In a 2017 article in the journal Israel Studies, researchers David Gurevich and Yisca Harani found that false accounts blaming the slaying on "settlers" and "Zionist extremists" persisted even after the arrest of the assailant and his confinement in a mental institution, and that there were "patterns of ritual murder accusation in the popular narrative." The same theme was echoed in parts of the Eastern Orthodox community and by some secular sources, including Blackwell's Dictionary of Eastern Christianity, the Encyclopedia of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, The Spectator and Times Literary Supplement, as well as Wikipedia.

Gurevich and Harani contended that a 1989 account of the murder, published in Orthodox America, a publication of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, became the basis of an anti-Semitic ritual murder narrative, according to which a group of anti-Christianity Jews first harassed Philoumenos and destroyed Christian holy objects at the monastery, then murdered him.