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For the logical fallacy, see poisoning the well.

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Antisemitism · Jewish history

Well-poisoning is the act of malicious manipulation of potable water resources in order to cause illness or death, or to deny an opponent access to fresh water resources. Historically it was one of the gravest of three accusations brought against Jewish people as a whole (the other two being host desecration and blood libel), for example in Europe following the Black Death (1348-1350).

Such accusations were also made of Koreans living in Japan in the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake.

In both cases the accusation was never substantiated, but did lead to widescale persecution and pogroms against the group so accused.

In warfare

Well poisoning has been used as an important scorched earth tactic. During the Winter War the Finns rendered wells unusable by planting animal carcasses or feces in them in order to passively combat Soviet forces [1]. During the 20th century the practice has lost most of its potency against an organized force as modern military logistics ensure secure and un-contaminated supplies.

Accusations of well-poisoning against Jews

The existence of viruses and bacteria was unknown in medieval times, and the eruption of epidemics could not be explained. Any sudden deterioration of health was blamed on poisoning. Europe was hit by several waves of Black Death (often identified as bubonic plague) throughout the late Middle Ages. Crowded cities were especially hard hit by the disease, with death tolls as high as 50% of the population. In their distress, emotionally distraught survivors searched for something, or someone, to blame.

The city-dwelling Jews of the Middle Ages, forced to live in walled-up, segregated ghetto districts, proved to be convenient scapegoats. Medieval Christians in Europe theorized that the Jews, who had their own wells in the ghetto, had poisoned the city wells in order to kill Christians, just as they had purportedly killed Christ. An outbreak of plague thus became the trigger for pogroms, with hundreds of Jews burned at the stake, or rounded up in synagogues and private houses that were then set aflame.

With the decline of plague in Europe, these accusations lessened, but the term "well-poisoning" remains a loaded one that continues to crop up even today among anti-Semites around the world.

Contemporary accusations

Walter Laqueur writes in his book The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day:

There were no mass attacks against "Jewish poisoners" after the period of the Black Death, but the accusation became part and parcel of antisemitic dogma and language. It appeared again in early 1953 in the form of the "doctors' plot" in Stalin's last days, when hundreds of Jewish physicians in the Soviet Union were arrested and some of them killed on the charge of having caused the death of prominent Communist leaders... Similar charges were made in the 1980s and 1990s in radical Arab nationalist and Muslim fundamentalist propaganda that accused the Jews of spreading AIDS and other infectious diseases.[2]

In recent years, however, Arab reports of well poisoning in the West Bank have sometimes been accompanied by Israeli police suspicions that Jewish settlers were behind the contamination, or by foreign witnesses' testimony pointing to settler responsibility.

On 13 July 2004, residents of Hirbat Atwana near Hebron found rotting chicken carcases in their well after four Jewish settlers were seen in the village. Israeli police said they suspected militant Jews from a nearby settlement outpost called Havat Maon. Settlers blamed the action on "internal tribal fight between the Palestinians;" Israeli police spokesman Doron Ben-Amo said it was "unlikely" that the Palestinians would contaminate their own well.[3][4]

On 9 December 2007, members of Christian Peacemaker Teams, an American NGO, reported to have observed a group of Israelis stop next to a cistern in Humra Valley, open the lid, and raise the bucket. The water was later found to be contaminated.[5]

Oxfam, a British NGO, has reported that settlers deliberately poisoned the only well in Madama, a village near Nablus, by dumping used diapers into it; and that they shot aid workers who came to clean the well.[6][7]

Other contemporary accusations and use in metaphor

Accusations of well-poisoning have also been brought up against Serbs. Most notoriously, Serbs were accused of poisoning Kosovo Albanians[8]. There are also accusations of well-poisoning as a part of the Srebrenica massacre.[9] In February 2010 British Conservative MP William Hague said that Labour were like a retreating army, poisoning the well as the other army advances." [10]

External links

Contemporary accusations


  1. The Winter War, the Russo-Finnish War of 1939-40, Willam R. Trotter, Aurum Press Ltd, London 2003, ISBN 1-85410-932-4
  2. Walter Laqueur (2006)" The Changing Face of Antisemitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-530429-2. p.62
  3. Settlers suspected of well attack, BBC News, 13 July 2004.
  4. Settlers suspected of polluting wells, Maariv, 13 July 2004, retrieved from Wayback Machine on 18 August 2008.
  5. AT-TUWANI: Cistern contaminated in Humra Valley, CPTnet, 19 January 2008.
  6. Water Wars, Channel 4, retrieved on 18 August 2008.
  7. Running on empty, by Fred Pearce, The Guardian, 1 March 2006
  8. [1], [2]
  9. David Rohde: Bosnian Serbs Poisoned Streams To Capture Refugees, Muslims Say

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