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The Beilis Blood Libel Trial

Bennett Muraskin
January 17, 2014

One Hundred Years After the Acquittal

by Bennett Muraskin Mendel-Beilis-237x300A Jewish folk tale: One day a man who left the Jewish faith came to Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Khosid and expressed his desire to repent, but Rabbi Yehuda sent him away, saying: “No more can the staff in my hand blossom and produce green leaves than can you obtain pardon and forgiveness for your sins.” Lo and behold, a few days later the staff in the rabbi’s hand began to blossom and produce green leaves! Greatly astonished at this miracle, the pious rabbi sent for the repentant sinner and informed him of the miracle. “Now tell me,” asked Rabbi Yehuda, “have you ever rendered any service to your people?” “Once,” the man said, “I came to a town inhabited by a great number of Jews. They were all in great distress, for they were being accused of a ritual murder — of having murdered a Christian child for the purpose of using its blood in the Passover matse. As I was no longer a Jew, I was chosen as an expert in the matter and was called upon to express my opinion before the court of justice. I assured the judges that the use of human blood by Jews was absolutely impossible and diametrically opposed to all the tenets of their beliefs, and that ritual murder was an absurd myth unworthy of credence. Thanks to my arguments and evidence, the persecution of the Jews was stopped.” Thus spoke the repentant sinner, and Rabbi Yehuda no longer wondered at the miracle. —Based on the Ma’aseh Book (16th century), adapted from Dr. Angelo S. Rappoport’s The Folklore of the Jews (2007). Beilis arrestedIt has been a century since the Mendel Beilis blood libel trial in Kiev, and if people remember it at all, it is probably through Bernard Malamud’s historical novel The Fixer (1966) or the 1968 movie of the same name, starring Alan Bates. Malamud’s book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, but it was a fiction that strayed far from the history. An accurate retelling is in order. According to a hoary Christian myth, Jews annually seek to murder Christian children and use their blood in the baking of Passover matse. Anti-Semites called this alleged act “ritual murder,” while Jews and their allies termed the claim “blood libel.” Its first recorded instance occurred in England in 1144, the second on the Continent in France in 1171. Confessions of guilt were commonly obtained under torture, and the public outcry often led to the execution of the accused, as well as pogroms and other punitive measures. In 1817, Tsar Alexander I condemned ritual murder as “a superstitious belief,” yet nearly a century later, one of Tsar Nicholas II’s ministers used it to incite anti-Semitism with the goal of discrediting a campaign in the Russian Duma for lifting restrictions on the civil rights of Jews. Born in 1874, Mendel Beilis was a moderately observant Jew, married, with five children, working as a superintendent at a brick factory in Kiev when, in 1911, he was arrested on a ritual murder charge after a 12-year-old Christian boy was found dead, with his blood drained. In fact, the boy was involved with a gang of thieves and had been murdered after threatening to turn informer, but the gang deliberately made it look like a ritual murder, hoping to provoke a pogrom that might create a golden opportunity for them to loot Jewish property. Despite the incitement of the anti-Semitic Black Hundred organization, however, there was no pogrom. While Beilis suffered in prison for over two years before his trial even began, the Russian Jewish community and the liberal Russian intelligentsia rallied to his defense, and before long an international campaign was under way to vindicate him. Two non-Jews, a Kiev police detective and a journalist, did investigative work that led them to denounce the prosecution as a frame-up. Beilis’ fellow inmates and even prison guards expressed sympathy for him. The bar associations of St. Petersburg and Kiev condemned the charges, and a crack legal team was assembled, which tore the prosecution’s case to shreds. Prosecution witnesses recanted statements that had incriminated Beilis, with one of them declaring, “I am a Christian and fear God. Why should I ruin an innocent man?” A Catholic priest called by the prosecution as an expert witness on Jewish law was exposed as an ignoramus. An Orthodox Christian philosopher at the Kiev Theological Seminary testified on behalf of the defense that Jewish dietary laws forbid the presence of blood in food. Although the judge was biased and explicitly instructed the jury to return a guilty verdict, Beilis was found not guilty. The Ukrainian peasants who made up the jury still believed that a ritual murder had occurred, but that Beilis was the wrong man. Beilis’ own character worked in his favor. He was liked by the Christian workers he supervised and by his Christian neighbors. The workers truthfully testified that he was in the factory at the time of the murder. Beilis was also a good family man with roots in the Jewish community. While in prison, he courageously refused an offer of amnesty because it would have required an admission of guilt. He insisted on his day in court and never wavered in proclaiming his innocence. The Russian and Western press closely covered the trial. While languishing in a prison cell, Beilis became a popular figure, and his acquittal in 1914 was greeted with jubilation among Jewish communities worldwide. Within a few months, three Yiddish plays about Beilis were simultaneously showing in New York City. Beilis achieved celebrity status and attracted throngs of admirers in Kiev. Here is his account of an unexpected visitor, from the English edition of his self-published memoir, The Story of My Sufferings (1925):
One day, a Russian priest came to see me. He entered the house and, without saying a word, fell on his knees and made the sign of the cross. Weeping like a child, he cried, “Mr. Beilis, you know that I have endangered myself by coming here. I should not have come to meet you at all. I could have sent my good wishes in a letter, but I decided to come in person. My conscience would not let me do otherwise. I have come to ask your forgiveness in the name of my people.” He kissed my hand, and before I even had the chance to overcome my shock and respond, he quickly ran out. This incident affected me profoundly. I could not have envisioned a high Russian clergyman ever kneeling before a Jew and kissing his hand. What strange creatures these Russian people are! On the one hand, there are the Zamislovskys, the Schmakovs and the despicable bands of Black Hundreds, and on the other hand, one can find a Russian priest coming to beg forgiveness from a Jew for the persecutions to which he has been subjected.
Tears happyDespite the adulation, however, Beilis also received threats and decided to emigrate to Palestine, where he settled in the new city of Tel Aviv. When he visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, he discovered that his fame had spread among Arabs, too. Beilis wrote that he was permitted to enter the Dome of the Rock by an Arab dignitary, who praised him as belonging among the great Jewish heroes and martyrs. Eight years later, in 1921, Beilis moved to the U.S., after finding it impossible to make a living in Palestine. (He claimed that financial aid promised by the Rothschild family never materialized.) He lived the rest of his life in New York, and wrote his moving memoir in Yiddish, in which he generously expressed his appreciation to the Russian and Ukrainian gentiles who had come to his defense and been persecuted for it. Subsequent editions appeared in English and in Russian. graveIn 1934, Beilis died suddenly at age 70, while a hotel guest in New York. Four thousand mourners attended his memorial service at the Eldridge Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His gravestone in Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens bears the following inscription in Hebrew — which is, ironically, inconsistent with Beilis’ own account of his travails insofar as it ignores that non-Jews played a major role in his defense. In English translation it reads: Pay attention to this grave Here lies a holy person, a chosen man The people of Kiev made him a victim And upon all Israel spread the travail Falsely accused him and his community of taking the blood of a Christian child as demanded by him and his faith for the festival of Passover They bound him in chains and lowered him into a pit Many years he did not see the light of day On behalf of all Israel he was harshly tortured Pay tribute to this pure and guiltless soul Who dwells in the shadow of the Lord in the heights of Heaven Until those who slumber shall awaken to life Menachem Mendel Ben-Tuvia Beilis Died on 24 Tammuz 5694 May his memory be for an eternal blessing While the Beilis trial was the last one of its kind, in the 19th century there were many blood libel cases. As historians Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz have observed, “The persistence of the medieval canard . . . into the modern era can be ultimately explained by its adoption by modern political anti-Semites as a weapon to humiliate the Jews — by pointing to their incorrigible moral depravity — and to incite the uneducated masses against [them].” Most cases occurred in Tsarist Russia, but the most notorious one occurred in Damascus, Syria in 1840, when eight Jewish communal leaders were arrested by the Muslim authorities for allegedly murdering a Catholic priest and his servant and using their blood in the baking of Passover matse. The instigators in this case were actually the Catholic Church and the French consul in Damascus. Although bodies were never found, confessions were obtained under torture; one prisoner died and others suffered permanent injuries. Jews in the West launched a massive campaign on their behalf, led by the French Jewish statesman Adolph Cremieux and the British philanthropist Moses Montefiore. The U.S. government also lodged a protest. Ultimately the survivors were freed. In response to entreaties from Montefiore, the Turkish sultan issued a decree denouncing the ritual murder accusation as a fraud and prohibiting its use in legal proceedings against Jews. The 20th century also saw at least three ritual murder accusations after the Beilis affair, in Poland (1928), Lithuania (1929), Bulgaria (1934), and Massena, New York (1928), but in all of these, charges were dropped without trials. Of course, Nazi propaganda repeated the blood-libel myth along with a slew of other anti-Semitic slanders, each more monstrous than the next. This vicious canard had not been revived since, except by rightwing extremist crackpots — until a Jewish professor in Israel, Ariel Toaff, argued in Passovers of Blood (2007) that between 1100 and 1500, there actually were a few genuine cases of ritual murder in Europe. His evidence, however, consisted of confessions from tortured Jewish prisoners, and his book has been dismissed by all reputable scholars. Then, last spring, a fascist member of the Hungarian parliament gave a speech on the eve of Passover resurrecting the allegation that Jews practice ritual murder. The spread of anti-Semitic propaganda in Hungary has actually led the Hungarian government to adopt a constitutional amendment to curtail hate speech. Whether it will be effective or not remains to be seen. A new edition of Beilis’s memoir, entitled Blood Libel: The Life and Memory of Mendel Beilis, has just been published by his grandson Jay Beilis and two attorneys, Jeremy Garber and Mark Stein. It includes an essay that accuses Bernard Malamud of plagiarizing significant sections of Beilis’ memoir in The Fixer and misrepresenting Beilis’ character. It seems that the case continues to spin off controversies, even after a hundred years. Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents magazine and the author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanistic Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.
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