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The Beilis Exchange, Part 1: Europe’s Biggest Blood Libel Trial

by Shmuel Rosner

May 21, 2014 | 3:21 am

Edmund Levin.

Edmund Levin is a Writers Guild and Emmy award–winning writer/producer for Good Morning America. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, The Atlantic, and Slate, among other publications, and was included in The Best of Slate: A 10th Anniversary Anthology.

The following exchange will focus on his critically acclaimed book, ‘A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia – The Beilis Blood Libel’ (Schoken, 2014).

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Dear Mr. Levin,

Your book focuses on one of the most high profile events in the early 20th century Jewish world, and one of the most famous blood libel cases in history, the Beilis trial (in which Menachem Mendel, a Russian Jew, was accused of the ritual murder of a 13 year old boy in Kiev). Now, you mention early on in the book that this was by no means the only case of a blood libel accusation made against a Jew in Europe at the time – there was actually a huge wave of them between 1891 and 1900 (in fact, the majority of the cases were in Western Europe). My introductory first round question-

What made this blood libel trial the one that sparked so much international attention? What was so different and special about it?

Yours,

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,

It is indeed a largely forgotten fact that a wave of blood libel cases struck Europe in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Between 1891 and 1900 seventy-nine cases were formally investigated or at least widely publicized. Of those, fifty-one were in Austria-Hungary and Germany. About a half dozen cases, beginning with one in Tiszaeszlar, Hungary in 1882-83, actually came to trial. The final blood libel trial in Western Europe took place in Xanten, Prussia in 1900. (All the defendants in these trials - with one ambiguous exception where the ritual murder allegation was dropped - were acquitted.)

What distinguished the case of the humble Jewish brick factory clerk Menachem Mendel Beilis – known to all as Mendel - from the rest? I think there are four factors that made the Beilis case, and the thirty-four day trial in Kiev in 1913, a worldwide sensation.

First, it was the only blood libel case of the modern era to be backed by a central government. Previous blood libel cases in Europe had been supported by politicians of national stature, and even became matters of national contention but, in terms of their prosecution, remained essentially local affairs. The Beilis case, on the other hand, was decisively promoted and organized by the tsar’s top officials, including the Interior and Justice ministers – the very men in charge of the empire’s police and judicial organs. It was widely assumed that Tsar Nicholas II himself approved of the prosecution of Mendel Beilis, and I think that’s almost certainly correct. Nicholas was a true believer in the reality of Jewish ritual murder. The New York Times headlined an editorial: “The Czar on Trial.” That sums up how the case was viewed by most of the world: the true defendant in this case was the Tsar.

Second, there was a sense that the stakes in the case were incredibly high: the future and fate of a great country hung in the balance. One of Beilis’s attorneys, Vasily Maklakov, who was also a parliament member, declared the case to be a sign of a “dangerous internal illness afflicting the state itself.” After the 1905 revolution, Tsar Nicholas had reluctantly agreed to a constitution and a parliament. But now he was trying to undermine nascent democratic institutions in every possible way. The indictment of Beilis signaled that the tsarist autocracy was even more backward and barbaric than its critics had thought. The defense had to win this case to show that Russia had a chance of becoming a decent country.

Third, by 1912-13, what today we’d call the “Jewish lobby” was more mature and well-organized than it had been a decade or two earlier. In Great Britain, the great Jewish activist and journalist Lucien Wolf and, in Germany, the Jewish financier and philanthropist Paul Nathan were quite effective in generating interest in the case and in convincing many eminent figures of the day – Thomas Mann, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Arthur Conan Doyle – to sign petitions in Beilis’s defense.

Finally, there was the sensational nature of the case. Simply put, the Beilis Affair, with its gallery of gripping characters – drunks, charlatans, crooks, revolutionaries - made for fantastic copy. Take, for example, Vera Cheberyak. She was a criminal gang leader. She was most likely behind the murder of the boy, Andrei Yushchinsky. And she took the stand as a star witness for the prosecution. The case’s lurid nature was not incidental to its importance. Surely it said something about the regime that, to oppress the Jews, it would conspire with a criminal sociopath.

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