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The Beilis Exchange, Part 2: ‘All the Jews of the World Were On Trial’

by Shmuel Rosner

May 28, 2014 | 2:56 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 focuses on his critically acclaimed book, ‘A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia – The Beilis Blood Libel’ (Schoken, 2014). Part one of the exchange can be found right here.

***

Dear Mr. Levin,

In your first response you mentioned that by the time of the Beilis trial the ‘Jewish lobby’ was already more organized than it had been in earlier blood libel cases. I’d like to ask you a bit more about the case as a Jewish cause.

In your book you mention that Beilis’ defense team, which faced a generally ignorant jury, made a conscious decision early on to focus on Beilis himself and not on the Jewish people, on facts and on the sloppy case made by the prosecution rather than on Jewish stereotypes. But when it comes to the battle against Jewish stereotypes, though, how effective was the Beilis trial in Russia at the time? Did the verdict have educational value in showing how ridiculously irrational anti-Semitism could make people, or was the general anti-Semitic public still suspicious about the whole affair after it ended? Did the involvement of the Jewish world not raise some eyebrows? Overall, what kind of place does the case have in the history of Russian anti-Semitism in the 20th century?

Yours,

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,

You’re correct that the defense team focused on refuting the case against Beilis. But three days of testimony were wholly devoted to the nature of the Jewish religion. This part of the trial amounted to a sort of parody “disputation,” one of those formal debates between learned Christians and Jews of centuries past. The defense had on its side eminent Christian scholars of Judaism, as well as the chief rabbi of Moscow, Jacob Mazeh, who spoke eloquently and at length. The prosecution’s sole, purported expert on Judaism was a ludicrous pseudoscholar and sometime con man.

It was clear to all that not just Mendel Beilis, not just the Hasidim, not just all Russian Jews, but all the Jews of the world were on trial. The prosecution insisted that only a sect of Jewish “fanatics,” not ordinary Jews, committed ritual murder. But that was a transparent dodge. The supposed villains were the Hasidim – who did not (and do not) constitute a sect but, rather, a strain of Judaism that encompassed millions of people. The clear implication: how in the world could the rest of the Jews not know what their fanatical brethren were up to? They must be covering up the terrible secret.

In his summation, lead attorney Oscar Gruzenberg, who was Russia’s foremost Jewish criminal lawyer, felt compelled to defend his faith. “You can destroy Beilis,” he told the jury, “this is within your authority. But you do not have the power to disgrace the Jewish religion … The Jewish religion is an ancient anvil, and its enemies have broken many sturdy hammers on it.  But it has emerged pure, honest, and stoic from these trials….”

Did the learned testimony and eloquent words have any educational value for the society at large? I doubt they had much impact. Russian anti-Semitism was a largely immovable object. The Beilis case spurred sophisticated anti-Semites to distance themselves from the blood libel, but one could easily be an anti-Semite on other, less occult, grounds - that Jews were exploiters and parasites and so forth. Even among the liberal intelligentsia, the Beilis case was not commonly used to make the argument that all anti-Semitism was inherently, ridiculously irrational but only that the regime was irrationally prejudiced.

As for the efforts of the Jewish lobby, Jewish leaders in Europe and the U.S. were extremely aware of the danger of appearing to manipulate public opinion and tried, as much as possible, to work behind the scenes. They made sure, for example, that pro-Beilis petitions were all-Gentile affairs in their sponsorship. I would say that such visible Jewish activism as there was in support of Beilis added only marginally to anti-Jewish paranoia.

What is the place of the Beilis affair in the history of Russian anti-Semitism? The Beilis Affair represented the apogee of official anti-Semitism in late imperial Russia. The notorious pogroms were never officially approved by the state. In fact, in these years the state successfully repressed anti-Jewish violence. But the prosecution of Beilis had the wholehearted support of the regime. The man in the dock was forced to play a powerful role: he was the villainous Jew incarnate.

Over the next century, the Beilis case surely helped the blood libel maintain its place in the Russian mind and popular culture, most notably in the persistent myth – which enjoyed a resurgence after the fall of the Soviet Union - that Tsar Nicholas and his family were the victims of Jewish ritual murder.

Yours,

Edmund.

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