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The Beilis Exchange, Part 3: On Sophisticated Anti-Semites

by Shmuel Rosner

June 12, 2014 | 3:03 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.

This exchange focuses on his critically acclaimed book, ‘A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia – The Beilis Blood Libel’ (Schoken, 2014). Parts one and two of the exchange can be found here and here.

***

Dear Mr. Levin,

In your previous response you wrote that the Beilis trial “spurred sophisticated anti-Semites to distance themselves from the blood libel, but one could easily be an anti-Semite on other, less occult, grounds”. For my last question I’d like to ask you about the curious dynamic between these 'more sophisticated anti-Semites' and the believers of blood libels –

It goes without saying that the belief in ritual murder represents a particularly ignorant and medieval type of anti-Semitism; perhaps that’s why, as you mention, even the Nazis generally didn’t make ritual murder libels a central part of their official anti-Jewish propaganda machine. Yet in the book you write that the age-old blood libel myth “directly inspired the rampant metaphor of the Jews as economic “bloodsuckers”” and that it “underlies the slander of the Jews as a disloyal, conspiratorial, and parasitical force that exploits its hosts, sucking society’s energy.” As arguably the most famous blood libel in the modern era, you state that the Beilis trial “merits the closest study”.

My question – As the last major trial of its kind in the west, which curiously took place before things got even worse for the Jews of Europe, what does this courtroom drama teach us about the modern ‘more sophisticated’ anti-Semitic psyche as opposed to the more basic ‘less sophisticated’ one? As the global war on both kinds of Anti-Semitism is still far from over, what type of insight does the Beilis trial offer us on the relations between them?

I’d like to thank you again for the book and for participating in this exchange.

Yours,

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,

An interesting thing about the Beilis case is that it casts light on a number of different kinds of anti-Semitic “psyches,” as you helpfully call them, and hints at the underlying relationship among them. Perhaps calling them more or less “sophisticated,” as I did, is not a terribly useful distinction. The prosecutors in the Beilis case ardently wanted to come across as sophisticated and scholarly. The Beilis case – despite its plenitude of ludicrous moments - was of a piece with the modern anti-Semitic project, whose aim was to give prejudice a pretence of scientific respectability.

That insight about the blood libel – that it underlies the fundamental anti-Semitic tropes -- was key for me. In my book, I quote Anthony Julius’s magisterial Trials of the Diaspora to the effect that the blood libel is the “master libel” against the Jews. It is a motive force for anti-Semites even if not consciously believed or even vocally scoffed at. That suggests there’s a shared creed, a unifying principle that binds anti-Semites of varying stripes, even those who disdain one another.  

In the Beilis case, the outstanding example of an anti-Semite who rejected the blood libel was the prominent journalist and politician Vasily Shulgin. His thundering editorial attacking the prosecution in the leading right wing newspaper the Kievan was the “J’Accuse” moment in the affair. He denounced the “indictment of an entire people” on the basis of “one of the most infamous superstitions.” But Shulgin was no Emile Zola. His anti-Semitism remained untempered and, after 1917, he emerged as an ideological innovator, condemning the entire Jewish people for their role in the Russian Revolution. His 1927 book, What We Do Not Like Them For (the “Them” being the Jews) has been called one of the first systematic arguments for the principle of collective ethnic responsibility. (“We do not like the fact that you became the backbone and the core of the Communist Party … We do not like the fact that this experiment was carried out to implement the teachings of a Jew, Karl Marx … We do not like the fact that this whole terrible thing was done on the Russian back.”) Portraying the Bolshevik horror as the work of the Jews became a staple of Nazi ideology.

The historian David Biale argues in his book Blood and Belief that, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the blood libel actually “served as a kind of bridge between medieval and modern anti-Semitism.” What had been largely a folk tradition “was now given scientific legitimacy by purported experts” and a new lease on life.

So, for the the Nazis, even though the blood libel played a relatively minor part in their propaganda, the charge, still “lurked in the background, providing additional mythic ammunition” that aided in the Jews’ demonization and destruction.

And even a man like Shulgin, who so categorically rejected the blood libel in any version as superstition, was drawing unconsciously on the “mythic ammunition” that retains its power to this day.

Best,

Edmund.

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