Tuesday, Jun 18, 2024

100 Years Since The Mendel Beilis Trial- Blood Libel Refuses To Die

New research into the Mendel Beilis trial of 1913, an infamous blood libel saga that unfolded in Kiev under the rule of Czar Nicholas II, throws light on fascinating little-known aspects of that drama. Beilis was a 39 year-old poor, obscure Russian Jew when he was thrust into history as the victim of an outrageous government frame-up. The body of a 13-year old boy, Andrei Yuschinsky, had been found in a cave with multiple stab wounds. Although no evidence existed to link Beilis to the crime, he was arrested in the middle of the night in June 1911 by the Czar's secret police and charged with ritually murdering the boy to obtain his blood for the baking of matzoh.

Historians say the truth about the boy’s murder was already apparent to police long before Beilis went to trial. Records show that a female head of a criminal gang named Vera Cheberiak had masterminded the crime to prevent Andrei, who had stumbled on the gang’s stolen goods, from leaking this information to police.


The Cheberiak gang plotted to make the killing look like a ritual murder, with the hope of instigating a pogrom and plundering Jewish homes under the cover of mob violence. True to plan, at Andrei’s funeral leaflets were distributed that blamed Jews for the lurid crime. “The Yids tortured Andrusha Yushchinsky to death!” the leaflets cried, urging the boy’s Russian countrymen to avenge him.




Mendel Beilis spent over two years in prison in a filthy, freezing cell as the government took its time building a case against him. His plight – and the inflammatory fallout from the affair that threatened all the Jews of Russia – captured world attention, with Jews in every corner of the world anxiously following developments and praying for his acquittal.


Jews were not alone in believing in Beilis’s innocence. Leading cultural, political and religious personalities rose to his defense. In England, the archbishops of Canterbury and York supported him. Workers in Warsaw and St. Petersburg rallied for Beilis, as did Russian writers and students. There were public protests in Berlin, London, Denver, New York and Chicago.


Influential journalists in England and America attended the trial, assailing the sham proceedings. Their scathing reports helped sway public opinion in Beilis’s favor, although they exerted no impact on the Russian prosecutors determined to convict him.


The Beilis trial was one of the first great “media circuses,” covered in Kiev by more than 200 newspapers from around the world, along with a filming crew. Not all of the trial’s defining moments were grasped by observers. In one of those moments – most humiliating for the government – the prosecution’s expert witness on Judaism and the Talmud was unmasked as a faker.


Called to testify as a scholar of Jewish practices and beliefs, a Catholic priest named Father Pranaitis sought to persuade the jury that the Talmud endorses ritual murder. The scheme collapsed however, as defense attorney Gruzenberg exposed the man as a fraud with a simple question. “Father Prenaitis, please tell the court, when did Baba Basra live and what was her activity?”


Pranaitis was stumped. “I don’t know who she is,” he admitted. Laughter swept the courtroom where the Jews were seated. The priest had fallen into the trap, exposing his ignorance of one of the most well-known tractates of the Talmud. “Baba” in Russian means grandmother, and the government “expert” couldn’t place “Grandmother Basra.”


Despite the collapse of the government’s case, the judge was relentless in his drive to find Beilis guilty. His final instructions to the jury showed how compromised he was. “This trial,” he said, “has touched upon a matter which concerns the existence of the whole Russian people. There are people who drink our blood.”




To general astonishment, against all predictions, an all-Christian jury comprised mostly of peasants acquitted Beilis, sending shock waves throughout Russia. The jubilation in the courtroom defied description.


Beilis became an instant celebrity. Besieged by unending limelight and exhausting attention, he left Russia with his family, settling in Eretz Yisroel, then called Palestine. Nine years later, with no means of livelihood, he relocated with his family to New York. There he wrote a memoir, The Story of My Sufferings, in which he chronicled some of the highlights of his traumatic experiences in Russia.


In his book, he noted that the Russian government behaved with such ruthlessness, they retaliated even against their own officials. Detectives first assigned to the case, along with the chief of Kiev’s secret police, were dismissed from their posts and jailed for expressing their belief that Beilis must be innocent, because they could find no evidence against him.


Beilis wrote with emotion about the many non-Jewish Russians who offered their support when it seemed he was doomed. He remembered that prison guards turned aside with tears in their eyes when his heartbroken wife and children visited him in prison.




Far from discrediting the vicious canard that Jews kill Christians in order to use their blood in baking matzoh, the Beilis trial actually gave it new vitality, historians say.


Shrewd prosecutors, seeking to counter the unthinkable possibility that the jurors might not return a guilty verdict, came up with an ingenious strategy through which they hoped the government could claim victory in any scenario.


Their scheme, explains historian Edmund Levin in Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel, was to separate the charge of ritual murder from the question of the defendant’s guilt.


The prosecutors did this by having the jury answer two questions: Did the crime of ritual murder as the government described it occur in the brick factory where Beilis worked as supervisor? Was Mendel Beilus guilty of murdering Andrei out of religious fanaticism?


Most people, including Beilis’ own lead attorney, the legendary Oscar Gruzenberg, believed the jury would side with the government on both questions. But they were wrong. The jury voted yes on the first question – a ghastly ritual murder had indeed taken place – but found Beilis not guilty of the crime. The government thus claimed it had proved its case, that Jews practice ritual murder.


Levin believes that the blood libel has clearly been a factor in the rise of modern anti-Semitism that culminated in Hitler’s war against the Jews and the atrocities of the Holocaust.


In his book, the historian says that in the decades that followed the trial, “Mendel Beilis was consistently mentioned in anti-Semitic propaganda as example of Jewish ritual murder. The libel directly inspired the rampant metaphor of the Jews as economic ‘bloodsuckers.’”


It demonized the Jews as a disloyal, cruel people eager to exploit their host country and suck dry its resources, a vicious stereotype the Nazis exploited to the hilt.


Kiev’s chief rabbi, Moshe Asman, at an international conference commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Beilis trial said the Beilis affair was still relevant because Jews in Ukraine as well as in Israel were still being falsely accused of all kinds of crimes. “Now it’s anti-Semitic as well as anti-Israel. We have to present the public with the truth,” he said.


Asman pointed to the recent calls to outlaw circumcision and Jewish ritual slaughter in Europe, anti-Semitic acts cloaked in humanitarian guises.


Dr. Shimon Samuels of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in France, quoted in the Jerusalem Post, gave examples of blood libels since the Beilis case, and how they are also directed against Israel.


“The State of Israel is the target of such blood libels. For example, the IDF medical team that set up the field hospital in Haiti after the [2010] earthquake, was accused by a Swedish newspaper of harvesting the body organs of Haitians. That type of thing is very pernicious and dangerous. It has to be exposed and acted against,” he urged. 




Some of the new research into the Beilus affair highlights the way it unified Jews of all streams in the face of hatred.


Author Dovid Margolin writes that in April 1912, Kiev Chief Rabbi Shlomo Ahronson and prominent Jewish attorney Arnold Margolin met with noted Professor Vasily Chernov and the editorial staff of Kievlianin, an influential mouthpiece of the pro-Czarist, anti-Semitic intelligentsia.


Ahronson, a representative of the mainstream Jewish community, was asked to disown the chassidim as a fanatical fringe sect, endorsing the allegation that they were guilty of ritual murder. He and his group refused to do so, stating, “Among us Jews there are no sects or parties … The chassidim are not sectarian at all, but a stream within Judaism; a very important stream indeed.”


In a similar vein, the memoirs of Russia’s Chief Rabbi Mazeh provides a fascinating glimpse of a meeting between the Chortkover Rebbe and Rabbi Mazeh as the two discussed the Beilis case at length and agreed that unity was of paramount importance.


They understood that the government’s strategy was to pit Jew against Jew by trying to paint Beilis as a member of a fanatical chassidic group and persuading the more mainstream Rabbi Mazeh, the defense’s key witness, to repudiate him. By throwing Beilus ‘under the bus,’ the majority of the Jewish community would be in the clear.


The Chortkover Rebbe asked Rabbi Mazeh how he would respond to allegations in court about so-called immoral and criminal teachings of chassidus. “I want to point out that if, Heaven forbid, the rov won’t defend chassidus with full fervor, the prosecutors will try to make chassidim appear criminal. But remember,” the rebbe warned, “if they can succeed at that, they will end up targeting all Jews. Because they will ultimately claim that all Jews are chassidim.”


Rabbi Mazeh fully understood. The conversation then turned to various defense strategies and the meaning of various Talmudic quotations. The two leaders even examined various publications by anti-Semites in order to anticipate the approach the prosecution would use and how to counter it.


At the trial, Czarist prosecutors triumphantly played the “racist card” in an effort to demonize the Talmud for inciting Jew against non-Jew.


“How dare the Jewish sages claim that [the Jewish people] are called adam, man, while [Gentiles] are not called adam?” they demanded, quoting the Talmud.


Rav Meir Shapiro, head of the famous Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin, was appraised of this hostile and dangerous challenge at the Beilis trial. He wrote to Rabbi Mazeh advising him to explain Chazal’s statement as a simple description of the nature of the Jewish people as areivim zeh lazeh, responsible for each other (Shevuos 39).


“According to this principle, the fate of Mendel Beilis touches the entire Jewish people,” Rav Shapiro said. “The Jewish people tremble for his welfare and would do everything in their power to remove the prisoner’s collar from him.”


“How would the Gentile world react if one individual had been accused of a similar crime and was standing trial in a faraway country? No more than the people of his own town would show any interest in the libel. Perhaps, at most, people in other parts of his own country would criticize the proceedings. But people in other countries? They wouldn’t take the slightest personal interest in him.”


“This is the difference between the Jews and all other peoples,” Rav Shapiro wrote. “The Jews are considered adam, the singular form of the word man, signifying solidarity and oneness. When one Mendel Beilis is put on trial, the entire Jewish world stands united at his side. With other peoples of the world, nothing like this can be expected. They may very well be considered anashim, but they cannot be considered adam, a nation that stands together as a single man.”


Historians have not reached a consensus as to how it happened that an all-Christian jury of uneducated Russian peasants, many of whom were picked precisely because of anti-Semitic sentiments, at a trial where the presiding judge was in cahoots with the government, found Beilis innocent. To many it remains incomprehensible, a puzzle for the ages.


It is probably fair to say, though, that for the spiritual giants of the generation who understood the vast power of weapons of the spirit, Beilis’ miraculous acquittal had a logic of its own.



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