On October 28, 1913, a trial ended in Kiev, then in imperial Russia and today capital of Ukraine. Mendel Menahem Beilis, a 39-year-old secular Jew and father of five children, a Russian military veteran, and manager of a brick factory, had been accused of murder for alleged ritual purposes—the infamous “blood libel.” His purported victim was a Ukrainian boy, Andriy Yushchinskiy, aged 12. The child’s corpse was found near the Zaitsev brickworks, where Beilis was employed.
The centennial of the Beilis trial was commemorated on November 4 in New York by YIVO, the distinguished Institute for Jewish Research founded in Poland in 1925 and relocated to America in 1940. The case may be remembered most widely as the subject of Bernard Malamud’s 1966 novel The Fixer, in which Beilis was given the fictional name Yakov Bok. Yet the Beilis case is not a literary curiosity—it remains perilously relevant.
The Beilis trial in its time stood, like the better-known Dreyfus affair, as an outstanding incident of unjust persecution of Jews. The body of Yushchinskiy was found, and Beilis arrested, in 1911. As determined by courageous anti-tsarist dissidents, journalists, and honest police investigators, Yushchinskiy was slain by a criminal gang, including no Jews, with which the child had been associated, and Beilis was innocent. The lead police detective was, however, dismissed from the case, and the Kiev authorities proceeded with an indictment based on the blood libel.
Spurious evidence was presented at the trial. To the surprise of a world accustomed to Russian injustices, a jury of 12 Ukrainian peasants, some of whom appear to have been anti-Jewish, found Beilis innocent.
The Beilis trial lasted a month. The defense team was headed by a noted advocate for persecuted Russian dissidents, as well as a champion of Jewish rights, Oscar Gruzenberg (1866-1940). His colleagues in the defense included prominent lawyers and intellectuals, among them another Jewish attorney, D.N. Grigorovich-Barsky (1871-1958). None of the defense lawyers were radical leftists, and in the aftermath of the Bolshevik coup in 1917 Gruzenberg departed Russia for France. Grigorovich-Barsky was appointed head of the Kiev Palace of Justice—i.e. the local court system—by Russian democratic revolutionaries earlier in 1917, but was removed by their Bolshevik successors, and eventually came to the United States, where he died in Chicago.
The acquittal of Mendel Beilis by 12 ordinary Ukrainians was a comforting lesson, like that of Dreyfus, that truth could prevail against an anti-Jewish frame-up. The Beilis verdict further showed that in imperial Russia, the mood of the people had changed. As noted in a YIVO website entry on the case, “Russian society did not make knee-jerk assumptions about Beilis’s guilt; indeed, liberal and socialist camps (and even some conservatives) rallied to his defense, with public opinion evenly divided on the matter.”
The Romanov dynasty had assumed the Russian throne in 1613, and was celebrating three centuries of power in the year Beilis was exculpated. But Russia was in a severe crisis after the failed constitutional revolution of 1905. Notwithstanding its few reforms, including the establishment of the parliamentary Duma, adoption of the new court system under which Beilis was tried, and improvements in the conditions of the peasants and laborers, the authoritarian order was doomed.
Since the Holocaust, a “blood-libel” trial is impossible to imagine in any Christian-majority country. Although the Jew-hatred visible in the Beilis trial persists obstinately in Russia and Ukraine, the most extreme such animus has shifted to the Muslim world.
As an example, the late Turkish politician Necmettin Erbakan (1926-2011), who served as his country’s prime minister for a year in 1996-97, founded a radical Islamist movement, Milli Gorus or “National Vision.” The current Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and many figures in his Justice and Development Party or AKP, as well as in his three administrations, are veterans of Milli Gorus, although Milli Gorus broke officially with Erdogan and AKP when the latter sought entry into the European Union. Milli Gorus is affiliated with the Qatar-based Islamist hate preacher Yusuf Al-Qaradawi.
Erbakan was given to anti-Jewish rhetoric that might seem purely hallucinatory. He said, in a 2007 Turkish television interview, translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), “according to the Kabbalah [i.e. the Jewish mystical tradition] there should be no sovereign state in Anatolia. . . . This is their religion, and it comes from the Kabbalah.” Jewish “history begins with [the] Kabbalah,” Erbakan insisted. “They say that they want to be the rulers of the world.” As the moderator of the program commented, “it is now your students, your disciples [in the AKP], who are ruling Turkey.”
While the notion that the metaphysical Kabbalah deals with the politics of Anatolia or is a conspiratorial doctrine aiming at world domination would be baffling to most informed people, it echoes similar claims in the Beilis trial about Jewish Hassidic mystics and the Talmud.
In 1840, when an odious “blood libel” against Jews emerged in Damascus, then under Ottoman control, Turkish Sultan Abdulmecid II, after international protests, prohibited any such allegations. Cited in Norman A. Stillman’s 1998 volume The Jews of Arab Lands, the Sultan mandated, “An ancient prejudice prevailed against the Jews. . . . The charges made against them and their religion are nothing but pure calumnies. . . . We cannot permit the Jewish Nation (whose innocence of the crime alleged against them is evident) to be vexed and tormented upon accusations which have not the least foundation in truth.”
Later, Russian revolutionaries who opposed the Beilis fabrication supported the Turkish constitutional revolution of 1908. It is appalling that anti-Jewish malevolence characteristic of Russian backwardness, and repudiated decades before by the Ottoman state, was revived in modern Turkey.
Erdogan, meanwhile, continues Islamist intrigues in formerly Ottoman-ruled Balkan Muslim communities. In a worrying outcome, the election of the head of the Islamic Community of Kosovo, known as BIK in Albanian, was won on October 31 by Naim Ternava, a radical Islamist. Ternava changed the constitution of the Muslim religious apparatus to allow himself a previously-forbidden third five-year term in office.
Erdogan promotes Ternava, with pictures of the two men embracing seen widely in Kosovo. Like Erdogan, Ternava has ties to Hamas. Interviewed by SETimes.com, a Southeast Europe news portal, Ternava “said he hopes to increase religious education and lead changes that would allow headscarves in Kosovo schools—a stance opposed by Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga.” Kosovo is a secular state and bans the headscarf and religious instruction in schools.
Ternava’s main critic, a moderate professor of Islamic studies, Dr. Xhabir Hamiti, had been expelled previously from his post as president of the country’s Islamic clerical assembly. Hamiti was not included as an opposition candidate to Ternava in the October polling. On Ternava’s reelection, Hamiti commented, “There were no fair elections and no solutions for the problems in BIK with this process.” Hamiti warned of “irreparable damage” to Kosovo and its Muslims.
Imer Mushkolaj, a columnist at the daily newspaper Express, in Pristina, the Kosovo capital, told the SETimes, “With the election of Ternava . . . radical currents in Kosovo will only gain more ground and will be encouraged to carry out their agendas . . . to prevent the realization of the agendas of these groups . . . remains the main challenge of the state institutions and the society in general.” Ramadan Ilazi of the Kosovo Institute for Peace cautioned that the elections were held in a non-democratic spirit, and “contrary to the general belief in Kosovo, they have shown the powerful influence that the radical groups have in BIK.”
At the same time, Kosovo’s spiritual Sufi Muslims complain that with Ternava’s backing, they are objects of discrimination, including a revision introduced into the country’s law on freedom of religion. While Kosovo is still secular, a new article, number 4A, to amend the regulation, states, “In the Republic of Kosovo there are five (5) religious communities in Kosovo, which constitute [sic] the historical heritage, cultural and social life of the country. These communities are: the Islamic Community of Kosovo, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, Jewish Faith Community, and the Evangelical Church of Kosovo.”
The amendment has not been adopted by the Assembly of Kosovo, the country’s national legislature. But sheikh Adrihysen Shehu, head of an alliance of Sunni Sufis, the Kosovo-based Community of Aliite Islamic Dervish Networks, known in Albanian as BRDIA (and unrelated to Syrian Alawites or Turkish Alevi Muslims), objects to the absence of any mention in the draft revision of him and his contemplative companions, accounting for hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Muslims. The Sufis are currently denied equal protection by (or from) Ternava’s fundamentalist and anti-Sufi BIK.
Similarly, a representative of the heterodox Bektashi Sufis in neighboring Macedonia, where the Bektashis have suffered a long campaign of Wahhabi usurpation and violence, has expressed concern about the lack of recognition for their Kosovar disciples in the draft revision of the law.
Legal guarantees for the small Kosovar Jewish community, with fewer than 60 members, are justifiable considering that Kosovo had a significant Jewish community until the Holocaust, as is mention of the Evangelical Church, since Protestantism arrived in the Albanian lands in the 19th century. Exclusion of the BRDIA and Bektashi Sufis from mention in the “historical heritage, cultural and social life” of Kosovo is offensive to many Albanians, since the BRDIA was the only Sufi organization permitted to exist in Communist Yugoslavia, and the Bektashis have an honored place in the historical leadership of the Albanian national movement.
From Mendel Beilis to the Sufis of Kosovo may seem a tortuous path; Erdogan’s hateful ideology stands at the bridge between them. The authoritarian and demagogic oppression of religious minorities finds as victims Jews, Christians, Muslims and other believers alike.