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100 Years Since the Beilis Case – and Still Relevant

7:02 AM, Nov 13, 2013 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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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.

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