Blood Libel 100-Years Later

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Бейлис на суде Beilis in court
Бейлис на суде Beilis in court (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

100 years ago this month was the trial of Mendel Beilis; a Jewish factory manager in Kiev, Ukraine, accused of murdering a Christian child to use his blood to bake matzah for Passover.

The story actually began in March 1911 when the mutilated body of 13-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky was discovered in a cave not far from the Jewish-owned and managed brick factory on the outskirts of Kiev, where the 39-year-old Beilis worked. Police investigators concluded that the young boy had been murdered by career criminal Vera Cheberiak and her gang, which became suspicious that Yushchinsky knew too much about their criminal activity.

A not too difficult to believe conclusion.

However, Instead of prosecuting Cheberiak and her gang, the imperial Russian government (including the Czar himself) decided to pin the murder on Beilis and frame the case as one of Jewish ritual murder.

During the month-long trial held at the Kiev Superior Court, the prosecution worked to prove that Cheberiak and her companions were innocent of the murder, and to establish that Jews, specifically Chassidic Jews, frequently engaged in the ritual murder of Christian children. What was overlooked was the extent to which the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of Chassidism was targeted in particular.

Prior to Beilis’s arrest Jewish community leaders and the editorial staff of a major monarchist news magazine held a meeting to discuss how the case should be portrayed. These leaders professed Beilis’s innocence; they also refused to accept the government’s request that the Jewish community assert its general innocence by admitting that Chassidim were a fringe sect that committed heinous crimes.

A transcript of Rabbi Yaakov Mazeh’s expert testimony for the defense, which focused heavily on the history of Chassidism and the teachings of Chabad, demonstrating just how central Chabad’s role in the trial proved to be. Many experts concluded that the Jewish community was slow to come to the defense of Beilis. But, according to Edmund Levin, whose book Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel which will soon be released by Schocken, quotes research which is significant because it contradicts this narrative, showing that the Jewish leadership in Kiev was actively taking steps to counter the anti-Semitic charges even before Beilis’s arrest.

As early as April 1911 (yes a month after the accusation of the killing), a Jewish group headed by Kiev Chief Rabbi Shlomo Ahronson and prominent Jewish attorney Arnold Margolin met with a noted monarchist, Professor Vasily Chernov and the editorial staff of Kievlianin, an influential mouthpiece of the pro-imperial, anti-Semitic, nationalist intelligentsia. Ahronson, a representative of the mainstream Jewish community, was asked to disown the Chassidim as a fanatical fringe sect, endorsing the false 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.”

Following the meeting, the Kievlianin surprised many by taking a strong stance against the sham prosecution of Mendel Beilis.

The meeting between Ahronson and Margolin, and the editors of Kievlianin ,” explains Levin in his book. “… is common in many cases, the Jewish community was afraid of getting involved and was asking itself, ‘Are we going to do more harm than good?’ In the Heint, a Yiddish paper of the day, there was a discussion of what the community’s response should be, and one report sites Ecclesiastes that there’s a time to be silent, and this is one of them. A few weeks later, they thought the story had passed and they said, ‘See? We did the right thing.’

“But the fact that this meeting was held with the Kievlianin is very significant because the paper became well-known for opposing the government line and calling the Beilis case a travesty.”

This surge of unity in the face of Anti-Semitic hatred was again embodied in the testimony of Rabbi Yaakov Mazeh of Moscow, who served as an expert witness for the defense; Mazeh’s testimony was one of the highlights of the trial. “There were glowing reports in the Jewish press praising his eloquent defense, and he became famous for a feat of oratory that lasted an entire day. A Hebrew-language transcript had been serialized following the trial in the Jewish daily Hatzefira for those who are interested.

Tali Loewenthal, an expert in Chabad Chassidisim and a lecturer at University College London, describes the unified response of the Jewish community in the face of an attack on one specific strain of Judaism during the trial as inspiring. “…it’s impressive how the (rest of) the Jewish community really rallied together and refused to accept the premise of the prosecution,” he says. “The community stood up and together said no, the Chassidim are not a sectarian group; we will not accept this. It was a unique moment of Jewish unity.”

The jury’s verdict exonerated Beilis, but stated that the prosecution had proven that Yushinsky had been murdered “in the brick factory belonging to the Jewish surgical hospital” and was done in a manner designed to draw “five glasses of blood.”

After the trial, Beilis left with his wife and five children to the Holy Land before eventually moving to New York City. His funeral in 1934 was held at the Eldridge Street Synagogue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and was attended by some 4,000 people. Beilis is buried at the Mount Carmel cemetery in Queens.

For Jay Beilis, grandson of Mendel Beilis and one of the editors of Blood Libel: The Life and Memory of Mendel Beilis, the trial’s 100-year anniversary represents a time to revisit the hot-button issues surrounding the blood libel. “The story is still important today because the fact is that it changed the way the course of history for so many Jews,” says Beilis, whose father Dovid was Mendel’s second child. “I remember people coming up to my father when they heard his name and saying that they left Russia as a result of my grandfather’s trial.”

“It’s also significant,” he adds, “because the blood libel has not died and is still very alive in the Muslim world.”

The Jewish approach to battling such propaganda is becoming a living example of how a moral human being should act.

Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, introduced this concept when he encouraged Jews to spread the Noahide, he has said that “we cannot live in a goldfish bowl; we must influence the world at large as moral beings. We should be seeking to change the world.”


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