The Beilis Conspiracy
A century after the last blood libel trial, the idea that Jews drink Christian vital fluid is still alive and well
Take a midafternoon trip through the most sketchy and monomaniacal corners of the cybersphere, and you will discover that Jews have been blamed for everything from the Holocaust and Sept. 11 to Newtown and climate change. Faced with such frantic spewing, one looks back with a kind of nostalgia to the granddaddy of anti-Semitic tropes: the blood libel, the age-old charge that Jews kill Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals, in particular the baking of Passover matzoh.
The blood libel has had a long life, from its invention in Norwich, England, in 1144 to the pogroms it spurred centuries later in Poland and Russia. While matzoh is rarely a fixation among anti-Semites these days, the notion that Jews kill outsiders for their own nefarious purposes is alive and well, often with Muslim victims substituted for Christian ones. In 2009 the Swedish social democratic newspaper Aftonbladet ran a story alleging, without evidence, that Israelis were harvesting the organs of Palestinians for use on the black market. In the Arab world, Israel has been charged with murdering Palestinian children; in the most pointed versions of the accusation, such murders are seen as a perverse source of enjoyment for the Jews. At Davos in 2009, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan denounced Israel’s rulers as “murderers of children” and added that “Israeli barbarity is far beyond any usual cruelty.”
Recent times have even seen serious academics wonder whether the blood libel, so serious a source of pain to Jews, might contain a grain of truth. The very thought is nauseating and repugnant. Yet in 2007 Prof. Ariel Toaff of Bar-Ilan University published Passovers of Blood, whose cover showed a dramatic etching of a bearded man poised with his knife above a fearful boy. The cover depicted the akedah, but the book was not about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. Instead, Toaff proposed a shocking new perspective on blood libel: He insisted that some medieval Jews used blood in their rituals and implied that they might even, on a few occasions, have murdered Christians for this purpose. Toaff quickly became a taboo-breaking martyr in the eyes of the Internet’s anti-Semitic cultists, who happily proclaimed that he had proved an eternal, and eternally suppressed, truth: Jews have brainwashed the world into thinking they are innocent sufferers, but they don’t hesitate to stoop to murder.
Toaff’s book was speculative and full of innuendo; he stressed in an interview that his hypotheses concerned “a few extremists … between 1100 and 1500.” All his evidence came from confessions under torture, given by Jews who were telling their Christian tormenters exactly what they were required to say. But for his defenders, Toaff had bravely exposed the forbidden truth: The Jew is guilty. Several Knesset members threatened to prosecute Toaff, his university reprimanded him, and he was censured by a group of Italian rabbis (including his own father, the former chief rabbi of Rome): For Toaff’s followers, all this proved the too-hot-to-handle veracity of his claims. Toaff had become a victim of the pitiless Jewish lobby whose tentacles were everywhere and that desperately wanted to silence him.
The final blood-libel trial of a Jew in Western history came to court exactly 100 years ago, and in view of the continued popularity of the blood libel it’s worth looking back to this event: the last occasion on which a Jew came to court on the charge of having murdered a Christian child for ritual purposes. When it was over, the accused, Mendel Beilis, thought that he had ended the long tradition of accusing Jews of spilling Christian blood for religious purposes, but he was wrong: The uproar over Toaff’s book showed that the charge of ritual murder remains a testing ground for allegations about the guilt or innocence of the Jewish people as a whole. The blood libel refuses to die, because it’s too convenient a way to evoke the Jewish conspiracy that drains the life from the rest of the world.
The trial took place in Kiev in the fall of 1913, and the defendant was a Jew named Mendel Beilis. In July 1911, Beilis, the supervisor of a brick factory in Kiev, found the Russian secret police at his door with their swords drawn, thundering, “In the name of the Czar, you are arrested.” Carted off to jail in front of his wife and five children, Beilis was peppered with a series of relentless questions: Where do you come from? What is your religion?—and, finally, What do you know of the boy Yustchinsky’s murder? Months earlier, a Christian child, Andrei Yustchinsky, had been found murdered in a nearby cave; he had been stabbed repeatedly and the blood drained from his body. The case bore all the marks of a ritual murder.
But the truth about little Andrei’s murder was already apparent long before Beilis went to trial. A female gangster named Vera Tcheberiak, along with her lover—whom she had blinded when, during a jealous quarrel, she threw acid in his face—were in cahoots with Andrei’s mother. Andrei had been in the Tcheberiak lair when it was stuffed full of stolen goods, and during a fight with a playmate he had threatened to tell the police about the gang’s activities. The word leaked out that Andrei was a potential squealer, and so his death sentence was assured. The Tcheberiak crew had an inspiration: If Andrei’s death were made to look like a ritual murder, they might be able to instigate a pogrom, and take advantage of the ensuing chaos to loot Jewish homes freely. Sure enough, at Andrei’s funeral leaflets were distributed that charged the Jews with the murder and urged aggrieved Russians to take up arms against them.
Before he finally entered the courtroom, Mendel Beilis spent over two years in prison, much of it in brutal conditions, in a bug-infested, freezing, filthy cell. As Beilis’ trial approached, a tidal wave of sympathy for him engulfed Russia. News of the case was eagerly followed in Western Europe and America, too. At their Seders, some Jews glossed the Haggadah’s acronym for the plagues on Egypt with a sentence about Beilis, “divrei Tcheberiak kazav, alilat dam sheker, Beilis eino chayav bo”: “the words of Tcheberiak are a deception, the blood libel is a lie, Beilis is not guilty.”
Jews were hardly the only ones to believe wholeheartedly in Mendel Beilis’ innocence. In England, the archbishops of Canterbury and York signed on to Beilis’ cause, along with the speaker of the House of Commons. Vladimir Nabokov’s father, the crusading liberal journalist V.D. Nabokov, covered the Beilis trial for his St. Petersburg paper; the elder Nabokov was heroically opposed to all forms of anti-Semitism in Russian life, a trait he passed on to his son. Another journalist at the Beilis trial in Kiev was an American: George Kennan, uncle of the famous diplomat and author of the authoritative tome Siberia and the Exile System. Kennan’s detailed, chilling report of the trial helped sway public opinion even more in Beilis’ favor.
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