By Anita Aboulafia
Blood Libel: This ritual murder accusation is the explosive medieval legend that Jews require Christian blood for obscure religious purposes and are capable of committing murder to obtain it.
-Professor Hannah R. Johnson, University of Pittsburgh
A particularly virulent period of anti-Semitism, as evidenced by blood libel trials and the subsequent execution of Jews, originated in England in 1144 and cast a dark shadow eastward throughout Europe and Russia for one thousand years. In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of one blood libel trial in tsarist Russia, which resulted in the near-miraculous acquittal of Mendel Beilis, Cardozo Law hosted “A Thousand Years of Infamy: The History of Blood Libel” on November 14 and 15, 2013. Organized by Cardozo professor Richard Weisberg, Walter Floersheimer Professor of Constitutional Law, the conference brought together a group of distinguished legal and literary scholars – Jeremy Garber; Professor Vivian Curran, University of Pittsburgh Law School; Professor David Fraser, University of Nottingham; Professor Hannah R. Johnson, University of Pittsburgh, who discussed her recently published book, Stories People Tell: Blood Libel and the Rhetoric of Judgment; Professor Jeffrey Mehlman, Boston University; Professor Sanford Levinson, University of Texas Law School; Professor Thane Rosenbaum, Fordham Law School; and Jay Beilis, Beilis’ grandson.
Mendel Beilis’ Trial
After his arrest in 1911, Beilis was tortured for two years in a Russian prison until his trial began. Although the Russian government had offered to free Beilis by issuing a pardon, Beilis, realizing that accepting a pardon would mean admitting guilt, refused. Once the trial began, Beilis had to contend with a seriously flawed judicial system, which included corrupt judges, lawyers and secret agents infiltrating the jury room and issuing daily reports to prosecuting attorneys. Nevertheless, the all-Christian jury acquitted Beilis by a vote of 6-6. (The Russian judicial system mandated that a majority of jurors needed to find defendants guilty.) The very fact that tsarist Russia had such an independent judicial system could be credited to Tsar Alexander II, who, in 1864, was inspired to adopt the western European legal system.
The judge instructed the jury: “You must ignore all of the testimony. The only thing you need to consider is that a Christian child is dead and a Jew is accused of killing him.”
Mehlman emphasized the heroic nature of Beilis by drawing parallels between Beilis and Alfred Dreyfus; Beilis, unlike Dreyfus, had refused to accept a pardon.
Plagiarism: Beilis’ Memoir and The Fixer
In 1925, Mendel Beilis published Blood Libel: The Life and Memoir of Mendel Beilis, written in Yiddish and translated into English one year later. Bernard Malamud’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Fixer, published in 1966, is widely believed to be based on the Beilis trial. Malamud, however, never acknowledged that his main character, Yakov Bok, was based on Beilis. In a lively panel moderated by Cardozo professor Stanley Fish, Floersheimer Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law, Garber and Mr. Beilis, the grandson of Beilis, presented a preponderance of evidence documenting Malamud’s plagiarism. The two characters’ circumstances were remarkably alike – both were Jewish and lived in Kiev, and both were arrested in 1911 for blood libel and remained in prison for two years awaiting trial – and, most significantly, there are 35 passages in The Fixer that are almost identical to those in Beilis’ memoir. Garber and Beilis discussed the “debasement” of the heroic Beilis and his wife’s memory by Malamud having created such a foul-mouthed, angry, atheistic blasphemer as Bok and his adulteress wife.
Despite Garber and Beilis’ grandson’s serious misgivings about The Fixer’s impact on Beilis’ reputation, Weisberg contended that overall, thanks to the popularity of Malamud’s novel – it was translated into 19 languages and made into a feature film – the general public knows about Beilis and his trial through The Fixer.
Following the trial, Beilis and his family moved to Palestine and, seven years later, to New York City. Tragically, Beilis’ grandson concluded, if they had remained in Kiev, they most certainly would have been murdered in the Babi Yar massacre, where nearly 34,000 Jews were killed, or during subsequent mass exterminations that took place in Ukraine during World War II. Beilis died in 1934 and is buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens, 100 yards from the Jewish martyr Leo Frank.
Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century
Fast-forward to the present, as right-wing parties gain influence across Europe and Russia, precipitating a rise in anti-Semitism. In 2007, several Russian nationalist groups attributed the deaths of five Christian children to blood libel. In Hungary, it has become acceptable to blame the Jews for the country’s economic woes and the far-right, anti-Semitic Jobbik party controls 12 percent of Parliament. To express his outrage regarding Hungary’s growing anti-Semitism, the country’s best-known conductor, Ivan Fischer, composed an opera, “The Red Heifer,” in 2013. The opera, based on an Hungarian blood libel case that took place in 19th century, references the country’s growing tolerance for anti-Semitism as one character sings: “I am ashamed by the anti-Semitic agitation; as a Hungarian, I feel repentant toward it, as a patriot, I scorn it.”
The conference was co-sponsored by Cardozo’s Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Program and the Law & Humanities Institute.