100 Years since the Mendel Beilis Trial: Blood Libel Refuse To Die

Debbie Maimon
100 Years since the Mendel Beilis Trial: Blood Libel Refuse To Die
New research into the Mendel Beilis trial of 1913, an infamous blood libel saga that unfolded in
Kiev under the rule of Czar Nicholas II, throws light on fascinating little-known aspects of that
Beilis was a 39 year-old poor, obscure Russian Jew when he was thrust into history as the victim of
an outrageous government frame-up. The body of a 13-year old boy, Andrei Yuschinsky, had been
found in a cave with multiple stab wounds. Although no evidence existed to link Beilis to the
crime, he was arrested in the middle of the night in June 1911 by the Czar’s secret police and
charged with ritually murdering the boy to obtain his blood for the baking of matzoh.
Mendel Beilis under guard during trial
Historians say the truth about the boy’s murder was already apparent to police long before Beilis
went to trial. Records show that a female head of a criminal gang named Vera Cheberiak had
masterminded the crime to prevent Andrei, who had stumbled on the gang’s stolen goods, from
leaking this information to police.
The Cheberiak gang plotted to make the killing look like a ritual murder, with the hope of
instigating a pogrom and plundering Jewish homes under the cover of mob violence. True to plan,
at Andrei’s funeral leaflets were distributed that blamed Jews for the lurid crime. “The Yids
tortured Andrusha Yushchinsky to death!” the leaflets cried, urging the boy’s Russian countrymen
to avenge him.
World Is Riveted
Mendel Beilis spent over two years in prison in a filthy, freezing cell as the government took its
time building a case against him. His plight - and the inflammatory fallout from the affair that
threatened all the Jews of Russia - captured world attention, with Jews in every corner of the
world anxiously following developments and praying for his acquittal.
Jews were not alone in believing in Beilis’s innocence. Leading cultural, political and religious
personalities rose to his defense. In England, the archbishops of Canterbury and York supported
him. Workers in Warsaw and St. Petersburg rallied for Beilis, as did Russian writers and students.
There were public protests in Berlin, London, Denver, New York and Chicago.
Influential journalists in England and America attended the trial, assailing the sham proceedings.
Their scathing reports helped sway public opinion in Beilis’s favor, although they exerted no
impact on the Russian prosecutors determined to convict him.
The Beilis trial was one of the first great “media circuses,” covered in Kiev by more than 200
newspapers from around the world, along with a filming crew. Not all of the trial’s defining
moments were grasped by observers. In one of those moments - most humiliating for the
government - the prosecution’s expert witness on Judaism and the Talmud was unmasked as a
Called to testify as a scholar of Jewish practices and beliefs, a Catholic priest named Father
Pranaitis sought to persuade the jury that the Talmud endorses ritual murder. The scheme
collapsed however, as defense attorney Gruzenberg exposed the man as a fraud with a simple
question. “Father Prenaitis, please tell the court, when did Baba Basra live and what was her
Pranaitis was stumped. “I don’t know who she is,” he admitted. Laughter swept the courtroom
where the Jews were seated. The priest had fallen into the trap, exposing his ignorance of one of
the most well-known tractates of the Talmud. “Baba” in Russian means grandmother, and the
government “expert” couldn’t place “Grandmother Basra.”
Despite the collapse of the government’s case, the judge was relentless in his drive to find Beilis
guilty. His final instructions to the jury showed how compromised he was. “This trial,” he said, “has
touched upon a matter which concerns the existence of the whole Russian people. There are
people who drink our blood.”
Stunning Acquittal
To general astonishment, against all predictions, an all-Christian jury comprised mostly of peasants
acquitted Beilis, sending shock waves throughout Russia. The jubilation in the courtroom defied
Beilis became an instant celebrity. Besieged by unending limelight and exhausting attention, he
left Russia with his family, settling in Eretz Yisroel, then called Palestine. Nine years later, with no
means of livelihood, he relocated with his family to New York. There he wrote a memoir, The Story
of My Sufferings, in which he chronicled some of the highlights of his traumatic experiences in
In his book, he noted that the Russian government behaved with such ruthlessness, they retaliated
even against their own officials. Detectives first assigned to the case, along with the chief of Kiev’s
secret police, were dismissed from their posts and jailed for expressing their belief that Beilis must
be innocent, because they could find no evidence against him.
Beilis wrote with emotion about the many non-Jewish Russians who offered their support when it
seemed he was doomed. He remembered that prison guards turned aside with tears in their eyes
when his heartbroken wife and children visited him in prison.
Blood Libel Reinforced
Far from discrediting the vicious canard that Jews kill
Christians in order to use their blood in baking matzoh,
the Beilis trial actually gave it new vitality, historians say.
Shrewd prosecutors, seeking to counter the unthinkable
possibility that the jurors might not return a guilty verdict,
came up with an ingenious strategy through which they hoped
the government could claim victory in any scenario.
Their scheme, explains historian Edmund Levin in Murder and
Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel, was to
separate the charge of ritual murder from the question of the
defendant’s guilt.
The prosecutors did this by having the jury answer two questions: Did the crime of ritual murder
as the government described it occur in the brick factory where Beilis worked as supervisor? Was
Mendel Beilus guilty of murdering Andrei out of religious fanaticism?
Most people, including Beilis’ own lead attorney, the legendary Oscar Gruzenberg, believed the
jury would side with the government on both questions. But they were wrong. The jury voted yes
on the first question - a ghastly ritual murder had indeed taken place - but found Beilis not guilty
of the crime. The government thus claimed it had proved its case, that Jews practice ritual murder.
Levin believes that the blood libel has clearly been a factor in the rise of modern anti-Semitism
that culminated in Hitler’s war against the Jews and the atrocities of the Holocaust.
In his book, the historian says that in the decades that followed the trial, “Mendel Beilis was
consistently mentioned in anti-Semitic propaganda as example of Jewish ritual murder. The libel
directly inspired the rampant metaphor of the Jews as economic ‘bloodsuckers.’”
It demonized the Jews as a disloyal, cruel people eager to exploit their host country and suck dry
its resources, a vicious stereotype the Nazis exploited to the hilt.
Kiev’s chief rabbi, Moshe Asman, at an international conference commemorating the 100th
anniversary of the Beilis trial said the Beilis affair was still relevant because Jews in Ukraine as well
as in Israel were still being falsely accused of all kinds of crimes. “Now it’s anti-Semitic as well as
anti-Israel. We have to present the public with the truth,” he said.
Asman pointed to the recent calls to outlaw circumcision and Jewish ritual slaughter in Europe,
anti-Semitic acts cloaked in humanitarian guises.
Dr. Shimon Samuels of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in France, quoted in the Jerusalem Post, gave
examples of blood libels since the Beilis case, and how they are also directed against Israel.
“The State of Israel is the target of such blood libels. For example, the IDF medical team that set up
the field hospital in Haiti after the [2010] earthquake, was accused by a Swedish newspaper of
harvesting the body organs of Haitians. That type of thing is very pernicious and dangerous. It has
to be exposed and acted against,” he urged.
Unity In The Face Of Hatred
Some of the new research into the Beilus affair highlights the way it unified Jews of all streams in
the face of hatred.
Author Dovid Margolin writes that in April 1912, Kiev Chief Rabbi Shlomo Ahronson and prominent
Jewish attorney Arnold Margolin met with noted Professor Vasily Chernov and the editorial staff
of Kievlianin, an influential mouthpiece of the pro-Czarist, anti-Semitic intelligentsia.
Ahronson, a representative of the mainstream Jewish community, was asked to disown
the chassidim as a fanatical fringe sect, endorsing the 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
In a similar vein, the memoirs of Russia’s Chief Rabbi Mazeh provides a fascinating glimpse of a
meeting between the Chortkover Rebbe and Rabbi Mazeh as the two discussed the Beilis case at
length and agreed that unity was of paramount importance.
They understood that the government’s strategy was to pit Jew against Jew by trying to paint
Beilis as a member of a fanaticalchassidic group and persuading the more mainstream Rabbi
Mazeh, the defense’s key witness, to repudiate him. By throwing Beilus ‘under the bus,’ the
majority of the Jewish community would be in the clear.
The Chortkover Rebbe asked Rabbi Mazeh how he would respond to allegations in court about socalled immoral and criminal teachings of chassidus. “I want to point out that if, Heaven forbid,
the rov won’t defend chassidus with full fervor, the prosecutors will try to make chassidim appear
criminal. But remember,” the rebbe warned, “if they can succeed at that, they will end up
targeting all Jews. Because they will ultimately claim that all Jews are chassidim.”
Rabbi Mazeh fully understood. The conversation then turned to various defense strategies and the
meaning of various Talmudic quotations. The two leaders even examined various publications by
anti-Semites in order to anticipate the approach the prosecution would use and how to counter it.
At the trial, Czarist prosecutors triumphantly played the “racist card” in an effort to demonize the
Talmud for inciting Jew against non-Jew.
“How dare the Jewish sages claim that [the Jewish people] are called adam, man, while [Gentiles]
are not called adam?” they demanded, quoting the Talmud.
Rav Meir Shapiro, head of the famous Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin, was appraised of this hostile and
dangerous challenge at the Beilis trial.
He wrote to Rabbi Mazeh advising him to explain Chazal’s statement as a simple description of the
nature of the Jewish people as areivim zeh lazeh, responsible for each other (Shevuos 39).
“According to this principle, the fate of Mendel Beilis touches the entire Jewish people,” Rav
Shapiro said. “The Jewish people tremble for his welfare and would do everything in their power
to remove the prisoner’s collar from him.”
“How would the Gentile world react if one individual had been accused of a similar crime and was
standing trial in a faraway country? No more than the people of his own town would show any
interest in the libel. Perhaps, at most, people in other parts of his own country would criticize the
proceedings. But people in other countries? They wouldn’t take the slightest personal interest in
“This is the difference between the Jews and all other
peoples,” Rav Shapiro wrote. “The Jews are
considered Adam, the singular form of the word man,
signifying solidarity and oneness. When one Mendel
Beilis is put on trial, the entire Jewish world stands
united at his side. With other peoples of the world,
nothing like this can be expected. They may very well
be considered anashim, but they cannot be
considered Adam, a nation that stands together as a
single man.”
Historians have not reached a consensus as to how it happened that an all-Christian jury of
uneducated Russian peasants, many of whom were picked precisely because of anti-Semitic
sentiments, at a trial where the presiding judge was in cahoots with the government, found Beilis
innocent. To many it remains incomprehensible, a puzzle for the ages.
It is probably fair to say, though, that for the spiritual giants of the generation who understood the
vast power of weapons of the spirit, Beilis’ miraculous acquittal had a logic of its own.