The Blood Libel Of Blood Libels

Before the metaphor there was a man, Mendel Beilis.

01/18/11
Associate Editor
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The elderly Jewish woman in the nursing facility will turn 102 in a matter of days, her nearly lost mind swirling between dreams, illusion, memory and the moment. Sometimes there is a sparrow-like flicker because of a word, perhaps, that seems to send her far from the Bronx winter. If she hears “Sarah Palin” or “blood libel,” from a radio, perhaps at the nurses’ station, does she know, do the nurses know what she knows?

She is Rachel Beilis, and she was just 2 years old in 1911 — exactly a century ago — when soldiers came in the night to arrest her father, Mendel Beilis, a Ukrainian Jew accused of murdering 13-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky, to use his blood in the making of matzah.

Beilis, 37, was a brick factory foreman. The boy, already a raggedy drifter in Kiev underworld, disappeared on his way to school on a late winter morning in March. His mutilated body was discovered in a cave, drained of blood.

Blood libels were so normative that in 1909 The New York Times reviewed a serious book, “The Jew and Human Sacrifice.”

The Beilis blood libel trial was one of the first great media spectacles, covered in Kiev by more than 200 newspapers from around the world, with many having to stand in the rear of the court, along with a film crew.

Actually, “blood libel” was not what people called it back in the day. A search of the Times archives turned up only 15 references to the phrase between 1860-1980. Bernard Malamud, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning novel 1967 “The Fixer” is a re-working of Mendel Beilis’ autobiography, described the case, in a letter in 1963, as “a blood ritual incident.” Maurice Samuel in 1966 wrote a book about Beilis called “The Blood Accusation.”

But there have been more than 100 references to “blood libel” since, most famously in 1982 when Israeli Prime Minister called the blaming of Israel for the Sabra and Shatilla massacre (when Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies killed hundreds of Palestinians in Beirut) “a blood libel against the Jewish state.”

“Blood Libel” was also the title of Ariel Sharon’s book about the libel suit he filed against Time magazine for saying Sharon, then defense minister, encouraged that massacre. (A jury found Time’s accusations false and defamatory.)

The metaphor entered the public domain, unmoored from its original history. “Blood libel” was used in the 1980s, in the Times Book Review; in the 1990s, on the Times op-ed page; and in this decade to describe political attacks on Al Gore, George W. Bush, and the “swiftboating” of John Kerry.”

It was used on Chris Matthew’s “Hardball” show, without anyone objecting, before Matthews objected to Sarah Palin’s use of “blood libel” to defend charges that she helped incite the Arizona shootings. Before Andrew Sullivan, blogger for The Atlantic, criticized Palin, he wrote that Carl Paladino’s critique of gays was the “gay equivalent of [the] blood libel against Jews.”

Of course, what happened to Beilis was not metaphor but misery. Before he had a cell he had a home. Mary Boyle O’Reilly, a correspondent in Kiev, visited the Beilis home for a wire service in 1913. It was “a poor house, hardly more than a plastered hut … its narrow yard tidy and clean. Within doors, the three bleak rooms are as neat as hands can keep them. Of furniture, there can hardly be less — a huge brick stove, a table with five chairs … a couple of well-made beds.”

And then the reporter noticed “the absent father’s cap on a little shelf…”

The reporter admired the Beilis children, “such apparently are Russian-Hebrew manners in a poor man’s lonely home.”

Over lunch in her Bronx senior center, back in the 1990s, Rachel Beilis — the last of the five children — told me how as a child she simply wanted her father back. She could remember touching his cheeks, her finger slowly tracing the shape of his mustache.

When the trial started, the Times reported, “The news continues to arrive from all parts of the empire describing the pogrom agitation. ... At a local hospital a Christian refused to allow a Jewish doctor to test his blood, fearing a ritual murder.”

And yet, there was such international support for Beilis that one can better understand how German Jews — under Hitler, just 20 years later — had every reason to expect the world to speak up for them, too. After all, Beilis was supported by the pope, British politicians such as Joseph Chamberlain (father of future prime minister Neville Chamberlain) and writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 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, Chicago, Winnipeg and in a Pittsburgh blizzard where people wouldn’t leave in a darkened theater when electric power was lost.

On the Lower East Side, the great Yiddish actor Jacob Adler presented a stage version of the trial, updating the play with every daily revelation. The third act took place in Beilis’ cell, where a rabbi tells Beilis that he had the support of Jews around the world. A Times critic said “the play, although crude, is very dramatic.”

After Beilis was acquitted, Lord Rothschild set him up with a homestead in Palestine, but one Beilis son committed suicide. Beilis struggled financially and wanted to leave.

Rachel said Sholom Aleichem wrote to her father: “My dear Mendel Beilis. You’re going to get offers from all over the world, ‘Come here. Go there.’ Take time to think things over.”

The family moved to New York, where, Rachel told me, supporters “put us up in the Trotsky Hotel. My father entered the dining room, people would stand and applaud.” Every Jewish hotel wanted the family to come and “do nothing,” said Rachel. “Just sit. And the guests would say, ‘You know who’s here? Mendel Beilis!’”

Jewish landlords let Mendel Beilis live rent-free. The Hunts Point apartment “was full of visitors,” said Rachel. “When I saw the crowds I’d run out; I didn’t want to hear about [the blood libel] every minute.”

He died in 1934, and was buried in Queens, in Mount Carmel, a few graves away from Jacob Adler, Sholom Aleichem and Leo Frank, the Jew lynched in Georgia in 1915 for supposedly killing a Christian girl.

The story has entered a third generation. Rachel’s nephew, Jay Beilis, Mendel’s grandson, remembers that when his family went to the Catskills, in the 1960s, “when word got around that this was the family of Mendel Beilis,” e-mailed Jay, people would come over “with great joy and appreciation.” They’d say that their parents left Europe for America because of Mendel Beilis, saving them from the Holocaust.

He visits his Aunt Rachel who would speak of that long-ago time, “especially after she started to become a little confused,” writes Jay. “She would say, ‘They came in the middle of the night. … He never did anything.”

Who wouldn’t be confused?

In 1934, in the Canadian Jewish Chronicle, columnist Yankel Schmid remembered Beilis as bitter about the persecution and what he experienced as exploitation, sandwiched around the love.

If Mendel Beilis “can read and hear all the … editorials” about him and his blood libel, Schmid wrote, “if he still had anything to do with Zeitseff’s brick factory, he would take those bricks and throw them at the head of all those schreibers [journalists]. And I would endorse his act. But Mendel Beilis is no longer here to square accounts with the crocodile tears that have been shed and which do not permit him to rest in his grave.”

E-mail: jonathan@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

01/25/2011 - 23:33

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Dear Jonathan, The context (in which you mention "The Jew and Human Sacrifice" ["Blood libels were so normative that in 1909 The New York Times reviewed a serious book, “The Jew and Human Sacrifice.”] would lead the reader to believe that this is a book that accuses the Jews of committing such crimes. In fact, this famous work by the respected German Protestant scholar Hermann Strack passionately defends the Jews against this and other charges. The accusations were indeed "normative", and yes, that is why the book was written. But you might have stated that it was a defense of the Jews against ritual murder. Unfortunately such a book is still needed, particularly in the Middle East. James Irsay
Mendel Beilis has been a big part in the lives of my family. I learned from an early age about him. And have felt a close bond with him. For Gov. Palin to use the term Blood Libel in the way people say "He is a Hitler" delegitimizes those who suffered under Hitler and suffering of Mendel Beilis. While I understand the blaming of the Gov. for the Tucson Tragedy was ill-informed, she did not have to escalate the rhetoric and hostility in our political culture. I know the Governor is a supporter of Jews and of Israel. So I don’t want to be to hard on her. But she should be made to understand that comments like that are hurtful and dilutes its real meaning. Mendel Beilis was my Great Grandfather’s cousin and if you saw me and a picture of him or especially his son Pincus who died in 1917 defending Israel you would see the family resemblance.
Hi I am the Great grandson of Mendel Beilis. I have 1 older brother and a younger sister. My father who was the Grandson never met his grandfather only his grandmother. Mendel's only living child is still alive today as far as we know. She is 101 years old now. If you would like to contact me Just email me at meatcutter08520@aol.com Thank you Marc Beilis
My father's family came from Kunmadaras, a largish town halfway between Budapest and Hungary's eastern border. In May 1946 a rumor spread that girls had disappeared from a nearby town and that Jews were "making sausages out of them". The villagers attacked the local Jews - the fraction which had returned from the various labor and concentration camps - and lynched two of them, injuring many more. There were attacks on Hungarian Jews around that time, most notably in Miskolc, but the one in Kunmadaras was a genuine blood libel against Jews who had lived peacefully with their neighbours for decades.
Hi Scott While I cant talk for Mr Mark as to why he left out the Massena story , its silly to compare the two. The Rabbi in that case was questioned for one whole hour , while my grandfather endured a five week trial AFTER spending almost 30 months in a Russian prison under horrible conditions. During that five week peroid his trial was the lead story on the front page of the New York Times and received worldwide attention. My grandfather never sought to be considered a Martyr but in fact he was, his ordeal brightened the eyes of countless Jews who left all parts of Europe saving them from the Shoah that happened a quarter century later Hi Truga Just a small correction , we're weeks away from the 100th anniversary of the murder of the boy, not the trial, which occured in October 1913. The problem many of us with what Ms Palin said is she could have used a different phrase, cause the term " blood libel" refers to a unique part of Jewish history jdb242424@hotmail.com
Palin is not bright enough to have composed what she said.Cause if she were,she would have proof read her speech,and omitted blood libel.everybody who is not in denial knows better!
I am a Levite (by DNA testing) and I didn't know about the 100th anniversary of the original "blood libel" trial of Mendel Beilis. Palin has clearly stated that she had used the term in the context of being falsely accused (re: Tuscon tragedy). The same term had been used in an WSJ op-ed 2 days before and is used frequently in journalism. She certainly did not mean anything anti-semitic. In fact, she has been a very strong supporter of Israel whereas Obama has not. It's time to drop this issue.
This is an excellent story, but you should have also at least mentioned the American Blood Libel accusation in Massena, New York, in 1928. Although it never went to trail, it speaks to the reality of that term for Jews here in the USA too. http://www.ajhs.org/scholarship/chapters/chapter.cfm?documentID=288

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