100 Years Since the Beilis Case – and Still Relevant
by Stephen Schwartz
The centennial of the Beilis trial was commemorated on November 4 in New York by YIVO, the distinguished Institute for Jewish Research founded in Poland in 1925 and relocated to America in 1940. The case may be remembered most widely as the subject of Bernard Malamud's 1966 novel The Fixer, in which Beilis was given the fictional name Yakov Bok. Yet the Beilis case is not a literary curiosity—it remains perilously relevant.
The Beilis trial in its time stood, like the better-known Dreyfus affair, as an outstanding incident of unjust persecution of Jews. The body of Yushchinskiy was found, and Beilis arrested, in 1911. As determined by courageous anti-tsarist dissidents, journalists, and honest police investigators, Yushchinskiy was slain by a criminal gang, including no Jews, with which the child had been associated, and Beilis was innocent. The lead police detective was, however, dismissed from the case, and the Kyiv authorities proceeded with an indictment based on the blood libel.
Spurious evidence was presented at the trial. To the surprise of a world accustomed to Russian injustices, a jury of 12 Ukrainian peasants, some of whom appear to have been anti-Jewish, found Beilis innocent.
The acquittal of Mendel Beilis by 12 ordinary Ukrainians was a comforting lesson, like that of Dreyfus, that truth could prevail against an anti-Jewish frame-up. The Beilis verdict further showed that in imperial Russia, the mood of the people had changed. As noted in a YIVO website entry on the case, "Russian society did not make knee-jerk assumptions about Beilis's guilt; indeed, liberal and socialist camps (and even some conservatives) rallied to his defense, with public opinion evenly divided on the matter."
The Romanov dynasty had assumed the Russian throne in 1613, and was celebrating three centuries of power in the year Beilis was exculpated. But Russia was in a severe crisis after the failed constitutional revolution of 1905. Notwithstanding its few reforms, including the establishment of the parliamentary Duma, adoption of the new court system under which Beilis was tried, and improvements in the conditions of the peasants and laborers, the authoritarian order was doomed.
Since the Holocaust, a "blood-libel" trial is impossible to imagine in any Christian-majority country. Although the Jew-hatred visible in the Beilis trial persists obstinately in Russia and Ukraine, the most extreme such animus has shifted to the Muslim world.
As an example, the late Turkish politician Necmettin Erbakan (1926-2011), who served as his country's prime minister for a year in 1996-97, founded a radical Islamist movement, Milli Görüş or "National Vision." The current Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan, and many figures in his Justice and Development Party or AKP, as well as in his three administrations, are veterans of Milli Görüş, although Milli Görüş broke officially with Erdoǧan and AKP when the latter sought entry into the European Union. Milli Görüş is affiliated with the Qatar-based Islamist hate preacher Yusuf Al-Qaradawi.
Erbakan was given to anti-Jewish rhetoric that might seem purely hallucinatory. He said, in a 2007 Turkish television interview, translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), "according to the Kabbalah [i.e. the Jewish mystical tradition] there should be no sovereign state in Anatolia. . . . This is their religion, and it comes from the Kabbalah." Jewish "history begins with [the] Kabbalah," Erbakan insisted. "They say that they want to be the rulers of the world." As the moderator of the program commented, "it is now your students, your disciples [in the AKP], who are ruling Turkey."
While the notion that the metaphysical Kabbalah deals with the politics of Anatolia or is a conspiratorial doctrine aiming at world domination would be baffling to most informed people, it echoes similar claims in the Beilis trial about Jewish Hassidic mystics and the Talmud.
Later, Russian revolutionaries who opposed the Beilis fabrication supported the Turkish constitutional revolution of 1908. It is appalling that anti-Jewish malevolence characteristic of Russian backwardness, and repudiated decades before by the Ottoman state, was revived in modern Turkey.
Tërnava's main critic, a moderate professor of Islamic studies, Dr. Xhabir Hamiti, had been expelled previously from his post as president of the country's Islamic clerical assembly. Hamiti was not included as an opposition candidate to Tërnava in the October polling. On Tërnava's reelection, Hamiti commented, "There were no fair elections and no solutions for the problems in BIK with this process." Hamiti warned of "irreparable damage" to Kosova and its Muslims.
Imer Mushkolaj, a columnist at the daily newspaper Express, in Prishtina, the Kosova capital, told the SETimes, "With the election of Tërnava . . . radical currents in Kosova will only gain more ground and will be encouraged to carry out their agendas . . . to prevent the realization of the agendas of these groups . . . remains the main challenge of the state institutions and the society in general." Ramadan Ilazi of the Kosova Institute for Peace cautioned that the elections were held in a non-democratic spirit, and "contrary to the general belief in Kosova, they have shown the powerful influence that the radical groups have in BIK."
The amendment has not been adopted by the Assembly of Kosova, the country's national legislature. But sheikh Adrihysen Shehu, head of an alliance of Sunni Sufis, the Kosova-based Community of Aliite Islamic Dervish Networks, known in Albanian as BRDIA (and unrelated to Syrian Alawites or Turkish Alevi Muslims), objects to the absence of any mention in the draft revision of him and his contemplative companions, accounting for hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Muslims. The Sufis are currently denied equal protection by (or from) Tërnava's fundamentalist and anti-Sufi BIK.
Legal guarantees for the small Kosovar Jewish community, with fewer than 60 members, are justifiable considering that Kosova had a significant Jewish community until the Holocaust, as is mention of the Evangelical Church, since Protestantism arrived in the Albanian lands in the 19th century. Exclusion of the BRDIA and Bektashi Sufis from mention in the "historical heritage, cultural and social life" of Kosova is offensive to many Albanians, since the BRDIA was the only Sufi organization permitted to exist in Communist Yugoslavia, and the Bektashis have an honored place in the historical leadership of the Albanian national movement.
From Mendel Beilis to the Sufis of Kosova may seem a tortuous path; Erdoǧan's hateful ideology stands at the bridge between them. The authoritarian and demagogic oppression of religious minorities finds as victims Jews, Christians, Muslims and other believers alike.