November 12, 2013

The inconvenient Beilis centennial

One hundred years ago this week, a jury in Kiev acquitted Mendel Beilis of ritual murder in the death of a Christian child. Half the jurors were literally card-carrying anti-Semites, members of the infamous Black Hundreds, and still they could find no plausible evidence to convict this Jewish man. The trial was followed around the world, and 20 years later, 4,000 people attended Beilis' funeral in New York.

Jay Beilis addressing diplomats and Ukrainian officials
Last month in Kyiv (note the Ukrainian spelling), we commemorated the Beilis centennial within the context of fighting anti-Semitism, with full participation by the Government of Ukraine and many other countries. As a consultant to the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, I had the opportunity to help facilitate. As Jay Beilis pointed out to us, countless thousands of Jews are alive today because his grandfather refused to confess to a crime he didn't commit, and the highly publicized trial inspired a new mass emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe years before the Holocaust, and before the mass-murder at Babi Yar, which occurred just the other side of town from our conference.

I believe the fact that neither Israel nor the United States is hosting any major event for this centennial reflects our own politics and mythology. In Israel, they already have the earlier Dreyfus Affair and Theodor Herzl narrative. In the States, the Jewish community is largely defined (and self-identified) as a post-Holocaust community -- even though most of us are descended from pre-War arrivals. And if there's a centennial to mark here, it will be the Leo Frank trial, which ended in the lynching of an Atlanta Jewish community leader and is popularly linked to the founding of the legendary Anti-Defamation League (which was also among the cosponsors of the Kyiv conference).

Ironically, U.S. officials were precluded from participating in the Kyiv conference due to the federal government shutdown. Even The Forward, whose Yiddish-language forerunner The Forverts at the time promoted Beilis as the trial of the century, was unavailable to participate in or report on the Kyiv commemoration. 

As a culture, we choose our heroes or they are chosen for us, and then we choose or invent new heroes when it's convenient. This may be something America and Israel have in common, as new (or renewed) societies.

At least the record has been honored where it was set. 

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