1913 was not so long ago. Two of my grandparents, whom I came to know very well somewhat later, were young then. They emigrated from the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Ukraine the previous year, coming to New York to start a life that they hoped would be free from antisemitic persecution.
That was the year of the trial of Menachem Mendel Beilis in Kiev, not too far from where my grandparents had lived.
Beilis, as you probably know, was a Jew that was chosen as a scapegoat by antisemitic officials who wanted to absolve the incompetent government of Tsar Nicholas II of guilt for economic and social problems by stirring up hatred for the Jews. They took advantage of the murder of a 13-year-old boy, Andrei Yushchinsky, to accuse Beilis of having snatched the boy and drained his blood for ritual purposes. The trial attracted international interest – after all, it was the 20th century already! – and featured the testimony of antisemitic “authorities” versus well-known rabbis and Talmud scholars, who understood that all Am Yisrael were in the dock, not just the unfortunate Beilis.
A Russian police detective, Nikolay Krasovsky (who ultimately lost his job as a result), discovered the real murderers of Yushchinsky, a gang led by a woman named Vera Cheberiak, whose son was a friend of Yushchinsky and had told him about his mother’s criminal activities. Beilis had a good alibi, having been seen by others at work at the time of the murder. The coroner’s report showed that the victim’s blood had not been drained. Nevertheless, the trial was held in October-November of 1913.
Although the jury had been specially selected for antisemitism, the prosecution and its witnesses bungled their case and were made fools of on numerous occasions. One “expert” on Judaism, a Catholic priest named Justinas Pranaitis, who had written an antisemitic book on the Talmud, was asked “Who was Baba Basra and what was her activity?” He responded that he didn’t know who she was, which evoked laughter from the Jews in the courtroom, who knew that Bava Batra was a section of the Talmud.
Ultimately – after two years of pre-trial imprisonment and a month-long trial – Beilis was acquitted. However, the divided jury compromised by rendering the verdict that there had indeed been a bloody ritual murder committed, but some other Jew must have done it.
Why am I telling this story? Because, in the past one hundred years, nothing has changed except for the defendant.
Accusations of ritual murder have been made against Jews since medieval times, and possibly even before. They are still current in Arab countries, and even present-day Russia. The Tsarist officials who orchestrated the scapegoating of Beilis did so to inflame the masses against the Jews of the Russian empire. They wanted to blame them for their failures, and also to discredit the various progressive and leftist movements by association with the Jews. They hoped to incite a wave of pogroms which would bleed off the energy of the anti-monarchic forces by directing them at a safe target.
Today most Jewish communities outside of the US and Israel have dwindled to near-insignificance, and while there is plenty of antisemitic agitation, it comes from marginal players. It does not have the official sanction that Russian Jew-hatred did in 1912. But at the same time, a new scapegoat has been chosen, and this one is being accused by official and quasi-official organs of the international community of crimes worse than ritual murder, of all-encompassing crimes against humanity. The accused is no longer a Jewish individual but the Jewish state; however similarities between the prosecutions abound.
Charges are trumped up and even the crimes themselves are sometimes tailored to this specific defendant. For example, in a recent Human Rights Watch report, Israel is accused of “the crime of apartheid” despite the fact that nothing Israel has done in her conflict with the Palestinians bears the slightest resemblance to actual apartheid. Israel is regularly accused of “settler colonialism,” although there is no colonizing metropole (mother country) to be found, and Jews have lived in the Land of Israel since biblical times. Sometimes there are echoes of the original blood libel, as when the IDF is falsely accused of deliberately targeting Palestinian children.
“Witnesses” and “experts,” often with similar qualifications to those of Justinas Pranaitis, are found to testify against her. Real evidence of actual wrongdoing can’t be found, but that is unimportant because the purpose of the trial is not to determine guilt, which is already assumed by the media and international organizations that are passing judgment in the defendant, but to turn public opinion against her. But why do they want to?
In the Arab and wider Muslim world, deflecting the anger of a dissatisfied and restive populace away from their kleptocratic rulers onto Israel and the Jewish people has been a tried and tested policy for decades, indeed since 1948. The need to “resist” non-existent Israeli expansionism, for example, has sustained Hezbollah and provided cover for the true expansionism and aggression of Iran.
European motivations to convict Israel of crimes against humanity are manifold. Wanting good relations with the resource-rich third world that they formerly colonized and exploited, by attacking Israel they at the same time appease the corrupt leaders that control those resources and assuage their guilt for their behavior during the colonial period. By accusing the Jews of Israel of behaving like Nazis, they can absolve themselves for their almost universal history of cooperation with the real, genocidal Nazis. By displaying their anti-Israel bona fides, politicians vie for the support of their growing populations of Middle-Eastern origin, whom they invited in to compensate for the steep demographic decline of their native populations.
America has been less directly involved in the prosecution until recently; but lately various organizations have developed which are dedicated to the demonization and delegitimization of Israel. They have received funding from a collection of sources, including Iran, Arab countries, Turkey, and international leftist charities such as the Open Society Foundations of George Soros, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and others. They are working at making “Israel” synonymous with racism and oppression of minorities, which is the hottest of hot-button issues in the US today. There is also a growing Arab and Muslim population in the US, which has contributed both money and political clout to the anti-Israel movement.
In the days of Beilis, much of Western intelligentsia and media were horrified by the atavistic hatred cynically deployed by the elites of the Russian Empire. But today the academic world and media were the first sectors to be suborned by those who wish to criminalize the Jewish state, and now they are in the forefront of the campaign against her. Literally billions of petrodollars went into creating whole academic departments which are little more than factories for anti-Israel propaganda.
Above all, this worldwide epidemic of misoziony – irrational, extreme, obsessive hatred of Israel – fell on fertile ground. It’s almost as if Jew-hatred, tabooed and bottled up since the Holocaust, could not be denied, and had to burst out in some form, like the creature in the movie Alien. The blood libel that ensnared numerous Jewish victims throughout the centuries is apparently alive and well.