You don’t hear much about blood libels any more. And Sarah Palin’s use of the term to describe how the media treated her (based on some provocative statements she had made) after the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford, and the violent reaction accorded her over the use of that term in certain quarters, you may hear about it less and less.
The term is typically used in circumstances where there has been a murder, often of a Christian child, and a Jew is accused of performing the criminal act as a religious jjimperative, typically to obtain Christian blood to usein the baking of Passover matzohs. More generically, I guess it is not inaccurate to use the term to refer to an opinion that someone has blood on their hands as a result of improper activities to gain political advantage, but it is a stretch.
But criticizing or approving Palin’s use of the term is not my purpose here. I spent this extremely hot weekend reading Maurice Samuel’s 1966 book, “Blood Accusation: the Strange History of the Beiliss Case”.
Although there were several instances of blood libel accusations during the 19th century, they took place in isolated and somewhat unworldly communities (an exception perhaps being Damascus in the1840s). No one expected what happened in Kiev in 1912, when Mendel Beiliss was accused of murder for ritual purposes.
The Beiliss case, which reached the courtroom in 1913, gained the type of notoriety that the Leo Frank, Lindbergh kidnapping, O. J. Simpson, and Casey Anthony cases gained in the 20th and 21st centuries. A 13 year old Ukrainian boy went to visit a friend and was brutally murdered. All evidence pointed to the mother of his friend (a notorious woman involved in theft and fencing stolen property) and three of her associates. But a young Kievan who was bitterly anti-Semitic and a supporter of right wing groups afraid of the liberalization and worse threatening Russia convinced the Kiev authorities and eventually those in St.Petersburg, including Tsar Nicholas II, that the murder was committed by an employee of a Jewish owned brickyard, Menachem Mendel Beiliss.
The trick for the authorities was to prove the case – difficult since there was absolutely no evident e implementing Beillis. This did not stop the prosecutors, and Samuel’s book follows the compilation of evidence, the use of secret agents and double agents, witness coaching and witness bribery, firing of prosecutors when they reached their limits and sometimes sending them to exile in Siberia, the engagement of fraudulent experts, and very careful jury selection to ensure that the 12 person jury was dominated by illiterate peasants, those most likely to agree that ritual murder was possible.
The world watched with horror and the courtroom was filled each day for the five week trial with journalists from all over Europe and the USA. More than that, each day saw 300 spectators I. The room.
After several days of closing speeches, the judge (Samuel calls him part of the prosecution team) instructed the jury to answer two questions: was the boy murdered on the grounds of the Jewish brickyard, and did Beillis commit the crime? No one was surprised when the foreman answered the first question “yes”, even though the evidence pointed to the crime being committed elsewhere. But shock registered across the room when Beiliss was pronounced “not guilty”.
The split verdict made no sense. The answer to the first question made no sense. In fact, the first question itself made no sense.
At any rate, this ended the trial. Beillis was released, left the country, went to Palestine and then to the United States, but struggled financially the rest of his life.
The book is interesting not only because of it’s specifics, but because of its description of the tsarist criminal court system in action. If you followed Casey Anthony, you would certainly find the saga of Menachem Beillis to be of interest.