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A century after the Beilis trial

The ignorance that made a blood libel in the Ukraine possible in 1913 still exists today and education is the only answer

In the fall of 1913 in Kiev, then part of the Tsarist Russian Empire, an unassuming Jew named Menahem Mendel Beilis was put on trial for a murder he did not commit – what the prosecution erroneously attempted to portray as a Jewish ritual slaughter of a Christian child. The police knew he was innocent, the prosecution knew he was innocent and every honest onlooker knew he was innocent.

Yet despite any ‘evidence’ against him, the sole mark that made Beilis worthy of being tried was the fact that he was a Jew and the prevailing, anti-Semitic belief in blood libels.

Though he was eventually acquitted of the crime, the Beilis Trial became a dangerous and disturbing indication of the state of anti-Semitism at that time and, more frighteningly, was a sign of what lay ahead for European Jewry.

As we flash forward 100 years and commemorate the anniversary of this dark event in our people’s history, we know that while much has changed when it comes to the state of Jews in the world today, all too much remains the same in relation to our experiences with anti-Semitism.

Undoubtedly, the last century can be viewed through the prisms of both destruction and rebirth. And while genocide and persecution defined the first half of the twentieth century, the achievements of world Jewry in the wake of the Holocaust serve as the ultimate displays of our common triumph over hatred.

Yet despite that ongoing victory, the underlying causes of anti-Semitism, and the very factors which allowed people like Beilis to be scapegoated because of their Judaism, remain entrenched within all too much of global society, even today.

Anti-Semitism is largely motivated by ignorance. People hate Jews because they have been indoctrinated with views that are completely out of touch with reality. They believe evil and ancient canards which, once entered into the minds of people willing to hate, are not easily extracted. In this sense, anti-Semitism is not a social phenomenon. Rather, it is a disease.

But it is a disease that has a cure and the proven answer to ignorance is education.

While the antidote perhaps is simple, the implementation is anything but. The fight against anti-Semitism grows ever more challenging as technology makes it that much easier to spread.

But the battle can be won first by recognizing the problem and then by creating a united front to combat it.

First off, just like Jew-hatred has become international so must be the response.

There is likely no nation today where anti-Semitism does not manifest itself – including in the Parliament of Ukraine, where I serve and where the anti-Semitic Svoboda party has established a foothold. Even in countries practically devoid of Jews, people still find the need to hate – thereby proving that ignorance serves as the greatest motivator for anti-Jewish activity.

Recognizing the scope of the problem, it is incumbent upon all world actors to play a role in responding to what has become an increasingly dangerous scourge. Every nation must commit some degree of resources to combating anti-Semitism. Most importantly, young people across the international community must be taught at the earliest of ages the inherent dangers of anti-Semitism and the realities of the Jewish People so that ignorance will not be allowed to lead to hatred.

This is an ambitious goal but it is not an impossible one. It is one that will benefit far more than just the global Jewish community.

If history has taught us anything, it is that anti-Semitism never ‘acts’ alone. It is always a partner to some greater, more dangerous ideology that threatens to wreak havoc on the broader global community. Combating Jew-hatred before it is allowed to spread will inhibit the growth of these dangerous groups, saving our world billions of dollars in potential crises and even wars.

Certainly our political leaders must act by example and I call upon my fellow parliamentarians and civic authorities to prioritize education against anti-Semitism and ensure that it is included in school curricula in all relevant classrooms, at all levels.

The media can also play a role and as dangerous a tool as mass media and the Internet has proven to be in fanning the flames of hatred, I firmly believe that it can be as important a force in extinguishing nefarious activity. The press must adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward hateful messaging in its programing and a global standard of conduct should be recommended to determine what is and what is not acceptable on the world’s airwaves and Internet sites.

Menahem Mendel Beilis (1874-1934), a Ukrainian Jew wrongly accused of murder
Menahem Mendel Beilis (1874-1934), a Ukrainian Jew wrongly accused of murder

Again, the goal is ambitious but the prospect of failure to act would be disastrous.

Menahem Mendel Beilis was a simple Jew who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. And while he avoided conviction, the rest of his life was marred by his trial.

But by preserving his memory to make our world a more peaceful and tolerant place, we are delivering the message that his sacrifices have not been forgotten.

Oleksandr Feldman is President of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee and a Member of the Parliament of Ukraine. Taking place in Kiev over October 15-16, MP Feldman, the OSCE and the Government of Ukraine are convening the International Conference on Anti-Semitism on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Beilis Trial.

About the Author
Oleksandr Feldman is President of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee and a Member of the Parliament of Ukraine.