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Book Review: A Child of Christian Blood, The Devil That Never Dies

The Oldest Hatred, Alive and Well

 By Richard Bernstein 

 

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A Child of Christian Blood:
Murder and Conspiracy
in Tsarist Russia:
The Beilis Blood Libel
Edmund Levin 
Schocken Books
2013, pp. 362 $28.95
The Devil that Never Dies: The Rise
and Threat of Global Antisemitism
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Little, Brown and Company
2013, pp. 486, $30.00
Section 34, Row 11, Plot No. 4 of the Lukianovka Cemetery, in the northern suburbs of Kiev, is the grave of a boy named Andrei Yushchinsky who was brutally murdered 103 years ago, his body, with 47 puncture wounds in it, found by some playmates in a cave. Yushchinsky’s grave had lain neglected for almost a century, until, about a decade ago, some 15 men dressed in old tsarist officers’ uniforms appeared and spruced it up, laying new shrubbery and affixing inscriptions on the gravestone. One of the inscriptions identified young Yushchinsky, who was most likely murdered by a small-time Russian criminal gang, as a “saintly boy-martyr,” the word “martyr” suggesting that the boy died for his Christian faith. The other inscription got more directly to the point: “Andrei Yushchinsky, martyred by the Yids in 1911.”

Yushchinsky was most certainly not murdered by “the Yids.” The conviction that he was, one of the innumerable disproven ideas that remain attached to at least a few stubborn minds, would seem to be the main point of The Devil That Never Dies. The new book by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen argues urgently that a new and dangerous upsurge in anti-Semitism is taking place on a global scale, the worst since the Hitlerian era of 60 and 70 years ago.

But the grave in the Lukianovka Cemetery is not mentioned by Goldhagen. Rather, it is included in a kind of postscript to Edmund Levin’s meticulous and utterly absorbing account of the famous case that ensued from young Yushchinsky’s 1911 murder: the prosecution and trial of a Jewish bookkeeper from Kiev named Menachem Mendel Beilis, who was accused of ritual murder, that old libel reeking of medieval ignorance and prejudice that survived into the supposedly enlightened 20th century.

It’s worth noting that in the final paragraph of his postscript, Levin avers that “it would be a mistake to exaggerate the extent of anti-Semitism in Ukraine,” where the government has reliably condemned any anti-Semitic incidents that have taken place. Goldhagen would no doubt disagree with Levin on this point, and that seems as good a starting point as any to consider the import of these two new books, which have in common the theme of Jewish persecution. For Goldhagen, things haven’t been so bad in many decades. Levin’s idea is more moderate. Every year, on the anniversary of Yushchinsky’s murder, a group comes to the grave to pay respects to the “boy martyr,” an indication that the blood libel is still with us, though in Levin’s perspective, it is an echo of an unlamented time when matters for the Jews were incomparably worse.

The Beilis case was one of the last in the long history of persecutions of the Jews for the supposed crime of murdering Christian children so their blood could be used in the Passover matzos. Coming in the modern era only a few years after the Dreyfus case, in which a Jewish officer in the French army was falsely accused of spying, it became a great global spectacle, evoking widespread horror. But what may be the most fascinating element in Levin’s absorbing account of the Beilis case is the utter cynicism that surrounded it. Many people in benighted imperial Russia believed in the truth of the ritual murder accusation. But what Levin shows is that virtually without exception, almost nobody but for a few adamant nationalists actually believed that Beilis had anything to do with Andrei Yuschchinsky’s death. “No police official, of either high or low rank, ever even pretended to consider Mendel Beilis seriously as a suspect,” Levin writes. And yet, Beilis was cruelly, relentlessly prosecuted. Why?

Levin’s multi-faceted answer to this question is at the heart of his narrative, which unfolds from the moment young Andrei’s body was found. Within a few days, anonymous mimeographed leaflets began circulating claiming, “the Yids have tortured Andrusha[sic] Yushchinsky to death!” The authorities were eager to find a Jewish culprit and to sentence him to death for ritual murder, even though the official investigators of the crime could find no evidence either that a ritual killing had occurred or that any Jew was involved. The evidence actually pointed then as now to an entirely different set of suspects, a criminal gang headed by an astonishingly malevolent woman named Vera Cheberyak, who became one of Beilis’s loudest and most insistent accusers.

And so Beilis, the father of five children who was, somewhat paradoxically, a rather indifferent Jew, was arrested largely because the brick factory where he worked was not far from where Yushchinsky’s body had been found, and because there was no better Jewish suspect.

From this point on, Levin’s book becomes a panorama of Russian life, full of villains and a few heroes reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which, coincidentally, was also about a murder and an unjust accusation. The often clumsy and transparent efforts of the prosecution to build a case against Beilis make for astonishing reading, and Levin’s account of the three-week-long trial, in which four of Russia’s most famous defense lawyers dismantled the government case piece by piece is thrilling and suspenseful. Beilis’s “dream team” of defenders are among the several heroes in the story. Among the villains were the supposed “experts” on the Jews called to the stand by the prosecution, like Ivan Sikorsky, a professor of psychology at Kiev University (and father of the inventor of the helicopter), who used his authority and scholarly credentials to affirm that child murder by the Jews was “a criminal reality of the twentieth century.”

At the apex of it all was Tsar Nicholas II himself, who seems to have believed that Beilis was innocent but also believed in all the old canards about limitless Jewish iniquity, and, further, that anti-Semitism, a powerful binding force in Old Russia, was a kind of common ground between the ruler and his people that could not be given up, especially at a time of revolutionary ferment—after all, Nicholas himself was overthrown and murdered five years after the Beilis case was finished. The situation made Nicholas, as Levin puts it, “the first Russian ruler to convey clearly to the narod, the common people, his belief in the existence of Jewish ritual murder.” His ministers saw that, and, since they also believed the worst about the Jews, they undertook the false case against Mendel Beilis as a way of currying favor with the ruler.

The Beilis case in this sense comes across as one of the final gestures of an old regime, an old way of life that was coming to an end. Beilis, after two and a half years of misery, was acquitted by a jury of 12 common Russian peasants, representatives of the very narod that supposedly embodied that Jew-hating Russian soul. But there was a catch. The jury also voted that Yushchinsky had been the victim of a Jewish ritual murder perpetrated right there in Kiev in the 20th century.

The verdict, in other words, was that Beilis was innocent but the Jews were guilty. Truly, as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s title suggests, Jew hatred is The Devil That Never Dies. But Goldhagen reaches a much harsher and more worrisome conclusion than that, one on which there is bound to be a lot of disagreement.

Goldhagen first came to public notice 17 years ago with the publication of Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, a book that prompted a ferocious debate among Holocaust scholars and others. His argument, which was forcefully, passionately presented, was that earlier writers had been mistaken in blaming the Holocaust on a host of political and social factors, like the severe economic dislocation of the Weimar years, in addition to simple, age-old anti-Semitism. For Goldhagen, the annihilation of European Jewry was solely the result of a vicious and virulent brand of anti-Semitism, “eliminationist anti-Semitism” he called it, which Goldhagen found to be a bedrock element of German culture and identity since at least the 19th century.

His new book is an extension of that argument. In it, Goldhagen argues that after a relative decline in overt Jew hatred following World War II, a new, globalized anti-Semitism has arisen on a scale that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. Goldhagen reminds us of the extraordinary fact, seen in the Beilis case and many others, that anti-Semitism has for centuries been a kind of “animating idea,” the “glue of many societies and cultures for much longer than practically any major belief system or ideology or political form.” Building on this widespread foundational hatred of the Jews, “hundreds of millions have been and are willing to support anti-Jewish programs, including—indisputably in the past and all but indisputably today—large-scale lethal violence.”

Needless to say, this conclusion—hundreds of millions; an all but indisputable willingness to resort to large-scale lethal violence—is exceedingly alarming. Indeed, Goldhagen’s argument would seem to contradict the experience of millions of Jews around the world, who, despite enduring anti-Semitic outbursts, live today in conditions of freedom and prosperity unlike at any other point in history. Goldhagen allows that this is the case in the blessed United States, but to believe it’s so pretty much any place else in the world is a dangerous, head-in-the-sand delusion. From France and Germany to Iran, he finds an “upsurge in anti-Semitism [that has] gained energy and rapidly broken existing bounds and constraints, achieving a reach and degree of normalcy with dizzying speed.”

For evidence of this drastic turn, Goldhagen points to some genuinely disturbing recent events: The 2001 United Nations anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa that turned into “an anti-Semitic hatefest”; an anti-Iraq war march in Paris in 2003 at which a Jewish would-be participant was attacked by a group of men with metal pipes; and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s Holocaust denial. He is surely right to worry about the rise of an old-fashioned kind of Jew hatred in the Islamic world and among many Arabs now living in Europe, who have swallowed absurdities like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and committed anti-Jewish atrocities as a result. There is no doubt, if recent newspaper accounts are correct, that an ugly resurgence of anti-Semitism is taking place now in Hungary.

Still, Goldhagen can be counted on to draw the most dire, most negative and pessimistic conclusions from the observable data. There is a pounding repetitiveness in his new book. Phrases such as “foundational anti-Semitic paradigm” and the word “eliminationist” itself appear so often as to become numbing. Goldhagen offers some statistics here and there on a rise in the incidents of anti-Semitism in places such as Canada and France, but there is no attempt at impartial analysis of what these statistics might mean or what kind of anti-Semitism is being measured. Most of his argument is based on anecdotes, not all of them reliable indicators.  To cite one striking example, he writes that “Jews being a target is the reality of everyday life in Germany’s capital and most cosmopolitan city, Berlin.”

But the plain and fortunate fact is that being attacked on the streets is exceedingly far from the everyday reality of Jews living in Berlin. This is not to argue that an incident in 2012 in Berlin, when a group of thugs beat up a 53-year-old rabbi in front of his daughter was not serious and hateful, but it does not come close to justifying the extremely dire and alarmist conclusion that Goldhagen draws from it.

Needless to say, any anti-Semitism is too much anti-Semitism, and whether it’s neo-Nazi attacks on Jews in Germany, or Iranian-style state-supported anti-Semitism masquerading as criticism of Israel, or the Euro-American academic left’s one-sided call for anti-Israeli boycotts, it is to be exposed and condemned. But Goldhagen’s book is itself one-sided, overwrought and extreme. It is not a judicious, sober, or even very useful contribution to an understanding of the devil that, while it doesn’t die, is also not the devil it used to be.

Richard Bernstein is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times. His new book, China, 1945, will be published next year. 

One comment

  1. I translated the entire trial transcript to English and blogged it at the centennial in 2013. Please see the Mendel Beilis Trial page; the PDF of the translation is from Day 34, THE VERDICTS. It includes the actual wording of the charges given to the jury. For a brief version, see “Endgame” posted on the same page. If you know Russian and want to see the transcript itself, see the Mendel Beilis Links page which points to its home on ldn-knigi.lib.ru.

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