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Drash Blood Libel Part 1

Drash, By Morris Rodenstein, Given March 2011

Read the second part of the Drash – Blood Libel, Notable Personalities (with Photos), Part 2


We just read Parshat Vayikra which contains the word “blood” over 20 times, so my drash on the “blood libel” seems appropriate. (pause) A blood libel is a false accusation which claims that religious minorities, almost always Jews, murder Christian children and then use their blood in rituals, such as in making Pesach matzah. I have given you a couple of handouts. 

The single-page handout details some of the allegations which have been made over time ncerning why Jews “need” Christian blood, and why Jews killed Christians. The four-page handout contains more background information on the notable people in my drash. 

I will begin with the early stages of the accusation’s 2000-year history, move to its return in 12th century Europe, and then focus on the Jewish experience in Russia leading up to and including the infamous Mendel Beilis ritual murder trial in Kiev in 1913. Today is the 100th anniversary of the start of the events that led up to this trial, which attracted worldwide attention. Beilis’ cousin Tzirl, my beloved Grandma Celia, was a young teenager living in Kiev during his ordeal. My drash today is dedicated to her. I will also talk briefly about how this age-old “blood libel” canard now has a gruesome 21st century variation.

Antisemitism is sometimes called the “world’s oldest hate”. Blood libel accusations are among the earliest manifestations of this hate. Over 2000 years ago, Alexandria, Egypt was home to the world’s largest Jewish community. The city also had a large Greek pagan population. There were tensions between the two groups over their respective beliefs. Pagans used human crifice 

as a fundamental ritual. While monotheism was not easy for the pagans to comprehend, they were completely baffled by the strict Jewish ban against human sacrifice, as contrasted with the great importance Jews put on circumcision, a ritual they saw as the barbaric mutilation of the genitals. Some pagans suspected Jews must be hiding a truly repulsive ritual.

In 38 CE, Apion, a Greek pagan from Alexandria, charged that Jews kidnapped, fattened, sacrificed and ate Greek pagans in the Temple in Jerusalem, the first known blood libel accusation. Enraged mobs killed 1000’s of Alexandria’s Jews. With the exception of a minor 5th century incident, the next known blood libel accusation was 1,100 years later. On March 25, 1144, the body of William of Norwich, England, aged 12, was found near a Jew’s home; his parents accused the town’s Jews of killing him. The sheriff and bishop jailed some Jews, investigated the case, and then released them. In 1173, 30 years later, Thomas of Monmouth wrote a mphlet, “The Life and Miracles of William of Norwich”. In 1190 he persuaded a Jewish convert to Christianity to “admit” that Jewish leaders met annually in Narbonne, France, home to some prominent Talmudic scholars, to choose by lots where a Christian child would be killed before Pesach. Norwich had supposedly been chosen in 1144. Mobs killed almost all of Norwich’s Jews 46 years after William’s death. Meanwhile, in 1181, three Christian boys in Vienna isappeared while playing on a frozen river. Witnesses swore Jews killed them. Three hundred Jews were burned at the stake. The boys’ bodies were found the next spring; they had drowned. Blood libel accusations swept across Europe, often an excuse for countries and towns to expel their Jews. In 1247, Pope Innocent IV issued a papal bull declaring the blood libel false, as did six subsequent popes. No pope has ever contradicted them, but the lie has endured anyway.  

In the Middle Ages, Jews were a minority throughout Europe. Priests and nobles preyed upon the masses’ fears and ignorance. If a Christian child died unexpectedly or was missing, the lack of evidence, witnesses or a body were never deterrents to a ritual murder accusation. A tortured “confession” could quickly lead to a town’s Jews being forced to convert or dragged to the synagogue and burnt alive. 

The martyrdom of Christian children killed by Jews for ritual purposes became a common folk legend. Each blood libel had its own narrative. If so many people believed it, most thought it must be true. There have been about 150 Jewish blood libel accusations and countless rumors over the past 850+ years. 

I now want to talk about the Jews in Czarist Russia leading up to the most famous blood libel case. In the 1790’s, when Poland was carved up, Russia added new territory containing 1M Jews, its first sizable Jewish population. Jews, with few exceptions, were now restricted to the Pale of Settlement, an area comprising about 20% of European Russia. From that point forward, the czars had a goal of ridding Russia of its Jews. The policies of the early 19th century czars – Paul I, Nicholas I and Alexander I – towards the Jews stressed conversion and assimilation. Even under Czar Alexander II’s moderate “period of toleration” from 1855-1881, Jews still could not own property. The last two czars, Alexander III and Nicholas II, permitted prosecution-free murder, theft, rape, property destruction and terror to induce Jews to flee. The 1M Russian Jews of 1791 had grown to 5.2 million by 1900, more than twice the net non-Jewish population growth rate, despite much Jewish emigration. 

Czar Alexander II was assassinated 130 years ago tomorrow, March 13, 1881. He was to have revealed his plan for a constitutional monarchy the next day. His son, Czar Alexander III, 

re-imposed strict dictatorial rule and discarded his father’s plans. One of the six assassins was a Jewish woman. On Easter Sunday, using her participation as his justification, Czar Alexander III sanctioned violent pogroms in 100 Jewish communities. Pogrom is Russian for “devastation. Such pogroms, along with oppressive anti-Jewish laws in force from 1881 to 1917, caused over 2 million Russian Jews to emigrate. About 75% came to America. 25,000-30,000 Russian Jews went to Palestine in the First Aliyah. Many of those who did not or could 

not leave and their children became victims of the Shoah or were later trapped by the Soviets’ anti-religious and anti-immigration policies.Czar Alexander III had decided to keep his heir, Nicholas II, known for his woeful intellect, uneducated in statecraft until age 30, but his son was only 26 when Czar Alexander III died in 1894. Nicholas, besides his lack of training, was a hardcore antisemite. From 1905 to 1916 he donated 12M rubles to print 14M copies of antisemitic publications. He held a tenuous grip on power. The Russian Revolution of 1905 saw extensive protests, military munities, and strikes. By October, Nicholas was forced to agree to form a Duma, a parliament. His vicious response to having his absolute rule reduced came the following day. The Black Hundreds, his goon squads, inflicted a coordinated campaign of ruthless pogroms in 690 Jewish communities. 

Amid this tumult, on March 12, 1911, two Russian boys, Andrey Yushchinsky and Zhenya Cherberyak, both 13, skipped school in Kiev. They had whittled branches into wooden switches and argued over whose was better. Eight days later Yushchinsky’s mutilated body was iscovered in a nearby cave with dozens of stab and puncture wounds. Reactionary, pro-Czarist groups handed out fliers at his funeral accusing “the Zhids” of a ritual murder, the notorious blood libel. 

Czar Nicholas II saw the murder as a great political opportunity. His justice ministry would orchestrate the case’s details to guarantee a Jew’s conviction. He then could brand all Jews as vile traitors to holy Mother Russia. Countless incensed Russians, led by the Black Hundreds, would instigate unparalleled pogroms to “purify” Russia once and for all of its Jews. 

The established process for a murder case was for an investigating detective to conduct an inquiry and report to the district attorney for action. Nikolai Krasovsky, Kiev’s best detective, led the probe. He turned to Yushchinsky’s friend, Zhenya Cherberyak whose mother Vera led a well-known gang linked to robbery and fencing stolen goods. Pogroms were great for her “business”. She was arrested. The justice minister pressured Krasovsky to indict a Jew for a ritual murder case. He refused, the first of four top detectives and two independent 

coroners who concluded it was not a ritual murder case. Meanwhile, Vladimir Golubev, a well-connected Kiev Black Hundreds leader, told police that Mendel Beilis was the killer. Who was Mendel Beilis? Beilis was a 37-year old Kiev brickyard foreman, army veteran and father of five. His wife Esther’s uncle had built the brickyard and an adjacent hospital for the poor. The brickyard’s profits helped fund the hospital’s operations. Both buildings were located in an area of Kiev where Jews normally could not work or live. The uncle had obtained special permission 15 years earlier for Beilis and his family to live on the factory grounds. The neighborhood children sometimes played there. 

Before dawn on July 21, 1911 Kiev’s police chief arrested Beilis in front of his terrified wife and children. Police soon placed his eldest son in the adjacent cell for three days, hoping his frightened cries would sway Beilis to confess. Vera Cherberyak, the gang leader, was then released from prison. When she left jail, her son Zhenya, the last person who had been seen with the murdered boy, was in the hospital in grave condition. Fearful that 

he knew too much, she took him home, defying doctors’ warnings. On August 8, as he was lying on his death bed, she nudged away a priest giving him last rites and kissed her son to prevent any final confession. One of the gang members had overheard the boys fighting about the switches. Yushchinsky, the murdered boy, had threatened to tell police about all the stolen property in Cherberyak’s apartment.  Gang members killed the boy using awls to make it look like a ritual murder to trigger another profitable pogrom for the gang. These facts were confessed to by two gang members well before the Beilis trial and were common knowledge by mid-1912. 

After Beilis’ July 1911 arrest, Jewish leaders hired famed defense lawyer Ozkar Gruzenberg. He recruited a team of Russia’s top lawyers. Knowing that the prosecution would forcefully attack the Talmud, he asked Moscow’s respected Chief Rabbi, Jacob Mazeh, to lead a group of Talmudic scholars to help the defense. 

During Beilis’ 26 months of torture and imprisonment, he received three indictments; his trial was delayed twice. Soon after the first indictment in 1911, Vera Cherberyak’s half-brother’s confession to the murder was printed in a Kiev newspaper. After Beilis’ May 

1912 indictment, police questioned four of the gang members. One signed a confession. When he failed in his attempt to rip it up, he jumped to his death from a 4th-story window. Despite this, the justice minister wrote a secret third indictment of Beilis in the fall of 1913. 

Beilis’ 33-day trial began October 8, 1913 with a jury of seven peasants, three townsmen and two clerks; seven of them were Black Hundreds members. Each juror was carefully chosen and prepared by secret police agents prior to the trial. In sharp contrast, the jury for a petty crime being tried in the courthouse at the same time included 10 educated men and two peasants. A secret agent, detailed to the jury as a friendly guard, sent the police chief daily reports on the jury’s discussions. Before the trial began, the justice minister promoted the trial judge, Feodor Boldyrev, and promised an even more major promotion when 

Beilis was convicted. The prosecution presumed Beilis’ co-workers, neighbors and the parish priest would testify against a Jew, but they liked and respected Beilis. Many provided credible evidence of the gang’s guilt– a loud child’s cry from Vera Cherberyak’s apartment on the day of the murder, a child’s body wrapped in a carpet in the family’s bath tub that evening, and later the blood-stained carpet rolled up under the sofa. Golubev, the Black Hundreds leader who was Beilis’ first accuser, fainted on the witness stand before saying a word and had to be carried out of the courthouse. His father said his son had spent several years in an insane asylum.  

Father Justinas Pranaitis was the prosecution’s star expert witness. The prosecution was unable find any Russian Orthodox priest willing to testify that the blood libel accusation was true. Pranaitis, born a Jew, was a defrocked Catholic priest. His 1892 pamphlet, “The Talmud Unmasked” was widely quoted in the final indictment. Judge Boldyrev allowed him to spout outrageous antisemitic rants for two days. After an intense cross examination, four simple questions exposed the priest’s almost nonexistent Talmudic knowledge. The police agent then wrote his chief that Pranaitis’ testimony was of “very low value”. 

In prosecutor O.V. Vipper’s closing argument he said, “Blood sacrifices constitute the essence of Judaism” and that the international Jewish cabal had manipulated the case. He largely ignored mentioning Beilis. Judge Boldyrev, in his instructions to the jury, argued persuasively to convict Beilis. The defense team, fearing for their safety, left Kiev before the verdict was to be announced. Beilis then stood alone to hear the unanimous “not-guilty” verdict. He had become an instant, yet reluctant, Jewish hero, the Jew who fought the reviled czar and won. 

Blood libel accusations have been prolific, resilient and persistent, despite indisputable evidence and innumerable refutations from prominent non-Jews. In the Middle Ages, the lies derived from profound ignorance of Judaism. By the late 19th century, when pseudo-scientific theories arose, they often were framed as an issue of race. 

America has not been immune from a blood libel accusation. In September 1928, two days before Yom Kippur, a ritual murder rumor began circulating after a young Christian girl went missing 

near Massena, New York. The 19-family Jewish community, led by Rabbi Berel Brennglass, Josh Kranzberg’s great uncle, quickly educated clueless town and police leaders about why the charge was false and why they should be ashamed of giving it any credibility. The girl returned unhurt a few hours before Kol Nidre. Some townspeople remained suspicious of the Jews’ intentions.

Earlier today, Ukrainian ultranationalists prayed at Yushchinsky’s grave in Kiev, as they do every March 12th, no big surprise there. After last year’s Haitian earthquake, Baroness Jenny Tonge, a physician and peer in the British House of Lords, accused Israeli relief doctors of “harvesting” organs for transplantation. Before last Christmas, Seattle’s King County Metro Transit rejected bus posters from a group alleging that Israelis kill Arabs for their organs, a macabre new twist to the old canard. 

What began over 2000 years ago in deceit and defamation continues today in deceit and defamation. Finally, with regard to the Beilis’ trial, Czar Nicholas II had, in reality, placed Judaism and the Jewish people on trial; Beilis was only a prop. During the trial the New York Times reported, “There may never have been a major trial where the accused played such a minor role”.

Am Yisrael Chai!  Shabbat shalom!