In 1911, thirteen-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky, a Christian, was found murdered in a cave on the outskirts of Kiev, in what was then Russia. The child had been brutally and maliciously stabbed. Within days, rumors began to circulate that a local factory manager and Jew, Mendel Beilis, was behind the murder. The charge: he murdered the Christian child to use the blood for the baking of Passover matzah. Beilis was promptly imprisoned and suffered miserably for the next two years. The injustice of the case attracted worldwide attention. In 1913, the case went to trial.
My father, who had grown up in White Russia (now Belarus) and arrived in the US after WWI, often spoke about the terror he and his family experienced in the aftermath of Beilis’ arrest; he had witnessed the saga unfold when he was a child. I remember him telling me how scared the Jews of Shereshev, the shtetl where he lived, were to walk the streets.
Incredibly, Beilis was acquitted in the end, but his story of remarkable heroism and fortitude remained etched in the soul of the Jewish nation.
Many believe that the blood libel—the medieval charge that Jews murder gentile children—ended with the acquittal of Beilis. But this is simply not the case.
The blood libel is very much alive and well, as the war in Gaza this past summer clearly demonstrated. It is alive in the extreme Jew-hatred found in the many parts of the Muslim world. It is alive in the unabashedly anti-Semitic Arab media; it is alive in European countries with significant populations of radical Muslims, including France, England and Germany.
This past summer, the blood libel was seen everywhere—from the violent rhetoric of the Hamas leadership to grotesque signs at pro-Palestinian rallies depicting Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu drinking the blood of Palestinian children.
But the blood libels of the twenty-first century are not rooted in anti-Zionism; they are rooted in anti-Semitism. Indeed, Jews are once again afraid to go out in the streets. In France, synagogues were attacked and Jewish-owned businesses were looted. Roger Cukierman, president of France’s CRIF, the umbrella group for France’s Jewish organizations, was quoted as saying: “The [protestors] are not screaming ‘Death to the Israelis’ on the streets of Paris. They are screaming ‘Death to Jews.’”
So what are we—American Jews—supposed to do?
Firstly, we cannot afford to remain idle. We must speak out forcefully against anti-Semitism and rally support for our cause among our political friends and allies. In July, I met with key US senators along with Allen Fagin, OU executive vice president, and Nathan Diament, executive director of the OU Advocacy Center, to discuss global anti-Semitism. We also met with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough for an off-the-record conversation about the topic; McDonough promised to discuss the matter with State Department Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Ira Forman. This meeting resulted in the State Department Conference on Global Anti-Semitism. Held in September, the meeting, which we attended, included leaders of the Jewish communities of Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey. The State Department ensured us that it is monitoring the situation and pursuing diplomatic efforts to combat the rising levels of anti-Semitism. We anticipate continuing the dialogue with political leaders to ensure the security of Jewish communities around the world.
Secondly, we have been in touch with the Orthodox rabbinate in Paris and with other Jewish organizations throughout Europe to offer assistance in whatever way we can.
Thirdly, even while working to assist our brothers and sisters in Europe, we are not taking our own safety for granted. We must take every precaution to protect our shuls, our schools and our communities. At our recent Executive Directors Conference, geared for executive directors of OU shuls across the US, experts delivered detailed presentations on shul security.
Will the blood libel ever become obsolete? Most likely not. Jewish history has shown that anti-Semitism is the most persistent hatred. It changes with time—yesterday it was the Christians, today it’s the Muslims. But it never completely fades. As Orthodox Jews, what should our approach be? I think we need to be vigilant, to take precautions. We need to maintain political relationships, to keep our governmental leaders updated and informed. We cannot afford to succumb to denial. At the same time, we need to remember the words we recite each and every day in Shacharit: “Al tivtechu binidivim, beven adam she’ein lo teshuah, do not rely on nobles, nor on a human being, for he holds no salvation.” Our national salvation will not come from the prime ministers or the heads of state. It will come from He Who protected the Jewish people from the blood libels of the Middle Ages and Who continues to protect us from the blood libels of the twenty-first century.