Edmund Levin

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[Cross-posted from New Books in History] There is a lot of nasty mythology about Jews, but surely the most heinous and ridiculous is the bizarre notion that “they” (as if Jews were all the same) have long been in the habit of murdering Christian children, draining them of blood, and mixing said blood into Passover matzo. We know when and where the notion of “Blood Libel,” as this myth is conventionally called, appeared (12th-century England), but we don’t know why. Indeed, given the utter absurdity of the charge (Jews, of course, are forbidden to eat, drink, or consume blood in any way, shape, or form), it may be impossible for a rational mind to grasp. Even the Christian Church was vexed and, therefore, repeatedly condemned Blood Libels over the centuries that followed its appearance. Official religious disapproval–together with what might generically called “Enlightenment”–had some effect. By the late nineteenth century at the latest, clerical and civil authorities–not to mention “right-thinking people” everywhere–understood Blood Libel to be nothing but a sick fantasy.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, however, Blood Libel enjoyed a kind of renaissance at the beginning of the twentieth century, especially in the Russian Empire. And it was here that the most infamous and egregious Blood Libel of modern times occurred, the “Beilis case.” In his fascinating (and terrifying) book  A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel (Schocken, 2014), Edmund Levin takes us into the complicated, contradictory world of late imperial Russia. He introduces us to radical anti-semites, Russian nationalists,  inveterate criminals, well-meaning investigators, corrupt police officers, unscrupulous reporters, sycophantic courtiers, underhanded politicians, drunk ‘witnesses,’ pseudo-scientists, delusional quacks, and, of course, poor Mendel Beilis and his family. As Levins shows, the Beilis case was a farce from the beginning and everyone involved knew it. But it went on nonetheless. How, one wonders, could this have happened in a putatively “modern” state? Listen in to our fascinating discussion.

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