Two other cases in the public eye frame the Mendel Beilis case – “frame” being the key word in more than one sense.
In 1894, the French army officer Alfred Dreyfus, who was Jewish, was accused of treason by passing secrets to Germany. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment on the harsh prison colony of Devil’s Island.
The Dreyfus conviction stood despite evidence pointing to another officer. Such notable writers as Ã‰mile Zola and others took up Dreyfus’ cause, even as others in French life on the right stood by his guilt.
The argument raged in the public spotlight. Dreyfus was convicted in a new trial, but was pardoned. He was later exonerated and reinstated in the army, where he served in World War One. He died in 1935.
The humiliation of Dreyfus – a “parade of degradation” held in full public view in the courtyard of the Ã‰cole Militaire in Paris – was observed by an Austrian journalist named Theodor Herzl. The horror of that scene and the masses of Frenchmen crying “Death to Dreyfus! Death to the Jews!” led Herzl to write a pamphlet entitled “The Jewish State.” With it, he breathed life into a barely emerging Zionist movement.
In the United States, meanwhile, a case involving anti-Semitism had a tragic ending. In 1913, the year of the Beilis trial, Leo Frank, superintendent of the National Pencil Company in Atlanta, was accused of murdering Mary Phagan, 13, who worked at the factory.
Frank, who came to Atlanta from New York, was vilified as a Jew from the North. He was sentenced to death, but that was commuted by Georgia’s governor, who came to doubt Frank’s guilt, to life imprisonment. In 1915, a mob, fearing that Frank’s conviction might even be overturned entirely, kidnapped him from his jail cell and lynched him. The Frank case gave birth in 1913 to the Anti-Defamation League.
It was a vulnerable time for Jews, said Etzion Neuer, the ADL’s New Jersey director.
“Today, many Jews are relatively secure, but certainly anti-Semitism continues to exist,” Neuer said. “The ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ stubbornly remains in print,” he said, referring to a publication fabricated by the czarist secret police alleging a Jewish worldwide conspiracy.
“Echoes of the blood libel continue to surface today,” he said. “Our history is forgotten at great cost to ourselves,” he said, noting the Beilis and Frank trials were among the warning shots of the Shoah to come.
Indeed, in his afterward, Jay Beilis talks about visitors to the family in the 1960s saying that the trial served as a warning to the Jews, and many left the Russian empire and Eastern Europe and thus escaped the Shoah to come.
Still, the Beilis case, arguably, is different than the other two, according to Jeremy Simcha Garber, a New York attorney who helped reissue and expand Mendel Beilis’s own version of what he went through a century ago. The case, he said, is “an integral part of the pillars of foundations of anti-Semitism. Easily the best known. That’s what separates it from Leo Frank and Dreyfus.”