Historic trials still relevant, says Nelson
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Historic trials still relevant, says Nelson

In 1911, Mendel Beilis, Jewish father of five, was accused of murdering a 13-year-old boy in the Ukraine to use his blood for matzoh. While Beilis was ultimately found not guilty, he spent two years in prison on charges of ritual murder. So egregious was the anti-Semitism surrounding the event that it precipitated an international outcry.

"Beilis was a customer at my father’s dairy store," says Ben Nelson, professor of English and Comparative Literature at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, who launched a three-part series, "The Crucible of Justice — Three Trials That Rocked the Jewish World," at the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne on April ‘.

While the Beilis trial is not one of the three Nelson tackles in this series, he says, "It caught my imagination." Not only did Nelson hear stories about Beilis from his father, but his interest was kindled further when he read and later taught "The Fixer," by Bernard Malamud, which is based on the Beilis trial. "I was fascinated by this," says Nelson, and "my interest grew like Topsy."

On Sunday, Nelson spoke about the Dreyfus affair in France, which he describes as "an electrifying case that split a nation, stunned a continent, and had a profound and far-reaching impact on world Jewry." The trial — a political scandal that divided France during the 1890s and early 1900s — involved the wrongful conviction of Jewish military officer Alfred Dreyfus for treason.

This week, Nelson will focus on the Leo Frank case, which he calls "one of the most terrifying and shameful instances of justice gone mad in American history — a frightening refutation of the glib belief that ‘it can’t happen here.’" In 1913, Frank, a young Jew born in Texas and raised in New York, was tried and convicted of raping and murdering a 13-year-old girl in Atlanta, where Frank managed a pencil company owned by his uncle. The degree of anti-Semitism involved in Frank’s conviction and subsequent lynching inspired both Jews and non-Jews throughout the country to protest his conviction.

Nelson teaches the Rosenberg case, which took place in the United States in the 1950s, in two installments: "the hunted" and "the haunted." In part one, he will discuss the cold war, McCarthyism, and the climate of terror in the decade following World War II. Part two, which deals with the period following the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for conspiracy to commit espionage, looks at the trial’s "disturbing aftermath."

Nelson notes that during the McCarthy era, many of those whose loyalty was called into question were Jewish.

"The words ‘Northeastern, Jewish, Socialist, Communist’ came together as a noun, not as adjectives," he says. Not only was the Jewishness of the Rosenbergs a factor in their case, he adds, but the Jewishness of the prosecutor, attorney general, and judge — striving to prove their patriotism and uphold their role as "loyal defenders of the country" — was significant as well.

While anti-Semitism was "right out in front" in the Dreyfus and Frank cases, says Nelson, "it was bubbling not so far under the surface" in the Rosenberg case.

Describing the three cases as "inherently dramatic," Nelson says he will focus on both short-term and long-term effects, not only for Jews but for the wider community as well, particularly in the area of civil rights. "This is not finished history," he says. "[It’s] still having consequences."

Of the Rosenberg case, which, he says, involved "a suspension of civil rights," Nelson notes that "this is happening today in the name of patriotism" and that "we are [close] in some ways to the climate of fear and anxiety" engendered by the trial. Nelson says that "Good Night, and Good Luck," the new movie about CBS News broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, is "disturbingly relevant" today.

Nelson says that while his discussions of the trials are meant to "entertain listeners, in a serious sense" and help them "relearn about these trials in more detail," he also wants to "open their minds" so that they will think "more about what these trials meant," and continue to mean, to the community.

For further information about the series, which continues through April 30, call Cheryl Wylen at (973) 595-0100, ext. ’36.

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