Trial of the (last) century
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Trial of the (last) century

Trial amid a world in flux

The Beilis case unfolded in a climate of change in the United States and Europe.

Jews in the United States in the early part of the 20th century were energized by the promise of the good life in “the golden land,” but at the same time aware of anti-Semitism, said Eli Faber, John Jay College professor emeritus specializing in Jewish American history.

In those years, young Jews were beginning to go to college and enter the professions. There was a movement away from the Lower East Side. The Yiddish press was vibrant. Yiddish newspapers were not “Jewish” newspapers, meaning newspapers filled with Jewish content. They were general circulation newspapers like the New York Herald, but written in a language other than English (in this case, Yiddish). Among readers of these newspapers there was a “sharp and keen interest in what was going on in America and in the world,” Faber said.

“There was a very upbeat attitude about what was possible in America,” Faber said. While youth gangs preyed on Jews on the streets, “pogroms didn’t happen,” he said.

At the same time, Jewish communities in the United States saw the Beilis case as a “here we go again” experience, as immigrants from Eastern Europe recalled the horror of pogroms, Faber said.

Jewish leaders here were galvanized to press for easier Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. Hasya Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at NYU, notes that they were motivated by the wave of pogroms in the early part of the century, beginning with the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, and also the Beilis case.

Clearly, Russian society was in ferment. The intelligentsia, pushing for liberal reform, was lined up against a repressive government supported by such militant chauvinist groups as the Black Hundreds, said George Pohomov, professor emeritus in Russian Studies at Bryn Mawr College.

Russia was growing industrially, with workers leaving farms for the city, he said. Government repression was harsh, with secret police keeping tabs on dissidents. There was a malaise in the country following the loss of the war with Japan and famine, and the government found it useful to shift popular discontent onto Jews as a group.

Kiev was the third largest city in the Russian empire and enjoyed at higher level of culture and a blend of nationalities – Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Poles among others, Pohomov said.

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