Two Views of Jews: Bernard Malamud, Maurice Samuel, and the Beilis Case
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Two Views of Jews:
Bernard Malamud, Maurice Samuel, and the Beilis Case

Imagine my dismay when I opened my e-mail inbox on the morning of August 19, 2009 to find two messages that a leading Swedish newspaper reported that Israeli soldiers are kidnapping and killing Palestinians in order to steal their body parts. The headline in Aftonbladet, Sweden's largest left-leaning daily newspaper, read "They plunder the organs of our sons;" the double page spread article was given pride of place in its "Culture" section, quoting Palestinian reports that young men from Gaza and the West Bank had been abducted by the IDF and returned to their families—but with missing organs. The reports I read online that day were in Haaretz and Honest Reporting. I was outraged—and more than a bit skeptical. It couldn't be, I thought, that in this day and age, in the twenty-first century, we were facing a blood libel accusation. But the reports about this bizarre case kept showing up all over the Internet and on YouTube; and finally on August 24, David Harris, the Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, published a scathing letter in the Jerusalem Post to Foreign Minister Bildt of Sweden in which he charged, "despite many requests, you have chosen not to comment on the article's unfounded, indeed ludicrous, allegations."

This latest episode in the rampant spread of lies about Jews came at exactly the moment when I was working on a study of two books published in 1967 about a blood libel case that had occurred in Russia in 1913. Obviously, the convergence of the 2009 news and the 1967 books about a 1913 crime was enough to shake my faith in progress. How could it be that in the twenty-first century we were still fending off medieval myths about our ritual depravities? How could it be that after the Enlightenment, after the pogroms, after the Holocaust, after the great contributions of the Jews to modern civilization, such primitive accusations would not die [End Page 90] of shame? But, it appears, they still live. Perhaps, I thought, my study of the two modern books would reveal some sort of an answer.

Maurice Samuel's history of the setup, trial, and acquittal of a Russian-Jewish bricklayer, Mendel Beilis, titled Blood Accusation, was published in the United States in 1966 by Alfred Knopf. In an odd coincidence, only a few weeks later Bernard Malamud's prize-winning novel, The Fixer, a fictional rendering of the incarceration of Mendel Beilis, was published in the United States by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. The coincidence, if it was a coincidence, piqued my curiosity. What could have been the motivation for two major American Jewish writers to return to a story that took place in Czarist Russia half a century before, a story that could be thought of as the poor man's Dreyfus? A good place to start looking for clues might be to note the events in the few years preceding the publication of these books. In 1966, Elie Weisel's report of his trip to the Soviet Union appeared in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharanot. It would soon become his powerful book The Jews of Silence. In this work he reported that despite discrimination and lack of freedom, Russian Jews still wanted "to remain Jews" (vii). The book brought to the attention of the Western World the grim situation of the imprisoned Soviet Jews (1987). The Jewish community, however, really had known it before—ever since Golda Meir's trip to Russia in 1948 as the first Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.S.R. when she was smothered with acclamation outside the Moscow synagogue on Rosh Hashanah by 40,000 Jews seeking to get a glimpse of her. Their unspoken message was clear; it was not good for the Jews in Russia, and they gloried in Golda as the icon of the new State of Israel.

Two years before Elie Wiesel's report, in 1964, the musical Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway. Set in 1905, the year of the failed Revolution and six years before the...