When people ask me why my organization, the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, is hosting an International Conference on Anti-Semitism this week (October 15-16) in Kiev in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the infamous "blood libel" trial of Mendel Beilis in this city, I respond with the famous aphorism that those who fail to learn the lessons are condemned to repeat them. Today, there is ample reason for concern in my country, Ukraine, across Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, that if people of conscience of all backgrounds do not join together to oppose modern-day anti-Semitism and other forms of xenophobia and national chauvinism, the contagion of irrational hatred that led to horrors like the Beilis trial could again grow stronger and more dangerous.
Our conference, which is supported by the Ukrainian Chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and is bringing together leaders of civil society organizations from around the world, offers participants the chance to recall with shame the Beilis trial and the terrible pogroms that took place across the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. Incredible as it may seem today, Beilis, a Jew who was supervisor of a brick factory in Kyiv, was arrested in 1911 by the secret police of Czarist Russia and accused of murdering a 13-year-old Christian child, Andrei Yushchinsky, in order to use his blood in order to make matzoh for Passover. During the ensuing two years in which Beilis was held in appalling conditions in a freezing and filthy cell, it became widely known that little Andrei had actually been murdered by a criminal gang after stumbling upon the hiding place where they kept stolen goods. Gang members stabbed Andrei repeatedly and then drained the blood from his body in order to make it look like a ritual murder for which Jews could be implicated.
Despite a high-profile international campaign for his release, Beilis was brought up for trial in the autumn of 1913. After prosecution efforts to link the defendant to the murdered boy collapsed, several supposedly learned theological experts were brought forward to make the ridiculous claim that Jews in fact engage in ritual murder. In his instructions to the jury, the judge urged them to never to forget that "There are people who drink our blood." To the surprise of many, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty against Beilis. Yet they also ruled that Andrei Yuschinsky had indeed been the victim of a ritual murder; thereby buttressing the blood libel against the Jewish people. The Beilis trial was the subject of Bernard Malamud's great novel, The Fixer.
Anti-Semitism was a tragic legacy of both Czarist Russia and the subsequent Soviet regime, which oppressed Ukraine from the 17th century until 1991, when our country at last achieved its independence. Since then, tolerance of people of various faiths and nationalities has been one of the new Ukraine's greatest achievements. Jews have played prominent roles in every aspect of the political, cultural and economic life of our country.
Unfortunately, over the last two years, a movement has appeared in our midst that grotesquely calls itself Svoboda ("freedom") but which trades in crude anti-Semitism and Nazi-like imagery, while seeking to pit Ukrainian citizens of diverse nationalities against each other. Leaders of this movement have demonized Jews and falsely accused them of seeking to dominate Ukraine. There have even been cases of anti-Semitic violence connected to this movement. Today, Svoboda is represented in the Ukrainian Parliament.
The blood-stained history of the 20th century -- both the Beilis trial and the rise of Nazism in the 1930s -- not only show us the bestial nature of Jew-hatred, but remind us that terrible events can take place when good people remain silent in the face of evil. It is for this reason that all political parties and factions in our country should publicly affirm that they will refuse to cooperate with Svoboda and other modern-day neo-fascists whether in the halls of Parliament or on the streets. A policy of "zero tolerance" for anti-Semitism and xenophobia needs to apply if we are to ensure that our country never returns to a dark past.
There must be a similar zero-tolerance response in other parts of Europe in response to the rise of anti-Semitic and xenophobic parties like Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary, and a rejection of the extreme anti-Jewish rhetoric that has gained ascendance in some part of the Muslim world. We know from history that anti-Semitism is the proverbial canary in the coal mine; once it gains a foothold in a society, political totalitarianism and all manner of bestial behavior of man against man become possible. We hope our conference in Kiev will help sound the alarm and remind people in Ukraine and around the world that the time to take a stand against anti-Semitism, xenophobia and all forms of bigotry is right now.
Oleksandr Feldman is president of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee and a member of the Parliament of Ukraine.