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At Russian Forum on Historic Trial, Speakers Prefer to Focus on Present

November 24, 2003
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History isn’t always about the past.

So said participants at a round-table discussion here regarding the case of Mendel Beilis, a Jew from Kiev who spent two years in jail in the early 20th century on charges he killed a Christian boy for ritual purposes before he was found not guilty.

The discussion that took place Nov. 19 at the Central House of Journalists was supposed to focus on the role the infamous case played in educating Russians about the democratic values such as judicial independence and the rule of law.

To the surprise of the meeting’s organizers and some of those in attendance, speakers spoke little about the Beilis case per se.

Instead the participants drew parallels between the legal norms and practices in the Russian Empire in the early 20th century and those of post-Communist Russia, specifically the case against Jewish tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The bottom line of the three-hour discussion was somewhat unencouraging: Russia still has a long way to go to establish the primacy of law and the acceptance of Russia’s many minority groups.

Need proof? Take the case of Yukos, the oil giant whose Jewish founder is awaiting a trial in a Moscow prison on charges that most here see as politically motivated.

The names “Beilis” and “Yukos” were mentioned one after another by most of the participants in the discussion.

In a sense, some participants said Russia has not progressed much since 1913 when it comes to such issues as the rule of law.

“Jews always fit better than anyone else to play the role of ‘others,’ ” said Henry Reznik, arguably Russia’s best-known lawyer, who has published several works on the Beilis case.

Reznik and others said that although the Jewish roots of Yukos founder Khodorkovsky were not a primary motivation for the decision to go after him, anti-Semitism is among the reasons the criminal procedure was launched.

Some drew a direct link between the two cases.

Ninety years ago, extreme nationalist organizations known as the Black Hundreds demanded a guilty verdict for Beilis, and, with it, for all Russian Jews.

Alexander Asmolov, a psychology professor at the Moscow State University, and a former Russian cabinet member, said some economic groups that share “the same Black Hundred ideology” are lobbying the Kremlin to make it redistribute the property currently owned by Jews.

“And in both cases, the prosecutors are only fulfilling the political order they received from above,” said Asmolov.

Although many leaders in the organized Jewish community are insisting that the case of Yukos is irrelevant to concerns for Jewish well-being in today’s Russia, this week’s discussion showed how the case is echoing in some parts of the jittery Russian Jewish community.

The Beilis case was not a purely Jewish affair for Russia 90 years ago, said Oleg Budnitsky, the academic director of the International Center for Russian and East European Jewish Studies, who organizes the conference. “It was an important case for the whole Russian society.”

Similarly, he said, Russia is still learning bitter lessons as “it continues to build the foundations of a civil society.”

One of the participants in the discussion had a more personal connection to the case.

The conference’s organizers flew Jay Beilis, a grandson of Mendel Beilis, from New York to share his personal experience of being a member of a family that symbolizesd Jewish martyrdom and Russian anti-Semitism.

Jay Beilis, 50, has spent much of his time lately educating the public about his grandfather’s case.

He recalled how when he still was a boy elderly people would come to his parents’ house to thank the family whose plight gave them a sign to leave Russia.

This decision proved especially wise as it saved many from Soviet anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

But Jay Beilis wasn’t so happy about the direction the roundtable took.

“They didn’t speak about my grandfather at all,” Beilis said afterward. “He was a martyr; his name meant something to the Jewish people. Why did I travel 15,000 miles to learn that he had something in common with Khodorkovsky?”

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