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Antisemitic expressions in the early 20th century

Antisemitic expressions in the early 20th century
The pogroms of 1881 and 1882, which occurred in waves throughout the southwestern provinces of the Russian Empire, were the first anti-Jewish attacks in the Russian Empire to assume the nature of a mass movement. In the course of more than 250 individual events, millions of rubles worth of Jewish property was destroyed. The total number of fatalities is disputed among historians, but the impact of this massive outbreak of violence on the Jewish population was extreme. Coupled with the worsening of their economic state, the horrors of the pogroms led many Jews to seek a better existence for themselves.
Some joined the Zionist movement and fled for Palestine known also as the Land of Israel, while a very large number, approximately two million, ended up immigrating to the United States.
Among the Jews who remained in the Russian Empire, many were attracted to various revolutionary circles in the hopes of bettering the lives of the empire’s residents, themselves included. The increased participation of Jews in revolutionary movements had a strong effect on the development of the late 19th century antisemitism in Russia. Jews were perceived as a foreign and destabilizing force accused by counter-revolutionary forces as wanting to bring down the Russian Empire. This accusation was combined with the traditional perceptions of Jews as a worldwide threat leading to the formulation of antisemitic texts such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and a renewal of anti-Jewish violence in the early 20th century.
Two infamous manifestations of this violence were the 1903 pogroms in Kishinev where 50 Jews were killed, in the 1905 to 1907 pogroms that followed the failed 1905 revolution. In these latter pogroms hundreds of Jews were murdered by counter-revolutionary elements in places such as Odessa and Kiev. One of the major antisemitic events which took place in the Russian Empire at the time was a blood libel case known as the Beilis Affair. The affair took place in Kiev between 1911 and 1913, culminating in the trial of a Kievan Jew, Mendel Beilis, who was accused of having slaughtered a young Christian child for ritual reasons. This blood libel case is probably the most notorious case in pre-Holocaust Europe.
There was a sensational trial that took place in Kiev covered by all major newspapers in Europe, in America, The New York Times. Throughout Russia this case really broke up in two Russian society and the Russian public opinion, just like the Dreyfus Affair did a few decades before in France, meaning that you have the right-wing press that argues very blatantly and systematically that the Jews engage in this ritual and that indeed Mendel Beilis did carry out this murder and, on the other hand, you have the more liberal - you know - public voice of Russian writers - for example Tolstoy, for example - who speak out against this accusation.
What is interesting in this case is that first of all during the trial the prosecutors bring in the voice of respectable professors and religious leaders in order to legitimize the accusation - right - for the public. On the other hand, what is very interesting is that ultimately the verdict of this trial is that, while Mendel Beilis is acquitted of the crime, but in the verdict of this trial there is very clearly stated the possibility that the crime was carried out by a religious sect, which then of course leaves open the fact that this crime is indeed carried out by Jews regularly, right? Because … maybe it wasn’t Beilis himself but other Jews did it.
You know, maybe a sect of Jews did it. Maybe Hasidim did it. So it leaves this scenario of possibilities open and what is so interesting here is that if you look at what happens in the 1920’s 1930’s and later, the fact that this trial took place will legitimize at the popular level - even though Beilis was found not guilty - but it will legitimize at the popular level the idea that Jews carry out the blood libel, that they carry out ritual murder for the purposes of abusing Christian blood.

Prof. Elissa Bemporad

The pogroms of the late 19th century continued into the early 20th century, and Jews were increasingly seen as a destabilizing, conspiratorial, and anti-Russian force in this time period. One of the major antisemitic events which took place in the Russian Empire at the time was a blood-libel case known as the Beilis Affair.

What can the Beilies Affair teach us about antisemitism in late Imperial Russia on both the governmental and grassroots level?


  • Avrutin, Eugene M., Jonathan Dekel-Chen and Robert Weinberg, eds., Ritual Murder in Russia, Eastern Europe, and beyond: New Histories of an Old Accusation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017).

  • Leikin, Ezekiel, ed. and trans., The Beilis Transcripts: The Anti-Semitic Trial That Shook the World (Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1993).

  • Lindemann, Albert S., The Jew Accused: Three Anti-Semitic Affairs (Dreyfus, Beilis, Frank), 1894-1915 (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1991).

  • Zipperstein, Steven, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History (New York: Liveright, 2018).

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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