Slanders of Israel and Jews are rife on today’s university campuses, in the media, and from the rostrums of international institutions. How to respond? Many try to reason with their accusers on the grounds of countervailing facts and figures. Facing a similar situation over a century ago, a great Zionist leader cautioned otherwise. Rather than assuming the posture of a defendant trying vainly to win the good will of one’s antagonist, it was far better to carry the battle to the other side.
The occasion was this. On July 21, 1911, police in Kiev arrested Mendel Beilis, a Jewish factory foreman, for the murder of an eleven-year-old Christian boy named Andrei Yushchinsky who had been found dead four months earlier. Beilis was charged with having killed the boy in order to use his blood to bake matzah, a practice allegedly required by Jewish tradition. Such libels, especially common in medieval Europe, had largely gone out of fashion by the 20th century—but not completely so.
After Beilis’s arrest, the press played a major role in turning the “Beilis affair” into a cause célèbre that attracted global attention. The defense, led by a brilliant Jewish lawyer named Oskar Gruzenberg, included prominent Russian liberals, both Jewish and Gentile. On the prosecution’s side, the case against Beilis was aided from without by propagandists—some likely hired by the government, others connected with the monarchist, anti-Semitic organization known as the Black Hundreds—who spread anti-Semitic canards among the Russian populace.
In 1913, the trial came to an end as the jury, made up of uneducated Ukrainians, delivered a mixed verdict: Mendel Beilis was not guilty of ritual murder, but a ritual murder had indeed taken place. Beilis immigrated to the United States in 1921.
Historians have persuasively argued that the accusations against Mendel Beilis were concocted by high-ranking Russian officials at the behest of Tsar Nicholas II, in an effort to divert public anger from the regime’s incompetence and onto a Jewish scapegoat. Indeed, for the tsar, Beilis’s acquittal was a major embarrassment both at home and internationally.
But the Beilis affair had many other repercussions as well, not least among Russian Jewish intellectuals. Vladimir Jabotinsky was one of them. Born in 1880, he had pursued a successful career as a Russian-language journalist, playwright, and literary critic. By 1903, however, the year of an infamous pogrom in Kishinev—itself sparked by similar accusations of child murder and evidently condoned and abetted by local officialdom—he had embraced Zionism and would quickly distinguish himself within the nascent movement as a powerful spokesman and leader.
Jabotinsky’s maturing ideas—especially about the need for Jewish self-defense and national self-respect—is amply evident in the article below, published in Russian in 1911 and presented here in English for the first time. “Instead of Apologizing” reflects at once an important trend in Zionist thought and Jabotinsky’s own growing alienation from Russia. Still very much on display in the piece is his effortless command of the Russian language and Russian literary culture. At the same time, the underlying message is one of escape from his birthplace. Ultimately, Jews needed a homeland, and a state, of their own.
Instead of Apologizing (1911)
Translated (with explanatory notes in square brackets) by Conor Daly and Brian Horowitz.
Taking a long, hard look at the current penchant for accusations of ritual murder, one is left with a most oppressive feeling—a feeling that any impressionable individual will find hard to bear. Just think about it: these things are being said about us—about me, about you, about your mother! So whenever we Jews speak with a Gentile, we must remain aware, every one of us, that our interlocutor may at that very moment be cowering to himself and thinking, “How do I know that you, too, haven’t been tippling from the glass of ritual murder?” Just try and get your head around that! I mean, when it comes down to it, this is even worse than everything else we have to put up with in this prison of a country.
I can imagine that an impressionable person—if he reflects on this accusation and all of its ramifications—may be driven mad with resentment and despair, or at least will need to sob and tear his hair out. A person less fainthearted but still naïve will need to run outside and grab passersby by their coattails and try to prove to them, until his throat is hoarse, that this is slander and that we are not guilty of anything of the sort.
But in the end someone who has been blind from birth (and we have very many people like that) will take a different course of action. He will console himself with the usual soothing phrases: that no one really believes in such absurdities; that even those making the accusations do not themselves believe them; that the blood libel is merely a political tactic; that the entire sensible segment of the Christian community (which naturally constitutes its majority) will never listen to such slander, and is even scandalized by it—in a word, that everything is just fine, and that [in the words of General Fyodor Radetsky after having overcome a Turkish onslaught] “all is calm on Shipka Pass.”
I am not one of those impressionable people who cry out in amazement, nor am I one of those naïve people who make excuses, nor one of those blind-from-birth folks who cannot see what is happening right under their noses. I must dissociate myself most emphatically from the last category. It is all very fine and convenient to imagine that your enemies are mere charlatans and fraudsters, but in the long run this kind of oversimplified explanation of an enemy’s psychology always leads to the severest outcomes. By no means are all of our enemies dimwits, and by no means are all of them liars. I strongly advise my coreligionists not to delude themselves on that score.
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The Russian right wing includes some people who are wholly sincere. These people believe with complete sincerity that Jews really do use the blood of Christian children in their food, or at least a sect of Jews does so. These people may also believe with complete sincerity that this fact makes the murder of Andrei Yushchinsky suspicious and in need of being investigated most meticulously, lest rich Jews grease the palms of Russia’s august judiciary and the whole matter end in a cover-up. So it will not be as easy or as straightforward to rid ourselves of these people as many of us think it will. As a matter of fact the whole thing is far more complicated.
It is particularly complex because a belief in ritual murder is widespread not only among right-wingers. Within the neutral, non-partisan rank and file—even within the intelligentsia—suspicions are far from having been eradicated. It is absurd and stupid to sweep this fact under the carpet. Hasn’t any one of us who has ever had the occasion to meet Christians heard even the nicest of them openly admit to harboring such doubts about Jews?
To be sure, nice people don’t express these doubts in such a crude manner. They usually say something like “Of course, we’re sure this isn’t something you or your relatives would know about, but . . . maybe it is something your rabbis know about? Aren’t there many ancient religions whose most elevated secrets are known only to the initiated few?”
Others, even nicer and making even greater allowances, ask the question thus: “Is it perhaps some particular sect? Can you guarantee that you know each and every sect in the bosom of Jewry and all the secrets of each? After all, we have our own zealots, members of obscure schismatic groups. Can we be held responsible for them? So why get so worked up, issuing sweeping denials of something that might really be happening?”
Many of our very nicest neighbors talk just like that. And incidentally I’m not being in any way ironic when I call them nice; I’m quite serious. Totally respectable, utterly well-meaning people out there actually do express themselves just so. If you insist otherwise, I will simply respond that you are telling a lie. They exist and every one of us has had the opportunity to see and hear them. And how many others are there who won’t say such things out loud but are thinking the same or even worse?
And another thing: where is the guarantee that only the non-partisan and neutral classes cling so tenaciously to this suspicion? Can a person join the [liberal] Constitutional Democratic party only if he first eradicates all of his prejudices, even those that have become ingrained over centuries? Is there no place among the ranks of the moderate socialist Trudovik party for someone who subscribes to the party’s whole program but nevertheless cannot put hand on heart and swear that the Talmud—a text he is under no obligation to know—does not contain a paragraph on ritual murder?
I don’t wish to pursue this line of reasoning any farther leftward on the political spectrum; I remind you only that Russian left-wing parties are made up primarily of peasants and factory workers of recent peasant origin. Our blind-from-birth folks are making a painful mistake [in denying the presence of anti-Semites among the socialists], and they will come to regret it even more painfully.
Mistaken, too, are the naïve people—I mean those who at the drop of a hat will strike a theatrical pose and launch into a speech for the defense. Their arguments are just as predictable as the charges made by their adversaries: the same thing over and over, ad infinitum. First, evidence is produced that the Jewish religion forbids the use of blood, and next comes the argument that the most high-profile ritual trials have always resulted in the triumph of truth, the vindication of the innocent, and the opprobrium of slanderers.
The masses do not listen to these arguments and pay them no attention. Their reaction to the long list of “not guilty” verdicts is that the Jews have suborned the courts. Their reaction to the long list of texts forbidding the use of blood is that one additional text permits it—and that’s the one you’ve refused to cite. The whole train of argumentation disappears into the void, like water from a leaky bucket.
I have no objection in principle to a defense based on documents and sources, but it is useful only at the right time and place. It belongs in court. It belongs in a real parliament, but only in a real one, where serious examination of serious questions is actually taking place [as opposed to the mostly symbolic role played by the Russian Duma after the failed 1905 revolution]. When, instead of a parliament, we have a “meeting” (to use a flattering term for it) where curses, insults, and calls to “beat [the Jews]” ring from the podium, where no one listens to reason and no one is interested in documents—then fine oratory in support of the plaintiffs has absolutely no value and makes no sense whatsoever.
Two-hundred rabbis have sworn in print (for the umpteenth time) that Jews do not drink the blood of infants and, though no one has noticed, we haven’t even heard a proper snarl from the anti-Semitic press: it has just passed the story by without a second glance. Speeches past and future on the topic of admitting Jewish deputies to the Duma have left—and will leave—the same impression. Documentary evidence and testimony will be considered in those situations where people come together in order to investigate matters calmly and impartially. But in an atmosphere of rabble-rousing, of frenzy, and of “beat them with whatever you can lay your hands on,” all fine words of justification are out of place.
They may even do harm. For several years now, Jews in Russia have all too frequently found themselves sitting on the defendants’ bench. That is not their fault. But what definitely is their fault is this: they have been behaving like people on trial for a crime. We are continually justifying ourselves at the top of our voices. We swear that we are in no way revolutionaries, we do not shirk our soldierly obligations, and we haven’t sold Russia to the Japanese.
Then out jumps [the Jewish socialist terrorist Evno Fishelevich] Azev and we start swearing that we are not guilty, that we are not at all like him. Out jumps [the Jewish anarchist assassin Dmitry Grigorievich] Bogrov and once again we are being hauled into the dock by the scruff of our necks and once again we take on the role forced on us and we start justifying ourselves.
Instead of turning our backs on our accusers because we have nothing to apologize for and no one to apologize to, we swear again that we are here for no reason, and to drive the point home we start enthusiastically denouncing Bogrov, even though, at the hour of his magnificent end, that unfortunate young man—whatever kind of fellow he was—had already suffered enough abuse without us at the hands of those ten blackguards from the cesspit of Kiev’s Black Hundreds [who gathered to cheer his hanging].
Now they have raised a rumpus over ritual murder, and once again we have taken on the role of prisoners on trial: we press our hands to our hearts, with quivering fingers we leaf through old stacks of supporting documents that no one is interested in, and we swear right and left that we do not consume this drink, that never has a drop of it passed our lips, may the Lord smite me on the spot. . . .
How much longer will this go on? Tell me, my friends, are you not tired by now of this rigmarole? Isn’t it high time, in response to all of these accusations, rebukes, suspicions, smears, and denunciations—both present and future—to fold our arms over our chests and loudly, clearly, coldly, and calmly put forth the only argument which this public can understand: why don’t you all go to hell?
What kind of people are we that we have to justify ourselves before them? And who are they to demand it of us? What is the point of this whole comedy of putting an entire people on trial when the verdict is known in advance? How does it benefit us to participate voluntarily in this comedy, to brighten up these villainous and humiliating proceedings with our speeches for the defense?
Our defense is useless and hopeless, our enemies will not believe it, and apathetic people will pay no attention to it. The time for apologies is over.
Our habit of constantly and earnestly justifying ourselves before every kind of ne’er-do-well has already brought us much harm, and will bring us still greater harm. The public has become accustomed to it; people have gotten used to hearing from our lips the plaintive tone of a prisoner in the dock, tragically confirming the familiar adage qui s’excuse s’accuse (whoever excuses himself, accuses himself). It is we who have gotten our neighbors used to thinking that for every Jew caught with his hand in the till, a whole ancient people may be dragged to account—a people that was already passing laws when its neighbors hadn’t even come up with the idea of the bast shoe.
Each accusation generates such a furor in our community that people naturally think: “Look how afraid they are of everything! Clearly they have a guilty conscience.” And it is precisely because we are always at the ready to put our arms down straight by our sides and swear the oath of allegiance that the population has come to hold the ineradicable view that we are some kind of peculiarly furtive tribe. We think that our continual readiness to subject ourselves without a murmur to searches, to turn out our pockets, will finally convince humanity that we are honorable people. We are constantly saying, “Look at us! We are such gentlemen! We have nothing to hide!”
But that is an outright error. Real gentlemen will never allow anyone to search their apartments, their pockets, or their souls for any reason whatsoever. Only people under surveillance are prepared to be searched at any time of day or night. And that is precisely the position we are putting ourselves in, thus tempting the most terrible danger of all: suppose we are framed for theft?
Until now, accusations of ritual murder have almost always come our way in the clumsiest and crudest manner. But it is perfectly possible that in this area, too, recent refinements might come into play. A virtuoso may present himself, someone who can develop such a careful, systematic plan, anticipating and dealing with all unexpected developments, as to achieve an absolutely dazzling result. There is nothing improbable about such a scenario. Anti-Semites now count among their ranks some very educated people and, what is more, some very rich and powerful individuals with access to the most reliable methods of forgery and distortion.
It is not so difficult nowadays to find a Jewish false witness: a commodity in no short supply in earlier times but particularly plentiful now. Which means that a drama of ritual murder could be acted out in our midst that appears so plausible that even the most honorable and unbiased judge will be of two minds about it. What will we say then—we who have been basing our whole defense on the fact that most judges till now have been finding in our favor?
But I think that another scenario, far more terrifying, is possible and even very likely. Jewry has become highly overstrung; as a people, we seem to show the highest number of mentally ill individuals. In the atmosphere of persecution created by this fairy-tale of ritual killing, maniacs could emerge in our midst who are obsessed by this very same fairy-tale. If I am not mistaken, there was just such a case in 16th-century Padua when a Jew named David Morpurgo went mad and started shouting that he wanted the three-year-old daughter of a Catholic neighbor brought to him so that he could cut her throat and sprinkle matzah with her blood. The rabbis tied him up and handed him over to the authorities.
Fortunately, it was obvious in that case that the man was mad, so the affair did not end in a pogrom. But over the last 400 years our nerves have become seriously frayed, and it would be no surprise if some more sophisticated maniac were to emerge who wouldn’t just start shouting about such a deed but would actually go and do it. I think we are strangely lucky that nothing like this has happened up to now.
Don’t forget the nightmare we are living under, or the atmosphere of fear in which our young people are being brought up. We have seen people previously becoming obsessed with revolution, terror, and expropriation. The current epidemic of suicides contains an undoubted undercurrent of mental disturbance. And the recent outbreak of venereal disease also threw up a noticeable contingent of obviously syphilitic lunatics.
If a misfortune of the kind I’ve described does occur, what will we say? What theories will we pull out of our back pockets? We will be relying on the courts and experts for vindication of our people’s good name. If they determine that the perpetrator was mad, then our honor will be saved; but if a maniac like Jack the Ripper comes along—someone moderate and well-balanced in every respect save that of his own psychopathology—and if the experts declare him to be of sound mind, will we be tacitly admitting our dishonor once and for all? That will be the incontrovertible inference to be drawn from our uncontrolled tendency to react to every reproach, to accept responsibility on behalf of our whole nation for each transgression perpetrated by an individual Jew, to justify ourselves before every Tom, Dick, and Harry, including the most disreputable among them.
I regard this approach as fraudulent to its very core. The reason that we are not liked is not because all kinds of accusations are leveled against us: no, they level accusations against us because they do not like us.
That is why there are so many of these accusations; that is why they are so diverse and so contradictory. One day people are shouting that we exploit the poor, the next day that we are sowing socialism and leading the poor to revolt against their exploiters. One Polish newspaper recently claimed that the Jews partitioned Poland and handed it over to the Russians, while a hundred Russian newspapers claim that Jews want to partition Russia and hand it over to Poland. The Italians are saying that attacks on them in the European media are organized by the Jews, and the Turks are saying that the Jews put Italy up to capturing Tripoli [in its 1911 invasion of Ottoman Libya].
What is the point of reacting to all of this shrieking and barking with sworn statements, reassurances, and pledges? There is no point, and it should be unthinkable to behave thus. As soon as we rebut one argument, another is born. There are no limits to human spite and stupidity.
Justifications are worth making only at those rare, exceptionally important junctures when there is full certainty that a court really does have equitable intentions and appropriate competence. But to make apologies into a way of life, to bring them into meeting-places (even if one happens to be called a parliament) and onto the volatile columns of newspapers—that means humiliating ourselves and bringing ourselves down to the level of barking dogs.
We have nothing to apologize for. We are a people, just like all peoples; we have no pretensions to be any better. One of the first conditions of equal rights is that we claim for ourselves the right to have our own blackguards, just as other peoples have theirs. Yes, we have subversives, human traffickers, draft dodgers. Not only do we have them, but what is truly odd is that we have so few of them under present circumstances. Other peoples have an abundance of this kind of human asset, as well as embezzlers, pogromists, and torturers. But so what? They live side by side as neighbors and have no scruples about it.
At the end of the day, whether they like us or not should make no difference to us whatsoever. We do not practice ritual murder, and we never did; but if they absolutely must believe “there is this one sect . . . ,” well, let them go ahead and believe whatever their imaginations come up with. What business is it of ours and why should it worry us? Do our neighbors blush because Christians in Kishinev hammered nails into the eyes of Jewish infants [during the bloody 1903 pogrom]? Not at all. They walk along with their heads held high—and quite rightly, because the persona of a people is sovereign, is accountable to no one, and is not obliged to explain itself, even when something happens that requires explanation.
Why should we be happy to be thrust into the dock—we who have heard these same slanders for centuries, and know what they add up to, for ourselves and for them? We are not obliged to give account to anyone, we are not sitting for an exam, and no one is entitled to demand an answer from us for any charge he wishes to direct our way. We were here before them, and we will be leaving after them. We are fine just the way we are. We will not be any different, nor do we want to be.