In 1913, the Russian empire and the world stood rapt as Mendel Beilis, a Jewish factory worker, fought for his life in a Kiev courtroom. Accused of murdering a Christian child in order to use his blood for Passover matzot, Beilis was eventually exonerated, despite the Czarist government’s efforts to ensure a conviction.
The affair, which became synonymous with politicized justice and judicial anti-Semitism, was recently invoked by another Ukrainian Jew on trial in Kiev. Accused of several politically motivated kidnappings as well as embezzlement, former Dnepropetrovsk region deputy governor Hennadiy Korban told reporters in Kiev on Tuesday he believed that there were definite parallels between the two cases.
“I can tell you one thing: history repeats itself,” he asserted, separated from the throng of reporters by the thick metal bars of his courtroom cage.
“One hundred years ago, here in Kiev in 1913, a trial of the Jew Beilis took place. This is the famous lawsuit that even then could show the absurdity of justice. Today, 100 years later, here in Kiev, we can draw a full analogy between that kind of justice and the nowadays’ one.
Then the 37-year-old father of five children was accused of all mortal sins – of eating babies, and God knows what else. Then it was a process related to anti-Semitism, and the Black Hundreds,” he said, referring to a notorious Russian anti-Jewish organization.
Korban, who runs the UKROP party and has a seat on the board of the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community, is a close political ally of former regional governor, oligarch and Jewish philanthropist Ihor Kolomoisky.
His arrest was part of a massive raid by the Security Service of Ukraine in November, which also targeted the Kolomoisky-linked Fund for the Defense of the Country and the office of Kolomoisky confidant and legislator Boris Filatov.
It is generally believed in Ukraine that the arrests came as part of an ongoing conflict between Kolomoisky and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, another oligarch. Kolomoisky, who is credited by many with stemming the side of separatism in Dnepropetrovsk following 2014’s Maidan revolution, fell out of favor with Kiev and was ousted from his position following an incident last March in which he entered the state-owned oil monopoly UkrTransNafta’s Kiev offices accompanied by several armed men after its director, his ally, was replaced.
Speaking with Politico during an interview in Geneva, however, Kolomoisky tried to distance himself from Korban, calling him “independent.”
On Wednesday, the UKROP party doubled down on Korban’s claims, issuing a press release citing “clear parallels between the cases of Beilis and Korban.”
“From comments we are seeing in social networks, it is clear that there is an organized anti-Semitic informational campaign against Korban,” party adviser Nikita Poturayev was quoted as saying. “We are seeing lots of repeated hate comments about the Jews stealing from the state and not being welcome in Ukraine. This is very dangerous and feeds into social tensions in Ukraine.”
And while the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk has called Korban’s prosecution “unacceptable and deeply wrong,” it has also refrained from implying in any way that the affair is motivated by racial or religious prejudices.
“There is no connection between his arrest and the Jewish community,” Eduard Dolinsky of the Kiev-based Ukrainian Jewish Committee told The Jerusalem Post immediately after Korban’s arrest.
In a statement on its website, the community said that Korban had recently undergone heart surgery and that “his health was seriously damaged during the selfless service to the Ukrainian nation,” adding that any investigation must be “legally irreproachable, transparent and flawless.”
Not everyone believes that Korban’s illness is real, however, with one Jewish media outlet’s European correspondent accusing him of “engaging in the timeless Ukrainian legal tradition of feigning illness to garner sympathy” and noting that hearings in the case have been marred by violence and thuggery.
Despite such coverage, however, Korban’s case has generated significant sympathy among Ukrainians, even if his invocation of Beilis has not, with some accusing the politician of playing the race card.
“I believe that the support of Gennady Korban from the side of the Jewish community is a natural and correct trend. However, I did not record any facts that would make it possible to interpret the criminal case and the trial as anti-Semitic ones. Moreover, as for me, the comparison with the Beilis case is an impermissible speculation,” Vyacheslav Likhachev, an anti-Semitism researcher affiliated with the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress and the Vaad of Ukraine, told the Post.
Rabbi Boruch Gorin, a leading figure in the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, said that while he could not bring himself to blame a prisoner for using whatever means at his disposal to defend himself, he would advise his Ukrainian co-religionist “not to make a joke of himself.”
“There are a lot of more comparable details – Beilis was also a man and he also had 2 eyes etc. But something is very different: Beilis was a victim of a cruel anti-Semitism and Korban – not. So I can wish him the best, and pray for a justice in his case, but I don’t see any anti-Semitism in it, and I do see a provoking of the anti-Semitism in these remarks comparing” the two cases, Gorin said.
Both Josef Zissels of the Vaad of Ukraine and another community leader, who declined to be identified for this article, agreed with Gorin.
Speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, the second communal official said that the entire matter was absurd and that Korban should be able to defend himself without making a “circus” out of the court.
“Beilis was a simple bookkeeper falsely accused of murdering a Christian child. Korban was in the big leagues. Leading a political party and later a political and financial war against the establishment. You can’t play in the big leagues with little league rules,” he said.
“Korban is also doing a tremendous disservice to the Jewish community by falsely ‘crying wolf’ and calling this anti-Semitic. If anything, it is financial and political. Nobody picked on him for being Jewish. They may have picked on him for acting un-Jewish.”
The issue of political anti-Semitism has been a source of contention between Russia and Ukraine since the fall of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich following a street revolution in Kiev in early 2014.
Russia has repeatedly accused Ukraine’s leaders of being neo-Nazis and fascists, while Ukrainians have blamed anti-Semitic incidents on Russian provocations.