Yakov Bok, the “fixer” in Bernard Malamud’s 1966 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is an impoverished Jewish handyman in pre-Revolutionary Russia who finds himself the victim of a blood libel charge. He is accused of killing a Christian child before Passover to obtain the blood his accusers believed Jews needed to make matzah. During his three anguishing years in prison awaiting trial, Russian officials repeatedly try to extract a “confession” from him-in order to incite popular antisemitism against other Jews and justify more pogroms. Yakov describes himself as “an unpolitical man,” a “freethinker,” and a loner, but he is not willing to settle for less than clearing his name in court-and that of every other Jew in Russia.
The Fixer is based on the true story of Mendel Beilis, who was arrested in Kiev in 1911 and eventually declared innocent in a jury trial in 1913 — a trial that only took place after an international outcry against the reactionary government of Russia for using antisemitism to divert the growing movement for democracy within Russia.
Malamud’s gripping novel recreates a historical moment when Russia had targeted its Jewish population for extinction, or as one official put it: a third through emigration, a third through conversion, and a third through death. It depicts the Russian government’s unscrupulous use of medieval Christian myths and superstitions to bolster the tsarist regime. It also reveals the courage of ordinary people fighting for truth and justice. Yakov Bok is an emotionally-complex character-a broken and discouraged man in flight from himself even before his ordeal begins-who nevertheless finds the resources for heroism.
The Beilis case was one of many famous “show trials” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries intended to exploit popular prejudices against Jews for political ends. In Damascus, 1840, seven Jews were imprisoned on a blood libel charge and brutally forced to confess; in France, 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of treason after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War; in Stalinist Russia, 1953, nine doctors, including six Jews, were convicted of poisoning Soviet politicians, allegedly directed by American intelligence; most recently in Iran, ten Jews were convicted of spying for Israel. Israel’s foreign minister, who denied that any of these men had spied for Israel, said: “The entire trial, conducted behind closed doors-in which the judge is also the prosecutor and investigator, and the accused immediately and publicly confess their alleged guilt to the media-is reminiscent of show trials from the dark periods of modern history.”
(Reprinted from Reform Judaism Magazine with permission.)
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