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What is a pogrom? Israeli mob attack has put a century-old word in the spotlight

A scholar of Jewish history explains how the term ‘pogrom’ lives in Jewish collective memory and why its use can be highly contentious.

Palestinians look out from a damaged building next to scorched cars in the town of Hawara, near the West Bank city of Nablus, on Feb. 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

(The Conversation) — Following the murder of two Israeli brothers in the West Bank on Feb. 26, 2023, a mob of around 400 Israelis attacked the Palestinian town of Huwara. They torched dozens of homes and cars, leaving one dead and hundreds wounded before being stopped by Israeli security forces.

Though some government leaders – including the head of the parliament’s National Security Committee – praised the mob or called for the state itself to erase the town’s existence, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned them for “taking the law into their own hands.” Others – including the top Israeli general in the West Bank – used even stronger language, calling the attack a “pogrom,” as did a statement against the attack by the Israeli Historical Society, signed by some of Israel’s most renowned historians.

According to historian of Russian Jewry John Klier, a pogrom is “an outbreak of mass violence directed against a minority religious, ethnic or social group [that] usually implies central instigation and control, or at minimum the passivity of local authorities.”

In other words, it is an explosion of mob violence by members of a majority group against a minority, with at least passive support of the state. Pogroms remind the minority of their lower place in the social order.

As a scholar of modern Jewish history, I am very aware that the use of this term is highly contentious. Because of their pivotal role in modern Jewish history in general – and the birth of Zionism and Israel in particular – pogroms have an oversize place in Jewish collective memory.

Russian origins

The Russian word was first made infamous around the world after a series of such attacks broke out against Jews across Russian-controlled Ukraine in 1881 and 1882 in response to the assassination of Czar Alexander II, which was blamed on “the Jews.” The 250 pogroms killed dozens of people and caused extensive property damage.

Despite the relatively low death toll compared with 20th-century pogroms, these first pogroms played a pivotal role in Jewish history. Millions of Jews abandoned hope in Russia and moved to the United States, while a small cadre considered Jewish national options in Palestine instead. In other words, the pogroms partially gave birth to modern Zionism.

One lone pogrom in 1903 in Kishiniv, Moldova, which killed 49 Jews, had a particularly powerful effect on Jewish politics at the time. It received worldwide condemnation, including by the renowned Russian authors Leo Tolstoy and Maksim Gorky, and was the subject of a powerful Hebrew poem, “The City of Slaughter,” that galvanized support for militant Zionism.

A man wearing a black jacket holding loose sheets of papers with lists of names on them.

A list of all 187 victims of a 1919 pogrom in the Ukrainian town of Dubova.
AP Photo/David Karp

Often the government was in fact not behind the violence and sometimes even opposed it. This was particularly the case in 1881, for example, when Russian forces even occasionally fired on the rampaging mob.

Critically, however, the dominant ethnic groups, which included Ukrainians and Russians, assumed that the Russian government was on their side. After all, there was extensive, legal discrimination against the Jewish minority and constant incendiary rhetoric by government officials.

In subsequent decades, the level of violence in Eastern Europe dramatically increased, often with the open support of the Russian authorities. Thousands were killed during two years of unrest following the first Russian Revolution in 1905, while over 100,000 Jews were killed in Ukrainian pogroms from 1918 to 1921. Pogroms continued throughout the interwar period, leading up to the Holocaust, and beyond it.

From Russia to Israel

Although the word pogrom today has grown beyond its initial Russian Jewish setting – it can describe white violence against African Americans like the 1919 Tulsa race massacre – it is still widely associated with those East European events. Using it to describe this week’s attack on Huwara – or other similar attacks in Israel or Palestine – effectively puts Israel in the place of the Jews’ historic persecutors. This is a highly uncomfortable position for many Jewish people, particularly in Israel.

It is not surprising, then, that critics on social media have argued that this cannot be a pogrom because it was not directed by the state, or because it is the result of a two-sided ethnic conflict, not an act of one-sided oppression.

However, these comments are neither historically accurate nor fair to the current situation. In today’s Israel, minority rights have been suppressed as well, particularly in the West Bank. Palestinians in the West Bank, unlike the Jewish settlers next to them, face violence and discrimination in nearly every aspect of their lives. In other words, Israeli Jews and Palestinians are today not equal partners in an ethnic rivalry.

Moreover, as in czarist Russia, the state has also suggested its sympathy for violence through incendiary rhetoric and failure to prosecute violent Jews. In fact, historical records show far more rioters were arrested and punished by Russia in 1881 than in Huwara this week, where only eight of the 400 Jewish offenders were arrested, only to be quickly released.

This failure to punish any of the perpetrators sends a message of state support for the violence even clearer than the open support in statements by leaders of the government security apparatus. Some Israeli government officials even argue that by definition there can be no such thing as Jewish pogrom.

As to why the Israeli general, the Israeli Historical Society, or the former head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abe Foxman, among others, would use the term if it is so charged? Perhaps precisely because Jewish people using the word to describe the attack on Huwara know that it’s deeply uncomfortable, and that it might shock Israelis to address the violence more appropriately.

(Joshua Shanes, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, College of Charleston. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

The Conversation

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