Benjamin Netanyahu, son of a historian, possesses both a literary flair and an intuitive sense of the epic sweep of Jewish history. As he opened today’s Security Cabinet meeting, he said:
‘Vengeance for the blood of a small child, Satan has not yet created.’; neither has vengeance for the blood of three pure youths, who were on their way home to meet their parents, who will not see them anymore. Hamas is responsible – and Hamas will pay.
Though without direct attribution, he was quoting H.N. Bialik’s searing poem “‘Al Hashechitah (on the Slaughter),” written in response to the Kishinev Pogrom, the bloodiest since the Khmelnytsky massacres of 1648-49. April 6, 1903, was both Easter Sunday and the seventh day of Passover, and the pogrom began as Church services ended. Though the violence was officially explained as peasants reacting against the oppression of the Tsars – rumblings that eventually would lead to the Bolshevik revolution – the Jewish community was clearly the primary target. Over the next three days, nearly 50 Jews were killed, and over 700 homes and businesses were destroyed. No attempt was made by the police or the army to intervene until the final day of the rioting. Though the extent of the damage horrified the entire world, less than thirty rioters were convicted of any crimes.
The events were so shocking and unexpected that, in relatively nearby Odessa, people did not even believe the rumors of the tragedy until refugees arrived to tell their story; improbably, they arrived at Ahad Ha’am’s Beseda club in the middle of a presentation by Vladamir Jabotinsky. The result was a powerful turning point in the desperate growth of Zionist teaching and activity in the Pale of Settlement, including Netanyahu’s own grandparents.
Bialik’s initial response to the tragedy, written quickly and emotionally, was ‘Al ha-Shechitah. Though overcome by the magnitude of the tragedy, he stops short of calling for revenge. Any vengeance, no matter how thorough, would fall short of addressing the crime. Instead he challenges God, whom he accuses of abandoning both His people and His principles. Over the next several months, Bialik dedicated himself to recording eyewitness accounts from survivors, including during his own visit to Kishinev where the devastation was still horrifically evident.
The result of his activities, which shook him to the core, was a second poem, “be-Ir Ha-Haregah (City of the Killings), perhaps his most powerful work. In this poem, the tragedy and suffering are described unsparingly, but channeled towards building courage and resolve. Convinced that there will be nobody to save the Jews from future atrocities, nobody who cares enough to intervene, it was time for the Jewish people to finally take charge of their own destiny. Whereas his first poem accused God of abandoning the innocent residents of Kishinev, in the second poem God wondered why the people did not do more to defend themselves.
Perhaps Netanyahu finds himself somewhere between Bialik’s two poems, but very much in Kishinev. As the IDF masses outside Hebron and the Security Council debates its next steps, Netanyahu may well feel that nothing he can do can serve as a adequately response, that nothing he does can meet the gravity and tragedy of what happened two weeks ago. Yet, as Prime Minister of a powerful State of Israel, with an IDF at his disposal that was not available to the Russian Jews of the early 20th century – including his own family – it does not mean that he isn’t going to try.