In the collective memory of the Jewish people, the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, in Ukraine, depicts the city’s Jews going “as sheep to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7). Kishinev was home to 125,000 people, half of whom were Jewish. After two days of mob violence, 49 were murdered, 500 wounded, women raped, 1300 homes and businesses looted and destroyed, and 2000 families left homeless. In the wake of the pogrom, Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) interviewed survivors, after which he wrote his epic poem, “In the City of Slaughter.” He crafted the city’s Jews as cowards for their passivity, for their abysmal failure to wage battle against their attackers. They were butchered outright; others watched in shocked silence as wives, daughters, and sisters were raped by Cossack thugs. Kishinev Jews desecrated the heroic name of their descendants, the warrior Maccabees.
Bialik was joined in his condemnation of Kishinev by Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940), the Revisionist Zionist leader and founder of the Jewish Self-Defense Organization in Odessa. He confirmed Bialik’s punishing verdict of Kishinev’s Jews. In his Russian language introduction to the poem, Jabotinsky concluded that the pogrom happened because Jews dwelled in “Eretz Nochria”, a ‘Foreign Land,’ without access to indispensable Jewish power.
The analogy drawn between Kishinev and the communities surrounding Gaza makes sense when viewed against the backdrop of Israeli education; high school students are nurtured on Bialik’s poetic depiction of Jewish passivity and powerlessness in the Galut, Exile. The instinctive internalized lesson, being: Never Again! It is worth noting, however, as much as Kishinev memorializes Jewish powerlessness, the historical record actually shows that Kishinev Jews acted with heroism and tenacity, as best they could, in the face of grotesque terror.
Unlike the one-dimensional characterizations penned by Bialik and Jabotinsky, the New York Yiddish press, the Forward, recorded a 1903 eyewitness account of the pogrom:
“Armed with knives and machetes, the murderers broke into Jewish homes, where they began stabbing and killing, chopping off heads and stomping frail women and small children. If such a vicious, enraged mob would have attacked a Jewish town somewhere like Volozhin or elsewhere in Lithuania, thousands of Jews would have been killed in an hour’s time. But Kishinev-Jews are tough, healthy, strong as iron and fearless. When the murderous pogromists began their horrible slaughter, Jewish boys and men came running and fought like lions to protect their weaker and older brothers and sisters. Even young girls exhibited amazing heroism. They defended their honor with supernatural strength. The Jews fought with their bare hands and the murderers, armed with machetes and knives, were primed to annihilate and decimate all the Jewish townspeople.” The counter-attack by the Kishinev-Jews was sufficiently fierce that attorneys defending the Gentile hooligans put up as their sole defense that their clients were merely responding to immense Jewish aggression!
My point: to draw an analogy with a basis in fact; Kishinev’s resistance and courage was replicated in the communities surrounding Gaza; they held on with all their might for as long as they could. Survivors tell harrowing, yet remarkable stories of courage: the nine year old brother and six year old sister who locked themselves in the closet of their safe room after obeying orders from a paramedic who supported them on the phone for hours; the parents who dared to open the window of their safe room; otherwise their week-old baby would have died from smoke inhalation; the father who, relying on his wits, went around army roadblocks to save his daughter who had partied at the music festival the night before; the soldiers who saved as many lives as they could at Kibbutz Be’eri, yet asked for forgiveness from survivors for failing to save more lives. All these instances (and more that will come to light) testify to resistance and heroism in “eretz nochria,” the foreign land.
We live with much confusion these days trying make sense of the Zionist miracle alongside the need for the State of Israel to act strategically in a global world. To denigrate Kishinev as ‘foreign land’ is synonymous with ‘Shelilat Hagolah,’ the ‘Negation of the Exile’ and as Galut. The problem with these slogans is that they negate two thousand years of cultural, spiritual, and scientific creativity in the Tefutzot, the Diaspora, (in contrast to the derogatory, Galut). Equally unsettling, such negation flies in the face of Jewish history. Wherever Jews have lived, in the Diaspora and in the Land of Israel, they have perpetually sought an alliance with the ruling powers of their time. The historian, Gerson Cohen (1924-1991), argued forcefully that “Jewish safety and security have always depended on a strong central authority that made clear its willingness to use its power in defense of its Jewish clients.” As it was under Persia, Rome, and Christian kings, our ancestors learned to cultivate strategic alliances (with both successes and failures); there was no shame to enter into calculated covenants with Gentile power-brokers. Today, we are indebted and grateful for the genuine goodwill of America’s leadership and President Biden, a Christian Zionist, as well as other Western democratic leaders. “Foreign Land” and “Negation of the Exile” no longer deserve a place in our daily conversations.
Harvey Meirovich, a Masorti rabbi, is retired professor of Jewish studies at the Zacharias Frankel College, University of Potsdam; he and his family have lived in Israel for the past thirty-four years.