Michael Bernstein

Kishinev in Zion: On These Slaughters

Le-Metim ‘al kidush ha-shem be-Kishinov (Dedicated to the Martyrs of Kishinev). E. M. Lilien. 1903
Le-Metim ‘al kidush ha-shem be-Kishinov (Dedicated to the Martyrs of Kishinev). E. M. Lilien. 1903

Easter of 1903 in the Bessarabian capital of Kishinev a mob of hundreds fanned out across the Jewish community and wreaked upon them horrific violence, a pogrom, in which 49 Jews were murdered, hundreds were seriously injured and many were brutalized, disfigured, and raped. In a pair of tortured laments  Hayyim Nachman Bialik captured the horror that befell the Jews at the hands of frenzied mobs whipped up by blood libels and religious attacks. His sharp and unsparing depiction of the meekness of the doomed community helped inflame the cause of Zionism, a bold return not only to the Land of Israel but to strength and pride of a people that can defend themselves. One hundred and twenty years later, many times the number of Kishinev victims were slain in Israel. Many have noted that even when the confirmed numbers were much lower, the number of Jews murdered on Saturday were the most since the end of the Holocaust.  What strikes me is not just the numbers but the way those who fell and some who survived were without defense as the terrorists had free reign to perpetrate what can only be called a pogrom.

Kishinev was for many a death knell for the reliance on Divine Providence as protection and Bialik mocks those who were still worried about the halakhic implications of what transpired. If that led many to a stronger connection to a Zionist alternative then it could be said that the Hamas assaults laid waste to the certainty of self protection that was a core of the Zionist vision. Jews not only died, as happens in war, but had to run and hide hoping their assailants would not find them. Like happens in a pogrom. But the lama azavtani “Why do you forsake me” of Kishinev was to the Heavens. In Kfar Aza it was to Tzahal, the Israeli army. The words were spoken into cellphones not hurled at the heavens.

If the horrors of Kishinev conveyed through Bialik’s lens moved the national consciousness from reliance on the Heavens to reliance on Zionism and the building of a Jewish State, what will be the aftermath of experiencing the failure of this State to prevent slaughter on an even greater scale?  Will voice be given to the sickening sense of helplessness as Bialik railed against those who passively waited for Divine intervention or, worse, accepted upon themselves martyrdom? 

It took time to move from Kishinev to Zion, even if the vision was well-formed within a few years. And before the dream could be fulfilled the nightmare fell on the greater part of European Jewry taken to slaughter in numbers still unfathomable.  A Jewish State was meant to preempt such a horror but instead has become the means of ensuring “Never Again.”

Perhaps the most salient resonance between “On the Slaughter” and the aftermath of Hamas’ brutality is in the last stanza in which Bialik manages to provide language that both incites and dismisses the possibility of revenge: 

But cursed be the one who says; Avenge! Revenge like this, revenge for the blood of a small child  Satan has not yet created

The second part is often amplified on its own, including both recently and before Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the last major Gaza War, by the Prime Minister himself. Revenge of the blood of a small child. Children. Babies. Whole families. The fact that these words are encased in the forswearing of the possibility of such revenge hardly blunts their power to stir just such vengeance.  

For Bialik, the coup de grâce is that he can summon to mind a Divine substitute for human vengeance even though or, maybe, especially because, he is no longer waiting for the Heavens to have their say: 

And let the blood pierce the abyss! Let the blood pierce through the deep-dark abysses, and devour, in the darkness, and breach there all the rotting foundations of the earth.

The question becomes whether the calculus on which Bialik relies changes when the State of Israel enters the picture.  No longer defenseless before pickaxes and bullets but in fact capable of meting out just such punishment as Bialik himself described. Is this how Zion answers Kishinev?

Or is the rule still in place?  Can we still hold to Bialik’s resignation that human vengeance on any scale is no comfort and no improvement on the days in which Jewish life could not be protected. That if Jews have to hide in cellars, whether from Cossacks, Nazis or Hamas terrorists, no inflicting of payback is enough.  Zionism’s success requires the strength to protect and not to avenge.

The war we are in now will not be able to produce an answer to these questions and in fact will push them further under the surface, bury them in rubble.  To sift through and find what damage was unavoidable in the service of defense and what came from a willingness to show more strength, will be impossible.  Especially because within the rubble there will be new landscapes of slaughter.  

At some point however we will have to take in the fact that even though we left Kishinev, Kishinev never left us.  The army and border fences cannot keep us safe from these traumas even when they have been repaired and reinforced.  The trauma lives here – as long as we see the faces of past torments in our enemies of the present we will never be able to stop seeing our enemies in the faces of the future. 

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Bernstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Gesher L’Torah in Alpharetta, Ga. Michael received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1999 and is an alumni of the Rabbis Without Borders second cohort. and was inducted into the Martin Luther King Board of Preachers at Morehouse College. Michael specializes in Jewish philosophy, especially that of Emmanuel Levinas and focuses on how to see the directives inherent in Jewish tradition as meaningful, ethical, and relevant.
Related Topics
Related Posts