The word pogrom is from the Russian, “to destroy, to wreak havoc, to demolish violently”, and it is forever tied to antisemitism. It is a violent attack or assault on Jews.
The word ‘pogrom’ elicits a visceral reaction, and paints a black and white picture of Jews under attack in their shtetls. Picture the scene in Fiddler on the Roof, with goose feathers erupting from torn linens, to broken glass, to crying children, to livelihoods and lives ended.
In 1903, the Kishinev Pogrom took place in what is today Moldova. In what became the classic example of a pogrom, 49 Jews were murdered on Easter, with 600 women raped, children beaten, and 1,500 homes damaged. They were targeted for being Jews.
The Kishinev Pogrom turned the eyes of the world on the plight of Russian Jews. It energized the Zionist movement, and even led Theodor Herzl to propose the ill-fated Uganda Plan that year, hoping that Jews had somewhere to go, even if not Palestine.
Herzl and others believed in 1903 that Jewish life in Europe had an expiry date, and they were right. The impact of the Kishinev Pogrom on the Jewish world, and on Zionism, was dramatic. But that was obviously not the last pogrom.
Today on June 1, we commemorate the anniversary of two others.
Eighty years ago, on June 1, 1941, a massive pogrom erupted in Iraq, targeting the local Jewish community. The Farhud, which exploded in Baghdad after the British defeated Iraq in the Anglo-Iraqi War, was a swift reaction to allegations of disloyalty against Iraq’s substantial Jewish population. The Jews were blamed for supporting the British, and their countrymen turned on them.
180 Jews were killed with over 1,000 injured, raped and beaten. As with any pogrom, there was looting of Jewish property, and 900 homes were destroyed. Taking place during the holy days of Shavuot, the Farhud is thought to be the first such attack against the Jews of Iraq, who had enjoyed a peaceful coexistence with their Arab neighbors until then. They were targeted for being Jews.
Within 15 years of the Farhud, almost the entire Jewish population of Iraq, then about 135,000, or 3% of the population, had left Iraq.
The second pogrom remembered today was the bombing of the Dolphinarium Discotheque on June 1, 2001. At the height of the Second Intifada, a Palestinian terrorist approached a line of teenagers – the majority of whom were Russian-speaking emigres from the former Soviet Union – awaiting admission to a popular nightclub in Tel Aviv.
The terrorist, dressed as an Orthodox Jew, soon detonated his suicide vest. 21 young victims, mostly teenage girls, were immediately killed. They were also targeted for being Jews. Seeking safety in the Jewish State after fleeing the Soviet Union, these children were killed.
Today’s commemoration of these events is important at the best of times. Every other year we remember the “Valley of Tears” that is sometimes Jewish history. A history marked with expulsions, massacres, the Holocaust, and yes, pogroms, must be remembered if we are to remain vigilant, and to keep things in perspective.
This year, however, it is all the more critical to remember the anniversary of these tragedies. If you look at what is happening in the world, and in particular on social media, another pogrom is unfolding before us.
Worldwide, whether sparked by the conflict in the Middle East or motivated by a general relaxation of norms that used to challenge Jew-hatred, antisemitism is flaring. Shops and synagogues are being marked, Jews are being chased and beaten, rockets are being launched, and Jews are being criticized for feeling antisemitism.
Online, where inhibition no longer exists, there is a front-row view of the pogrom. Antisemitic conspiracy theories are shared by the masses. Old blood libels are being given new life by publications like the New York Times, and people are mobilizing online at an incredible speed. What I call The Great Uninhibiting is unmasking what people really think about the Jews.
Kosher restaurants, though physically intact, are being targeted by online trolls posting one-star reviews, trying to drive down business. Celebrities are amplifying fringe Jewish voices, calling out Israel or the Jewish community itself for simply existing or taking care of its own.
The voices of this pogrom are deafening, and the amplification is vast.
Jewish history teaches us to be vigilant. Though it is easy to believe that antisemitism is overblown or over-alleged, on days like today it is important to remember our past, and not only the tragedies that we endured, but the fact that we survived.
Today we know the warning signs, but there was a June 2 in 1941 and 2001. As then, we will fight for a better tomorrow.