Yes, it was a pogrom
When Israeli Major General Amir Fuchs used the word “pogrom” to describe the civilian attack on the Palestinian village of Huwara last month, he knowingly used a word that resonates with Ashkenazi Jewish collective memory.
The images of pogroms in Russia, of civilians rampaging through a village smashing and burning under the encouraging or indifferent eye of the authorities, is pasted into our mental scrapbook, just before the chapters on immigration to America and the Holy Land and the rise of the Nazis in Germany.
I am lucky that the closest I have come to a pogrom is watching one on screen in Fiddler on the Roof. I rewatched the movie recently following the death of its lead actor, Chaim Topol, and I wept at the helplessness of the villagers, thinking that some of my ancestors shared their fate.
Some commentators have objected to using the term “pogrom” to describe what happened in Huwara. For example, historian Gil Troy, who is deeply knowledgeable and skilled at articulating Israeli centrist positions, claims that the term was misappropriated because those who committed the violence come from “the margins” of Israeli society, whereas pogroms were “systematic, strategic, and state-sanctioned.” (He also argues against using the word pogrom to describe Jewish violence because he says the Palestinian mainstream supports violence. Be that as it may, it is irrelevant.)
Troy is correct to point out that Israeli soldiers rescued Palestinians in Huwara whose homes had been set on fire by the civilians, but this doesn’t diminish the fact that leading politicians such Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich and MK Tzvika Fogel immediately gave their backing to the rioters and said Huwara should be “burnt to the ground.” As the members of the governing coalition keep reminding us, they were elected, and they allegedly represent the will of the people.
Fogel and Smotrich tried to back out of their statements, but only to the extent of saying that citizens should not take matters into their own hands, and that the IDF should be responsible for destroying the village. Smotrich has gone on to say that this, too, was a “slip of the tongue,” and that of course he is against harming civilians.
And the public support for violence has only gotten worse. While the initial rampage could be understood as a spontaneous outburst of rage and grief for the Yaniv brothers, it was clearly not a fluke. On Tuesday a spokesperson for MK Limor Son Har-Melech shared a tweet explaining why wiping out Huwara is “allowed, ethical, and legitimate.”
While Palestinians bear their own responsibility for murderous terrorism and diplomatic failure, Israel’s responsibility for the pogrom in Huwara is systematic, strategic, and state-sanctioned at a level that is far deeper than an operational failure or the rhetoric of elected officials. Beyond the responsibility of many successive governments for expropriating Palestinian land and building settlements, and beyond the current government’s drive to annex the territories, Israeli authorities have systematically failed to prevent, investigate, prosecute, and punish ideologically motivated crime committed by Jewish civilians against Palestinians–more commonly known as settler violence.
All of this culminated on February 26, when Palestinian men, women, and children in Huwara watched helplessly as Jewish Israelis killed one of their neighbors; burned down four homes and set fire to nine others; shattered windows in 41 houses; burned down four businesses and hundreds of cars; vandalized water pipes; smashed street lamps; and set fire to 41 olive trees.
Why does it matter whether we call this horror a pogrom or not? Because emotionally evocative words encourage us to feel–to feel shame, grief, and most importantly, empathy for Palestinians, with whom we are currently at war, but with whom we must someday make peace.