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Kishinev Pogrom


A Singular Event in Jewish History


The history of Jewish people in the Diaspora had many periods. Some generations were lucky to live under the rule of those who were tolerant to the Jews, gave them privileges, and did not intervene into their internal world and matters of faith. But many lived in unbearable times of persecutions inspired by the fervent belief of Christian world that Jews were exiles on purpose, the fate of whom was to suffer for what they had done to Christ. Sometimes they were given a ``chance" to convert, but quite frequently they were just expelled, even if the price for this measure was high and meant the economic ruin of the country from which they were expelled. But no doubt, this was the central motif for their expulsions from Medieval European countries; and this was certainly what Russian Empress Elizabeth bore in mind saying “From the enemies of Christ I don’t not expect any interesting profits.” Religious hatred accompanied by its derivative forms, such as the belief that Jews are not productive, but make their living on usury and robbing their Christian neighbours, that they are the Judas who betrayed Christ for money - these beliefs instigated by the Church and authorities frequently turned into violent eruption. Jewish blood was spilled, their houses and property destroyed. These acts of violence against the Jews are usually signified in literature by the word pogrom. But the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, which is the theme of this essay, though referred to by the same word cannot be treated in the same way as those which preceded it; what happened in Kishinev 100 years ago is not just a pogrom among many others.

When we hear the word “pogrom”, we are accustomed to think of a spontaneous and violent outburst of emotions and hatred towards Jews. In a way it may be comparable to a natural calamity, e.g., eruption of a seemingly sleeping volcano. One might take the violent pogroms inflicted by Bogdan Khmelnitsky's Cossacks during his rebellion against Polish Rule in Ukraine in 1648 as such an example. A pogrom is never a natural state condition (referred most harshly by Hobbes’s dictum homo homini lupus); it is rather a violent outburst either within the existing social order or it is a side effect of the attempt to overthrow the existing order. In neither sense, the word “pogrom” is applicable to what preceded the Kishinev massacre, its character and what followed it. The Kishinev pogrom is not just another tragic event in the history of the persecution of the Jews. It is, strictly speaking, not a pogrom at all, but an officially planned action, done with the permission of the Russian authorities (or at least, an officially sponsored action carried out against the Jews). In this sense the Kishinev affairs have more of the Nazis Aktionen than of spontaneous eruption. This very thesis I will prove and defend here.

There is permanent danger in claiming that a certain historical event is unique. For it might be that the event can be mapped onto the course of history and rationalized in historical or psychological terms; atrocities committed during the Kishinev pogrom could be claimed to lie on a graph of cruelty, just as many other massacres. Moreover, approaching the matter this way, one might strongly claim that the number of killed and injured is relatively small in comparison to the number of killed and injured in other massacres which took place in the course of human history, e.g., Saint Bartholomew night in which the number of killed is counted in thousands, and so it is the reaction to the event is unique, but not the event itself. Here I argue that there is no way to accept this explanation.

Combining the features of previously existing forms of anti-Semitism, it demarcates a qualitative change in the attitude towards Jews. The change, which produced the new form of anti-Semitism, - the one, which afterwards was appropriated by the Nazis and lay in the heart of Nazi ideology, was deliberately used by the official propaganda machine to inseminate the new form of hatred towards the Jews, and had direct connection to their politics of “special treatment” for the Jewish question, that brought about the destruction of European Jewry. Some eminent scholars treated the pogrom as the prototype of the Shoah, but I have reservations regarding this verdict and its proper meaning.

 The Kishinev pogrom is rather, a starting point, a first rehearsal or a laboratory experiment, a certain point from which the reading to Shoah begins. That is to say, the prelude to Kishinev pogrom and its character have much more in common with Crystallnacht than with the sporadic eruption of hatred characteristic to pogroms.  So, let me take you to the journey to the April affairs in Kishinev 100 years ago.

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