Review – Zipperstein, “Pogrom”

Steven Zipperstein, “Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History” (2018) (read aloud by Barry Abrams) – “My grandmother brought that pendant with her from RUSSIA, from a POGROM, JEFFREY!” I think it was the first season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” where Susie shouts that at Jeff after a foster child lifts a beloved family heirloom from their home. The name “Kishinev” doesn’t come up, but historian of Eastern European Jewish life Steven Zipperstein attributes the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 as the event that lodged the word “pogrom,” and certain ideas of what the word constitutes, into historical consciousness, well beyond the Moldovan backwater where it occurred.

Why this massacre, and not others, Zipperstein asks? Why did the Kishinev pogrom become this tipping point, that figures from Vladimir Jabotinsky to W.E.B. Du Bois would attach many (often more or less fanciful) meanings to? There’s an extent to which Zipperstein undermines his own point when he says that Kishinev helped lead to a false impression that pre-1917 Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement was wall-to-wall pogroms, while also asking why this one pogrom would be elevated above others… but such are the risks of this kind of cultural history. Really, any amount of pogroms other than zero is the wrong amount, as I’m sure Zipperstein would agree. And we don’t really get why Kishinev became the flashpoint for world awareness of the brutality of Russia, towards its Jewish inhabitants and towards its people in general, other than the usual answer- concatenations of historical circumstances, actors with agendas shooting their respective shots. 

The facts of the case are that one day, in 1903, Moldovan Christian inhabitants of the provincial city of Kishinev, sparked likely by an interaction between Moldovan children hassling Jewish adults and the Jewish adults rebuking them, formed mobs and attacked Jewish homes and businesses. Something like forty-three Jews were killed. Zipperstein’s investigation leaves the realm of the frankly ticky-tacky – wondering why they tagged Kishinev with the massacre, when really it all happened within a few blocks, is not that interesting of a question, in my opinion – when he gets into the process of making Kishinev and pogrom household words. It was basically a matter of contingency that as many people came to Kishinev as they did to investigate the pogrom. Zipperstein focuses on two. Hiayim Bialik came to Kishinev because his (at the time) small and beleaguered group of religious Zionists sent him to report on it. Michael Davitt, an Irish nationalist journalist who had a habit of pissing people off (more than usual for Irish nationalists, even), also made his way to Kishinev to write a report for the famously sensationalist Hearst newspaper empire. 

Davitt and especially Bialik’s writings from Kishinev had a profound impact on how the world would understand what happened there, and what it all meant, for Jews, for Russia, for Europe, for people the world over. This was a time when relations amongst disparate and unequal communities that lived with each other were under strain all over the world, and people were looking for answers. 

Probably the most notable cluster of agendas and answers hung around Kishinev were those related to Zionism, and particularly to Zionism’s depiction of the Jews of the diaspora. Cartoonist Eli Valley’s “Diaspora Boy and Israel Man” comics have only begun to explore (after decades of complicit silence in the Jewish community) this dynamic, and arguably, the poem that Hiayim Bialik produced after his extensive investigation of the pogrom, “In the City of Slaughter,” is the paradigmatic example of Zionist hatred for Diaspora Jews- for, that is, Jews like themselves, at least for those who partook of the dynamic before the first generation raised in Israel. Much of the emotional weight of the poem lies on the image of Jewish women being raped by Moldovan gentile men while Jewish men – husbands, brothers, sons, fathers – hid. This, and numerous other images of Jewish passivity, were pounded into the heads of Zionist youth from the day Bialik published the poem to the present: “In the City of Slaughter” was a standard in the Israeli literary curriculum, something like how American schoolkids are expected to memorize the Gettysburg Address, in Zipperstein’s telling. The solution to this supposed weakness and failure of Jewish manhood, in the Zionist worldview, was to start over again in Israel… and, the unsaid part, find their own people, the Palestinians, to ride roughshod over, to harden themselves through oppressing. We have seen what that means, more and more clearly as the years progress. 

From Bialik’s own notes – he was a meticulous notetaker – we know that in at least some instances, Jewish men in Kishinev did flee the mobs and leave women relatives behind (the audiobook producers made the peculiar choice to allow the voice actor to read a block quote from one of these women’s descriptions of her experience in a kind of weepy, lightly-Yiddish-accented, womanly-pitched voice, which I wish they had not done). We also know that the woman he drew much of his imagery for his central scene of sexual assault told him, explicitly, that her husband fought her attackers until he was beaten unconscious, and that she fought, too, none of which shows up in the poem or in Zionist imagery of Diasporic Jewish weakness. Neither did Bialik, or most other reporters from Kishinev, discuss how Jews organized for self-protection. There were whole neighborhoods where neither the mobs, nor the police who protected them, could enter, because there were armed and organized Jews protecting them- and organized basically ad hoc, too. Riots are some of the more chaotic, “dynamic” situations you’re ever going to encounter, so it’s hardly a surprise that different people and groups of people break in radically different ways. Anyone trying to tell the story is trying to impose order on a basically chaotic event. You can – we are compelled to – come up with something. But in that chaos is also opportunity. What began as an attempt to alter linguistic politics – “In the City of Slaughter” was a major advance for secular(-ish) Hebrew poetry, as opposed to Yiddish or gentile-language Jewish writing – turned into a major node into the self-definition of a whole people and their history, and a pretty dark one. 

The impact on the world outside of the Zionist movement was also interesting, though perhaps less revelatory than Zipperstein argued. This is roughly the Michael Davitt half of the story, though the man’s writings don’t loom over how Americans, Europeans et al reacted to Kishinev the way that Bialik’s poem does over Zionist understandings of Jewish identity, gender, and violence. Davitt was an odd duck, no one’s idea of a philo-Semite, possessed of some strange race ideas but the kind that wouldn’t go much of anywhere, given that one of them was a burning hatred of the English, who more or less ruled the roost at the time. Davitt was writing for the Hearst papers (he might have been blackballed from most papers, including Irish ones, closer to home, for being annoying and weird), and said papers did what they did and sensationalized the crimes committed there- accounts of hundreds or thousands dead, streets run red with blood, etc etc. This wasn’t Davitt’s faults – whatever else he was, he was a very thoroughgoing reporter – but Hearst will do his thing. 

The contrasts between reality and perception here are, to my mind, less stark and less revelatory than that between the world depicted in “In the City of Slaughter” and the actual Kishinev pogrom. Yes, papers reported an inaccurate number of dead, but 43 dead, thousands assaulted, many of them raped, and hundreds of homes and shops burnt is no picnic. You could argue that the attention paid to Kishinev gave ammunition to antisemites. One of the lead antisemites of Kishinev, who arguably had more of a hand than anyone in creating the atmosphere that led to the pogroms, was also one of the writers of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious anti-semitic forgery that lays down the ways that Jews supposedly manipulate most of modern life to the detriment of gentiles. The contrast between the reality of Kishinev – which of course antisemites downplay well past what the record will support – versus the reporting, and the upswell of condemnation for Czarist authorities, seemed to many anti-semities to justify their antisemitism- obviously, the Jews run the media, why else would everyone be so up in arms about a few dead shopkeepers, Moldovans will Moldovan, etc. etc. I mean… I don’t think Zipperstein accepts this logic, but to be honest, entertaining it at all, pretending that what anti-semites do and say and really anything that Jews do have a straightforward one-to-one relationship, is an odd read to me. Though, you have to figure that media-unsavvy provincial weirdos like the Kishinev anti-semitic publishers must have been thrown for a loop by this early example of the power of global mass media…

Similarly, it’s intriguing how the reporting from Kishinev helped inspire both black and Asian activists in the US – Chinese groups were the first non-Jewish groups in the US to donate to victims of Kishinev, and the founders of the NAACP cited Kishinev as an inspiration (that must have calmed the nerves of anti-semites!) – but maybe not the mind-blower Zipperstein presents it as. There are important differences between the lynch law that many people of color and immigrants faced in the US at the time, and the pogroms of the Pale of Settlement… but there were also some important similarities! And it kind of seems like solidarity is a good thing to build? Zipperstein doesn’t condemn it. I’m not sure what he’s doing with it. Maybe, as a historian who has immersed himself deeply in the life of Eastern European Jews in the centuries before the Holocaust, Zipperstein can’t help but rue the ways in which much of global culture has reduced that whole life to what happened at Kishinev, making it the central image of a whole way of life for millions of people. I get that. I guess I’m an organizer more than a historian of Jews and Judaism, so to me, it’s a step in the right direction… anyway, this is a pretty good book with some odd turns. ****

Review – Zipperstein, “Pogrom”

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