Kishinev: In Jewish History and Jewish Memory

Andrew Joyce, Ph.D.


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently attracted some attention for a tweet he penned following the discovery of the bodies of three missing Israeli yeshiva students. The students, Gil-Ad Shaer,16, Eyal Yifrah, 19, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, were kidnapped late at night on Thursday June 12 from a hitchhiking point in Gush Etzion, before being found dead on June 30. At this writing, the facts concerning those behind the slayings remain obscure, though there is a growing consensus that Hamas was behind it. Soon after the discovery of the bodies, Netanyahu tweeted: “Vengeance for the blood of a small child, Satan has not yet created. Neither has vengeance for the blood of 3 pure youths who were on their way to parents who will not see them anymore. Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay. May the memories of the three boys be blessed.”

Although most of the commentary thus far on this tweet has revolved around its inflammatory nature (the cry for ‘vengeance’ rather than ‘justice’) I have been more intrigued by the lesser appreciated literary allusion made by Netanyahu. The first line of the tweet appeals directly to Chaim Nahman Bialik’s poem, “On the Slaughter,” which was composed in the aftermath of the Kishinev ‘pogrom’ in 1903. I believe that Bialik’s role as Israel’s unofficial ‘national poet,’ and Netanyahu’s drawing upon the literary motifs in Bialik’s work, reveal something about the thought processes, self-perceptions, and siege mentality of Jews more generally. In this essay I want to examine two of Bialik’s poems, with particular attention paid to the manner in which Bialik interpreted non-Jews, and the nature of Jewish-Gentile hostilities. I’ll conclude with some remarks on Bialik’s legacy in Israel and Jewish thought.

Chaim Naḥman Bialik (1873–1934), was born in Radi, Volhynia, Ukraine, then a part of the expansive Jewish Pale of Settlement. Born into poverty, Bialik was left fatherless when he was five or six years old and was brought up by his rigid and pious grandfather. After an intensive education in the Jewish classics, he attended for a short time the Jewish academy in Volozhin (now Valozhyn, Belarus). These three influences — his poverty, his being an orphan, and his study of Jewish religious classics — were the inspiration for much of Bialik’s early poetry. In 1891 he went to Odessa, then the center of Jewish modernism, where he struck up a lifelong friendship with the Jewish author Aḥad Haʿam, who encouraged Bialik in his creative writing.

The following year Bialik moved to Zhitomir (now Zhytomyr, Ukraine) and to a small town in Poland. He worked unsuccessfully as a lumber merchant, then taught for a few years in a Hebrew school. The publication of his first long poem, “Ha-matmid” (“The Diligent Talmud Student”), in the periodical Ha-shiloah (edited by Aḥad Haʿam) established his reputation as a popular Hebrew poet. The poem is a sympathetic portrait of a student whose single-minded dedication to Talmudic study is presented as awe-inspiring, and its positive portrayal of dogged commitment to Jewish identity was eagerly taken up by an Eastern European Jewish population increasingly coming into conflict with the non-Jewish population they lived among.

His writing career assured, Bialik returned to Odessa as a teacher in a Hebrew school, at the same time continuing to publish poetry. After inter-ethnic hostilities in Kishinev boiled over into public disturbances and violence in 1903, Bialik was asked by Odessa’s Jewish Historical Commission to visit the scene and interview (Jewish) witnesses. The poems he subsequently produced contain some of the fiercest and most ethno-centric prose in Hebrew poetry.

The historical background to events in Kishinev is very similar to that of the earlier riots which took place in other parts of the Russian Empire during the 1880s, and which I discussed at length two years ago in my series on that topic. Exploitative economic practices, a Jewish population explosion, and a delicate political situation all contributed to the raising of tensions and antagonisms between Jews and Christians. Between 1860 and 1897 the Jewish proportion of the population of Kishinev had risen from 20% to 45%. According to Edward Judge’s classic Easter in Kishinev: Anatomy of a Pogrom, across Bessarabia, “over 80% of the merchants were Jews, and the crucial grain trade was almost entirely in Jewish hands. This circumstance not only increased Jewish influence and visibility; it also added to the concerns of those who feared that the province’s economy, especially in the cities, was coming increasingly under Jewish control.”[1]

Not only had the Jewish population of Kishinev more than doubled, the non-Jewish population had actually declined. Furthermore, as Edward Judge points out, even the large figures for the Jewish population, fail to explain the full picture on the ground in the city: “In economic terms, the Jews were even more influential than their numbers would indicate. The majority of Kishinev’s commercial, financial, and industrial enterprises, including three-fourths of the city’s factories, were in Jewish hands. Jewish-owned businesses included four mills, wineries, tobacco processing plants, credit and loan agencies, trading companies, and the like. The skilled trades, especially sewing, tailoring, shoemaking, and cabinetmaking were likewise dominated by Jews.”[2] The Jews of Kishinev were “a traditional lot who tended to dress in distinctive garb, discourage inter-marriage with non-Jews, and keep their social and cultural life within their community.”[3]

The situation was further complicated by the publication of a local tabloid newspaper, Bessarabets, which was stridently and unashamedly nationalist in its outlook, and openly called for a reduction in the scale of Jewish influence in various aspects of life in the region. The publisher of the newspaper, P.A. Krushevan, believed that liberals, radicals, and Jews were a threat to the autocracy, and ran articles suggesting that Jews be removed from municipal jobs, and calling on Jews to renounce Judaism and convert to Christianity. However, violence was never advocated.

Between February and April 1903 the situation was complicated further by the suspicious death of a Christian boy who had been found stabbed in a bizarre fashion, and the apparent suicide of a young Christian woman who worked as a live-in servant for a Jewish family.

Finally, on Easter Sunday, Christian youths began throwing stones at a small number of Jewish homes and stores. Economic frustrations found an outlet soon afterward when a group of working class adults joined the youths and looted some of the more lucrative Jewish-owned stores.

The tone of the situation changed when the small group of Christians was confronted by a larger group of Jewish workers and merchants armed with crude weapons. The Jewish contingent attacked the looters, and a Christian woman and her baby were injured in the process. The Jews successfully defended their property, but simultaneously increased tensions and raised the level and character of the violence.

Word quickly spread among both communities, and the number of individuals involved on both sides increased dramatically. Meanwhile confusion about jurisdiction prevented both the police and the military from intervening efficiently at an early stage, allowing the situation to escalate still further. At the end of three days there were casualties on both sides, though international press attention focussed to an enormous extent on alleged Jewish victimhood, as it had during the earlier disturbances of the 1880s. Reports were produced by Jewish journalists and disseminated in influential Western newspapers in much the same way as had been done before. Many of the same motifs, which had been debunked several times over in the intervening two decades, were again repeated.

A common theme in the reports, and subsequently in the poems of Chaim Nahman Bialik, is a pornographic level of violence. Yael Remen’s Sea of Lights, summarizes the picture emerging from such reports:

In Kishinev, burnt homes smoldering like festering wounds, and charred attics were crowded with eyes and souls of men, women and children, who had been hacked to death and hung on the rafters, their slashed stomachs stuffed with bedfeathers, their nostrils crammed with nails, and their skulls smashed with hammers. In Kishinev, the soil was quivering with trembling bodies, and the air was saturated with the smell of blood. In Kishinev, cowardly husbands, fathers and brothers had hidden in cellars, watching wives, and sisters and daughters being raped and murdered.”[4]

But such accounts were almost entirely fictitious. Even the most generous historians put the number of casualties suffered by Jews during the disturbances at between 30 and 40, and the vast majority were males killed during hand to hand fighting over property and loot. The numbers are not insignificant, but given the fact the city had a population of 125,000 divided equally between the two communities, and that what occurred was essentially a small, localized, ethnic civil war, representations of Kishinev’s streets as swimming with blood were considerably out of touch with reality.

Russian perceptions of the cause of the disturbances in Kishinev were clear. The Russian ambassador in the United States Count Cassini stated in an interview on May 18, 1903:

There is in Russia, as in Germany and Austria, a feeling against certain of the Jews. The reason for this unfriendly attitude is found in the fact that the Jews will not work in the field or engage in agriculture. They prefer to be money lenders. … The situation in Russia, so far as the Jews are concerned is just this: It is the peasant against the money lender, and not the Russians against the Jews. There is no feeling against the Jew in Russia because of religion. It is as I have said—the Jew ruins the peasants, with the result that conflicts occur when the latter have lost all their worldly possessions and have nothing to live upon. … But notwithstanding these conflicts the Jews continue to do the very things which have been responsible for the troubles which involve them.[5]

Jewish perceptions of events were markedly different, and are strongly in evidence in the poems of Chaim Nahman Bialik. In the first of these, “On the Slaughter,” which Netanyahu has recently drawn upon, Bialik employed motifs of pornographic violence and helpless, outnumbered and victimized Jews. The poem accuses the Jewish God of being an executioner, with the whole earth a scaffold upon which innocent Jews have been unfairly brought upon for execution. Bialik writes:

You, executioner!  Here’s my neck –

Go to it, slaughter me!  Behead me like a
dog,

yours is the almighty arm and the
axe, and the whole earth is my scaffold
– and we, we are the few!

My blood is fair game — strike the skull, and
murder’s blood, the blood of nurslings
and old men, will spurt onto your
clothes and will never, never be wiped
off.

Bialik finishes the poem by expressing frustrations at the inability of Jews to exact revenge, and by expressing the wish that Jewish deaths bring the very earth to destruction. He writes:

And cursed be the man who says:
Avenge!  No such revenge — revenge for
the blood of a little child — has yet been
devised by Satan.  Let the blood pierce
through the abyss!  Let the blood seep
down into the depths of darkness, and
eat away there, in the dark, and breach
all the rotting foundations of the earth.

When riots, though of an even smaller scale, took place in Kishinev again in 1905, Bialik produced an even more bitter and self-deluding piece of work titled “The City of Slaughter.” In this work, there is no attempt at understanding of the causes of conflict, or the hugely consequential Jewish role in fomenting tensions. Instead Bialik appealed to the same grotesquery as his journalistic ethnic comrades, writing of innocent Jews given up to senseless “slaughter,” and “the spattered blood and dried brains of the dead.” He continues by drawing on the same old vile and fictitious motifs which had been circulating the Western press for two decades:

His eyes beheld these things; and with his web he can
A tale unfold horrific to the ear of man:
A tale of cloven belly, feather-filled;
Of nostrils nailed, of skull-bones bashed and spilled;
Of murdered men who from the beams were hung,
And of a babe beside its mother flung,
Its mother speared, the poor chick finding rest
Upon its mother’s cold and milkless breast;
Of how a dagger halved an infant’s word,
Its ma was heard, its mama never heard.

But not a single Jewish child fatality was ever recorded. Just as in the ‘pogrom’ narratives of the 1880s, another common fictional motif was the rape of women and the hacking off of breasts. Again, there was never any evidence found that this actually occurred. As I noted in my earlier series on “pogrom” narratives in Jewish history, eminent scholar John Klier commented on the fictions produced by one prominent Jewish journalist, arguing that his most influential accounts, given their effect on world opinion, were his accounts of the rape and torture of girls as young as ten or twelve.” In 1881 this Jewish story-teller reported 25 rapes in Kiev, of which five were said to have resulted in fatalities, in Odessa he claimed 11, and in Elizavetgrad he claimed 30.

This was purely a propaganda device. Rape featured prominently in the reports, not because rapes were common, but because rape “even more than murder and looting” was known to “generate particular outrage abroad.” Klier states that “Jewish intermediaries who were channelling pogrom reports abroad were well aware of the impact of reports of rape, and it featured prominently in their accounts.” In Kishinev 20 years later, the same old lines were regurgitated and Bialik incorporated these fictions into his poetry writing:

Descend then, to the cellars of the town,
There where the virginal daughters of thy folk were fouled,
Where seven heathen flung a woman down,
The daughter in the presence of her mother,
The mother in the presence of her daughter,
Before slaughter, during slaughter, and after slaughter!
Touch with thy hand the cushion stained; touch
The pillow incarnadined:
This is the place the wild ones of the wood, the beasts of
the field
With bloody axes in their paws compelled thy daughters
yield:
Beasted and swiped!

Note the descriptive treatment of non-Jews in this fictional scenario. They are “the wild ones of the wood, the beasts of the field.” Rather than being a novel literary invention, these words directly echo Isaiah 56:9, “All ye beasts of the field, come to devour, yea, all ye beasts in the forest,” a verse which has been traditionally interpreted in Judaism as describing the threat posed by “the nations” to “God’s chosen.”

Bialik, however, takes it further later in the poem, describing Gentiles as a “lecherous rabble,” jostling for loot and “stifled in filth.” The works of Bialik are an example of the quintessential perpetuation of the Jewish “victim paradigm.” Jewish culture and historiography are saturated with allusions to the “unique” status of Jews, who have suffered a “unique” hatred at the hands of successive generations of Europeans.

In essence, it is the notion that Jews stand alone in the world as the quintessential “blameless victim;” or as Bialik would have it, as innocent lambs to the slaughter. To allow for any sense of Jewish agency — any argument that Jews may have in some way contributed to anti-Jewish sentiment — is to harm the perpetuation of this paradigm.

It thus offers no place to non-Jewish suffering. Non-Jews in Jewish victim narratives are often described with allusions to beasts, animals, filth, stupidity, and depravity. By contrast, Jews are often portrayed with an almost comical level of passivity, even when we know that in any given incident there were armed Jews committing violence against non-Jews, and that disturbances often came following decades of intense inter-ethnic competition and exploitation. Based solely on the Jewish narratives, one would think the Jews of Kishinev were a tiny minority, outnumbered and helpless. They were in fact evenly matched, and the disturbances were focused on attacking the symbols of outsized Jewish wealth and influence in the city.

I have also commented in earlier works on the fact that omission of the Jewish contribution to the development of anti-Semitism (be it in a village setting or a national setting), leaves the spotlight burning all the more ferociously on the “aggressor.” Within this context, the blameless victim is free to make the most ghastly accusations, basking in the assurance that his own role, and by extension his own character, is unimpeachable. The word of this untainted, unique, blameless victim is taken as fact — to doubt his account is to be in league with the aggressor.

Generally speaking, exaggerated tales of brutality by non-Jews are commonplace in Jewish literature and historiography, and go hand in hand with images of dove-like Jews. For example, Finkelstein has pointed to Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, a work now widely acknowledged as “the first major Holocaust hoax,” as an example of this “pornography of violence.” The twin concepts of Jewish blamelessness and extreme Gentile brutality are inextricably bound up together, and supporters of one strand of the ‘victim paradigm’ are invariably supporters of the other. Take for example that high priest of Jewish chosenness, Elie Wiesel, who praised Kosinki’s pastiche of sadomasochistic fantasies as “written with deep sincerity and sensitivity.”

Thus, while Bialik’s work is a product of a certain time and place, the motifs and attitudes he drew upon are part of the shared mental furniture of Jews more generally. It is therefore not surprising that he is regarded as Israel’s national poet, or that his works have been drawn upon time and time again by Jewish politicians and public figures. Noam Chomsky has noted that the phrase “no revenge for the blood of a little child has yet been devised by Satan” has been repeated many times in Israel in the past years, by Menachim Begin and many others, with reference to the terrorist acts of the “two-legged beasts.”[6]

Benjamin Netanyahu is just the latest to draw upon the same work. So the deaths of the three Israeli teenagers, probably at the hands of Hamas, will not provide the vast majority of Israelis with the impetus to question their own attitudes or actions,  much less consider how Israeli oppression of the Palestinians could motivate such an incident.

As is typical in  Jewish self-deception, the background, context and motives are ignored in favor presenting a simple tale of good versus evil. The young men will simply be chalked up as another few members of the blameless race, butchered meaninglessly by the beasts of the field.

References

[1] E.H. Judge (ed) Easter in Kishinev: Anatomy of a Pogrom, (New York University Press, 1992), p.26.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, p.27.

[4] Y. Remen, Sea of Lights, (XLibris, 2009), p.59.

[5] J.D. Klier and Shlomo Lambroza (eds), Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History, (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p.207.

[6] N. Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians, (Black Rose, 1999), p.332.

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