Myth and the Russian Pogroms Part 3 – The Jewish Role

We continue our series of essays examining the Russian Pogroms with this essay on the part played by Jews in provoking the disturbances. As stated in Part Two, one of the key problems with existing historiography on the pogroms (and ‘anti-Semitism’ generally) is that these narratives invariably argue that the plight of the Jews was the result of nothing more than irrational hatred. Jews adopt a meek and passive role in this narrative, having committed no wrong-doing other than being Jews. There is no sense of Jewish agency, and one is left with the impression that Jews historically have lacked the capacity to act in the world. In almost every single academic and popular history of the pogroms, the author blindly accepts, or willfully perpetuates, the basic premise that Jews had been hated in the Russian Empire for centuries, that this hatred was irrational and rootless, and that the outbreak of anti-Jewish riots late in the 19thcentury was a ‘knee-jerk’ emotional response to the assassination of the Tsar and some blood libel accusations.

This is of course far from the truth, but the prevalence of this ‘victim paradigm’ plays two significant roles. Firstly, Jewish historiography is 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.” 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. In this sense, the ‘victim paradigm’ also contributes heavily to the claim for Jewish uniqueness and, as Norman Finkelstein has pointed out, one can clearly see in many examples of Jewish historiography the tendency to focus not so much on the “suffering of Jews” but rather on the simple fact that “Jews suffered.”[1] As a result, the paradigm offers no place to non-Jewish suffering. Simply put, the ‘victim paradigm’ is a form of secular “chosenness.” This aspect of the narrative is seen, quite rightly, as a useful tool in the here and now. There is perhaps no race on earth which uses its history to justify its actions in the present quite like the Jewish people. From seeking reparations to establishing nation states, Jewish history is one of the foundation stones propping up Jewish international politics in the present. As such, Jewish history is carefully constructed and fiercely defended. The interplay between Jewish history and contemporary Jewish politics  is plain to see — I need only make reference to the terms “revisionist” and “denier” to conjure up images of puppet trials and prison cells.

Secondly, the 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.’ In Part Two we explored the manner in which the RJC took full advantage of this construct to purvey appalling, and unfounded, atrocity stories. More generally, 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.”[2] 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.”[3]   

Having clarified this theoretical framework, we now turn our attention to deconstructing the second strand of the pogrom ‘victim paradigm.’ To deal most effectively with the question of Jewish culpability in the souring of relations between Jews and non-Jews, we will need to probe deeper, and with more focus, than we endeavored to do in Part One. This essay will focus on specific examples of anti-Jewish disturbance in the Russian Empire prior to 1880, with a particular focus on Jewish economic practices preceding these events.

Anti-Jewish Riots in the Russian Empire Before 1880

For the reasons discussed above, the majority of Jewish historians have long displayed an aversion to the idea that Jewish economic practices have played a significant role historically in provoking anti-Semitism. For example, Leon Poliakov in The History of anti-Semitism: From Voltaire to Wagner, argues that the idea of economic anti-Semitism is “devoid of real explanatory value.”[4] Similarly, Jonathan Freedman has stated that, in explaining anti-Jewish attitudes, economic anti-Semitism should play only a very “small explanatory role.”[5] Both of these historians posit that theology, and by extension Christianity (and therefore Western culture) is the fount and origin of anti-Semitism. Robert Weinberg, in his 1998 article on Visualizing Pogroms in Russian History, explains anti-Semitic outbreaks of violence in Eastern Europe by stating that they were the product of “the frustrations of Russian and Ukrainian peasants, workers and town dwellers who, for the most part, spontaneously took out their frustrations on a time-honored scapegoat, the Jews.”[6] Weinberg refrains from stating where precisely these ‘frustrations’ emerge from, but note again the extremely passive Jewish role in his analysis.

Conversely, those historians who have accepted that economic issues have played a role in provoking anti-Semitism fail to engage in actual case studies of economically provoked anti-Jewish actions, preferring instead to probe “images” or stereotypes which allegedly infuse the consciousness of non-Jews. For example Professor of Israel Studies at Oxford University, Derek J. Penslar, has stated that economic anti-Semitism is nothing more than “a double helix of intersecting paradigms, the first associating the Jew with paupers and savages and the second conceiving of Jews as conspirators, leaders of a financial cabal seeking global domination.”[7] By choosing to discuss “images” and concepts rather than say, an actual incident such as the Limerick Anti-Jewish Riots, Penslar engages in a practice equally duplicitous to that engaged in by Poliakov and Freedman. Penslar’s thesis only superficially acknowledges the economic role, while really lending more weight to the argument that European society has suffered some kind of neurosis in relation to its Jews. Penslar deftly offers us an argument in which Jews and economics play a role in the development of an anti-Semitic “image,” without placing the Jew in anything but a passive role. Penslar’s “images” are also devoid of gradation — Europeans, if they hold to economically motivated anti-Semitism, either view Jews as pauper savages or global financiers. This despite the case that most European peasants simply didn’t need to have these extreme conceptions of Jews, and probably didn’t. Exploitative economic practices by local Jewish capitalists, the existence of local Jewish monopolies on such items as alcohol, and the Jewish practice of in-group/out-group ethics would be more than sufficient to provoke anti-Jewish resentment.

But references to this motivation for anti-Jewish action is entirely absent from Jewish historiography on the causes of anti-Semitism, most likely because it comes extremely close to demolishing the ‘victim paradigm.’ This essay, which focuses on actual case studies (in particular the city of Odessa), will argue that the anti-Jewish riots of the 1880s, like many riots before them, were motivated by economic anti-Semitism, and that this economic anti-Semitism had its origins not in the European psyche, but in the day to day economic interactions of Jews had with the non-Jews of Odessa. It attempts to rediscover the Jewish role, and to place it front and centre.

The first disturbance involving Jews to occur in the Russian Empire, and which left sufficient documentation, was the 1821 Odessa pogrom. Weinberg has painted a picture of Odessa as being some kind of multicultural heaven at this time. He states that the city “benefited from the presence of German, Italian, French, Greek, and English residents whose cultural and intellectual tastes influenced local life.”[8] By the 1820s street signs were written in Russian and Italian, the city’s first newspaper appeared in French. Odessa, according to Weinberg, had a thriving art scene, particularly in relation to theatre, music, and opera.

However, Klier paints a radically different picture of the city, stressing in particular the ethnic tension created by increasing Jewish settlement in the city. Klier states that by 1821, Odessa was “a hotbed of ethnic, religious, and economic rivalries” and was, quite significantly, “a distinctly non-Russian city.”[9] Weinberg explains that “the number of Jews arriving from other parts of the Russian Empire and Galicia in the Austrian Empire skyrocketed.” In Odessa, Jews were entirely free from “legal burdens and residency restrictions.”[10]

Violence erupted in 1821 when, during the Greek War of Independence, a group of Muslims and Jews murdered and then mutilated Gregory V, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Istanbul. In the aftermath, many Greeks fled with Gregory’s remains from Istanbul to Odessa, where his funeral procession was held. Surviving documents suggest that violence broke out when a large contingent of Odessa’s Jewish population showed open disrespect for the procession.[11]

In describing this and subsequent outbreaks of violence in Odessa, I must urge readers to divest themselves of the preconception that the Jewish contingent of the city was a tiny minority. Jewish historians are often quick to allude to minority status without providing definitive numbers. John Doyle Klier, however, informs us that by the middle of the nineteenth century Jews constituted “almost one-third of the total population” in Odessa.[12] Given the huge population of Greeks and other nationalities, it was the Russians who composed the “tiny minority.” Economic supremacy in the city until the middle of the nineteenth century was the preserve of the Greek population, which had fended off the attempts of numerous other ethnic groups to “secure or maintain a favored economic position.”[13]

When a huge influx of Jews occurred in the 1850s, the struggle for economic supremacy between Jew and Greek, added to historical religiopolitical grievances, contributed to increased inter-ethnic tension in the city. Greek historian Evridiki Sifneos informs us that earlier co-existence had “not been based on mutual toleration. On the contrary, economic recession in the second half of the nineteenth century accelerated ethnic distinctions, and resentment was provoked by the ascension of social or ethnic groups [primarily Jewish], which led to the redistribution of resources.”[14] Until the mid-1850s, the Greeks had control of grain exports, but with the disruption of trade routes as a result of the Crimean War, some local Greek business owners were forced into bankruptcy. The city’s Jews, who had earlier occupied mainly middleman roles, pooled resources and eagerly bought up these businesses at extremely low prices. A letter from one Greek contemporary reads: “When I first came to Odessa in 1864, I became a purchaser of grain on behalf of our house, 14 at Moldovanka. The majority were Greeks, with a few Russian middlemen. Now there are no Russians, and as for the Greeks they are counted on the fingers of one hand. Jews are the ones who have taken over the market.”[15] According to Sifneos, Jews took advantage of the placement of their taverns in the villages to establish themselves as middlemen in the collection of grain from the surrounding countryside, and in addition “they worked more tightly within their ethnic network.”[16]

Weinberg further states that when “Jewish employers followed the practice of only hiring their own, many Greek dockworkers now found themselves in the ranks of the unemployed.”[17] When it became apparent that Jews had wrested economic supremacy from the Greeks in 1858, incidences of inter-ethnic violence began to escalate in frequency. In 1858 there were attacks on Greek and Jewish property, and numerous “Greek-Jewish brawls” in the city, and in 1859 a quarrel between Greek and Jewish children again escalated into full-scale inter-ethnic conflict. Violence was ended thanks only to the intervention of Russian police and Cossacks.[18] A major bout of Greek-Jewish violence occurred again in 1869.

How do we describe such events? In light of the context of these disturbances, does the term “pogrom” or “anti-Jewish riot” withstand scrutiny? Certainly not. Note my use of the terms “inter-ethnic violence” and “disturbance involving Jews.” These terms do not feature in Jewish historiography on these events. “Anti-Jewish riot” or “pogrom” is merely part of the lexicon of the ‘victim paradigm,’ bequeathing passive status even through word use. To express it flippantly, when Tom and Bill have a fight in the street, one does not describe it as “anti-Tom violence.” This automatically imparts passive, victim status to Tom, despite the fact that he may have started the fight, and certainly threw as many punches. Weinberg, for example, describes the 1859 disturbance as “anti-Jewish activity,” but states that both “Jewish and gentile youths engaged in bloody brawls.”[19] This is an obvious contradiction in terms.

It is only in 1871, during a particularly severe bout of disturbances, that we see the first Russian involvement in Odessa’s inter-ethnic violence. The late John Doyle Klier, formerly Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Oxford University, informs us categorically that Russian involvement in the 1871 Odessa ethnic conflict had its roots in real, tangible economic grievances. Klier states that Russian participation was the result of “bitterness born of the exploitation of their work by Jews and the ability of the latter to enrich themselves and manipulate all manner of trade and commercial activity.”[20] Similarly, Weinberg concedes that by 1871, there were “many others besides Greeks who perceived Jews as an economic threat.”[21]

The roots of the 1871 disturbance are quite tangible, and there is a tremendous amount of evidence suggesting it was the result of real socio-economic grievances, rather than “images,” “stereotypes,” or any of the other usual suspects wheeled out in Jewish historiography. Brian Horowitz, Chair of Jewish Studies at Tulane University argues that by 1870 Jewish economic and social cohesiveness had been further enhanced in Odessa by founding of a branch of the Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment, an organization dedicated to in-group philanthropy as well as “alternative politics” whereby members “did not contact the government as an intercessor.”[22] In this respect, it was the kahal-lite, and it had a significant positive impact on the wealth of Odessa Jewry. Klier states that under this organisation, the Jewish grip on the economic life of the city grew stronger, and that Russian government reports from 1871 attribute the disturbance above all to the fact that “the economic domination of the Jews in the area produced abnormal relations between Christians and Jews.”[23] By 1871, Jewish economic domination had moved beyond grain exports. A US consular report from that year reveals the extent of Jewish control over Odessa’s economic life. It reports that Jews in the city “occupy themselves with trade and favoring their own class or sect, that is that their combinations, in a great many instances, amount almost to monopolies. The common remark, therefore, is that ‘everything is in the hands of the Jews.’ To sell or buy a house, a horse, a carriage, to rent a lodging or contract for a loan, to engage a governess, and sometimes even to marry a wife the Jew gets his percent as a “go between.” The poor laborer, the hungry soldier, the land proprietor, the money capitalist, and in fact every producer and every consumer is obliged in one way or another to pay tribute to the Jew.”[24]

Impoverished Greeks, Russians and Ukrainians looked on at increasingly ostentatious displays of Jewish wealth. In fact, Sifneos states that contemporary correspondence reveals that during the disturbances, many of Odessa’s Jews attributed the trouble “to the widespread resentment against the growing prosperity of their community.”[25] Sifneos also informs us that demographic shifts in the city were of extreme importance in creating unease among non-Jewish populations. In line with increasing wealth, the 1897 census revealed that during the preceding two decades Odessa Jewry was undergoing an extremely rapid demographic explosion, and that Odessa was “rapidly becoming a predominantly Jewish city.”[26] To put this into some kind of perspective, the 1897 Odessa census reveals that by that date there were 5,086 Greek speakers, 10,248 German speakers, 1,137 French speakers, and 124,520 Yiddish speakers. The census further revealed that while almost all of the Greek and French speakers were predominantly residing in the inner city slum areas, a huge 54% of Odessa’s Jews were living in the middle-class suburbs of Petropavlovsky, Mikhailovsky, and Peresipsky.[27]

To conclude, when inter-ethnic violence broke out in 1871, it was not rooted in irrationality, but was quite obviously, as Sifneos argues, a desperate attempt to “weaken the economic power of the Jews.”[28] In this context, we see the Jews of Odessa emerge from their passive role in the shadows of Jewish historiography, and how they truly appear in the cold light of day.


[1] Norman Finkelstein, ‘The Holocaust Industry,’ Index on Censorship, 29:2, 120-130, p.124

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, p.125.

[4] Leon Poliakov The History of anti-Semitism: From Voltaire to Wagner (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003) p.viii

[5]  Jonathan Freedman, The Temple of Culture: Assimilation and Anti-Semitism in Literary Anglo-America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) p.60.

[6] Robert Weinberg, ‘Visualizing Pogroms in Russian History,’ Jewish History, Vol.12 (1998), 71-92, p.72

[7] Derek J. Penslar, Shylock’s Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001) p.13.

[8] Robert Weinberg, ‘Visualizing Pogroms in Russian History,’ Jewish History, Vol.12 (1998), 71-92, p.73

[9] John Klier, Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) p.15

[10] Robert Weinberg, ‘Visualizing Pogroms in Russian History,’ Jewish History, Vol.12 (1998), 71-92, p.73

[11] John Klier, Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p.16.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, p.15

[14] Evridiki Sifneos, ‘The Dark Side of the Moon: Rivalry and Riots for Shelter and Occupation Between the Greek and Jewish Populations in multi-ethnic Nineteenth Century Odessa,’ The Historical Review, Vol.3 (2006), p.191

[15] Ibid, p.195

[16] Ibid, p.196

[17] Robert Weinberg, ‘Visualizing Pogroms in Russian History,’ Jewish History, Vol.12 (1998), 71-92, p.75.

[18] Ibid, p.18

[19] Robert Weinberg, ‘Visualizing Pogroms in Russian History,’ Jewish History, Vol.12 (1998), 71-92, p.74

[20] John Klier, Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) p.21

[21] Robert Weinberg, ‘Visualizing Pogroms in Russian History,’ Jewish History, Vol.12 (1998), 71-92, p.75.

[22] Brian Horowitz, How Jewish was Odessa? :

[23] John Klier, Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) p.22

[24] Evridiki Sifneos, ‘The Dark Side of the Moon: Rivalry and Riots for Shelter and Occupation Between the Greek and Jewish Populations in multi-ethnic Nineteenth Century Odessa,’ The Historical Review, Vol.3 (2006), p.198

[25] Evridiki Sifneos, ‘The Dark Side of the Moon: Rivalry and Riots for Shelter and Occupation Between the Greek and Jewish Populations in multi-ethnic Nineteenth Century Odessa,’ The Historical Review, Vol.3 (2006), p.193

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

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