Two weeks ago the scholar Steven Zipperstein gave an excellent talk at the Yivo Institute in New York called “Rethinking Kishinev, How a Riot Changed 20th Century Jewish History.” Zipperstein’s theme was that this pogrom, which killed some 50 Jews over two days in the fifth largest city in Russia, was seized on by Zionists and socialists and anti-Semites too to promote their programs, in ways that previous anti-Jewish violence had not been deployed. Ideologues created new “engines” of public opinion, using the western press, that made Kishinev a world event, and cemented the American-Jewish idea of Jewish history as a skein of persecution.
I’ll have a fuller report in days to come, but I wanted to light on one fascinating angle of Zipperstein’s talk. Kishinev was seized on by a heroic liberationist writer of the 20th century, someone I’d never heard of before: Michael Davitt of Ireland. Davitt was an Irish Republican and populist who inspired Gandhi. He’d spent years in prison, he believed in non-violence. He went as a journalist to Kishinev to report on the pogrom, and then wrote a book about it called Within the pale: The True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecutions in Russia. Zipperstein said that Davitt took the word “pale” from the English area of control in Ireland and applied it to Russia; and thus changed Jewish vocabulary. (And in fact it was in Davitt’s archived papers in Ireland that Zipperstein was able to find copies of the leading anti-Semitic newspaper of Kishinev.)
I bring this up for one reason. A hundred years ago, enlightened world opinion was on the Jews’ side against terrible forces: the rise of rightwing radical anti-Semitism. Even Tolstoy wrote against Kishinev, Zipperstein said. On the other side, anti-Semites had support inside the Russian government.
And a leading Irish republican writer took up the oppressed Jews’ cause.
Today there is simply no question whose side a Davitt would be on: the Palestinians against the Israelis. This is obvious because of the rich connection that today exists between the Palestinian solidarity movement and Irish republican activists; the Irish say that the colonized Palestinian condition reminds them of their own.
There were a couple hundred people at Yivo the other night, most of them Jewish. I’d urge all Jews to reflect on where Zionism has swept the American Jewish community in its political values– how alienated we are today from our champions of a century before.
P.S. Noam Chomsky brought up Kishinev on Amy Goodman’s show last week, apropos of Ariel Sharon’s role in the Sabra and Shatilla massacre, which he termed “a horrifying massacre, actually one that should resonate with people who are familiar with Jewish history. It was almost a replica of the Kishinev massacre in pre-First World War Russia, one of the worst atrocities in Israeli memory, [and] led to a famous nationalist poem by the main Israeli poet, Chaim Nahman Bialik, ‘City of Killing.'”