Last month Yivo Institute in New York staged a lecture on European history that may itself be a piece of Jewish history: for it showed how a legendary anti-Semitic episode was mythologized and exploited by Jews and anti-Semites in ways that shape Jewish ideas of safety to this day. Steven Zipperstein’s talk focused on the Kishinev pogrom in Russian in April 1903, when 49 Jews were killed over two days, and as many raped; and he sought to demolish a “canonic” American Jewish belief, that the czar was behind the massacre.
The Stanford professor of Jewish history was introduced by Jonathan Brent, director of Yivo, who established the theme of the evening when he said that the intellectual and cultural medium American Jews exist in today draws on ideas about anti-Semitism in Europe. Our understanding of our victimization was based on parents’ and grandparents’ remembrances, and echoed in synagogues, the movies and popular literature. But these ideas involve black and white ideas of good and evil.
“When I was a kid and my father was feeling expansive,” Brent said, “he would summarize Jewish history in approximately the following way. ‘The Germans were the worst, the Poles were worse than the Germans, the Lithuanians were worse than the Poles, and the Ukrainians were worse than anybody. Except the Romanians.’ And this was the Jewish history that I grew up with.” Brent then related that when the phone rang in his grandmother’s apartment she would continue dusting as she made her way to the phone, by which time the caller had hung up. She would lift the receiver and curse in Yiddish, Anti-Semite.
The purpose of the lecture, Brent said, was to lift a “veil” on “the complexity and the deep profound ambiguity of so many of the issues that have moved us over a 1000 years of history.” I.e., it’s not that simple.
Zipperstein, a noted author on Jewish history, spoke for more than an hour and said that the central myth of the Kishinev pogrom, based on half-truths projected by a global press responsive to the burgeoning immigrant Jewish community on New York’s Lower East Side, was that the Russian government—the czar– had fostered the pogrom and then failed to defend Jews in Russia’s fifth largest city. In fact, Zipperstein said, a radical rightwing circle of anti-Semites was responsible for the pogrom.
These same pogromchiks were likely also responsible for the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the legendary text about international Jewish control, which came out two years after the pogrom. The Protocols are generally attributed to the Russian government. But this theory is surely inaccurate, Zipperstein said. While Russian leaders had deeply conservative and old-fashioned anti-Semitic views and saw Jews as radicals who could foment revolution and threaten the rule of the Romanovs, these conceptions were mild next to the anti-Semitism of the likely authors of the Protocols, “apocalyptic” and latently fascist radicals who sought to generate instability out of fear that they were losing their Russia to an exploitative caste who had access to the world’s press.
Zipperstein almost apologized for reaching this conclusion. The political ramifications of his research ran contrary to what he believed. But he had come to understand that some of “my deepest political beliefs are predicated on historical half-truths.”
Zipperstein went further, exploring the factual basis for the anti-Semites’ belief that Kishinev was the heart of a worldwide conspiracy of Jewish Zionists and leftwingers.
“This is fantasy to be sure, but like much fantasy there was an internal logic…Most legends spring from facts, as [British historian] A.J.P. Taylor once observed,” Zipperstein said.
Kishinev was one of four bureaus of the Zionist movement led by Theodor Herzl. Here Dr. Jakob Bernstein-Kogan headed worldwide correspondence efforts for the Zionists and had contacts to the world press. The second night of the pogrom, Bernstein-Kogan raised tens of thousands of roubles from wealthy Jews in Kishinev to relieve the victims, and used runners and telegrams to get news and photographs of the atrocities out to the newspapers abroad via Russia’s western border with Romania.
Soon Kishinev became a cause celebre in London and New York, commanding the attention of the world press in a way that no Russian event had before. Millions were raised for the Kishinev victims, and William Randolph Hearst put a daily appeal for the victims on the front page of his New York Journal in an effort to gain Jewish support for his run to be NY governor and later the Democratic nomination for the presidency (both unsuccessful). Hearst also hired the Irish revolutionary Michael Davitt to write about Kishinev, and Davitt became a hero to American Jews—the subject of poems and plays. Jewish groups gave copies of Davitt’s book on the massacre to American leaders.
Similarly, the Forward, which was then a socialist Jewish newspaper, ran endless accounts of Kishinev in order to stoke opposition to the Russian monarchy and support for continued Russian Jewish immigration to the United States.
These new “engines” of information drove a “cascade of Jewish public opinion” that was shocking to Russian anti-Semites, and that seemed to confirm their view of an international conspiracy, Zipperstein said. They saw “the claws of worldwide Jewry being stretched in a way that was terrifying.”
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is generally thought to be a forgery “produced in the recesses of the Russian government.” But citing many clues, including the fact that the Russian government’s dossier on Bernstein-Kogan was largely accurate and not overblown, Zipperstein said that the Protocols were most likely the work of the radical anti-Semitic circle. That group was led by a Kishinev editor, Pavel Krushevan, who published the Protocols in 1905 in his St Petersburg newspaper.
If the Protocols were a forgery representing anti-Semites’ views of Jewish motives, “the Plehve letter” was a forgery on the other side, caricaturing the Russian government’s thinking. Published in The Times of London a month after the pogrom, the letter was purportedly signed two weeks before the pogrom by the Russian minister of the interior, Vacheslav von Plehve. It ordered local authorities not to crack down too hard on anti-Jewish rioters lest they turn their rage on the regime.
The Plehve letter was a “smoking gun” that attained “the most unassailable” and “canonic” status in Jewish consciousness, Zipperstein said: it showed that the Russian government was in on the pogrom. And it was “all but certainly a forgery,” he said. The Russian government denied it at the time, the police director said that Plehve had nothing to do with the pogrom, and researchers who later scoured the Romanov archives for it found nothing, even as they found embarrassing documents by Plehve.
Nonetheless, Jews widely blame the czar for Kishinev. Zipperstein said this was “the most resonant of all lessons to learn from the massacre, namely that the government at the highest levelwas directly responsible for it all, that it was intent on wreaking havoc, perhaps little less than the annihilation of its Jews.” (I have asserted that the czar was behind the massacre. So does John Judis in his new book on Truman. So did Noam Chomsky recently on Democracy Now).
Zipperstein said the belief in the czar’s role in the massacre became the “resilient glue” of liberal Jewish identity in the U.S. “Vast and large and emblematic,” Kishinev’s mythology informed the Jewish understanding of right and left and our relationship to non-Jews and to government. It produced Jewish support for the NAACP and Barack Obama, and rendered the word pogrom “sketchily used before… into a phenomenon not less intrinsically Russian than vodka and the czar itself.”
During the q-and-a, Zipperstein said that only a fraction of the Jews emigrating from Russia were fleeing actual pogroms, but Kishinev represented for them the darkest example of a miserable life. (And I reflected, few of the Palestinians fleeing the Nakba actually had experienced a massacre, but they feared the worst.)
The message of Zipperstein’s lecture was that both Jews and Russians regarded one another through distorted lenses, exaggerating the other’s power. He considered this chiefly from the Jewish point of view, more frequently assailing the Russian than the Jewish exaggeration (and not saying that Jews forged the Plehve letter, even as he accused Krushevan’s circle of fabricating the Protocols).
And I would add one stipulation to Zipperstein’s dismissal of the anti-Semites. He said the rightwing anti-Semites believed the Zionists’ outlandish claims; and so when Zionists announced plans to buy land in Palestine in 1901 and even set up a bank to that end in Europe, these Russians feared that Jews would take over the holy places in Jerusalem. As I have repeated several times here, Herzl sought to allay these fears by promising the czar (and the pope, and Kaiser and sultan too) that the holy places of Jerusalem would remain internationalized. Below is my photograph of Muslim worshipers at Ramadan in 2012, walking under Jewish flags in East Jerusalem, which is occupied by Israel. The Kishinev Russians were hateful and murderous, but some of their concerns about Zionism look reasonable.
Flags over the crowds going to pray at Al-Aqsa
Update: I told Zipperstein about this post and he offered two corrections:
I never proposed that I was the first to discover that tsarist authorities weren’t responsible for the Kishinev pogrom. This is well-known in scholarly circles, and [commenter] Stephen Shenfield is certainly correct that the best examination of the origins of the pogroms is the work of – my teacher – Hans Rogger. Second, by no means were Zionists the only ones to transmute the lessons of Kishinev’s pogrom into the heart of their politics. No less influential was the influence of the massacre – and its ostensible lessons – on the Jewish Socialist Labor Bund, and many others on the non-Zionist left. Your focus — singleminded, it seems to me — on the perfidy of Zionism obscured for you the broader ramifications of what I sought to argue in my talk.