The Russian Pogrom That Put Anti-Semitism on the Front Pages

July 30, 2018 | Anthony Julius

Reviewing Steven Zipperstein’s book Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History, Anthony Julius writes:

On April 19-20, 1903 in Kishinev, a provincial city of the Russian empire (now Chişinau, Moldova), 49 Jews were murdered, several among them children; as many (or more) were serially raped; very many more were injured. Synagogues were desecrated, shops were looted, and homes were destroyed or damaged. . . . The victims knew their assailants, many crying out their names while being beaten or raped. They were not protected by the civil authorities. In response to calls for help, one police officer told the Jews they were getting what they deserved; the police thwarted Jewish self-defense efforts by confiscating weapons. Two-thirds of the city was affected by violence. . . .

[U]ntil the late 1930s [this episode] was practically synonymous with anti-Semitism. The word “pogrom,” which Kishinev concretized, “was believed to capture accurately centuries of Jewish vulnerability, the deep well of Jewish misery,” Zipperstein writes. . . .

Zipperstein gives us a strong, clear narrative as well as appalling details. Rumors of attacks on the Jews had been circulating; permission had been given, it was said, for three days of violence; there were accusations against the Jews of ritual murder. It began with random, nonlethal violence. The mob found meaning through its slogans, “Strike the Jews!” and “Death to the Jews!” They were cheered on by local officials who claimed, as one put it, that Jews “exploited the Christians in a hundred unscrupulous ways, to their own aggrandizement.”

But the book is much more than an account of these horrors. It is a history of the pogrom’s reception as well. Among his six chapters, Zipperstein addresses the impact on Russian anti-Semites, who took the pogrom as proof not of Jewish weakness but of Jewish mendacity; on the Zionist movement and then on Israeli society, who saw in it the impossibility of diaspora existence; on the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), “energized by efforts to align the Russian pogroms against Jews with the American lynching of blacks,” as well as in the United States generally, “the epicenter of pro-Kishinev relief campaigns and demonstrations.”

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