How Lenin’s Great-Grandfather Shaped Tsarist Jewish Policies

Perhaps the most influential anti-Semitic text in 19th-century Russia was The Book of the Kahal—a precursor to, and major influence on, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Its author, Yakov Brafman (1825-1879), was a Jewish convert to Christianity. And he was not the only Russian Jewish convert to use his status to defame his people before an all-too-credulous Russian audience. In fact, the tsar’s secret police kept careful lists of converts who could serve as informers. Among them was Dmitry Ivanovich (né Moshe Itzkovich) Blank, who has the added distinction of being the great-grandfather of Vladimir Lenin. Hadassah Assouline writes:

We know of at least two episodes in which Moshe Blank . . . quarreled with a fellow townsman and members of the community of Starokonsantinov [now in western Ukraine]. In 1809, after a string of earlier disagreements, the Jewish community accused him of setting fire to the town. A trial acquitted Blank, but he left the community and moved to [the nearby city of] Zhitomir, where he continued his retaliation against members of his former community in a letter of complaint that he sent to Tsar Alexander I. This letter, which predates the one below, never reached the tsar but remained with the local authorities in Zhitomir.

Blank also became embroiled in disputes with the local Jews of Zhitomir and following legal proceedings he lost most of his vast property, including a local brick factory. The episode stretched from 1838 to 1844, and immediately afterward Blank converted. . . .

Unlike other letters from informants in the [secret-police] files, Blank’s does not inform on a particular person or on members or leaders of a particular community, but on the Jews of Russia in general, and his missive had consequences for Russian Jewry for years to come. . . .

Two days after the head of the [secret police read Blank’s 1845 letter to Tsar Nicholas I describing systemic Jewish perfidy], he presented the tsar with a report about the letter. . . . In the report, the head of the department noted all of Blank’s accusations against the Jews and suggested adopting a series of measures in the spirit of Blank’s letter. . . . In August 1846, Blank wrote another document, again in Yiddish, “about various methods of converting the Jews.” This document was sent to the Ministry of the Interior, which passed it on, by order of the tsar, to the Committee for Jewish Affairs. . . .

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More about: Anti-Semitism, History & Ideas, Lenin, Russian Jewry


Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat