How Train Cars Filled with Matzah Made it to the Soviet Union in 1929

April 15 2019

In 1929, Stalin’s efforts to collectivize agriculture were in full swing, and the Soviet Union suffered some of the severest famines and grain shortages of its history. These economic conditions, combined with the Bolsheviks’ repression of religion, made it doubly difficult for Jews to obtain matzah for Passover. Having fled the USSR the previous year, and thus well aware of the circumstances there, Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, rebbe of the Lubavitch Ḥasidim, enlisted a number of prominent rabbis and communal leaders in a plan to send matzah to Soviet Jews. Dovid Margolin tells of their efforts:

On the morning of March 6, 1929, [the German rabbi Meir] Hildesheimer met with the Soviet ambassador to Berlin, Nikolai Krestinsky, with the latter saying that the Soviet government had officially granted permission for 50 train cars of matzah to be imported to the Soviet Union. . . . [After weeks of further negotiations], the Soviet trade representative telephoned [the Latvian Jewish leader Mordechai] Dubin and told him that he had made a mistake, and if the wagons had not yet been sent to please hold off, as he was awaiting special instructions from Moscow. Dubin . . . refused to back down. . . . Three hours later the Soviet official [allowed] the first five wagons to proceed to their destinations.

In Riga, [where the matzah was baked and then shipped to the USSR], another five wagons were prepared immediately, but then came news from Berlin. The Soviets [would still allow] for 50 train-cars of matzah, but there was a catch: [the exporters] would need to pay the luxury duty of two rubles per kilogram. Each wagon could hold approximately 5,000 kilograms of matzah—250,000 kilograms all together. This brought the sum needed to approximately $130,000 in taxes alone, the equivalent of nearly $2 million in 2019.

Yet, after further negotiation and much last-minute fundraising, 28 of the 50 the train-cars made their way to the intended recipients.

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More about: Chabad, Matzah, Passover, Soviet Jewry, USSR

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