(controversial) Revisiting the 19th-Century Russian Pogroms

part 1

part 2

part 3

Excerpts from all three below:

To allow for any sense of Jewish agency — any argument that Jews may have in some way contributed to anti-Jewish sentiment — is to harm the perpetuation of this paradigm. In this sense, the ‘victim paradigm’ also contributes heavily to the claim for Jewish uniqueness and, as Norman Finkelstein has pointed out, one can clearly see in many examples of Jewish historiography the tendency to focus not so much on the “suffering of Jews” but rather on the simple fact that “Jews suffered.”[1] As a result, the paradigm offers no place to non-Jewish suffering. . . .

The pogroms themselves have consistently been portrayed by (mainly Jewish) historians as “irrational manifestations of hatred against Jews,”[2] where peasant mobs were the unwitting dupes of malevolent Russian officials. Other explanations are so lacking in evidence, and so devoid of logic that they stretch credulity to breaking point. For example, University of British Columbia Professor, Donald G. Dutton has asserted that the mobs were not motivated by “the sudden rapid increase of the Jewish urban population, the extraordinary economic success of Russian Jews, or the involvement of Jews in Russian revolutionary politics” but rather by the “blood libel.”[3]

Little or no historiography has been dedicated to peeling back the layers of “refugee” stories to uncover what really happened in the Russian Empire in the years before and during the riots. This lack of historical enquiry can be attributed at least in part to a great reluctance on the part of Jewish historians to investigate the pogroms in any manner beyond the merely superficial. In addition, historical enquiry by non-Jewish historians into the subject has been openly discouraged. For example, when Ukrainian historians discovered evidence proving that contemporary media reports of Jewish casualties in that nation were exaggerated, the Jewish genealogy website ‘JewishGen,’ responded by stating: “We believe that [these facts] are more than irrelevant because it redirects public attention from the major topic: the genocidal essence of pogroms.” . . .

The statement could be translated as “Let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story.” Also, as this paper will show, the tendency to portray the riots as “genocidal” is completely lacking in foundation. University of California Los Angeles Professor of Sociology, Michael Mann, has provided substantial evidence indicating that “most perpetrators did not conceive of removing Jews altogether.”[4] . . .

Polish Jewry had enjoyed a demographic explosion, with Jews now representing almost 20% of the entire population. In addition, it was discovered that Jews controlled a full 75% of Polish exports, and that many were now spilling out of over-populated urban centres into the countryside, making a living by monopolising the sale of liquor to peasants.[11] By 1774, complaints were reaching Russian officials from non-Jewish merchants who argued that Jewish ethnic networking was propping up the monopoly of exports, and that this monopoly would shortly have dire implications for the consumer.[12] These revelations were the key motivating factors in the decision to expel Warsaw’s Jews in 1775, and until the early 19th century there was a kind of stand-off between Poles and Jews.[13] Napoleon’s establishment of the Duchy of Warsaw in 1807 did little to alter the situation, as Napoleon acceded to local sentiment which held that Jews should not feel the benefit of the new constitution until they had “eradicated their peculiar characteristics.”[14] In 1813, the government of the Duchy moved to break the Jewish monopoly on liquor, banning all Jews from selling alcohol in the villages, bringing an end to the activity of “tens of thousands” of Jewish liquor merchants in the provinces. Not surprisingly, when the Duchy was dissolved in 1815 following Napoleon’s failed attempt to invade Russia, Polish Jewry shed no tears.

In late 1815, the Congress of Vienna was held. The aim of the congress was to give its assent to the formation of a new autonomous Polish kingdom under the sovereignty of Russia. Although the bulk of Polish Jewry remained within the newly established kingdom, tens of thousands also poured forth into other areas of the Russian Empire, ushering in an uncomfortable age of fraught Russian-Jewish relations. . . .

In 1841, investigations were carried out into Russia’s Jewish communities, and the subsequent reports pointed to three significant problems. The first was persistent Jewish difference in dress, language, and religious and communal organization. The idea underpinning this aloofness from non-Jewish society, the ‘Chosen’ status of the Jews and an accompanying ethnic chauvinism, was said to be particularly harmful to Jewish-Gentile relations, particularly when it was reinforced through “a system of male education that was thought to inculcate anti-Christian interpretations of the Talmud.”[19] The second, related, problem was that Jewish economic practices were also rooted in this aloofness. The Talmud “encouraged and justified unreserved economic exploitation based on cheating and exploiting the non-Jews,”[20] in a validation of Max Weber’s theory of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ ethics, whereby “members of a cohesive social unit observe different moral standards among themselves compared with those observed in relation to strangers.”[21] The third aspect of the Russian ‘Jewish Question,’ was the issue of Jewish loyalty. The Jews of the Russian Empire had evidently retained the kahal of pre-partition Polish Jewry. The kahal was a formal system of Jewish communal leadership and government, entirely separate from the Russian state. Although tacitly tolerated by the state for its tax collection capabilities, Jewish loyalty to the kahal was absolute, going beyond the merely fiscal. Almost all Jews continued to resort to Jewish courts. . . .

John Klier states that following these revelations, “state and society shared a consensus that Jews could be – and must be – reformed and transformed into good subjects of the realm.”[22] Under Emperor Alexander I (1801–25) there had been attempts to encourage Jews to pursue more productive economic activities. Generous concessions were made to Jews in the hope that they would abandon their middleman roles, as well as the distilleries and taverns of the provinces, and take up work in agricultural colonies. Klier states that the “embeddedness of the Jews in the economic and social life of the imperial borderlands ensured that despite legislative initiatives, Jewish economic life remained largely unchanged.”[23]

In 1844, under Nicholas I, the Russian government began a program of reforms and legislation designed to break down Jewish exclusivity and incorporate the nation’s Jews more fully into Russian society. Not surprisingly, the government first took aim at the kahal, banning it as “an illegal underground structure.”[24] The significance of the banning of the kahal went beyond tackling the issue of Jewish loyalty. The mutual assistance offered by the kahal was felt to have had economic implications – “it was the mutual support provided by the kahal that ensured that Jews were more than a match for any competitor, even the arch-exploiter of the Russian village, the kulak.”[25] . . . Unfortunately for Nicholas, what his system produced was a cadre of Jewish intellectuals profoundly hostile to the state. . . .

Conditions on settlement and mobility in the Pale were relaxed further. Klier states that “Jews even became the subject of sympathetic concern for the leaders of public opinion. Proposals for the complete emancipation of the Jews were widely mooted in the press.”[26]

These measures, however, were also accompanied by a growing uneasiness with the way the Jews of Russia took advantage of them. There was little in the way of gratitude, and the measures did not bring about the great changes that had been hoped for. The nationalist revolt of the Poles in 1863, and the fact that a large number of wealthy Jews were found to have funded some of the rebels cast new doubts on Jewish loyalty. Having emancipated the peasantry and adopted a paternalistic concern for the former serfs, the government also viewed with alarm the rapidity with which the “Jews were exploiting the unsophisticated and ignorant rural inhabitants, reducing them to a Jewish serfdom.”[27] It also quickly became apparent that despite new military legislation, Jews were noticeable in their overwhelming avoidance of military service. In retaliation, the government clamped down on rural tavern ownership, and introduced more stringent recruitment procedures specifically for Jews. It has been claimed that Jews were also banned from land ownership at this time, but Klier provides evidence that Jews were still able to buy any peasant properties sold at auction for tax arrears, as well as any property within the Pale not owned by Russian gentry.[28] . . .

The Jewish Narrative.

In 1881 the ‘Russo-Jewish Committee,’ (RJC) an arm of Britain’s Jewish elite, mass-produced a pamphlet entitled “The Persecution of the Jews in Russia,” and began disseminating it through the press, the churches, and numerous other channels. By 1899, it was embellished and published as a short book, and today digitized copies are freely available online.[1] By the early 20th century, the pamphlet had even spawned a four-page journal called Darkest Russia – A Weekly Record of the Struggle for Freedom, ensuring that the average British citizen did not go long without being reminded of the ‘horrors’ facing Russian Jews.[2] The fact that these publications were mass produced should provide an indication as to their purpose: It is clear that these publications represented one of the most ambitious propaganda campaign in Jewish history, and combined with similar efforts in the United States, they were aimed at gaining the attention of, and ‘educating,’ the Western nations and ensuring the primacy of the ‘Jewish side of the story.’ Implicit in this was not only a desire to provoke anti-Russian attitudes, but also copious amounts of sympathy for the victimized Jews — sympathy necessary to ensure that mass Jewish chain migration to the West went on untroubled and unhindered by nativists. After all, wasn’t the bigoted nativist just a step removed from the rampaging Cossack?

The first element of the narrative advanced by the RJC is essentially a manipulation of the history of Russian-Jewish relations. It holds that the Jews of Eastern Europe have been oppressed for centuries, their whole lives “hampered, from cradle to grave, by restrictive laws.”[3] It was claimed that the Russians had an unwritten law: “That no Russian Jew shall earn a living.”[4] Russian Jews, according to the Russo-Jewish Committee, have wanted nothing more than to participate in Russian society, but have been rebuffed time and again as “heretics and aliens.” . . .

The second element of the Jewish narrative is that the government and petty officialdom had some role to play in organizing and directing the pogroms. Much disdain is heaped on the government, and petty officialdom, which was said to have been afflicted with “a chronic anti-Semitic outlook.” It was claimed that when the riots began, the government was “not altogether sorry to let the excitement of the people vent itself on the Jews.”[5] In reference to the restrictive May Laws, the authors were forced to concede they had never really been enforced. . . .

The third element of the Jewish narrative is that the pogroms were genocidal, and that they had been organized and perpetrated by groups seeking the extermination of the Jews. The 1899 edition of “The Persecution of the Jews in Russia” included a copy of a lengthy letter written to the London Times by Nathan Joseph, Secretary of the RJC, dated November 5th, 1890. In the letter, Joseph claimed that in the present circumstances “hundreds of thousands could be exterminated,”[7] and that Russian legislation in relation to Jews represented “an instrument of torture and persecution.” In sum, the Jews of Russia were claimed to be living under “a sentence of death,” and it was further claimed that “the executions are proceeding.” The letter ends with an appeal to “Civilized Europe” to intervene, chastise Russia, and aid the victimized Jews.[8]

The fourth key element of the Jewish narrative is that the pogroms were extremely violent in nature. . . . Men had been ruthlessly murdered, tender infants had been dashed on the stones or roasted alive in their own homes. During a British parliamentary consultation on the pogroms in 1905, a Rabbi Michelson claimed that “the atrocities had been so fiendish that they could find no parallel even in the most barbarous annals of the most barbarous peoples.”[9] The New York Times reported that during the 1903 Kishinev pogrom “babes were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob.”[10] . . .

The ‘atrocity’ aspect of the narrative has continued to be advanced by Jewish historians. For example Anita Shapira, in her Stanford-published, Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948, claims that “each series of new riots was worse than the one preceding, as if every bloodbath provided a permit for an even worse massacre.”[11] Shapira further hints that the murder of Jewish babies was common during the pogroms, stating that a common worry of Russian Jews was “Will they take pity on the small babies, who do not even know yet that they are Jews?”[12] She concludes one particular section on pogrom violence by stating, without referencing any evidence, that there were “numerous acts of rape,” and that “many were massacred — men, women, and children. The cruelty that marked these killings added a special dimension to the feeling of terror and shock that spread in their wake.”[13] Joseph Brandes, in his 2009 Immigrants to Freedom alleges, without citing evidence, that mobs “threw women and children out of the windows” of their homes, and that “heads were battered with hammers, nails were driven into bodies, eyes were gouged out … and petroleum was poured over the sick found hiding in cellars and they were burned to death.”[14] . . .

John Doyle Klier points out that the Daily Telegraph was at that time Jewish-owned, and was particularly “severe” in its reports on Russian treatment of Jews prior to 1881.[19] In the pages of this publication, it was stated that “these Russian atrocities are only the beginning. … [T]he Russian officials themselves countenance these barbarities.”[20] Around this time in Continental Europe, Prussian Rabbi Yizhak Rülf established himself as an “intermediary” between Eastern Jewry and the West, and, according to Klier, one of his specialities was the spreading of “sensationalized accounts of mass rape.”[21] . . .

Other major sources of pogrom atrocity stories were the New York Times, the London Times, and the Jewish World. It would be the Jewish World which furnished the majority of these tales, having sent a reporter “to visit areas that had suffered pogroms.”[22] Most of the other papers simply reprinted what the Jewish World reporter sent them. The atrocity stories carried by these newspapers provoked global outrage. There were large-scale public protests against Russia in Paris, Brussels, London, Vienna, and even in Melbourne, Australia. However, “it was in the United States that public indignation reached its height.” Historian Edward Judge states that the American public was spurred on by reports of “brutal beatings, multiple rapes, dismemberment of corpses, senseless slaughter, painful suffering and unbearable grief.”[23]

However, as John Klier states, the reports of the Jewish World’s “Special Correspondent,” “raise intriguing problems for the historian.”[24] While his itinerary of travel is described as “plausible,” most of his accounts are “flatly contradicted by the archival record.”[25] His claim that twenty rioters were killed during a pogrom in Kishinev in 1881 has been proven to be a fabrication by records which show that in that city, at that time, “there were no significant pogroms and no fatalities.”[26] Other claims that he witnessed shootings of peasants on his travels have been entirely discredited due to the vast number of minor inaccuracies in those accounts.

Furthermore, Klier states that the atrocity stories compiled by the Jewish World correspondent, which went on to be so influential in manipulating Western perceptions of the events, must be treated with “extreme caution.”[27] The reporter “portrayed the pogroms dramatically, as great in scale and inhuman in their brutality. He reported numerous accounts where Jews were burned alive in their homes while the authorities looked on.”[28] There are hundreds of instances where he references the murder of children, the mutilation of women, and the biting off of fingers.

Klier states that “the author’s most influential accounts, given their effect on world opinion, were his accounts of the rape and torture of girls as young as ten or twelve.”[29] In 1881 he reported 25 rapes in Kiev, of which five were said to have resulted in fatalities, in Odessa he claimed 11, and in Elizavetgrad he claimed 30.[30] Rape featured prominently in the reports, not because rapes were common, but because rape “even more than murder and looting” was known to “generate particular outrage abroad.” Klier states that “Jewish intermediaries who were channelling pogrom reports abroad were well aware of the impact of reports of rape, and it featured prominently in their accounts.”[31] The two most dramatic and gruesome accounts came from Berezovka and Borispol. In fact, as the year neared its end, the reports became more and more gruesome and brutal in the details they conveyed.

There is, of course, a reason for this. As the non-Jewish public began to tire of the reports and switched their minds to the coming Christmas festivities, Klier states that records show the RJC made a conscious and calculated decision to “keep Russian Jewry before the eyes of the public.”[32] A key component of this strategy was to take the accounts of the Special Correspondent and publish them in a more widely circulated and respected newspaper. They settled on the London Times, which was already predisposed to “critical editorial faulting of the Russian government.” Klier further states that these evidently false reports “garnished with the prestige of The Times and devoid of any attribution, subsequently published as a separate pamphlet, and translated into a variety of European languages … became the definitive Western version of the pogroms.”[33] . . .

In January 1882, Consul-General Stanley objected to all of the details contained within reports published by The Times, mentioning in particular the unfounded “accounts of the violation of women.”[35] He further stated that his own investigations revealed that there had been no incidences of rape during the Berezovka pogrom, that violence was rare, and that much of the disturbance was restricted to property damage. In relation to property damage in Odessa, Stanley estimated it to be around 20,000 rubles, and rejected outright the Jewish claim that damage amounted to over one million rubles.

Vice-Consul Law, another independent investigator, reported that he had visited Kiev and Odessa, and could only conclude that “I should be disinclined to believe in any stories of women having been outraged in those towns.”[36] Another investigator, Colonel Francis Maude, visited Warsaw and said that he could “not attach any importance” to atrocity reports emanating from that city.[37] At Elizavetgrad, instead of whole streets being razed to the ground, it was discovered that a small hut had lost its roof. It was further discovered that very few Jews, if any, had been intentionally killed, though some died of injuries received in the riots. These were mainly the result of conflicts between groups of Jews who defended their taverns and rioters seeking alcohol. The small number of Jews who had been intentionally killed had fallen victim to unstable individuals who had been drunk on Jewish liquor — accusations of murderous intent among the masses were simply unfounded and unsubstantiated by the evidence. . . .

The revelations came at a bad time for the RJC, which was at that time attempting to move the British Government to “act in some way on behalf of persecuted Russian Jewry.”[40] It resorted to republishing (in the Times) its pamphlet on persecution in Russia twice in one month, presumably in the belief that blunt repetition would suffice to overcome tangible evidence. Klier states that the pieces were examples of “masterful” propaganda, as they attempted to undermine the credibility of the Government consuls, while sycophantically appealing to “the wise and noble people of England,” who “will know what weight should be attached to such denials and refutations.”[41] The RJC offered its own “corroborative evidence of the most undeniable kind,” though of course the exact source of this evidence was not specified beyond “persons occupying high official positions in the Jewish community” and “Jewish refugees.”

In essence, the people of western nations were being asked to trust an anonymous Rabbi on the other side of the world rather than identifiable representatives of their own government. The pieces, states Klier, “painted the familiar picture of murder and rape,” and despite the debunking statements of the consuls, “a number of mother/daughter rapes, which had already done so much to outrage British public opinion, were again repeated.”[42] Although the move for British government intervention failed, in the battle for public opinion “the RJC clearly won the day,” and the Times and the RJC remained good bedfellows.

The Consuls were outraged. Stanley reiterated the fact that his intensive investigations, which he carried out at great personal cost with a serious leg injury, illustrated that “The Times’ accounts of what took place at each of those places contains the greatest exaggerations, and that the account of what took place at some of those places is absolutely untrue.”[43] He related the fact that a Rabbi in Odessa had “not heard of any outrages on women there,” and that the object of almost every pogrom he had investigated was simple “plunder.”[44] Enraged by the lies circulating in Britain and America, Stanley “went right to the top,” interviewing state rabbis and asking for evidence and touring pogrom sites. In Odessa, where a wealth of atrocity stories had originated, he was able to confirm “one death, but no looting of synagogues or victims set alight.” There was no evidence that a single rape had taken place. One state Rabbi admitted that he had not heard of any outrages of women in Berezovka and further assured Stanley that he “could with a clear conscience positively deny that any deaths or any violations had occurred there during the disturbances of last year.”[45] He again sent this report to his superior in London, with a note saying “This is in accordance with all the information I have received and forwarded to your Lordship, and which I think more credible than anonymous letters in The Times.”[46]

Despite Stanley’s best efforts the Jewish narrative advanced by the RJC, imbued with atrocity tales, has remained unalterably attached in Western perceptions of the pogroms. . . .

The first disturbance involving Jews to occur in the Russian Empire, and which left sufficient documentation, was the 1821 Odessa pogrom. Weinberg has painted a picture of Odessa as being some kind of multicultural heaven at this time. He states that the city “benefited from the presence of German, Italian, French, Greek, and English residents whose cultural and intellectual tastes influenced local life.”[8] By the 1820s street signs were written in Russian and Italian, the city’s first newspaper appeared in French. Odessa, according to Weinberg, had a thriving art scene, particularly in relation to theatre, music, and opera.

However, Klier paints a radically different picture of the city, stressing in particular the ethnic tension created by increasing Jewish settlement in the city. Klier states that by 1821, Odessa was “a hotbed of ethnic, religious, and economic rivalries” and was, quite significantly, “a distinctly non-Russian city.”[9] Weinberg explains that “the number of Jews arriving from other parts of the Russian Empire and Galicia in the Austrian Empire skyrocketed.” In Odessa, Jews were entirely free from “legal burdens and residency restrictions.”[10]

Violence erupted in 1821 when, during the Greek War of Independence, a group of Muslims and Jews murdered and then mutilated Gregory V, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Istanbul. In the aftermath, many Greeks fled with Gregory’s remains from Istanbul to Odessa, where his funeral procession was held. Surviving documents suggest that violence broke out when a large contingent of Odessa’s Jewish population showed open disrespect for the procession.[11]

In describing this and subsequent outbreaks of violence in Odessa, I must urge readers to divest themselves of the preconception that the Jewish contingent of the city was a tiny minority. Jewish historians are often quick to allude to minority status without providing definitive numbers. John Doyle Klier, however, informs us that by the middle of the nineteenth century Jews constituted “almost one-third of the total population” in Odessa.[12] Given the huge population of Greeks and other nationalities, it was the Russians who composed the “tiny minority.” . . .

Economic supremacy in the city until the middle of the nineteenth century was the preserve of the Greek population, which had fended off the attempts of numerous other ethnic groups to “secure or maintain a favored economic position.”[13]

When a huge influx of Jews occurred in the 1850s, the struggle for economic supremacy between Jew and Greek, added to historical religiopolitical grievances, contributed to increased inter-ethnic tension in the city. Greek historian Evridiki Sifneos informs us that earlier co-existence had “not been based on mutual toleration. On the contrary, economic recession in the second half of the nineteenth century accelerated ethnic distinctions, and resentment was provoked by the ascension of social or ethnic groups [primarily Jewish], which led to the redistribution of resources.”[14] Until the mid-1850s, the Greeks had control of grain exports, but with the disruption of trade routes as a result of the Crimean War, some local Greek business owners were forced into bankruptcy. The city’s Jews, who had earlier occupied mainly middleman roles, pooled resources and eagerly bought up these businesses at extremely low prices. A letter from one Greek contemporary reads: “When I first came to Odessa in 1864, I became a purchaser of grain on behalf of our house, 14 at Moldovanka. The majority were Greeks, with a few Russian middlemen. Now there are no Russians, and as for the Greeks they are counted on the fingers of one hand. Jews are the ones who have taken over the market.”[15] According to Sifneos, Jews took advantage of the placement of their taverns in the villages to establish themselves as middlemen in the collection of grain from the surrounding countryside, and in addition “they worked more tightly within their ethnic network.”[16]

Weinberg further states that when “Jewish employers followed the practice of only hiring their own, many Greek dockworkers now found themselves in the ranks of the unemployed.”[17] When it became apparent that Jews had wrested economic supremacy from the Greeks in 1858, incidences of inter-ethnic violence began to escalate in frequency. In 1858 there were attacks on Greek and Jewish property, and numerous “Greek-Jewish brawls” in the city, and in 1859 a quarrel between Greek and Jewish children again escalated into full-scale inter-ethnic conflict. Violence was ended thanks only to the intervention of Russian police and Cossacks.[18] A major bout of Greek-Jewish violence occurred again in 1869.

How do we describe such events? In light of the context of these disturbances, does the term “pogrom” or “anti-Jewish riot” withstand scrutiny? Certainly not. Note my use of the terms “inter-ethnic violence” and “disturbance involving Jews.” These terms do not feature in Jewish historiography on these events. “Anti-Jewish riot” or “pogrom” is merely part of the lexicon of the ‘victim paradigm,’ bequeathing passive status even through word use. To express it flippantly, when Tom and Bill have a fight in the street, one does not describe it as “anti-Tom violence.” This automatically imparts passive, victim status to Tom, despite the fact that he may have started the fight, and certainly threw as many punches. Weinberg, for example, describes the 1859 disturbance as “anti-Jewish activity,” but states that both “Jewish and gentile youths engaged in bloody brawls.”[19] . . .

The late John Doyle Klier, formerly Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Oxford University, informs us categorically that Russian involvement in the 1871 Odessa ethnic conflict had its roots in real, tangible economic grievances. Klier states that Russian participation was the result of “bitterness born of the exploitation of their work by Jews and the ability of the latter to enrich themselves and manipulate all manner of trade and commercial activity.”[20] Similarly, Weinberg concedes that by 1871, there were “many others besides Greeks who perceived Jews as an economic threat.”[21] . . .

By 1871, Jewish economic domination had moved beyond grain exports. A US consular report from that year reveals the extent of Jewish control over Odessa’s economic life. It reports that Jews in the city “occupy themselves with trade and favoring their own class or sect, that is that their combinations, in a great many instances, amount almost to monopolies. The common remark, therefore, is that ‘everything is in the hands of the Jews.’ To sell or buy a house, a horse, a carriage, to rent a lodging or contract for a loan, to engage a governess, and sometimes even to marry a wife the Jew gets his percent as a “go between.” The poor laborer, the hungry soldier, the land proprietor, the money capitalist, and in fact every producer and every consumer is obliged in one way or another to pay tribute to the Jew.”[24] . . .

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