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Pogroms — from Russia to Palestine

How Palestinians are subject to a Pogrom, even today.

by Stephen Shenfield

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5 min read

"Palestine" by noaz. is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Personal Introduction: The Smorgon Pogrom of 1915

Smorgon was a Jewish town near the western border of the tsarist empire, in the Vilna Province (roughly but not exactly corresponding to today’s Lithuania: today’s Smorgon is in Belarus). My grandmother Manya was born there in 1895.

In August and September 1915 Smorgon was engulfed in the battles of the First World War. Russian Cossacks took up positions in the town on August 7. The German army captured Smorgon on September 2 only to withdraw a few days later. Returning Cossacks accused the town’s Jews of aiding the Germans and ‘retaliated’ with a reign of terror.

The soldiers broke into Jews’ houses, …  murdered and raped. A group of about 40 Jewish soldiers organized to protect the Jewish population. In the front yard of the synagogue they fought against Cossacks who were raping Jewish women who had sought refuge there. When the Jewish soldiers broke into the synagogue, they saw Cossacks tearing Torah scrolls. On the floor lay the corpses of raped and tortured women. Near the corpse of one young girl lay that of her father. 

Israel Kloizner, Lithuanian Jewry: The History of the Jews in Lithuania, pp. 120-121

On September 11 the Russian government issued an official order to exile the Jews of Smorgon. They were to be driven away from the front, into the interior of Russia. Jewish homes, stores, and workshops were set on fire. Some residents perished in the flames. Others were robbed, beaten or killed as they fled.  

Men and women, toddlers and babies in their arms, bunches of underwear and pillows on their shoulders, marched or ran in the cold and rain.  

Memorial Book, chapter by Mendel Sudersky, pp. 1549-50

This was called a pogrom. (Grom is Russian for thunder.) 

A column of survivors of the Smorgon pogrom trudged through the forest in the night, heading east toward Minsk. Among them were Manya and her sister — the only members of their family to escape. In 1919, by which time the sisters had reached Kharkov, Manya gave birth to my father. Her sister died of typhus after entrusting Manya with her own newborn son. In 1925 Manya left the Soviet Union with the two boys and came to London, where I was born in 1950.  

The Pogrom: A Brief History

Originally the word pogrom was applied solely to attacks on Jewish communities (towns, neighborhoods) in the Russian empire. Such attacks were common in the borderlands of tsarist Russia in the 19th and early 20th centuries and especially during the upheavals that followed the collapse of the empire in 1917–21. During World War One there were also pogroms against ethnic Germans living in Russia.  

Later the usage was extended to include attacks on Jewish communities in other East European countries such as Romania, Lithuania, and Poland, where the last anti-Jewish pogroms occurred in 1946. The massacres of Moslems, Sikhs, and Hindus that accompanied the partition of India in 1947 are also sometimes referred to as pogroms.  

The United States too – ‘land of the free and home of the slave’ — had its share of pogroms. Most targeted black communities: New York City (1863), Memphis, Tennessee (1866), Springfield, Illinois (1908), East St. Louis, Illinois (1917), Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921), Rosewood, Florida and Catcher, Arkansas (1923). The communities at greatest risk were those where black people were starting to prosper and acquiring property – notably, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, also known as ‘Black Wall Street,’ which was the wealthiest black area in the whole country until it was burned down and its residents ‘run out of town by sundown.’ For many years the record of anti-black pogroms was shrouded in silence. 

Nevertheless, there have also been American pogroms against other groups. On ‘Bloody Monday,’ August 6, 1855, Protestant mobs attacked German and Irish Catholic neighborhoods in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1871 a crowd of ‘Anglos’ and ‘Latinos’ joined forces to attack Chinatown in Los Angeles.    

By the middle of the 20th century it may have seemed to some that the pogrom could safely be relegated to the past. In recent decades, however, the phenomenon has experienced something of a revival. The disintegration of the Soviet Union led in the late 1980s and early 1990s to pogroms against various ethnic communities in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In 2002 there were pogroms against Moslem neighborhoods in the western Indian state of Gujarat. 

Little remains of the original association between the word pogrom and specifically anti-Jewish violence. Now the word pogrom is being used to describe the assault by some 400 Jews on the Palestinians of Huwara (or Hawara) – a large village or small town on the West Bank – on  the night of February 26, 2023. The pogrom makers shot at residents and reporters and set fire to houses while their terrified occupants huddled inside (Avner Gvaryahu, Ha’aretz, March 6). Other villages also came under attack. 

Thus in terms of perpetrators and victims we have come full circle. We no longer have pogroms against Jews, but we do now have pogroms perpetrated by Jews. For this ‘normalization of the Jewish people’ we have Zionism and the State of Israel to thank.  

Defining ‘Pogrom’

What distinguishes pogroms from other instances of massacre or ethnic cleansing? What are the essential characteristics of a pogrom that need to be incorporated into a definition?

Can we say that a pogrom is an event that occurs in a specific town, city, or neighborhood? That is usually the case. However, some events on a national scale may be called pogroms. For instance, the ‘Night of Broken Glass’ (Kristallnacht) of November 1938 in Nazi Germany is sometimes called ‘the November pogrom.’  

An essential characteristic of a pogrom is the role played by government authority. Pogroms are not organized and conducted directly by governments, as were (for instance) Turkey’s genocide of Armenians and Nazi Germany’s genocide of Jews and Roma. But nor are they wholly spontaneous upsurges of hatred ‘from below.’ Pogroms are usually incited and organized by groups of extreme nationalists, racists, or religious fanatics. Governments, however, are complicit in these atrocities. They could act to prevent them but do not. They instruct police and soldiers to stand aside and intervene only if self-defense by members of the victimized community is turning the pogrom into intercommunal war. 

This is how things were in tsarist Russia, with its Cossacks and ‘Black Hundreds.’ This is how things were in Gujarat, governed at the time by a man named Narendra Modi, whose responsibility for the pogrom, established by official investigations, proved no obstacle to ascent to the post he now holds — prime minister of India. And this is how things are in Israeli-occupied Palestine today.  

Palestine: Background and Prospects

The perpetrators of the pogrom at Huwara were ‘ideological settlers’ – Jews who had settled on the West Bank, which they call ‘Judea and Samaria,’ because they believe God gave it to them (as distinct from settlers with practical motives – in particular, the availability of housing on the West Bank that is cheaper than in Israel proper). They view local Palestinians as mere squatters who should accept that ‘the master has returned’ and make themselves scarce. 

Although Huwara is the settlers’ first attempt at a pogrom, for many years they have indulged with impunity in numerous smaller acts of aggression against their Palestinian neighbors – destroying their olive trees and other property, blocking their access to their fields, beating and throwing stones at them, etc. 

The occupying army has done little to restrain settler violence. Many soldiers and officers share the settlers’ ideology. Settlers befriend conscripts, inviting them to visit for family meals – invitations very welcome to homesick youngsters. Above all, it has constantly been made clear to them that they are in ‘the territories’ to protect the settlers, not the Palestinians. Those who come from ‘leftist’ families may wish to protect the Palestinians and they are not (yet?) forbidden from doing so, but the means they are allowed to use are closely circumscribed. They can try to reason with settlers, they can insert themselves as buffers to separate the two sides, but any resort to force against Jews is strictly prohibited, even in self-defense (settlers occasionally strike soldiers).     

Conditions for expansion in the scale of settler violence are being created by the extreme-right coalition government formed by Netanyahu at the end of 2022. Representatives of the settlers now occupy key ministerial posts. It is too early to predict developments with any degree of confidence, but I find it significant that the authorities have suspended the practice of soldiers accompanying groups of Palestinian children on their way to and from school to protect them from stone-throwing settlers. 

Huwara was the first West Bank pogrom, but it is unlikely to be the last. The sole effectively countervailing factor might be really strong pressure on Israel from the United States. A commenter named Arik in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz wittily assesses the chances of that happening any time soon:

Could the battle lines be any more clearly drawn? And could America’s strange, anomalous passivity, its captivity, be any clearer? Does anyone need more evidence of American fecklessness and the special pass it gives Israel, the ‘see no evil’ stance the Americans inevitably take? Even now, Biden? Oh Hero of Eastern Europe, Coward of the Levant? … Says the US, in the voice of Charlie Brown’s schoolteacher: ‘We remain extremely concerned…either side…’ It’s like little Jonathan is beating his sister to a bloody pulp in the nursery as Mommy intones: ‘Mind your manners both of you, I might take your dessert away for one night. Mommy is busy.’

Selected Literature

Russia and Poland

Eugene M. Avrutin and Elissa Bemporad, eds., Pogroms: A Documentary History (Oxford University Press, 2021)

United States

Linda Christensen, Burning Tulsa: The Legacy of Black Dispossession, 5/28/2013

Charles Lumpkins, American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics (Ohio University Press, 2008)

Gujarat

Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi, Pogrom in Gujarat: Hindu Nationalism and Anti-Muslim Violence in India (Princeton University Press, 2012)

Harsh Mander, Between Memory and Forgetting: Massacre and the Modi Years in Gujarat(Yoda Press, 2020)

Palestine

Oren Ziv, ‘Huwara Reels After Night of Settler Terror Under Army’s Watch,’ +972 Magazine(972mag.com), February 27, 2023

Avner Gvaryahu, ‘In Hawara We Saw Our True Face,’ Ha’aretz, March 6, 2023

Tags: pogrom

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I grew up in Muswell Hill, north London, and joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain at age 16. After studying mathematics and statistics, I worked as a government statistician in the 1970s before entering Soviet Studies at the University of Birmingham. I was active in the nuclear disarmament movement. In 1989 I moved with my family to Providence, Rhode Island, USA to take up a position on the faculty of Brown University, where I taught International Relations. After leaving Brown in 2000, I worked mainly as a translator from Russian. I rejoined the World Socialist Movement about 2005 and am currently general secretary of the World Socialist Party of the United States. I have written two books: The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (Routledge, 1987) and Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements (M.E. Sharpe, 2001) and more articles, papers, and book chapters that I care to recall.

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