On Easter of 1903, the Jewish community of Kishinev, a city in the Bessarabian province of Russia, was forced to endure a pogrom in which a mob murdered 49 Jews and wounded thousands.
The violence, which had the backing of the czar’s government and the police, took place as 5,000 Russian soldiers stood by in the city and did nothing. Over 700 houses were damaged or destroyed and 600 businesses or shops were looted.
The brutality of the slaughter shocked the world and galvanized the Jews of Eastern Europe to either organize self-defense groups or leave their homes for Israel or the United States. American president Theodore Roosevelt sent a note of concern to Czar Nicholas, who refused to accept it. While world pressure led to a trial of some of the perpetrators of the pogrom, they were given lenient sentences. Pogroms would break out in Kishinev again only two years later.
The Jewish Historical Commission of Odessa sent Hayim Nahman Bialik – who would later become known as the poet of the Jewish national renaissance and a hero of the Zionist movement – to Kishinev in the wake of the pogrom. The Odessa organization wanted Bialik to collect eyewitness accounts of the violence, to photograph the survivors, the dead and the damage, and to gather documents that could be used in a Russian court against the pogrom’s instigators.
Bialik, originally from Zhitomir, was uniquely qualified to report on the Kishinev pogrom. His literary talent was evident to many of Russia’s Jewish intellectuals, such as the cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am, who took Bialik under their wing and collaborated with him on essays, translations and editing in their work.
Bialik’s traditional religious background also provided him with a special sensitivity to the life of the common Jew in Eastern Europe. Bialik was the perfect candidate for this mission.
Before departing Bialik penned “On the Slaughter.” The poem called for God to either exercise immediate justice or destroy the world. The title of the poem is the concluding phrase of the blessing used in ritual slaughter.
This blessing was also said by martyrs in the Middle Ages in Spain and Germany who killed each other rather than submit to forced conversion to Christianity.
Although Bialik protests God’s inaction to save the Jews of Kishinev, the language of the Hebrew poem places the slaughter in the Russian city in the historical context of Jewish martyrdom throughout history.
After returning from Kishinev, Bialik wrote a longer lament and protest against the slaughter in the city. In his 1904 poem, “In the City of Slaughter,” Bialik composed a fierce denunciation of the Jews’ passivity in the face of the massacre. In this poem Bialik also protested the absence of justice and the indifference of nature to the fate of those whom the Russians murdered and maimed. “The sun shone,” wrote Bialik, “the acacia blossomed, and the slaughterer slaughtered.”
In Bialik’s condemnation of the Jews of Kishinev, the poet invokes the story of Hanukkah to contrast the meekness of the Jews of the shtetl to the heroism of the Maccabees of old. Bialik bemoans that “the sons of the Maccabees” were “concealed and cowering” during the pogrom. The “heirs of the Hasmoneans” let themselves be slaughtered by Russian peasants and watched as their wives and daughters were raped. The Jewish survivors of the pogrom went to the synagogue, thanked God for keeping them alive, and asked the rabbi of the town if their defiled wives were permitted to them. Bialik’s scathing rebuke is a Zionist rebuke, a rejection of the passivity of a traditional theology that inculcated within Jews a withdrawal from history in the hope of the coming of a Messiah chosen by God alone.
More than a century has passed since Bialik’s condemnation of the passivity of the Jews of Kishinev. The Germans and their collaborators throughout Europe murdered millions of Jews. In the shadow of the liberation of Auschwitz, a Jewish state was born. Israel is a robust democracy celebrating its independence, an island of freedom in a sea of autocracies, dictatorships and monarchies. Every Israeli has the right to be proud of the accomplishments of a small nation that has fought wars to survive and that has absorbed Jewish refugees from all over the world. The Jewish state has contributed vital medical and computer technologies to the world and has created a formidable literature in a revived Hebrew. While there are those who will label Israel an “apartheid” or “imperialist” state, we all know the truth that must be shouted from the hilltops. Israel is alive and well and epitomizes the struggle against empires and tyrants.
With all that said, there is still a troubling vestige of Bialik’s Kishinev in Israel and the Jewish world today.
Many of the “sons of the Maccabees” are not cowering in the corners but are defending themselves and their state – but not all. In Israel today there is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community that seems not to have learned the lesson of Kishinev. While I commend the study of Torah and Talmud as a way to maintain Jewish life and Judaism in the Jewish state, there is just no way that the 80,000 young men who are exempt from service in the IDF represent the elite of Torah scholars who will lead the Jewish people into the future.
As an American who never served in the IDF, I cannot condemn the haredi community for not serving the State of Israel. But many Israelis must be wondering why there is a growing subculture – a state within a state – that does not subscribe to the underlying political philosophy and culture of the state in which they live. The spirit of dependence of Bialik’s Kishinev is very much alive today. I always thought that Zionism was supposed to encourage self-reliance and an end to the traditional “halukah” system of patronage of Jews from abroad to support yeshiva students. Alas, the halukah system is still with us and very much alive.
It would be unfair, however, to blame the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community alone for the state of dependence that diminishes the sovereignty of Israel.
Israeli dependence on the United States of America – a “special relationship” that has endured for more than 50 years – is becoming a liability and even a danger.
When the current American administration attempts to stop Jews from living in any area of Jerusalem – and when the possibility of dividing Jerusalem is still on the negotiating table – this differs little from Czar Nicholas I confining Jews to the Pale of Settlement in Russia two centuries ago.
The Green Line, once representing the Jewish power to live within borders that were the result of victory in war, has eroded into not just Abba Eban’s “Auschwitz borders” but into “Czarist borders.” The current American administration and their supporters among Jews in America would never embrace imperialism in their relationship with any country in the Middle East – except for Israel.
How ironic that more and more America’s involvement in Israel resembles the colonial British in India and the French in Algeria. The right of Jews to live in territory captured and liberated by Israel in 1967 is not only a religious issue but an important issue of Israel’s integrity as a sovereign nation. As long as American administrations can tell Jews where to live and not to live, they diminish Israel’s integrity as a sovereign and independent nation.
Welcome to the new colonialism, the new imperialism and the vestige of Bialik’s Kishinev. As I wish a happy birthday to the only Jewish state in the world, I lament that there is still Galut in Geulah and exile on J Street.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation In Boca Raton, Florida.