Pogroms in Ukraine or Trigger-happy Language?

Say the word 'pogrom' and 'Cossack' is never far behind, but to assume the two necessarily come together only serves to skew history.

Dan Dorsch
Rabbi Dan Dorsch
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Dan Dorsch
Rabbi Dan Dorsch

Over the past week, I must admit, I have been somewhat perplexed to see the word “pogroms” being used to describe the events in Ukraine. One media outlet went so far as to spread misinformation about pogroms, dating them back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. Unfortunately, students of history know that pogroms go back a lot further in history, and that their victims were nearly always Jews.

It was the Ukrainian Cossacks (who eventually would pledge their loyalty to the Russian Czar) who first demonstrated their brutality during the almost seemingly forgotten Chmielnicki Massacre, which until the Holocaust, was considered to be one of the greatest mass-murders of Jews. During a power struggle for control over Ukraine, the Cossacks, led by Bohdan Chmielnicki, destroyed 300 Jewish communities and killed upward of 100,000 Jews.These massacres took place not in the 19th or 20th centuries, but in 1648-1649, several generations earlier.

Using the word “pogrom” so cavalierly to speak about these events demonstrates a failure to comprehend how brutal the pogroms actually were. By and large, Jews massacred in pogroms were innocent people minding their own business when the mob came and massacred their families or communities. They were not protesters. Pogroms were organized, systematic attacks carried out against Jews and Jewish businesses, often with government cooperation.

Frequently, they had their roots in anti-Semitism. The well-known Kishinev pogroms that began in 1903 and led many Jews to flee to America (my family included) started with a blood libel against the Jews that accused them of using a gentile boy’s blood in making of matza for Passover. It then involved - somewhat ironically, given the current state of affairs in the Ukraine — the cooperation of the government and the mob together, united in their hatred of Jews.

As Jews living in democratic states, we must undoubtedly sympathize with democratic protestors who are on the right side of history. We Jews - given our own historical experience with the Cossacks – who reemerged at the Sochi Olympics to whip and detain the band Pussy Riot (which as a rabbi makes me a little uncomfortable to write), should not surprise us. The Cossacks remain a tool of the Russian government to persecute disenfranchised minorities.

Yet my prayers for protection from a possible pogrom are today not for the protestors, but for the Jewish community in the Ukraine: a community that throughout Jewish history has continued to fall victim to violence during tumultuous political circumstances since the first pogrom in 1648. Yes, it does seem not to be a coincidence that every time a Russian government wants to beat down an oppressed minority, the Cossacks are never far behind. Only this time, let’s remember that, for now, between a pogrom and a crackdown the circumstances are quite different.

Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey. You can follow him on twitter @danieldorsch.

An oil painting rendering the aftermath of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom.

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