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Anti-Jewish Violence: Rethinking the Pogrom in East European History

jan peczkis|Monday, June 25, 2012

The authors support the view that the early pogroms in tsarist Russia (such as those of 1881-1882) were not, as earlier believed, incited by the government. (p. 4, 7, 138). Pogroms during tsarist rule varied in severity by region. They were rare in Belorussia, Lithuania, southern Ukraine, and Crimea. Later pogroms, as during the Russian revolution were, however, organized (in this instance, by both Reds and Whites)


The pogrom can be put in the broader context of the "deadly ethnic riot." (pp. 6-7). Jews were not the only victims of such disturbances. For instance, David Engel mentions the factory strike in Lodz in May 1892: "...the strikers killed three Jews while 140 Polish workers were shot by strike-breaking police..." (p. 22).

Traditional explanations are given for pogroms. Jews are presented as objects of public perception, and not as flesh-and-blood individuals. For instance, Jews were accused of such things as siding with the enemy (or helping both sides) and profiteering during wartime. No attempt is made to substantiate or refute these accusations.

A factor in the pogroms in tsarist Russia was the growing prominence of Jews in industry, the professions, and intellectual life. (p. 125). The pogroms of 1881-1882 were motivated by the perception that Jews were exploiting the people, while, in contrast, the pogroms of 1905 occurred in an atmosphere of social unrest as well as the role of Jews as revolutionaries who were assaulting the state. (p. 125).

This work could stand improvement in the presentation of its claims. For instance, the study of Oleg Budnitskii is cited. (p. 9). He claims that, during 1918-1921, anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 Jews were killed in pogroms in the Ukraine. (p. 9). No explanation is provided as to how he arrived at these figures, nor are alternative studies mentioned.

David Engel accuses the Polish government of avoiding the term pogrom in order that violent acts against Jews (around 1918) "smell less foul." (p. 21). Yet, by his own admission, the term pogrom is an amorphous term that encompasses everything from the murder of thousands of Jews to a handful of vandalized Jewish properties with no fatalities. Engel should know better. He fails to mention the fact that fantastic accusations were leveled about 30,000 Jews in Poland killed by Poles. (This was off by a factor of only 100). So why should the Polish government play into the propaganda directed against it by necessarily using an emotive and misleading term like pogrom?
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