Steven Zipperstein discusses the Kishinev pogrom and its afterlife in modern Jewish history and memory. Listen to our conversation about the tremendous influence of Kishinev on how Jews have seen the world, the dangers of misinformation and propaganda, and how one event can shape a generation. Ultimately, the pogrom highlights how and why history matters: how the Kishinev pogrom has become so influential in modern Jewish history, and also the tension between the public memory of the pogrom and the actual historical events themselves. Today, we’re in an age when actual facts and details do matter, but the Kishinev pogrom shows the power of myth and memory too.
Steven Zipperstein is the Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History at Stanford University. His many books include The Jews of Odessa: A Cultural History (published in 1986); Elusive Prophet: Ahad Ha’am and the Origins of Zionism (from 1993); Imagining Russian Jewry (1999); and Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing (2008). Pogrom, which was published in 2018, is his most recent book and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in History.
In Pogrom, Steven traces the origins and repercussions of the infamous outbreak of violence against the Jews in Kishinev in April 1903. One of the interesting things about the Kishinev pogrom is that the events in this backwater Bessarabian town—in today’s Ukraine—contributed to international developments that are almost surprising in their range and diversity: It’s widely known that Jews, in the aftermath of this pogrom, felt an increased urgency to resolve the uneasy situation of Jews in the Russian, leading to the further growth of the ZIonist movement. And in fact, the entire “Uganda controversy,” when Theodor Herzl seriously considered an offer from the British for land for a state in east Africa, today’s Kenya, resulted in the aftermath of Kishinev. Chaim Nachman Bialik wrote his tremendously influential poem “In the City of Slaughter” based on his visit to Kishinev in the pogrom’s aftermath.
In a similar way, it’s clear the the pogrom resulted from antisemitic fervor, and Steven also explores the way in which the pogrom contributed to the further development of antisemitism and in particular the publication and promulgation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And in another fascinating story, Steven explores the relationship between the Kishinev pogrom and the formation of the NAACP a few years later.
An edited transcript of our conversation follows:
Jason Lustig: I think that this book Pogrom delves into a really important set of issues, both about the Kishinev pogrom itself and the wider issues surrounding pogroms, anti-Jewish violence, as we’ll probably get to, the whole issue of in propaganda, so-called “fake news.” But one thing that I think is useful for us to start with would be to think about the whole question of why pogroms are of such interest, especially such popular interest. If you look at the book, you open it by talking about a whole series of cultural references to Kishinev itself and to pogroms in general as an overarching archetype of anti-Jewish violence in modern times. Maybe you might want to start by talking a little bit about why you think pogroms are such a historical touchstone, when in fact so many people, Jews and also the public at large, who talk about pogroms or have them in their historical imagination know so little about them in historical, factual detail.
Steven Zipperstein: I’ve been fascinated by the way in which pogroms have come to capsulate for so many Jews and others the full gamut of the immediate Jewish past. I’ve collected for years the obituaries of Jews in the East European region, obituaries in the New York Times, where as often as not the recently deceased is described as having left Russia, or the region near imperial Russia, because of “pogroms.” As often as not, in fact, there were no pogroms in the region where the person came from, at least at the time that they left. So I’ve long been aware that in some ways pogroms have come to symbolize what it is that the Russian Jewish past was.
And then, really, I never planned to write a book about a pogrom. The book started, as I mentioned at the beginning of it, as a broader cultural history of East European and Russian Jewry from the late eighteenth century to the present. I subdivided the topic into various slices, (I) decided to spend three or four weeks on each of the slices, and one slice was the Kishinev pogrom. And then I scuttled the other project and spent a good deal of time on this pogrom itself, which as I came to see it allowed me to enter deeply and intimately into a question that had long preoccupied me, namely, how is it that this past came to be understood—what’s forgotten in the history of Russian East European Jewry, and what tended be remembered?
So I would suggest there are various reasons why pogroms ended up looming as large as they did in Jewish memory, partly, quite simply, because of the nature of the violence and especially the ever-escalating violence that occurs in the region, especially in the wake of the implosion of the Russian regime in 1917 and the anarchy that follows in its wake between 1918 and 1921. In no small measure, I think part of the reason it has to do with the way in which describing one’s leaving as a result of pogroms negates any prospect of contingency. There was no choice involved. You simply hadto leave because there were pogromists, the Cossacks running, chasing you away. I think to some extent, this served to alleviate much of the trauma, the pain of what it meant to leave the region, often to leave relatives behind, often to leave relatives behind who never left or were never able to leave. And so, I think the flattening of all prospect of contingency played a factor as well. And then finally, as I described in the book, pogroms end up being reified, canonized as a crucial moment in the Jewish past on the part of nearly all of the most important modern Jewish ideologies. Zionism, the Bund, territorialism, and others too. I think these are some of the reasons why pogroms, as significant as they were, ended up assuming an outsized role in the Jewish imagination.
JL: One other thing that we could talk about as well is the way in which the terminology of the pogrom has proliferated as a way of talking about anti-Jewish violence in general. People will talk about the outbreaks of violence in late antiquity as a kind of “pogrom,” for instance in Alexandria. Even Kristallnacht, even today, people talk about the “November pogrom,” so to speak. And there’s a whole debate about whether or not the terminology of a pogrom applies in that particular instance. I think that one aspect of this as well is just that the “pogrom” has proliferated within the Jewish historical imagination.
SZ: I mean, you’re right, and it ends up being a catch-all term. It ceases to belong to any particular place or culture, partly to turn itself and its origin is obscure, and it ends up being a handy way of describing the past, that typically is seen as simply replete with disaster. I mean, had the Jewish past—as we both know—been as bleak and uniformly disastrous as some believe it to have been, it’s unlikely that Jews would exist today. That’s what tends to be remembered, for reasons that are self-evident, and for reasons that also have to do with a whole variety of factors that I tried to outline in my book.
JL: I think when we talk about the pogroms, they are significant for a whole bunch of reasons. One of them being just the one thing that you just mentioned, the way in which pogroms loom large within the way in which many Jews still think about their history, and what we would call the “lachrymose history,” the continual series of massacres and really horrible things. But I think that there’s another way in which the pogroms and antisemitism more generally, that it really matters as well, which is that it speaks to a broader set of issues about misinformation and propaganda.
I think that when we look at Kishinev in particular, and also just the broader set of programs and outbreaks of violence against Jews in Russia and in eastern Europe more broadly speaking, especially in the southern Ukrainian regions, which is where Kishinev is—from the 1870s up through the 1920s, there’s this whole history and debate about anti-Jewish hatred and how it’s stoked and pushed by political leaders. I think that one of the things that’s so interesting is that the popular conception that’s still widely held us at these events—the pogroms in the 1880s and so on and so forth—were top-down, orchestrated by the tsarist authorities. One of the things that’s really been happening in the scholarship over the past number of decades is that most scholars now don’t say that the tsar directly instigated the pogroms against the Jews. Part of what you’re doing in this book, as well, is exploring the ways in which an antisemitic approach, you know, or an antisemitic set of views held by the general population, helped to instigate these pogroms as opposed to the authorities more directly.
SZ: I wanted to write a book that took anti-Jewish violence seriously. And I think, to some extent, modern Jewish historiography influenced by the formidable Salo Baron, and usefully influenced, has overdone this reaction to the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” Violence, anti-Jewish violence, needs to be taken seriously. But I wanted to, if you will, frustrate the reader by not starting the book with violence, but starting the book elsewhere—with the way in which pogroms have come to be spoken about, with a thick description of the milieu in which the Kishinev pogrom breaks out, and only somewhat later actually get to the violence, which I tried to describe—and the documentation is copious, in various languages, Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, German—to describes the pogrom almost 15 minutes by 15 minutes. And one can do that with this particular event. And then to talk about how it came to be understood, and mostly misunderstood.
And in large measure, what took over talk about (the) pogrom was as the result of a document that surfaces a few weeks after the program ends, signed by the Minister of Interior, Pleve, that essentially “proves” that the central authorities closest to the tsar were responsible for the pogrom. And this ends up consolidating a whole set of attitudes, a whole set of assumptions about the nature of the Russian regime and assumptions that remain firm and intact to the present day.
As it happens, the document itself is almost certainly a forgery, written either by Jews or by non-Jewish radicals with the firm belief that they were telling the truth, that if they actually were able to sit Pleve down and interrogate him, this is what Pleve would say he had done. So they were telling, as they saw it, the truth, and the truth that ends up being believed, even though the document itself is a forgery. But a forgery that ends up having an extraordinarily long shelf life.
What ended up intriguing me at the same time was that at more or less the same time, another forgery is written in the same locale, by people who also believe that they are telling the truth: The forgery that ends up being known a little bit later, and published under in book version, as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I’m not conflating the two, but the motivations for for the two are remarkably similar. And both documents end up tumbling from the pogrom with massively different ramifications, certainly, but both influenced by this same event. And once I came to realize that, I realized that I had a book.
JL: What’s so interesting about the way that you lay this out here is that you are articulating the way in which the Kishinev pogrom is surrounded, chronologically speaking, both before and afterwards, by instances of misinformation, that the pogrom arose out of a series of false beliefs about the Jews, and that in its aftermath there was this forgery that you mentioned that solidified a myth—that the pogrom was planned by the authorities, as well as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is clearly a falsified myth as well. One event is both instigated by and also precipitates a whole series of myths by everybody who was involved.
SZ: And it ended up, as I came to see it, a story that could be told, a way in which one could dig into an event that had such wide-ranging ramifications, and yet started in a provincial place, a town barely known until it became infamous, and where so many the people who were involved in this story actually knew one another. I mean, I was astonished to learn that Jacob Bernstein-Kogan—who was the head of the Zionist movement’s correspondence bureau, because he had international contacts with newspapers throughout the western world, was able to, again, because the Romanian border was filled with a plentitude of bribable authorities, was able to actually get news of the pogrom across the border and then to western newspapers who learned of it from telegrams, that Bernstein-Kogan sent. And then consequently the pogrom ended up getting the kind of attention that it did, in contrast to other much larger anti-Jewish events of violence. I was astonished to learn how Bernstein-Kogan was in school with Pavel Krushevan, who was the first publisher and almost certainly one of the, the authors of the first version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Biography has always interested me. And I’ve worked on biographies in the past, and I’ve written a couple. And I’m writing a new one now. And the way in which the story could be told in the prism of lives that could be fleshed out historically drew me into it deeply. And then, discovering, as I managed to discover, a cache of Krushevan’s previously-unknown personal papers, that gave me access to aspects of his biography that he himself had hidden away, that he had sequestered, deepened the book. For me, it made it immeasurably fuller than it otherwise might have been.
JL: I want to go back, just for a moment, to this question about the origins of the pogroms and the antisemitism that led to them. Because I think that if we take as a starting point some of the recent scholarship by people like John Klier and others who’ve been writing about programs, basically since the ’80s, it’s pretty much accepted by many, many scholars that the pogroms were not directly instigated by the Russian authorities, but that people like Krushevan, who you write about extensively in the book, had a role in cultivating the antisemitism that helped to cause these outbreaks of violence. So this is interesting because it’s, I think, one of the key distinctions—I already mentioned how some people use the term pogroms talk about Kristallnacht. But one of the key arguments about the difference between, for instance, the Russian pogroms from the 1880s or Kishinev from 1903, and then Kristallnacht a generation later, is that Kristallnacht was highly organized and planned by the Nazi authorities, whereas the Russian pogroms were really not.
What’s interesting here is the way in which the Russian government, the myth is that they planned it, but in actuality they were complicit in terms of stoking this kind of hatred. I’m curious, what’s your view here, in terms of this question of how the Russian government and how figures like Krushevan and others who were spreading antisemitism and hatred of the Jews, how they were complicit or to blame for inter-ethnic violence even if the attacks were not directly planned by them, and how this relates to the question of violence against Jews and others today, and the role of misinformation and propaganda in stoking hatred—both a hundred years ago and in the present.
SZ: It’s a big question. There’s a general consensus among historians of the Russian Jewish past that the central authorities did not play a formative role in fermenting anti-Jewish violence. One has to distinguish between various waves of violence. And I’ll do that briefly, in a few minutes. The main scholars responsible for this, unsurprisingly, are specialists in Russia, and Hans Rogger played a crucial role as a keen expert in Russian governmental attitudes and attitudes toward the Russian right, in a series of essays that he published several decades ago. John Klier was largely trained as a Russian historian. William Fuller has written brilliantly about these issues as well. So what Rogger and others have demonstrated is that the notion that the Russian government would seek to ferment urban or rural violence simply contradicts everything we know about the nature of the imperial regime, that was terrified of outbreaks of violence—and at the end actually falls, in February 1917, because of an outbreak of urban violence. So it was rightfully fearful of just this sort of thing.
By and large, what we’ve seen within an imperial Russian context, and elsewhere, is that anti-Jewish violence ends up coalescing as a result of the work of ideologues—ideologues who are able to crystallize anti-Jewish notions, that Jews were involved in rirtual murder, that they’re using the Christian blood for ritual purposes for Passover or elsewhere, crystallizing notions toward Jews that are immensely complicated and contradictory. And this appears to be the case in Kishinev as well. It’s not a region known for its anti-Jewish ferocity. It’s a region, according to many Jews, known for its amicable relationships between Jews and non-Jews. And it’s a region that is fast changing, urbanizing, where Jews are seen as a significant force in its urbanization and economic transformation—from the vantage point of some for the good, from the vantage point of some for the bad. And anti-Jewish attitudes end up being crystallized in this region not, it seems to me, because antagonism is particularly deep, though it exists, but because this region happens to be the place where some of the most ferociously far-right antisemites live, Krushevan being the best-known. So you end up having a fairly small group of people, and I was able to identify them by and large by name in the book, working hard in order to crystallize, formulate the notion that Russia’s failures are by and large as a result of a cabal of Jews, and that this must be stopped, with Kishinev ending up as an epicenter of a lot of this activity.
So this is a place where relationships between some Jews and non-Jews are so applicable, so friendly that in the midst of the pogrom’s worst violence, we have ample evidence of Jews running into the courtyards and the homes of non-Jewish neighbors expecting full well to be saved. And as often as not, they were. And we have evidence of behavior similar to what Jan Gross so brilliantly describes in his book Neighbors, of the interplay between familiarity and ferocity, and a phenomenon that one could describe it—it’s very difficult to explain it—and I’ve have ample evidence of that as well.
The assumption, the firm belief that the government is responsible for fermenting pogroms ends up being consolidated, as I argue in my book, in the wake of the Kishinev pogrom, because of the existence of the Pleve letter. And then, the violence of 1905/1906, in the wake of a constitutional crisis, where a number of local officials are clearly involved, a violence that’s widespread and far more murderous than what occurs in Kishinev—600 Jews are killed in the streets of Odessa in October 1905— ends up firming up this notion that the central government is responsible. On the one hand, it’s a despairing notion. On the other hand, it’s actually a rather optimistic notion. If you want to assume that the government is fermenting the pogroms, what it means is that the common people are not responsible, and the situation is not intractable, that it could be changed by changing the regime. The ultimate message is actually hopeful, rather than despair.
JL: It’s an interesting argument that you’re making here, that it actually is kind of positive, in a way.
SZ: It intersects with the influence of leftwing Jewish ideologies that inflect so many of the posts-liberal Jewish ideologies on the Russian street in one way or another, and then in view of their deep faith in the essential goodness of the common person, that the message actually is more optimistic than pessimistic.
JL: What interests me here as well is how we can learn from the history of the attack of the pogrom in Kishinev about this debate about the role of a governmental authority in stoking hatred, versus directly planning an attack. I mean, I think it should be clear that this debate is kind of still going on, when we talk about the role of certain figures in stoking hatred of immigrants or of Jews or of any other group that is a minority or disadvantaged or whatever, and they don’t plan an attack like, for instance, the attack in Pittsburgh that happened last year. But this question is, to what extent are people who stoke hatred complicit or otherwise at fault directly or otherwise for when people listen to what they have to say, take up these hateful ideologies and then use them to go out and commit acts of violence. I think when we think about the history of Kishinev, and of antisemitism in general and these pogroms in Russia, I think it raises a lot of questions that we can learn from in terms of thinking about our own present day as well.
SZ: Yes, it’s an intriguing set of questions. I agree. Among the things I took away from the experience of writing the book are impressions that I wouldn’t necessarily have thought about while writing it, but that intersected with the developments in the larger political sphere in America and elsewhere once the book appeared. Among those impressions are these: First, it became clear to me after writing the book, about how here we have an event where there is such a huge amount of documentation. We’ve long had access to the trial transcripts, the pogromists who are arrested are put on trial, and the cluster of trials lasted well into December 1903, with the transcripts readily available. Chaim Nachman Bialik, the grade Hebrew poet, ends up spending five weeks there after the pogrom and takes copious, copious notes. Michael Davitt, the well known Irish radical, is hired by the Hearst press to cover the pogrom, (and he) writes a whole series of articles that ends up being put together in a book that’s the first bestselling book about the condition of Russian Jewry, and it’s widely, widely disseminated. There’s just a host of other material, journalistic material and other material.
What I came to realize is that history is filled pockmarks. It’s filled with contingency. It’s fairly clear that had the rain that was pouring down early in the morning of the second and most violence day of the pogrom continued well into the day, the pogrom as we know it never would have happened. Had the same events occurred a couple of hundred miles away from the Romanian border, the Kishinev pogrom would not be known as what it was. History is filled with contingencies. History, as I’ve come to see it, sounds a lot like Jeb Bush. And myth sounds measurably more like our current president. It’s seamless. It’s filled with absolute certainty, and it’s certainties that ends up falling from this pogrom that end up coalescing for Jews as well as Jew-haters.
The certainty that tumbles from the pogrom for Jew-haters is most famously encapsulated by the Protocols. And a certain set of certainties for Jews ends up being encapsulated into so-called Pleve letter. These were issues that I wasn’t thinking about, clearly, when writing the book, but that seemed to me all the more clear once the book appeared and intersected with this particular political moment.
The other response that I would give to you is that what I came to understand after writing this book is that attitudes towards Jews or other minorities or other people who can be targets of hatred exists, as often as not, side by side with the whole welter of other attitudes. It’s ideologues who end up, figures in authority, either in the government or elsewhere, who can shape these attitudes in ways that can result in marked antipathy or even ethnic violence. This is what happened in Kishinev, and this in a whole variety of other ways seems to be happening in various societies around the world, including ours. And I’m not sure that I would have had clarity about this had I not swam in these documents for as long as I did.
JL: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the things that’s clear is that you were not thinking about these issues as you wrote the book, necessarily. And I think that this is one of the things that interested me a lot about present-day scholarship, which is how the events of today come to inhabit what we’re doing. I mean, this is what I do in my work on historiography in general: the whole argument about the study of history-writing is that people in, say, the early twentieth century were influenced by what was happening around them, whether in their own lives or broader historical, social forces, in terms of the topics that they chose, the way they wrote about them, and so on. I think, somewhat obviously, people will say the same thing about people like ourselves. Like, you wrote this book about Kishinev, or anybody else who wrote a book today. And the question will be, for future scholars of historiography, how and in what way did the book relate to current events as they stand for us today? And I think that nobody’s really doing it on purpose, but I think that one of the things that is very interesting is that even if it is not intended, there is this way in which this book really speaks to and illuminates the present moment in a really powerful way.
SZ: I think so. If I look back at the various books I’ve written, in every instance there is something of an existential issue that is tugging at me. My first book, based on my dissertation on the Jews of Odessa, I didn’t write it for this reason, but I know part of what informed my decision to stay with it is a desire to understand, as someone who came out of an Orthodox milieu and was a former yeshiva bocher, how one could live a full Jewish life outside of that context. That’s not whyI wrote the book. That’s not whatI wrote about in the book. But those impulses kept me going during the long dredgery that one has to live through in writing and finishing a book. That certainly was no less true with regard to my biography of Ahad Ha’am, the main cultural figure in the formative years of Zionism and the person seen as something of an exemplar for Israel’s ever-embattled peace movement. I wasn’t writing a study of why it is that Ahad Ha’am had such an impact on me. But had I not been aware of that impact, I’m not sure that I would have continued, again, that long labor that one has to engage in, in order to finish a book. And this Kishinev book, also, was informed broadly by my sense of how Jews have tended to flatten any measurably more fascinating, full and variegated past. But the book wasn’t written in order to criticize those attitudes, my preoccupation with those attitudes ended up helping to sustain me. You know, sustaining oneself through the kinds of labor that one has to do in order to finish this kind of historical work is itself not inevitable. And so, in every case, I was thinking about present-day issues, issues that were talking at me essentially. But that wasn’t at the core of the book, but that helped, if you will, as an added vitamin to keep me going. That, I admit.
JL: One thing that I did want to talk about, and I’m glad that you brought up your Odessa book, is that I found it so interesting, just kind of thinking about your larger set of works, that you had your book on Odessa, and then here you’re writing about a town, a small city, that’s geographically speaking not that far from Odessa. In what ways do you think that the cultural history of Odessa and this work are related to each other?
SZ: Yeah. I mean, they’re only a hundred miles apart, it’s the fifth largest city in Russia. especially at the time I write about it, is larger than Kiev, though it’s at the western edge of the empire, an area with rather poor roads, a rather inadequate railway. And so it is a little known place, a kind of a cow town, a little bit akin to Fresno. I didn’t choose to write about this because of its proximity to Odessa, though knowing the region helped, I suppose, in fleshing out the book. I remember first thinking about writing this book when I came across a sentence or two in a history of the Russian social democratic movement by a superb Russian historian John Keith. And he writes about this second congress, the second party congress, of the Social Democratic Party. And it was actually the first congress—the first official one was in Minsk, but it was just a collection of a few Jews meeting in Minsk and talking about Marxism. The meeting in 1903 is very important because it’s the moment where Lenin actually leaves his imprint on Russian Marxism and on the organization of the party. And it’s a moment where the Bund, the Jewish socialist labor Bund—numerically, the largest Marxist group in Russia—is actually forced to leave the party, leave the congress, and Lenin is able to get his majority vote. The reason why this led me to Kishinev was that John Keith, he points out that as he saw it, the Bund actually wasn’t able to argue effectively in the congress in large measure because it was so preoccupied with the Kishinev pogrom. And it couldn’t make a case about national needs because you don’t do that in an international setting, certainly not Jewish national needs, but it consequently fought Lenin all the more vigorously because it was preoccupied with the Kishinev pogrom and maintaining its own integrity as a group representing Jewry. And what I took away from that passage, recognizing what’s the possibility that there too, in the history of Marxism, the Kishinev pogrom was the ether in the room in what was arguably the most formative of all meetings in history of Russian Marxism. And so when I started to recognize was that Kishinev had left its imprints in so many sectors that were seemingly far from the center of Jewish history. And that sparked my interest. It wasn’t Kishinev’s proximity to Odessa. I ended up learning about the impact of Odessa on Kishinev, on its architecture, on its banking system, on a whole variety of aspects of Kishinev’s life. But that’s not why I came to it.
JL: I didn’t mean to imply necessarily that the one led to the other, right. There’s about thirty years between one book in the next. I think part of the story here is thinking about a regional history, that you’ve had this interest in this particular region of Russia, now Ukraine, that you’ve really delved into basically over the course of your entire career.
SZ: I’m interested in place, and I’m interested in people. I try as best as possible to tell history in as concrete a way as possible. You end, up as a historian, I’m sure this is true in any aspect of writing, you want to build on your strengths. And both the writing of biography, and the writing of place, has always fascinated me. So I’ve tried to build as much as possible in my work around those two very, very broad themes and, in many ways, I suppose my book on Kishinev is a book of interlinked biographies of Krushevan, of Bialik, of Michael Davitt, and in the last chapter of Anna Strunsky who was the American radical responsible for drawing the connection between pogroms and lynching as ideas that served as the immediate backdrop, as I came to see it, for the creation of the NAACP in 1909.
JL: I think this draws out this tension that I think is within this book, and then this broader history, which is that on the one hand, it’s a very local story. It’s about the events that take place in this very small place that, as you mentioned, everybody knew each other, they went to school together. And then it has also these global or international repercussions. You just mentioned a couple of the most surprising and interesting ones, the whole story of the NAACP for instance. So there is this tension, I think, within this book about how we place Kishinev, the attack, within Kishinev the city and its region,and then how we understand its global impact.
SZ: I mean, another tension that I know exists in the book, and that animated much of its writing, is on the one hand my insistence that anti-Jewish violence has to be taken seriously, while at the same time recognizing that as often as not Jews have tended to, as the English say, over egg the pudding, and have exaggerated the persistence of anti-Jewish violence in the Jewish past. And I tried to walk that line with some care, and so I tried the one had to take the violence very seriously. And on the other hand to try to contextualize it and to try to explain the way in which the Jewish past tended to be understood, almost immediately after an event like the Kishinev pogrom, itself produces history and is more informed by mythology than facts. And how those mythologies end up creating attitudes toward diaspora and the Zionist movement, and consolidating attitudes to the present day where as often as not when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about contemporary acts of violence against Jews, almost invariably his reference point is the Kishinev pogrom. So the Kishinev pogrom ends up in the Jewish imagination explaining immeasurably more than it actually explains. Recognizing that was part of what I try to unpack in the book. That’s a byproduct of Chaim Nachman Bialik’s brilliant poem. It’s a byproduct of the Pleve letter. It’s a byproduct of the way in which all modern Jewish ideologies end up building Kishinev into the heart of their assumptions about the nature of diasporic Jewish life. It’s a byproduct of the way in which the pogrom ends up being institutionalized and consequently sustains in historical memory.
JL: One of the things that’s so interesting is that you emphasize at least three different spheres in which the Kishinev program had a really tremendous impact. Oe of them, which is almost in a certain way the most obvious, is within the realm of Zionism, that Bialik writes about the pogrom, the pogrom becomes a flash point within Zionist politics as well. Think about the so-called Uganda proposal that happens within the shadow of the Kishinev program. It mobilizes an entire generation of people for the Zionist cause, because it illustrates the danger to Jews in eastern Europe in particular. So that’s one. You also talk about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and its relationship to Kishinev. You articulate in a way how the pogrom is related to the continuation of anti-Jewish hatred. So that’s another way. And then, of course, there’s this whole other episode, as well, about the story about the relationship between the Kishinev pogrom and the formation of the NAACP in the U.S. So I was wondering if you maybe wanted to comment a little bit about why these things, why these developments all happened in the aftermath of the Kishinev pogrom and in relation to it, and why you also think that there was such a varied response, why it was such a touchdown for people, both Jews and non-Jews, in terms of thinking about all of these things.
SZ: Part of the reason has to do with, as I suggested earlier, because of the way in which Kishinev in contrast to almost any other moment in the Russian Jewish past ends up being built into the very core of the ideologies of otherwise conflicting movements, Zionism, Jewish socialism, territorialism, just across, across the board. Because of how news of the events spreads, it ends up being built into synagogue ritual, so not only into post-liberal Jewish ideologies, but into the very heart of Jewish liturgy, at least in the United States. Already by the time of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur in September, October, 1903, within a few short months of the pogrom itself. And then, it ends up being at the core of what’s considered to be the most powerful, if not the greatest Jewish poem written since the Middle Ages, a poem that ends up informing so much of the curriculum in the Yishuv and Jewish Palestine and later in Israel. So I think a lot of the reason has to do with the institutionalization of it.
In the larger context beyond Jewry, it’s the enormous impact that this program has on, in particular, the American public imagination. It’s an event that ends up being capitalized on by the Hearst press. At the time, Hearst is in Congress. See if this resembles anyone in today’s America. He’s eager to run for higher elective office, he’s trying to galvanize Jewish voters to vote for him for the Democratic ticket for the governor of New York, but perhaps for the presidency of the United States, and sees Kishinev as an event that could help galvanize Jewish sympathy for him. And Jews continued to vote for him, actually, in the wake of the Kishinev pogrom every time he runs for public office.
And it occurs at a very particular moment in American Jewish public life where there is this large concentration of east European Jews for whom the Kishinev pogrom ends up being a ideal focal point because you’re focusing on relief for eastern European Jewry and not for political reasons, not for socialism. It’s the first major events to actually allow us east European Jewry in America to coalesce around a public event. And it happens at the exact moment that Abraham Kahn, who was left the Yiddish daily Forward, comes back to the Forward. So if you compare to Forward before the Kishinev pogrom and afterwards, beforehand, it’s basically an information sheet of the American Socialist Party. Afterwards, it ends up becoming a much more sophisticated, fuller newspaper, very much in the wake of all the attention garnered by the Kishinev pogrom.
Because of this attention, attention that galvanizes American politics, Theodore Roosevelt is pressed to condemn the event and to send a letter to Russian authorities, which is accepted by them. It ends up, at the same time, animating enormous amount of attention among the African American press, in no small measure because here is an event of ethnic violence that’s condemned roundly by the American public. Well, lynching is so rarely condemned by the American public and the typological similarities that exist between the way in which lynching and pogroms are explained by those unsympathetic to African Americans and Jews are remarkably similar. Anti-Jewish violence in Russia is often explained as a byproduct of Jewish economic rapacity, of Jewish radicalism, and an understandable reaction on the part of the Russian populace against “terrible” Jewish behavior. Lynching is as often as not explained for not dissimilar reasons, because of African American economic competition, because of sexual “misdeeds” of African Americans, being in the pay of the local politicians and consequently roughing up their opponents. So you begin to see the African American press, especially this whole spate of independent African American newspapers that I discovered while writing this book, (make) the arguments that if pogroms thousands of miles away are being so condemned by the American public, including the American president, why not lynching?
These pieces don’t inspire any institutional response until Anna Strunsky and William Walling, her husband, come back from Russia. They had been in Russia during the programs of 1905/1906. William Walling, who was at one time a very significant American radical, wrote a book, Russia’s Message, that was a precursor many ways to John Reed’s classic Ten Days that Shook the World. (They) come back to the United States in 1908, they’re having a book launch at Cooper Union, and on the stage, Anna Strunsky says out loud, as bad as pogroms are, lynching is worse. Her comments, her intersectionality or exercise in intersectionality, ends up inspiring a series of meetings that culminate in a meeting in her house at which what comes to be known as the NAACP is created. William Walling becomes its first chair. Discovering that ended up, I mean, unsurprisingly, fascinating me and I built the last chapter of the book around that.
JL: There’s so much to delve into here. I mean, I can think of a whole range of ways in which this reminds us of some of the debates that are happening even right now in 2019 about the relationship between antisemitism and the longstanding prejudices against African Americans about—which issues, which persecution, gets the most press.
SZ: It highlights that issue, but it also highlights in some ways an equally sensitive issue. And that is, who are the spokespeople? Who are the people who are taken most seriously? In this instance, it takes a Jewish activist, an American from a family (the Wallings) that’s produced—a relative of his was an American vice president. He’s also related to Daniel Boone. It takes these white spokespeople to actually coalesce, to help create an organization that is at the outset—which is what the NAACP was—an organization of non-blacks supporting black rights. And they have a hard time getting an African American in the room for what turns out to be the founding meeting of the NAACP. So even well-meaning activism ends up being understood then, and certainly later until today, as an act of usurpation, which is another one of the underlying tensions that has existed in Black-Jewish relations for the longest time.
JL: There’s one thing I wanted to ask, before delving into a final set of issues. One thing that really strikes me about the Kishinev program is the language that’s used to talk about it. In a certain way, people don’t even need to say the word “pogrom.” They just say “Kishinev” and it’s kind of understood. It’s really understood, I think, especially among the Jewish audience that they’re talking about the pogrom. I don’t necessarily want to make a direct comparison to what took place in Pittsburgh, but we can, I think, see almost the same kind of discursive shift happening in terms of the way in which people use the term “Pittsburgh,” that the way people are writing in the press or just talking in their everyday conversations, they’ll say “after Pittsburgh, such and such and such.” I’m curious if you maybe want to comment on the way in which an attack enters into the public consciousness. Again, this goes back to something that you talked about a bit before, the whole issue of the immediate response, about how quickly a series of myths or a series of ideas surrounding antisemitism or surrounding the situation of Jews in Russia coalesced almost immediately after the Kishinev pogrom that took decades to unseat, and even today, a hundred years-plus later, are prevalent in terms of how people in the public, non-scholars, politicians like Netanyahu or others, that they still talk about Kishinev using these same ideas, the same mythology that emerged in its immediate aftermath. And so this is a long-winded way of saying, if you want to maybe think about current events, how they relate to Kishinev, and the way in which discourse and foundational ideas develop in the immediate aftermath of these kinds of events.
SZ: Yeah, I mean the comparison is very interesting. That’s an intriguing question. Part of the reason why Kishinev ends up being associated with violence has to do with the simple reality that Kishinev isn’t associated with almost anything else in the Jewish mind, or elsewhere, before the pogrom. It’s a rather obscure town. So even if the violence in Odessa in 1905 is measurably more murderous than Kishinev, Odessa, Kiev, and elsewhere are associated with so much more. So that’s a significant factor. I think that probably helps explain, to some extent, why now Pittsburgh is—as opposed to an event that, say, might occur in Chicago or New York or Los Angeles, associated with so many other cultural references. But much of the reason why Kishinev ends up being so associated with the pogrom in the minds of Jews, antisemites, and others is because of the way in which it ends up, as I see it, being institutionalized in movements, in the kinds of entities that end up sustaining memory.
The actual violence itself, as heinous as it was, as I point out at the book, by and large occurs on six intersecting streets, little more than alleyways, over the course of a few hours. And we end up actually knowing more, having more details, about those few hours and those streets than we have about any other aspects of the Russian Jewish past. That ends up burning onto memory, even if the details of one’s memory are inexact, that’s how we begin to answer that question.
JL: I think it brings up an issue that maybe we can conclude with, a question about the extent to which history matters—history versus memory. Part of what I think you’re articulating here is that the memory of the events of Kishinev, the popular perception of it, matters more in terms of the longterm repercussions of the events, that it matters more than the actual historical events that took place over these three days in these six intersecting streets, as you just put it. Which matters more, right? Is it the actual events, or the way that they are perceived by the public? This is one way of thinking about why, and the extent to which, history matters as the historical events versus its perception.
SZ: The way in which it ends up being perceived ends up resonating most deeply. That’s undeniable. The importance of brushing those perceptions against history, I would argue, matters deeply. And that fantasy and myth ends up shaping perceptions is undeniable. To chasten ourselves, and recognize that those ought not to dominate how we understand the world, those are the tasks of historians. I only realized after finishing the book that it probably was no accident that I start the book with a quote of Abby Warburg’s, “God is in the details.” To some extent, for me, as someone who came out of Jewish orthodoxy, hHistory has been my vehicle for understanding the world in contrast to the way in which I was brought up. I feel deeply that details matter. And one could argue that actual details and actual facts, that we have a clearer notion today of how important facticity, than we’ve had in the recent past. And so in that respect, history and the discipline that history imposes on us matters immeasurably.