THE LETTERS are full of horrifying news about pogroms and the terrible state of mind everybody is in. I can imagine what is going on in everybody’s head and heart. And it is precisely at this difficult time that I am not on duty as a Zionist. This pains me.
So wrote Chaim Weizmann to his wife Vera in November 1905. He had recently arrived in England to work as a chemistry researcher at the University of Manchester and had not fully resumed his Zionist activities. Distant from his Russian milieu, he felt guilty about being no more than a bystander.
Indeed Weizmann became an avid reader of the Jewish Chronicle for reports of death and destruction in the Tsarist empire. Distressed at the events in Russia, he was incensed that the Anglo-Jewish Association, worried about rocking the boat, refused to hold a protest meeting — Weizmann privately called it “a second pogrom”.
Although violence against Jews had been prevalent for several years, it was the Tsar’s agreement to sign the October Manifesto on 30 October 1905, lessening autocratic authority, that sparked off a murderous series of events.
The nationalist Right in Russia mobilised its forces, regarded all Jews as radical subversives and instigated 650 pogroms
The determination that Jews would never again be butchered was a driving force during the year that followed. Even the British Consul in Odessa concurred: “All persons implicated in bomb crimes and in attempts on the lives of police are Jews”.
Between 1903 and 1906, 3,100 Jews were killed — a quarter of them women. 1,500 children were orphaned.
While a disproportionate number of Jews now joined the revolutionary cause, many simply voted with their feet and sailed across the Atlantic. A much smaller number left to build a new society in Palestine.
While they had participated in Jewish self-defence units, this renewed spate of killings intensified the Zionist belief that Russia could never be reformed. All too often, police and local officials did not uphold the rule of law but instead colluded with the killers. All too often, troops were sent in far too late to subdue the rioters.
The pogrom in Kishinev — whose Greek bishop believed that some Jews still committed the ritual murder of Christian children — followed the discovery of the body of a young boy, Mikhail Rybachenko, with some 24 stab wounds. The local tabloid press enthusiastically blamed the Jews. The last day of Passover in 1903 coincided with the first day of Easter. It began with youngsters throwing stones after Church services. The day ended with 12 Jews dead and one hundred injured. Vladimir Jabotinsky, later a leader of the Zionist Right, commented that “more than a day of grief, it was a day of shame”.
Jews, in Jabotinsky’s eyes, had allowed themselves to be butchered. Indeed Bialik’s famous poem, Ir ha-Harega (City of Slaughter), reflected the horror which was felt. For the Marxist Zionist theorist, Ber Borokhov, exile had become tantamount to “leprosy and plague” and all attempts at reform was nothing but “delusion and deceit”.
This awakening however was not sudden but a gradual progression from the series of pogroms which followed the assassination of Alexander II in March 1881.
Although only one Jew, Gesia Gelman, had been a member of the conspiracy to kill the Tsar, the Jews were located as an appropriate scapegoat. The first pogrom began in Elisavetgrad and spread as far as Warsaw. The Tsarist regime regarded them as a popular expression of protest against ‘Jewish exploitation’. Discriminatory legislation, known as the May Laws, was passed, placing even more restrictions upon Jewish shoulders. Members of the nascent revolutionary Left largely buried their necks in the sand. While they privately condemned antisemitism, they hoped to divert populist anger into productive political channels — and therefore did not wish to antagonise ‘the people’ with outright condemnation.
Thus Georgy Plekhanov, ‘the father of Russian Marxism’ remained silent amidst a moral ambiguity.
Many Jewish revolutionaries who had previously distanced themselves from Jewish life now awoke from this ideological stupor. They returned to their Jewishness, but one which was now defined by Zionism.
Moses Leib Lilienblum, a former teacher in a yeshiva, delineated the frustrations of the Jewish predicament in The Future of Our People in 1883:
The opponents of nationalism see us as uncompromising nationalists, with a nationalist God and a nationalist Torah; the nationalists see us as cosmopolitans, whose homeland is wherever we happen to be well off. Religious gentiles say that we are devoid of any faith, and the freethinkers among them say that we are orthodox and believe in all kinds of nonsense; the liberals say we are conservative and the conservatives call us liberal. Some bureaucrats and writers see us as the root of anarchy, insurrection and revolt, and the anarchists say we are capitalists, the bearers of the biblical civilisation, which is, in their view, based on slavery and parasitism.
The sense that the Jews would never fit into what Russian society demanded of them underpinned the thinking of the early Zionists. Being unwanted became a virtue. Leo Pinsker who established one of the first Zionist groups, Hibbat Zion, advocated “auto-emancipation” — and not emancipation by others.
During subsequent decades, the fear of a new wave of pogroms was ever-present. Most Zionist leaders opposed the establishment of a Jewish fighting force in the British army during World War I — including the recipient of the Balfour Declaration, Lord Rothschild — because it was feared that the Turks would visit upon the Jews of Palestine the same fate that they had meted out to the Armenians: the massacre of multitudes.
Many Russian Jewish emigres living in London’s East End were therefore willing to join Jabotinsky’s Jewish Legion in 1917 but they adamantly refused to fight with the former Tsar’s army on the Eastern front. To fight in the Middle East to liberate Palestine was another matter.
The formation of a Jewish Legion went hand-in-hand with the issuing of the Balfour Declaration.
On the evening of the historic cabinet decision, Weizmann, Jabotinsky and others symbolically celebrated by dancing a Hasidic dance around the kitchen table at Weizmann’s home in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea.
The lessons drawn from the past were being utilised to shape the Jewish future.
Jewish Chronicle 3 November 2017