Posts Tagged ‘anti-Semitism’

Eyewitness to the Chmielnicki Pogroms

January 17, 2022

On Saturday, while an assailant was holding Jews hostage inside a Texas synagogue, I was reading about the Chmielnicki pogroms.

Thankfully, the Texas synagogue assault ended with the safe release of the victims. And based on the limited information that’s been released so far, it seems to have been the work of a lone attacker. So I’m not comparing its details with the Chmielnicki pogroms, a 1648 uprising by decommissioned Cossack soldiers and Ukrainian peasants that killed tens of thousands of Jews.

It was just… unsettling to be reading about pogroms while Jews were being threatened with death RIGHT NOW inside a U.S. synagogue.

I’d heard mention of the Chmielnicki pogroms, the worst disaster in Jewish history between the Iberian expulsions and the Holocaust. But—like many American Jews, I suspect—I knew almost nothing about them. I was researching the pogroms as background for a potential novel set in the 1600s. But the book I was reading wasn’t a secondary source or historical work: It was a contemporary account by a rabbi who survived the pogroms, originally published in Hebrew in 1652.

It is stunning.

Abyss of Despair, by Nathan Hanover, is astonishingly readable for a work that is 370 years old. It’s only about 120 pages and straightforward in its style, almost conversational. In his summary of the history leading up to the pogroms, Hanover is surprisingly honest about the social position that Jews held in Polish-run Ukraine, and how that fed into the pogroms.

Excerpt from original manuscript of Abyss of Despair, or Yeven Metzulah / Courtesy of Wikipedia

Here’s my still-evolving understanding, based on Hanover’s book and some secondary histories:

At the time—early and mid-1600s—the kingdom of Poland extended far beyond today’s Polish borders to include much of Lithuania and the Ukraine. While there was a king, there were also many dukes and nobles who ruled chunks of territory and lived off of the labor and taxes of peasants there.

Jews were relative newcomers to Eastern Europe. Following their expulsion from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s, many moved to Holland and what today is Germany. But the decentralized states of Germany had their own waves of expulsions, and by 1570 Jews had been expelled from nearly every German city. Many of these exiled Jews moved east: The Jewish population of Poland/Lithuania rose from about 30,000 in 1500 to between 100,000 and 150,000 in 1575, according to European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism by Jonathan I. Israel.

Map of Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth and surrounding states in 1648 / Creative Commons by Mathiasrex
Map of pogrom sites during the Chmielnicki upraising, from the Jewish Encyclopedia

The Polish kings and nobles welcomed the Jews, who filled a role of intermediaries between the nobility and the peasantry. Jews served as tax collectors for Polish noblemen and also ran estates, mills, and distilleries for them. (They also were innkeepers and engaged in crafts such as soapmaking and tanning.)

The Polish nobility tended to be Roman Catholic while the Ukraine peasantry tended to be Greek Orthodox. Hanover writes:

“King Sigismund [ruler of Poland from 1596 to 1632] raised the status of the Catholic dukes and princes above those of the Ukrainians…. and the masses that followed the Greek Orthodox Church became gradually impoverished. They were looked upon as lowly and inferior beings and became the slaves and handmaids of the Polish people and of the Jews….”

Meanwhile, the Polish king had recruited Ukrainian fighting men into a military force—called Cossacks—to guard the frontier with the Tatars, a Muslim people occupying the region of Crimea, vassals of the Ottoman Empire. The Cossacks held privileges such as being exempt from taxes. But after several unsuccessful Cossack-led Ukrainian revolts, the king decommissioned tens of thousands of them—creating a powder keg of downwardly-mobile and unemployed armed men. 

A wealthy and charismatic Cossack named Chmielnicki launched another revolt against the Polish overlords in 1648. But this time there was a crucial shift in the power balance: Chmielnicki formed an alliance with Ukraine’s neighbor and traditional enemy, the Tatars. 

The rebel forces targeted Jews as well as Polish nobles and Roman Catholic priests. Hanover explains the dynamic when describing a particular Jewish man who “was the nobleman’s tax farmer, as was the customary occupation of most Jews in the kingdom of [Little] Russia. For they ruled in every part of [Little] Russia, a condition which aroused the jealousy of the peasants, and which was the cause for the massacres.”

The title of Hanover’s book in its original Hebrew was “Yeven Metzulah,” which literally translated means “Deep Mire,” a reference to Psalm 69, which says, “Deliver me, O God, for the waters have reached my neck; I am sinking into the deep mire and find no foothold.”

Most of the book is a description of one massacre after another. 

As Chmielnicki’s army advanced, Jews fled from small towns and the countryside to the fortified cities held by Polish nobles. But in one city after another, they were slaughtered. In one case, the Polish defenders of the city struck a deal to hand over the Jews to the rebels. In another, the Ukrainian rebels gained entrance by waving Polish flags and pretending to be Polish reinforcements. In yet another, Ukrainian peasants working as guards along the city walls let their countrymen ford the walls with ladders. In other cases, cities were stormed and burned. 

Hanover’s descriptions of what happened in captured towns are stark and appalling. Even if we allow that some of the atrocities were exaggerated, as often happens in war, there is still enough to horrify:

“These persons died cruel and bitter deaths. Some were skinned alive and their flesh was thrown to the dogs; some had their hands and limbs chopped off, and their bodies thrown on the highway only to be trampled by wagons and crushed by horses; some had wounds inflicted upon them, and thrown on the street to die a slow death; they writhed in their blood until their breathed their last; others were buried alive. The enemy slaughtered infants in the laps of their mothers. They were sliced into pieces like fish They slashed the bellies of pregnant women, removed their infants, and tossed them in their faces. Some women had their bellies torn open and live cats placed in them. The bellies were then sew up with the live cats remaining within. They chopped off the hands of the victims so they would not be able to remove the cats from their bellies…

“Women and young girls were ravished but some of the women and maidens jumped into the moat surrounding the fortress in order that the uncircumcised should not defile them. They drowned in the waters. Many of them who were able to swim jumped into water, believing they would escape the slaughter, but the Ukrainians swam after them with their swords and their scythes, and killed them in the water… till the water became red with the blood of the slain.”

Print of massacre of Poles by Ukrainian rebels after a 1652 battle / Wikipedia

These descriptions sound histrionic, but Hanover’s narrative is more nuanced than that. He describes rivalries among the Polish nobility that hampered them from putting down the rebellion. He notes a successful survival strategy of some Jewish communities: Letting themselves be captured by the Tatar troops, who would enslave rather than kill them. (The enslaved Jews were sold south to the Ottoman Empire, where Jewish communities in Constantinople and Venice ransomed at least some of them.) Hanover pens a dramatic narrative of the rebels’ advance over time—one city falling, news arriving at the next town, those inhabitants fleeing to the next fortified city, which in turn falls, and so on.

Really, it is worth reading. 

But what are we to make of these horrific events today, over three centuries later?

Some initial thoughts, still evolving:

The Chmielnicki pogroms are a reminder that anti-Semitism didn’t begin with the Nazis. The Holocaust was unique in its vast scale, its technology of death, and its systematic approach to wiping out Jewry, but it was one of many, many expulsions and massacres that Jews faced in Europe over the past millennium. There were multiple centuries when Jews were not allowed to live in countries like England that today we view as icons of liberal tolerance. The saga of one forced exodus after another—from Spain to Germany, from Germany to Poland, from Poland back to Germany— is sobering.

Yet the fatalistic conclusion that “everyone will always hate us, no matter what we do” is not necessarily warranted. Granted, Christian theologians and clerics vilified Jews as despicable Christ-killers for much of European history. But Hanover’s account spotlights the vulnerability of Jews’ position in the Ukraine—as the most close-at-hand and thus most easily hated representative of an oppressive, foreign overclass. The pogroms grew out of specific economic and social circumstances, not pure religious dogma.

Those 16th century Jews threw their lot in with the Polish nobles and counted on the nobles’ protection. That protection turned out to be absent or inadequate once faced with a massive peasant revolt. Jews living in the Diaspora will always be a minority, and faced with a similar choice of where to place their allegiance—the current regime? the regime’s challengers? the suffering masses? 

Would it have been wiser to ally with the masses of impoverished Ukrainians? Would it have even been possible? 

One of the founding visions of Zionism was a society where Jews would not be at the mercy of a host regime—would not be at risk of expulsion, would not be limited in their professions, would not have to be landless, powerless “middlemen” trapped between powerful nobles and angry masses. How has that worked out? That’s a complicated discussion for another day.

No answers here, just questions. I’m a novice when it comes to pre-modern Jewish history. If you’re someone with more expertise, feel free to weigh in via the comments! I welcome corrections, additions, or simply more questions. 

And in the meantime: read Abyss of Despair. (I was lucky enough to find an inexpensive used copy online.) It’s gripping, sobering, and documents a piece of history that deserves to be known and discussed.


In Toledo, asleep in the room of the moneylenders

October 25, 2012

We took advantage of our empty nest status to take a week-long trip to Spain this month, the first time in almost 20 years that we could travel at a time when schools weren’t on vacation. In Toledo, we have been staying in a delightful small hotel called La Posada de Manolo that, for me, is as evocative and fascinating as any of the official sights in this historic medieval city.

The Sanchez Nunez family turned their 500-year-old home into a hotel that celebrates Toledo’s three religious heritages — Moorish (Muslim), Jewish and Christian. In a detailed and  incredibly thoughtful renovation in 2001, each of the three floors was decorated to honor one of those traditions.

Rooms were named after various medieval professions. Purely by happenstance, we ended up on the Jewish floor in a room that, instead of a number, is called Los Prestamistas — the Moneylenders. (Before your anti-Semitism antennae start vibrating furiously, let me add that that the other rooms on the Jewish floor are the Farmers, Doctors and Translators.)

Sam after a tough day of touring, in the Moneylenders room / Photo by Ilana DeBare

La Posada de Manolo is outfitted in my favorite style of European hotel — revealing and emphasizing the historic, artisanal “bones” of the building while providing modern comforts like wifi and a good mattress. The hallways show the heavy wooden ceiling beams; the rooms have thick, ornate wooden doors that close with iron latches. The head board and night tables in our room are heavy, rustic wood.

And the decor is geared to the room’s vocational theme — a wooden case on one wall holds brass scales that might have been used by money lenders, while another wall displays two medieval drawings of financial transactions. The Farmers room down the hall had a big rustic pitchfork mounted on its wall. A Moorish room named after Silversmiths had, of course, some silver cups and bowls on the wall.

It’s like sleeping in a museum!

Scales on the wall of our room / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Like the owners of La Posada de Manolo, the city of Toledo has made a concerted effort to recognize and celebrate its three heritages. Jews lived here for about 1,000 years until they were expelled in 1492; Muslims lived here for hundreds of years until they too were forced out with the Inquisition.

The government has renovated two synagogues, turning the stunning Sinagoga del Transito (built in the 1300s by Jews, with permission from the Christian rulers, and using Moorish craftsmen and design motifs) into a museum of Jewish life in Spain. The onetime Juderia or Jewish Quarter has tiny tiles embedded in the stone streets that say in Hebrew “Sepharad” (Spanish Jewry) and “Chai” (lives). Our timing wasn’t right to catch it, but the city sponsored seven encuentros with Jewish culture in 2012 — mini-festivals of food, music and film timed to holidays such as Sukkot and Chanukah.

Sinagoga de Transito, with Moorish-influenced windows and carved walls, facing east where the Ark of the Torah would have been / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Biblical text bordering the synagogue just below the roof / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Street with “chai” tile in the Jewish quarter of Toledo / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Every time Sam and I go to Europe, we seek out pieces of local Jewish history — the ghetto in Venice, the former Jewish quarter in Amsterdam, the old cemetery and synagogues in Prague. Honestly, it’s more interesting to me than cathedrals. (Although we visit those too of course.) There’s a personal connection, even if my ancestors lived nowhere near these cities. I think, “Huh, this is how I might have lived if I had been here in 1400.”

So it’s both gratifying and impressive to me how much Europe has, in the past fifty years, moved to celebrate its Jewish heritage. They slaughtered us, tortured us, burned us, forcibly converted us, expelled us, and as recently as the 1940s tried to industrially eradicate us from the planet. Many cities no longer have actual Jewish communities. Yet  in the space of one generation, Europeans have turned around, acknowledged their wrongs and put out a welcome mat to Jewish culture. (Sepherad chai!)

Of course one can quibble cynically with this. It’s easy to ask: Are North African immigrants or Roma minorities the modern substitute for Jews in European bigotry? Is anti-Zionist rhetoric the 21st century version of anti-Semitism? But consider countries like Iran and Iraq that expelled or persecuted Jews more recently than Europe. Wouldn’t it be great to have them acknowledge the historic contributions of their Jewish populations the way that Western Europe has? Wouldn’t it be great to see Sepharad Chai (or the Persian translation of that) in the sidewalks of Teheran?

So this is all really good. I love the renovated synagogues, the restored Jewish cemeteries, our little Jewish floor at La Posada de Manolo.

But it’s also unsettling. Visiting Europe, you’re confronted not just with 1,500 years worth of great art and architecture, but with 1,500 years of nearly-constant war. Spain fighting England, England fighting France, France fighting Spain, etc. The post-World War II Europe of cooperation, economic integration, social democracy and human rights is a brilliant development but a very recent, very young development.

View from our hotel window of the Toledo cathedral, built between 1226 and 1495 / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Meanwhile, we Jews have lived in the United States in significant numbers for only about 130 years — and we feel completely secure. Assimilated. Americanized. We worry about Israel, but about ourselves? Not really. We are U.S. senators, university professors, hedge fund managers, newspaper pundits, community organizers, Hollywood producers. We are the model of a successful minority.

And so were the Jews of Spain! They lived here for a thousand years! Samuel Levi, who built the Sinagoga del Transito and for whom a street is named in the Jewish Quarter, was treasurer to the king of Spain!

And then…. expulsion and Inquisition.

Photo by Ilana DeBare

I found myself thinking, as we meandered our merry touristic way with cameras and guidebooks in hand, of some lines in Gates of Repentance, the Reform prayerbook for Yom Kippur. This section of the afternoon service recounts the history of persecution of the Jews and concludes:

Look and remember. Look upon this land,
Far, far across the factories and the grass.
Surely there, surely, they will let you pass.
Speak then and ask the forest and the loam.
What do you hear? What does the land command?
The earth is taken; this is not your home.

The San Francisco circumcision ban

June 23, 2011

You’ve probably heard about it even if you live far from the Bay Area. It’s been a subject du jour for the New York Times, Glenn Beck and the Huffington Post, which pretty much covers the bases of modern America media. I’m talking about the initiative on the San Francisco ballot this coming November that would ban circumcisions of boys under age 18, with penalties of up to $1,000 and a year in jail.

An anti-circumcision comic book featuring "Foreskin Man"

When I was visiting my dad in New York recently, he asked how a city with such a history of open-mindedness and tolerance could ban something that is a standard medical procedure and a basic tenet of one of the world’s leading religions.

Well, first of all — San Francisco hasn’t banned anything yet. This is just a ballot initiative. I strongly suspect (hope!) voters will send it down in flames.

And second of all — San Francisco is tolerant but also left-wing. And while those characteristics often go hand in hand, sometimes they don’t.

There are certain issues where people veer so far left that they form a circle and end up in the same place as the right. Take the anti-vaccination movement. Driven by a reflexive fear of chemicals, scores of college-educated, eco-conscious moms ignore the medical literature and refuse to vaccinate their babies against deadly diseases like polio. Is this so different from the right-wingers who oppose fluoridated water as a Communist plot?

Now with circumcision, we have left-wing activists who see male circumcision as a human rights violation and a repressive attack on men’s sexual freedom and fulfillment.

Like the anti-vaccination activists, they have no solid scientific evidence to back up their claims — just emotion, personal opinion, and the echo chamber of the Internet. (Try a Google search for “circumcision,” and the top dozen or so sites will all be from anti-circumcision groups.)

And in their over-heated rhetoric — such as a recent comic book featuring a muscular, blonde “Foreskin Man” battling black-hatted Orthodox Jews — these left-leaning activists end up forming a circle with the worst right-wing anti-Semites.

Monster Mohel trading card by anti-circumcision activists -- classic anti-Semitic imagery

I mean — look at this image and language from an anti-circumcision trading card! “Nothing excites Monster Mohel more than cutting into the penile flesh of an eight-day-old infant boy.”  It’s hard to see this as anything but a 21st century version of the old European blood libel, where Jewish communities were slaughtered based on accusations of ritual murder of Christian infants.

But let’s step back from the overwrought rhetoric and imagery for a moment to talk about circumcision itself.

I’m admittedly ambivalent about it as a ritual. I remember the moment I first really thought about it. I was in Israel at age 18, visiting the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, which featured exhibits based on the phases of the Jewish life cycle. There, just beyond the entrance to the museum, was the exhibit on brit mila.

The opening display in a museum about world Judaism.  The first ritual in a male child’s life. The key commandment underlying God’s covenant with Abraham — preceding the Ten Commandments, preceding any laws of kashrut or sacrifice or even Shabbat. The biggest symbol of the connection between Jews as a people and God.

And it involved cutting men’s genitals!

This struck me as unbelievably Freudian. Unbelievably primitive. And of course sexist — building a religion around an act that is limited to men. Couldn’t we have come up with anything more subtle, more metaphorical, less patriarchal?

And I suspect that almost every Jewish woman has flinched when it’s time for her son’s bris. Who can bear to see their beautiful, fragile baby face any sort of pain, let alone intentionally cutting some part of them? My mother-in-law tells me that she almost fainted at Sam’s bris.

If Becca had been a boy, I wouldn’t have fainted but I might have looked away. I might have had the circumcision done in the hospital rather than at a home ceremony.

But I would have had it done.

It is such a fundamental tenet of Judaism. Every Jewish man I’ve known has been circumcised. Even Reform Judaism — which has felt free to abandon kashrut and tefillin, which smiles on driving to services on Shabbat, which marries gay couples and ordains women — even Reform Judaism doesn’t challenge the brit mila.

This is perhaps the only commandment that Reform Jews accept without rationalization, without historical or ethical explanations: We do it because our God/our faith/our tradition tells us to do it.

It would be different if circumcision were unhealthy — if science had discovered that circumcision promoted cancer or if, like female genital mutilation, it left people with permanent pain and dysfunction. But medical studies show that circumcision in fact helps prevent the spread of AIDS, syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases; reduces urinary tract infections; virtually eliminates invasive penile cancer; and  may possibly lower the risk of vaginal infections among female partners.

And while some anti-circumcision activists say the procedure scarred them emotionally or sexually, those are just a handful of personal anecdotes. I feel sorry for whatever emotional pain they are in, but who knows what in fact caused it? I can marshall anecdotes too. Of all the circumcised men I’ve slept with, I’ve never noticed any — um, how to put this delicately? — deficit when it comes to sexual pleasure or performance. But those are admittedly just my anecdotes against someone else’s anecdotes. On a scientific level, there is no evidence that male circumcision impedes sexual pleasure or creates any health risk. 

So what this comes down to is some people’s personal aversion to the concept of circumcision — and their attempt to impose that on everyone else through legislation.

I have no beef with parents who choose not to have their sons circumcised. That’s their decision, and I can understand the reasons behind it even if I don’t agree. Nor do I have a problem with people writing books or putting up Web sites presenting their arguments against circumcision.

But pushing for a law to ban other people from carrying out circumcisions? Making it a crime to carry out a procedure that is a key tenet of one religion (Judaism), a common practice in another (Islam), and has documented health benefits?

And then to promote that law through vicious anti-Semitic images and language?

Okay, I’ll stop ranting. Except for one more minor point. Think of all the truly serious problems in our world today. Poverty and hunger in the Third World. Climate change. Imprisonment of dissidents in China. Drug gangs that run entire cities in Mexico. Drug gangs that seem to be the only avenue of employment in many U.S. neighborhoods. Refugees, dictators, sex trafficking, terrorism, vanishing species, vanishing habitats, AIDS and cancer and malaria and diabetes…

And these people are spending time and money to make circumcision a crime?

One bright note: Confronted with charges of anti-Semitism, the supporters of a similar ban in Santa Monica called off their campaign earlier this month.

And here in the Bay Area, the anti-circumcision initiative has sparked a united opposition of Jews and Muslims and Christians, civil libertarians and doctors and religious leaders.

If only we didn’t need something so stupid to bring us all together.