The Huwara Riot Was No ‘Pogrom’

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The Wall Street Journal 03.03.2023


The Huwara Riot Was No ‘Pogrom’



The riots against Palestinians on Sunday night were appalling—but they weren’t “pogroms.” Hundreds of Israeli settlers vandalized the West Bank town of Huwara, enraged that a Palestinian terrorist murdered two Jewish brothers driving through there earlier that day. The rioters killed one Palestinian, 37-year-old Sameh Aqtash, and wounded dozens, while torching houses and cars. Some media outlets and political groups, and even one Israeli general, have called these brutalities “pogroms.” Invoking this false analogy, be it out of malice or mere ignorance, hijacks Jews’ historical traumas to inflame an incendiary situation.


For decades “pogrom” was the most chilling word in the Jewish vocabulary until the Nazi mass murder generated a new lexicon of horrors. After the czarist government orchestrated anti-Jewish violence in 1881, the word pogrom—from the Russian grom , meaning thunder—terrified Jews. “The mob, a ravenous wolf in search of prey, has stalked the Jews with a cruelty unheard of since the Middle Ages,” the early Zionist writer Peretz Smolenskin wrote that year. “Perhaps most shocking of all, many supposedly decent people appeared among the makers of the pogroms.”


As grandchildren of Eastern European Jews who escaped to America, my brothers and I heard my grandmother recall stories of her relatives in today’s Belarus, cowering in a crawl space as “the Cossacks”—pogromists—rampaged. One cousin muffled her baby’s cries so intensely that she suffocated the child.


Pogroms weren’t just heartless neighbors beating helpless Jews. These attacks usually were systematic, strategic and state-sanctioned, and rarely spontaneous. Local rabble-rousers, roused by higher-ups, exploited flimsy excuses to unleash bloodbaths. In Russia, Poland and elsewhere, the “supposedly decent people”—normal citizens of various classes—would denounce Jews in newspapers, spread false rumors, collaborate with the police in enabling the violence, then murder, rape, beat and loot wantonly, having been assured they wouldn’t be punished.


As a Russian correspondent for the Times of London explained  on Dec. 7, 1903, pogrom ”is a national institution” and is “not a massacre in the ordinary sense of the term.” Rather, pogroms are “directed against Jews.” Local and national authorities “encouraged” the thunderous destruction. The Times emphasized: “from the very first pebble thrown by a small boy to the last murder committed, all is absolutely under the control of the Government.”


By contrast, pictures from Huwara showed Israeli soldiers saving Palestinians from the flames. Mainstream Israeli leaders condemned the violence. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Don’t take the law into your own hands.” Israel’s army is trying to find the rioters, with 14 suspects already arrested.


Pogroms came from the center of Eastern European society, while the anti-Palestinian violence came from the margins of Israeli society. Meanwhile, anti-Jewish violence comes from the Palestinian mainstream. Palestinian leaders openly call for the destruction of the Jewish state and sponsor “martyr’s funds” to pay the families of those that carry out attacks against Israel. Palestinians celebrated the murder of the Yaniv brothers, Hillel, 21, and Yagel, 19, by joyously distributing sweets. By contrast, the Hurawa riots outraged most Israelis. Yair Fink, a liberal and Orthodox Israeli politician, raised more than $300,000 for Hurawa’s victims overnight. No Cossacks ran post-pogrom charity drives for Jews.


Words matter. Calling this despicable revenge attack by Jews against Palestinians a pogrom is like calling any black-on-white violence in the George Floyd riots a “lynching.” Misappropriating words fraught with historical and emotional significance wrenches them from their context. It cruelly alleges that the once-innocent victims of bigotry have themselves become bullying bigots. Scavenging a people’s past pain to weaponize it against them today is no way to work through conflict toward a healthy future.


A Distinguished Scholar in North American History at McGill University currently living in Jerusalem, Gil Troy is an award-winning American presidential historian and a leading Zionist activist. He is, most recently, the editor of the new three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People ( www.theljp.org )  . Two years ago he co-authored with Natan Sharansky Never Alone: Prison, Politics and  My People,  was published by PublicAffairs of Hachette. Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of  The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist. 




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