Rabbibrian's Blog

A Voice for Justice and Peace in Israel/Palestine

Ariel Sharon, Sabra Shatila and Kishinev: “a replica, except far more brutal and vicious”

Posted by rabbibrian on January 15, 2014

Over the past week I have heard and read a lot  about Ariel Sharon – much of it either minimizing, avoiding, or ignoring the war crimes he committed.   One piece that presented an honest and very informative appraisal of Sharon’s life is an interview by Amy Goodman of Rhashid Khalidi, Palestinian scholar; Avi Shlaim, Israeli historian; and Noam Chomsky on Democracy Now.  I recommend listening to the whole interview.

I was particularly struck by Professor Chomsky’s comment that the Kishinev pogrom in Russia in 1903, a very painful and significant event in Jewish history, was a replica of the  massacre at Sabra and Shatila.

Here is what Professor Chomsky said:

Well, the Kahan Commission did condemn Sharon for what they called “indirect responsibility” for Sabra-Shatila massacre.  The Kahan Commission, I think, was really a whitewash. It tried to give as soft as possible an interpretation of what was in fact a horrifying massacre, actually one that should resonate with people who are familiar with Jewish history. It was almost a replica of the Kishinev massacre in pre-First World War Russia, one of the worst atrocities in Israeli memory, led to a famous nationalist poem by the main Israeli poet, Chaim Nahman Bialik, “City of Killing.” The tsar’s army had surrounded this town and allowed the people within it to rampage, killing Jews for three days. They killed 45 people. That was—that’s pretty much what happened in Sabra-Shatila: Israeli army surrounded it, sent in the Phalangist forces, who were obviously bent on murder.

AMY GOODMAN: These were the Lebanese Christian forces.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Lebanese Christian terrorist force, allied with Israel. The soldiers watched as they illuminated it. They helped them enter. They watched for several days while they murdered, not 45 people, but somewhere—Israel claims 800, other analyses go up to several thousand. That’s the Sabra-Shatila massacre. The idea that Sharon had indirect—the tsar, incidentally, was bitterly condemned internationally for direct responsibility. That’s, in fact, one of the events that set off the huge flow of refugees from Eastern Europe, including my father, among others. But—so this was a kind of a replica, except far more brutal and vicious.  And Sharon escaped more than a mild censure. It’s true that he was removed as defense minister, but it wasn’t long before he came back. And that’s one of a number of extremely shocking incidents in his career.

You can listen to Professor Chomsky’s comments here starting with some comments by Professor Shlaim at 30:00 minutes.

As Professor Chomsky points out the Kishinev pogrom had a very significant impact on Jewish history.  It  set off a huge flow of refugees, among them his father, who came to the United States.   Bialik’s famous poem that rails against the passivity of the Jews in response to the violence led to the formation of Jewish self-defense groups, strengthened Zionist activity and significantly increased emigration to Israel.  Bialik actually got it wrong.  The Jews in the town did resist physically but were overpowered by a force much stronger than them.

The shame that Jews felt in response to reports of Jewish passivity in the face of anti-Semitic violence is an important theme in Zionism.   Sharon embodied the Zionist response to this shame: the reliance on Jewish military strength to protect Jews, to create a Jewish state on the land of Palestine, imposing their will on the native inhabitants.

Sabra and Shatila was not the only massacre for which Sharon bears responsibility.   In 1953 he was the commander of a special force, Unit 101, that massacred sixty-nine Palestinian residents of Qibya.  (A little more than a year ago,  I met some residents of Qibya at a gathering in Budrus of residents of Palestinian villages engaged in nonviolent resistance to the confiscation of their land.)  Both massacres were based on his belief, rooted deeply in Zionist ideology, that the only way to ensure the survival of Israel is by brute force.  This belief that was challenged by Judah Magnes and some others in the Zionist movement who understood that the only way to peace was through negotiation and shared agreement between Jews and Palestinians.  Unfortunately, their view was rejected and it is the worldview represented by Sharon, with all its brutality, that drives the policies and actions of Israel.   It is nothing less than tragic that Jews end up creating “replicas” of our past: doing to others exactly what was done to us.

*Amy Goodman’s interview also includes a very moving report by Ellen Siegel, a Jewish nurse who was working in hospital in Sabra refugee camp at the time of the massacre.


3 Responses to “Ariel Sharon, Sabra Shatila and Kishinev: “a replica, except far more brutal and vicious””

  1. Gregg Manoff said


    What is the evidence that Bialik “got it wrong” about Jewish passivity in Kishinev? My understanding is that Bialik spent weeks in Kishinev investigating and researching the pogrom before preparing the factual report he had been asked to write, and that it was only then that he sat down and wrote the long jeremiad (in Hebrew) that is credited with energizing the armed Zionist movement. How did he manage to miss the resistance by Jews in Kishinev that you mention?

    The issue of Jewish “shame” and the Zionist over-compensation for this shame is an important albeit psychologically delicate one. It also raises important spiritual and theological questions about the over-spiritualized, disembodied, and world-negating tendencies prominent in the Judaism of the time, questions Bialik articulated brilliantly for his Ashkenazi contemporaries, demonstrating at the same time his deep and ongoing involvement with the tradition and people through his choice of language and rhetorical models. I consider “In the City of Slaughter” a great poem and a still useful example of how to perform collective self-criticism without falling into the trap of self-hatred, of how to bewail and even excoriate collective distortions and inadequacies without rejecting and condemning the collective. It is a masterpiece of carefully modulated ambivalence, of loving anger. I long for a Bialik for today who could reach Jews in their own language and, loving them even in his rage against their blindness, could reveal to them the shame and madness of their hubris, and of their over-determined fear.

    It is unfair and misleading to characterize Bialik’s poem as “a nationalist poem by the main Israeli poet” (Chomsky). It is a critique, not a celebration, of the degeneracy of an ethno-religious culture, not a nation, and it was written by a Russian Jew some 40- plus years before the establishment of the State of Israel, which Bialik did not live to see (he died in 1934). It may be that Bialik and his work have been appropriated after the fact by Israeli nationalism, but that doesn’t make his poem nationalist or him an Israeli poet. This is the kind of oversimplification that Zionism among many other ideologies has indulged in, and that has led to so much intransigence and grief. It does not behoove Zionism’s critics to adopt it as a method. Nor does it serve those many Jews and others who could benefit enormously from a careful reading of Bialik’s excruciating poem.

    Sincerely, Gregg Manoff

    Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G LTE DROID

    Rabbibrian’s Blog wrote:

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    • rabbibrian said

      Dear Greg,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful and challenging comment.

      The source for Bialik getting it wrong is an article that J.J. Goldberg wrote in the Forward where he brings the following evidence:

      “In fact, the image of Jewish passivity was largely untrue. Eyewitness accounts of the pogrom tell a very different story. Here is a front-page report from the Forward of April 24:
      Armed with knives and machetes, the murderers broke into Jewish homes, where they began stabbing and killing, chopping off heads and stomping frail women and small children. If such a vicious, enraged mob would have attacked a Jewish town somewhere in Volin or Lithuania, thousands of Jews would have been killed in an hour’s time. But Kishinev Jewsare tough, healthy, strong as iron and fearless. When the murderous pogromists began their horrible slaughter, Jewish boys and men came running and fought like lions to protect their weaker and older brothers and sisters. Even young girls exhibited amazing heroism. They defended their honor with supernatural strength…. The Jews, however, fought with their bare hands and the murderers, armed with machetes and knives, were primed to annihilate and decimate all the Jewish townspeople.
      How did Bialik get it so wrong? Like many young Russian Jews, Bialik was ready to believe in the shame of Jewish passivity even before he got to Kishinev. Zionist essayists had been hammering the theme home for decades, none more powerfully than the Kishinev-born physician Leon Pinsker, whose 1882 essay “Autoemancipation” is still regarded widely as the founding manifesto of Russian Zionism.
      Pinsker’s essay was on Bialik’s mind when word of the bloodbath reached Odessa on the second day of the rioting, April 7. Bialik appears to have spent the evening at a meeting of the city’s Jewish literary circle, the Beseda (“Conversation”) Club, which included such luminaries as the historian Simon Dubnow, the Hebrew essayist Ahad Ha’am and editor-publisher Yehoshua Ravnitzky. The circle’s April 7 meeting was devoted to a lecture by a little-known journalist named Vladimir Jabotinsky, age 23. His theme for the lecture, his first major public appearance, was “Autoemancipation.”
      Here is how the historian Dubnow recalled the evening in his memoirs:
      It was the night of April 7, 1903. Because of Russian Easter, the newspapers had not been issued for the previous two days so that we remained without any news from the rest of the world. That night the Jewish audience assembled in the Beseda Club, to listen to the talk of a young Zionist, the Odessa “wunderkind” V. Jabotinsky [….] The young agitator had great success with his audience. In a particularly moving manner, he drew on Pinsker’s parable of the Jew as a shadow wandering through space and developed it further. As for my own impression, this one-sided treatment of our historical problem depressed me: Did he not scarcely stop short of inducing fear in our unstable Jewish youth of their own national shadow?… During the break, while pacing up and down in the neighboring room, I noticed sudden unrest in the audience: the news spread that fugitives had arrived in Odessa from nearby Kishinev and had reported of a bloody pogrom in progress there.
      When Bialik set out for Kishinev later in the week his mission was to collect the facts, but it could be that his narrative was formulated in advance, etched in his mind by Jabotinsky.
      Most of Russia’s Jews, to be sure, wanted nothing more than to flee the czar’s charnel house. Emigration to America, already a flood tide, more than doubled by the end of the year. In America, Jews scrambled to cope with the human tidal wave, leading to an explosive growth of Jewish philanthropy and social service agencies. When Russia launched its ill-fated war against Japan the next year, America’s leading Jewish philanthropist, investment banker Jacob Schiff, volunteered to underwrite Japan’s war bonds and personally financed Russia’s defeat. Schiff and other prominent Jewish business figures entered a series of negotiations that led three years later to the formation of the American Jewish Committee, arguably the world’s first modern human-rights lobby. President Theodore Roosevelt greeted the committee’s formation by inviting its best known figure, the former diplomat Oscar Straus, to become his secretary of commerce and labor, the first Jew to serve in an American cabinet. And not a word about color-blind meritocracy: “I want to show Russia and some other countries,” Roosevelt wrote to Straus, “what we think of the Jews in this country.”
      For all that, the enduring image of Kishinev is Bialik’s.

      Read more: http://forward.com/articles/8544/kishinev–the-birth-of-a-century/#ixzz2qUpQ1e00

      As regards the poem itself and its appropriation by Zionism and the State of Israel, I think you may be right. The problem is that the poem is taught as a early and powerful expression of Zionism and the attitude towards what was perceived as Jewish powerlessness has become an integral part of Zionism and it’s view of Jewish history in the diaspora. I wonder whether given the context in which Bialik wrote the poem, as J.J. Goldberg explains, indicates that Bialik himself very consciously or (unconsciously) was writing as an early Zionist nationalist.

      You are right that these issues are very sensitive. They are critical issues in terms of the Jewish present and future in Israel and the Diaspora.

      I share your wish for someone who could reach the hearts of our community and turn Israel from it’s destructive and unjust path.

      Thanks again,


  2. Susan Gutwill said

    Thanks Brian. I heard it this am and deeply appreciate your dignifying and passing it along. Hugs. Susan gutwill

    Sent from my iPhone

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