The rabbi approached several abandoned houses, fearing what he might see. There had been a massacre. Men, women, children, the aged, the sick, had been indiscriminately slaughtered at close range. He was there, the day after, as a witness. He entered a room where a young woman appeared to be asleep and leaning on a table. But he quickly understood that she had been killed, shot in the back of the head. Her stomach had been sliced open, and her unborn child lay bludgeoned and dead on the floor. “The image changed my life,” he said.
That massacre did not happen on Oct. 7, 2023; nor did it happen in Israel. It took place in Tuscany on Aug. 12, 1942, in the town of Sant’Anna di Stazzema. The perpetrators were the Nazi occupiers of Italy, and the victims were all Italian Catholic peasants. The rabbi was Elio Toaff, a member of the Italian Resistance, and soon to be Chief Rabbi of Rome.
Undoubtedly the massacres in Italy and in Israel are similar, and while it is hard to find words to describe the horrors of either one, many are searching for the right words. The question arises: Is it legitimate to call one or both of these massacres a “pogrom,” and what would be gained by doing so?
This article continues the discussion begun in the Forward by Robert Zaretsky (“Why so many people call the Oct. 7 massacre a ‘pogrom’—and what they miss when they do so.”) While something is indeed lost by saying Oct. 7 was a “pogrom,” the benefits of using the term must also be articulated.
The word “pogrom” is Russian, meaning “thunder” or “destruction.” It commonly describes the slaughter of a Jewish community — men, women and children, innocents, who suffer from the perpetrators’ extreme, cruel and personal savagery. One pogrom, among many, caught the attention of the press in Western Europe and the United States. It took place on April 19-21, 1903, in Kishinev, Russia, now Chisinau, Moldova. Forty-nine Jews were killed, 92 injured, many Jewish women were raped and 1,500 homes were damaged.
Certainly, “pogrom” is used to describe particular, horrific events in Russia during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Events that happened elsewhere, and at another time, cannot possibly be equivalent. But to say that what happened at Sderot, or at Sant’Anna, was a “pogrom” is not to say that those events are identical to those that happened in Russia. It is to say they are similar, and that the word “pogrom” acts as a metaphor.
A metaphor is akin to an invitation. It invites the reader or listener to see things differently. And, as with any invitation, the reader can choose to accept it or not. When the poet tells us that “The evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table,” one reader can accept the invitation and say, “Yes, what a disturbing but intriguing metaphor.” Another reader may say, “No Mr. Eliot. Try again. I have no idea what you mean.” Both responses are valid. No metaphoric invitation is universally accepted.
While some, like Zaretsky, have rejected the invitation to call the events of Oct. 7 a “pogrom,” I accept it. Extending the meaning of the word “pogrom” will add to our understanding. I offer a further invitation to see the massacre at Sant’Anna as a pogrom, and, as another example, the murder of 39 to 150 Black Americans by a white supremacist mob in East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917.
Finding pogroms in non-Jewish history may rob the word of its specific force. But it is not unprecedented. The Forverts, this magazine’s Yiddish edition, said of the East St. Louis race riot of 1917 that Kishinev and St. Louis were “actually twin sisters that could easily be mistaken one for the other.” More recently, Eugen Weber described “outbursts” against Italian immigrant communities in 19th-century France as “pogroms.”
The value of extending the definition of “pogrom” comes from the greater understanding it provides. Events as disparate as those in Kishinev and East St. Louis are nonetheless similar because pogroms often occur when the incipient integration of a group of perceived outsiders into a social or political hierarchy threatens to redistribute power to the outsiders. (Consequently, Israel’s retributive violence in Gaza is not a pogrom. That is not to minimize Palestinian suffering; but my definition does not encompass retaliatory measures.)
In Kishinev, a pogrom happened because, to the consternation of the non-Jewish population, a Jewish middle class had emerged. Jews and their businesses suffered severely for overstepping their accustomed place on society’s lower rungs. Similarly, in East St. Louis, white supremacists found it intolerable that Black men had been elected or appointed to political office.
The pogrom at Santa’Anna resulted from a political realignment during wartime. By 1944, Italy, Nazi Germany’s former junior partner in the Axis, had switched sides to join the eventual winners, the Allies. Mussolini was then a Nazi puppet with a small fiefdom in northern Italy. But a large and independent Italian Resistance plagued the German occupying forces. The shake-up in the international order, with Italy leapfrogging over the Reich to eventual victory, was unacceptable to the Nazis. Their response was to have the SS massacre anyone remotely connected to the Resistance, even children.
The recent massacre in Israel is comparable to these other pogroms. When the massacre first occurred, some thought that after the Abraham Accords among Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, an impending further agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia would reshape the Middle East, disempowering Iran while ignoring the Palestinians.
The attack of Oct. 7 appeared aimed at disrupting an Israeli-Saudi agreement. Subsequently, a Hamas spokesperson, Khalil al-Hayya, confirmed those suspicions. Hamas wanted to “change the equation,” he said. “We had to tell the people that the Palestinian cause would not die.” In other words, Hamas believed the Palestinian issue was being relegated to secondary importance. The Oct. 7 pogrom followed.
Consequently, the events of Oct. 7 can be seen, not only in their specificity, but also in a context of other pogroms, making the trauma suffered more comprehensible. Working through a trauma often involves putting it in a new context so that it can be remembered in a different way. That does not mean it becomes less traumatic, but the greater understanding provided by the context has two benefits.
First, once it is understood that the pogrom was intended to disrupt the establishment of a new Middle Eastern regional order, any response should push to accomplish that change. Fully understanding how things unfolded, and how they should have unfolded, after Oct. 7 may focus responses going forward.
Second, connecting the Oct. 7 pogrom to other pogroms provides a connection between Israeli victims and other victims at other times and in other places. Suffering should not isolate us; it can, and should, connect us to others. Hamas surely intends to isolate Israel internationally. It should not succeed. A broad understanding of “pogrom” might be a small bridge to others who have suffered.
For those reasons, this article extends an invitation to understand the Oct. 7 and other horrific massacres as “pogroms.”
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