Written by Nomi Nonacs
Photo courtesy of Почтовая открытка Российской империи
At noon, on Easter Sunday 1903, the “first pogrom of the twentieth century” began in the Russian town of Kishinev. During the pogrom, Kishinev’s 50,000 Jews, roughly a third of the town’s total population, were terrorized and tortured by their gentile neighbors, destroying roughly 2.5 million rubles of personal property and leaving 49 dead—among them two babies and a twelve-year-old—and 495 injured. The global Jewish community responded to the brutality with expressions of horror at the savagery of the gentile rioters and sympathy for the traumatized Jewish citizens of Kishinev. Historian S.M. Dubnov and cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am created the Historical Commission with the purpose of “uncovering the truth about the events which had taken place in Kishinev.” They chose to send the young Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik to Kishinev to “collect documents, to interview witnesses and survivors, to take pictures of the damage, to compile statistics and to collate all available published sources.” While Bialik and his two assistants did diligently collect the testimonies of survivors, these were not published until much later, after Bialik had died. Rather, Bialik wrote and published a landmark narrative poem called “In the City of Slaughter” (Heb. “b’Ir haHareiga”) based on what he learned in Kishinev.
The poem itself is a long epic, drawing masterfully from Biblical and Talmudic writings, and, from the perspective of G-d, describes gruesome image after gruesome image—a Jew and his dog, both headless, lying on a mound; a baby unable to suckle from the breast of his dead mother; a mother and daughter both raped by multiple men—that appear in the unnamed “city of slaughter.” It is not, however, the gruesome imagery that makes the poem stand out. Instead, it is Bialik’s unsympathetic depiction of Jewish men who, rather than protect their wives, daughters, and sisters, watched and prayed for their own lives as their women were raped and humiliated. He laments that the “sons of the Maccabees,” a militarily powerful sect of ancient Jews, were so unaffected by the violence committed upon their loved ones, that their only reaction was to visit the Rabbi the next day to ask if they were still permitted to have sex with their raped wives. Bialik’s anger at the perceived cowardice of Jewish men and his call for them to stand up and fight for themselves and their women has made “In the City of Slaughter” the “most famous and influential modern Hebrew poem,” as well as “inspired the creation of Jewish defence [sic] groups in Russia” whose members would later form the Haganah, a precursor to the modern Israeli army.
Despite centering on gendered violence committed against women, “In the City of Slaughter” is undoubtedly for and about men. The Zionist project, to which Bialik certainly contributed, sought to rid Jewish men of the “feminine” qualities they had taken on while living in the diaspora, which had supposedly made them easy targets for antisemitism, and to free them “to reclaim the masculine past of the nation.” For women, however, there was “no real dissonance between their behavior and their gender identity” and thus no reason for transformation. There was no reason for Bialik to shame the raped women for their passivity, as they were not acting outside the expectations of their gender. The male bystanders, on the other hand, are thoroughly feminized, characterized by their cowardice and passivity, and are therefore deserving of Bialik’s condemnation.
This does not necessarily sound like a bad thing. It is admirable to stand up for and protect the weak, and this sentiment is present throughout the Hebrew Bible, which includes multiple stories of brothers who actively seek violent justice on behalf of their raped sisters. This ancient form of masculinity that Bialik implicitly advocates for in his poem prizes seeking justice and punishes those who stand by and allow injustices to occur. It is through the expression of this masculinity that Jewish men were able to protect their communities and survive in the ancient world, and it is this masculinity that they had supposedly lost by 1903. In regaining this masculinity, they could protect their communities, and especially their women.
This gendered “protector-protected” relationship, however, is in actuality rarely beneficial to the oft-feminized protected. Citing this sort of relationship as “natural” or innate justifies vast militarization and, in effect, silences the protected, since those who claim to be protectors also claim the authority to speak on behalf of those they claim to protect. “In the City of Slaughter” depicts a perversion of this relationship, in which the men who would be protectors fail the women they were meant to protect. In the real Kishinev, however, that simply did not happen. The rape described in the poem is based largely on the testimony of Rivka Schiff, which Bialik himself recorded. Schiff’s testimony of her rape is gut-wrenching and difficult to read, but in it she never blames her husband or any Jewish man for what has happened to her. There are even men in her testimony who do try to protect her, including her husband who “gave [her attackers] the silver watch and a necklace” to try to bribe them off of her, before he is beaten and tossed out, and a gentile who tries to convince his co-religionists not to touch her by telling them, “But you are Christians and daughters of Israel are forbidden to you.” In the testimony of Shabtai Schiff, Rivka’s husband, he never mentions witnessing his wife’s rape at all. Many of the men in Kishinev exhibited the masculine traits of the protector, and yet they still failed to protect their charges.
The reality of the Kishinev pogrom is that even when the men are sufficiently masculine and women sufficiently feminine, gendered notions of who protects and who is protected still fail to actually protect women. Rather than show that masculine men can try and fail to protect women, Bialik chooses to create a false narrative of what happened in Kishinev in which feminized men did not try, and therefore failed to protect anyone. This false narrative actively silenced a real female survivor of rape and torture in Kishinev, and has been used by male Zionists to advocate for the transformation of Jewish masculinity into a much more militarized and supposedly “natural” relationship of protector to protected. This masculinity is now intrinsically tied to the Jewish nationalist movement, and bolstered by the messages of the modern Israeli army and education system (which, incidentally, requires teaching this poem).
The past cannot change. It is pointless to fantasize about how different Zionism or even the modern state of Israel would have been if only Hayim Nahman Bialik had published his collected findings at Kishinev instead of “In the City of Slaughter.” Instead, the poem was published, and to this day remains a significant part of Zionist canon, and we have to live with that reality. What we can do is learn from the past and choose a different path. The needs of women are most adequately met when they are able advocate for themselves and be heard by their male counterparts. In the future, we can choose to listen to and share the testimonies of actual victims of gendered violence, instead of second-hand accounts of masculine “protectors” seeking only to reinforce a harmful relationship built on problematic notions of masculinity and femininity, which have repeatedly failed to actually protect women.
Bialik, Hayyim Nahman. “In the City of Slaughter.” In Complete Poetic Works of Hayyim Nahman Bialik: Translated from the Hebrew, Volume I, edited by Israel Efros, 129-43. New York: Histadruth Ivrit of America, 1948.
Dekel, Mikhal. “‘From the Mouth of the Raped Woman Rivka Schiff,’ Kishinev, 1903.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 36, no. 1/2 (2008): 199-207.
Enloe, Cynthia H. “How Does ‘National Security’ Become Militarized?” In Globalization and Militarism: Feminists Make the Link. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
Hutchinson, John, and David Aberbach. “The Artist as Nation-Builder: William Butler Yeats and Chaim Nachman Bialik.” Nations and Nationalism 5, no. 4 (1999): 501–21.
Litvak, Olga. “The Poet in Hell: H. N. Bialik and the Cultural Genealogy of the Kishinev Pogrom.” Jewish Studies Quarterly 12, no. 1 (2005): 101-28.
Mayer, Tamar. “From Zero to Hero: Masculinity in Jewish Nationalism.” In Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Sexing the Nation, edited by Tamar Mayer. London: Taylor and Francis, 2012.
Penkower, Monty Noam. “The Kishinev Pogrom of 1903: A Turning Point in Jewish History.” Modern Judaism 24, no. 3 (2004): 187-225.