Peasant Rebellions and antisemitism

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Sun Feb 5 08:38:22 MST 1995


In his recently published "Jewish History, Jewish Religion", Israel
Shahak draws a distinction between the Nazi genocide and earlier
persecution of the Jews such as occurred in Eastern Europe before the
twentieth century.

He characterizes the Nazi policies as inspired, organized and carried out
from above by state officials. But in the earlier periods, persecution of
the Jews came from below, from popular movements. Jews were allied with
the ruling elite in these earlier periods--with emperors, popes, kings,
aristocrats and the upper clergy. Furthermore, the elites defended the
Jews during these antisemitic outbursts, not out of considerations of
humanity, but because the Jews were useful and profitable to them. The
defense of the Jews was tied up with defense of "law and order", hatred
of the lower classes and fear that anti-Jewish riots might develop into
general popular rebellion. This was true even of Tsarist Russia. During
the time of Tsarism's greatest strength, under Nicholas I or in the latter
part of the reign of Alexander III, pogroms were not tolerated by the
regime, even though legal discrimination was intensified.

Shahak's comments on the 17th century Chmielnicki revolt in Ukraine
illustrates these points:

"Perhaps the most outstanding example is the great massacre of Jews
during the Chmielnicki revolt in the Ukraine (1648), which started
out as a mutiny of Cossack officers but soon turned into a widespread
popular movement of the oppressed serfs: 'The underpriviliged, the
subjects, the Ukrainians, the Orthodox [persecuted by the Polish
Catholic church] were rising against their Catholic Polish masters,
particularly against their masters' bailiffs, clergy and Jews.' (John
Stoye, Europe Unfolding 1648-88) This typical peasant uprising against
extreme oppression, an uprising accompanied not only by massacres
committed by the rebels but also by even more horrible atrocities
and 'counter-terror' of the Polish magnates' private armies, has
remained emblazoned in the consciousness of east-European Jews to this
very day--not, however, as a peasant uprising, a revolt of the oppressed,
of the real wretched of the earth, nor even as vengeance visited upon
all the servants of the Polish nobility, but as an act of gratuitous
antisemitism directed against Jews as such. In fact, the voting of the
Ukrainian delegation at the UN and, more generally, Soviet policies on the
Middle East, are often 'explained' in the Israeli press as 'a heritage
of Chmielnicki' or his 'descendants'."

(Israel Shahak is a retired Professor of Organic Chemistry and
human-rights activist who has lived in Israel for the last 40 years.
He was born in Poland and was incarcerated in Belsen during WWII.)

Louis Proyect

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