The Contribution of Bialik

As important as the reality of the pogroms of these years, in encouraging the development of self-defence groups, was the image of the pogroms among many young Jews.

Particularly among many would-be or young Zionists, an opinion developed that not only were the Jews in the communities incapable of defending themselves, but worse: that they submitted to their fate in total passivity – and that, by their very nature as Diaspora Jews, they would remain that way.

The classic expression of this idea is found in the famous poem by Chaim Nachman Bialik, “City of Slaughter”, one of two poems he wrote in the aftermath of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom. In the poem, Bialik creates an extraordinary image of the “Galut” Jew, passive, defenceless and totally theological in his reactions to the violence raining down on his family and community.

Crouching in shame, a witness to the defilement of his wife and daughters, this Jew is incapable of defending himself; he is scarcely a human being, capable of real human emotions;
Thousands of years of powerlessness and theological dependence have reduced him to a kind of shadow figure, incapable of protecting himself or indeed, feeling even the most normal and natural feelings – the desire for revenge;
Indeed, so lowly has he been brought by his circumstances, that even G-d turns against him in disgust, comparing him to the Maccabees that were once his forefathers.

This was and remains an extremely powerful poem - and it galvanised large numbers of youngsters to take part in training as part of the self-defence groups.

Bialik ( wrote the poem as a confirmed Zionist (under the immediate influence of the great Zionist orator and champion of Jewish power, Ze’ev Jabotinsky) and the poem took on mythic proportions in the Zionist story as an educator of future generations of children and youth. His poem, while on the one hand representing art of the highest degree – the language is unforgettable – is also an ideological tract, which leads to an unmistakable conclusion for the young generations of readers.

Simplifying the reality of the responses in Kishinev and of Jewish life in Eastern Europe as a whole, Bialik’s version of that life, as expressed in the poem, is a story of shame and the message that it is up to the new generations to wipe out the shame and create a totally new model of a Jew. Inspired by the Maccabees, the new Jew must be prepared to stand up for his beliefs and to fight for them physically.

The poem was really the manifesto of the idea of modern Jewish self-defence




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31 May 2005 / 22 Iyar 5765 0