The widespread use of the word ‘pogrom’ to describe the events of 7 October covers up a critical aspect of the massacre and makes it impossible to solve the political problems in the Middle East
Peter Ramsay is Professor of Law at the London School of Economics. He is also one of the founding editors of The Northern Star
This article originally appeared at The Northern Star
Sectarian massacres are as old as history. Raiding accompanied by massacre, rape and robbery have been one of the most common forms of warfare between human groups. However, from prime minister Rishi Sunak through MSM to social media, many politicians, journalists and commentators have described the Hamas attack as a ‘pogrom’, a Yiddish word that denotes the particular type of murderous raid practised against the Jews in the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian:
‘it was a pogrom that came to Israel last weekend, multiple pogroms in fact, as lethal as any that cut down the Yiddish-speaking Jews of the early last century.’
In Spiked, Frank Furedi made sure that nobody would miss the connection between the Hamas attacks and the Eastern European experience, using the word ‘pogrom’ 11 times to describe the massacre.
In a haunting column for CNN, Israeli academic Ilan Troen observed that his grandmother was killed in a pogrom carried out by a Ukrainian gang in 1919 during the Russian Civil War, and that now his daughter had been killed in another at a kibbutz near Gaza. It is perhaps unsurprising that a Jewish Israeli would see the massacre as Troen does, as the latest iteration of a long history of anti-Semitic violence. But the comparison is superficial, highlighting surface similarities but obscuring more fundamental contrasts between the two experiences. The most important contrast is pointed out by Troen himself:
‘There is a difference, after all. My ancestors were defenseless. But in Israel, we can protect ourselves and we will respond.’
This ‘difference’ should give us pause for thought and make us wary about the indiscriminate use of the word pogrom, because it serves to obscure the nature of the violence and of the problem that caused it.
Pogroms were attacks by Christians on the oppressed Jewish population of the Russian Empire, usually tolerated and sometimes encouraged and endorsed by the imperial authorities. Of course, in the moment of the violence itself, the two types of massacre look very similar, with Muslim Arabs taking the place of Christian Russians or Ukrainians. But where the Jewish victims in Eastern Europe were segregated and oppressed by the Tsarist state, this does not describe the conditions endured by the Jewish citizens of southern Israel. However abhorrent the sectarian cruelty of Hamas, its victims were represented by the state in which they lived, while it is the perpetrators who had been herded into the ghetto-like conditions in Gaza by the very state that claimed to represent and protect the victims. If the Hamas attack was truly a ‘pogrom’ then pogroms historically would have involved Jews in Russia massacring Christians.
This matters because if the 7 October massacre wasn’t a ‘pogrom’ then imagining that it was distorts a key aspect of the violence. Using the word pogrom inverts the wider power relations between Jewish victims of the massacres, on the one hand, and their murderers and kidnappers, on the other. The word offers tremendous rhetorical force for those who wish to moralise about violence, but using it makes it impossible to understand which parties have responsibility for what. And that makes it harder to understand what could be done to end the violence or the prejudices that accompany it.
If we are to think politically about the causes of an atrocity then we must get beyond its surface features. We must get beyond the immediate moral responsibility of the perpetrators and think about the specific historical circumstances in which it occurred. In particular we need to know how those who gave the perpetrators their orders came to have both authority over them and the power to train and equip them to do what they did. Without knowing this we cannot address the causes of the problem.
The key political question then is how and why Hamas have come to dominate Gaza, and be able to indoctrinate, organise and unleash their terrorists as they did. It is on this question that the ahistorical idea of a ‘pogrom’ does its real work in obscuring the nature of the problem. The idea that the 7 October massacres were a pogrom obscures Israel’s active complicity in Hamas’s power and authority in Gaza, the power and authority which gave the Islamists the capacity to mount such an operation.
The massacre was carried out by young men drawn from the population of two million Palestinian Arabs who are corralled by Israel and its neighbour Egypt into the tiny Gaza strip. Almost two decades of blockade have reduced most of the population to aid-dependent poverty. This is only the most recent chapter in the decades of dispossession and humiliation of the Palestinians by Israel involving particularly relentless violence against Palestinians on the West Bank. In these circumstances, it would not be hard to cultivate anti-Semitism among the Palestinian population of Gaza. They are oppressed by a state that designates itself as the ‘Jewish state’. And sure enough, the dogmatic religious supremacists who comprise Hamas have been able to spread their fanatical hostility to Jews, and all unbelievers, among the people of Gaza. But why are Hamas in charge?
From its early days Hamas has been supported by Israeli intelligence as a rival to the secular Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), with its dominant Fatah faction, that had organised the majority of Palestinian resistance to Israel. When the PLO gave up fighting and recognised the state of Israel in 1993, the Israelis agreed to a Palestinian Authority dominated by the Fatah in the territories that Israel had occupied. Israel did not seize the opportunity to settle the conflict but rather exploited its advantage to devolve responsibility for security and order to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in a colonial-style policing arrangement.
Israel refused to give up Israeli settlements across the West Bank or the deployment of armed force necessary to defend them, or offer any of the political concessions that the PA needed to become a credible ruler in the West Bank and Gaza (such as recognising full statehood for Palestine or offering East Jerusalem as its capital). In fact Israeli settlements expanded in the 1990s along with settler and army violence against Palestinian civilians. As the PA descended into impotence and corruption, Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, leaving the field to the extremists of Hamas, whom the Israelis had earlier sponsored. Hamas first won an election and then after an episodic civil war with Fatah took effective control of Gaza.
A two-state solution was always a post-political evasion of the fundamental character of the conflict in Palestine. But the ‘peace process’ only served to prove that the conquering Israelis were unwilling to do anything to build trust between them and the Palestinians they had conquered. Instead the Israeli state resorted to further annexations and coercion. Israel made it perfectly clear to the Palestinians that force was the only way. In this deep sense, Hamas is the form taken by Israel’s victory over the Palestinian nation and its subsequent subjugation of the Arabs.
These ugly truths about the complicity of the state that represents the victims of the massacres would be significant even if they were merely historical background to the current events. But ensuring Hamas’s control in Gaza was Israeli policy right up to the massacres themselves. Current Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu told his Likud Party in 2019 that:
‘Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas.’
And he was explicit: ‘This is part of our strategy.’ Nothing indicates a change of strategy between 2019 and 7 October 2023.
Insisting on Israel’s complicity is not victim-blaming. On the contrary, it takes the victims’ suffering more seriously by not reducing the reasons for it to the immediate moral depravity of the perpetrators but instead exposing how and why the perpetrators came to be in the victims’ towns and villages, armed with the training, weapons and ideas that they came with. Israel, the state that claims to represent the victims of the massacre, has consistently used its preponderant power in Palestine to foster the authority of Hamas’s historically specific form of anti-Semitism among Palestinians, and to undermine the secular alternatives to it.
Many Israelis understand this political reality far more clearly than those who claim to sympathise with them in the West. Too many on the Western right are unable to resist using the conflict to pursue their own domestic culture war with the left. But without a clear understanding of the political reality in Palestine and Israel, nothing effective can be done to resolve the problem over there, nor the culture war in the West, whose warriors have adopted the conflict as one of their totems.
The use of the word pogrom for rhetorical effect exemplifies the superficial moralism and victim-mongering that substitutes for the historically specific political analysis that we need if we are to have any chance of defeating radical Islamism and anti-Semitism, or of saving our own nations from further disintegration. The more that international conflict is reposed as a moral competition between different victimised identity groups, the more that opposition to the current world order will take the form of irrational sectarian violence.