Some pogroms were about politics, not anti-Semitism – prof

Ukrainian Jews arrested during the Lviv pogrom of 1941 PINTEREST PHOTO
Ukrainian Jews arrested during the Lviv pogrom of 1941 PINTEREST PHOTO

In comparing three pogroms that happened at three different points in Jewish history, political science professor Jeffrey Kopstein claims that some anti-Jewish violence of the “neighbour-on-neighbour” variety was politically, not culturally or ideologically, driven.

Kopstein, of the University of California, Irvine, made this case April 18 at a lecture to a packed room at the University of Toronto.

Titled “The Common History of Violence: Pogroms in Alexandria 38 CE, Valencia 1391 and Lvov 1941,” Kopstein’s talk was the keynote address of the Schwartz-Reisman Graduate Student Conference in Jewish Studies, presented by the Granovsky-Gluskin Graduate Program at U of T’s Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies.

Kopstein, a former director of the centre, outlined some of the conditions and contributing factors that brought about a wave of anti-Jewish violence in three cases: the pogroms in Alexandria, Egypt in 38 CE led by the Greeks and Egyptians; the massacres of Jews under Catholic Church auspices in 1391 in Valencia, Spain; and the pogroms against Jews by Ukrainians and Poles in Lvov, Ukraine, in 1941.


Kopstein argued that in each of these instances, extreme anti-Jewish violence was not due to anti-Semitism, but to political situations in which Jews were seen as threats to a particular group’s political or nationalist agenda.

Leading up to the pogrom of 1941, Kopstein said, the Polish and Ukrainian populations of Lvov had felt let down by Soviet rule, and many saw Jews as Soviet accomplices.

When the Germans arrived in the city and discovered the Soviet secret police’s prisons full of the corpses of prisoners – largely Ukrainian nationalists – word spread that the “Jewish Bolsheviks” were responsible. Local residents and Ukrainian militia subsequently carried out massacres against the Jews under “the approving eye of the Germans,” who infamously told local populations to “do self-cleansing of Communists and Jews,” Kopstein said.

But while the Germans’ presence caused a sense of chaos, this alone wasn’t a necessary condition for the violence.

Rather, he said, the pogroms were a result of the Jews having been significantly involved in Zionist parties at the municipal level for the previous two decades.


“The vote for Zionist parties was four times as high in locations [in Ukraine] where the pogroms happened than in non-pogrom places,” Kopstein said.

He noted that at the time, Zionism wasn’t focused on going to Israel, but represented “a refusal to join another group’s nation-building project.”

“The pogroms were the one chance the locals felt they had to rid themselves of what they saw as future political rivals.”

In Alexandria, Kopstein said, the pogroms didn’t happen because the Alexandrian Greeks and Egyptians disliked the Jews for their strange customs, but because they’d long resented the Jews for siding with the Romans and for attempting to gain full citizenship rights.

“The beginning of Roman rule was associated with competition over citizenship, and this drove the conflict, rather than cultural differences or anti-Semitism,” Kopstein said.

Finally, he argued, in Valencia, the pogroms weren’t simply, as it appeared, the case of classic Christian anti-Semitism of the period, wherein Jews were targeted for supposedly having killed Christ.

Under the crown of Aragon, Jews were considered “the king’s treasure, or patrimony,” Kopstein said, and were, therefore, viewed as proponents of royal absolutism and a threat to the Catholic Church. “This encouraged a tendency among Christians to criticize terrestrial sovereignty itself as ‘Jewish’ or ‘Judaizing,’” he said.


In 1391, when a minor inherited the throne, enemies of the crown of Aragon seized the moment of weakness and “sought to redefine the relationship between the kings and the people through an attack on the Jews,” Kopstein said.

These pogroms, too, were therefore a matter of the “Jews getting caught up in a political and constitutional battle.”

In conclusion, Kopstein clarified that he doesn’t want to replace a “one-sided culturalist account” of anti-Jewish violence with “an equally one-sided political and instrumentalist account,” but to distinguish between anti-Semitism and politically driven anti-Jewish violence. “The former has been ubiquitous and constant, and for that reason it cannot explain the pattern of variation in the latter,” he said.