The Infamous Pogroms
In AD 38 in Alexandria, Egypt, the Roman prefect (governor) Flaccus encouraged an Egyptian mob to attack the city’s large Jewish community. After rounding up the Jews and shoving them into a small ghetto, rioters plundered their homes and shops and left them to starve. Any Jewish people caught outside the ghetto trying to buy food for their families were savagely beaten, stoned, or torn limb from limb.
Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria wrote, “The most merciless of all their persecutors in some instances burnt whole families, husbands with their wives, and infant children with their parents, in the middle of the city, sparing neither age nor youth, nor the innocent helplessness of infants.”1 Other Jews were imprisoned, scourged, tortured, or crucified.
It would have been bad enough had this been an isolated incident. But history reeks with examples of such pogroms—government-sanctioned (sometimes instigated) killing sprees—against the Jewish people.
In 1391, the antisemitic sermons of Catholic archdeacon Ferrand Martinez incited vicious pogroms in Spain. Forced conversion was the goal. Fanaticism was the fuel. Greed was the underlying hunger.
Synagogues were destroyed or turned into churches. Entire localities were decimated or plundered. More than 4,000 Jewish people were murdered, and more than 200,000 submitted to baptism rather than be killed.2 A few civil authorities made feeble attempts to stop the terror. The religious authorities did nothing.
The pogroms of 1391 became a turning point in Spanish Jewish history and, with the abundance of new conversos (converts to Catholicism), set the stage for the horrific Spanish Inquisition 90 years later.
In the mid-17th century, Ukrainian nationalist Bogdan Chmielnicki led a nine-year uprising against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that controlled Ukraine at the time. Because many Jewish people collected taxes and helped Polish nobles handle their financial affairs, Chmielnicki and his Cossack followers associated Jewish people with Polish oppression. He told the Ukrainians that the Poles “had sold them as slaves ‘into the hands of the accursed Jews.’”3
Wrote historian Herman Rosenthal, “With this as their battle-cry, the Cossacks let loose their wildest passions and most ruthlessly massacred about three hundred thousand Jews with such cruelties as the world had seldom witnessed (1648–1649).”4
Chmielnicki and his Cossacks used unspeakable tortures and wiped out more than 300 Jewish communities. The Chmielnicki pogroms paved the way for Jews throughout Eastern Europe in 1665 to accept and follow a charismatic Jewish mystic named Shabbetai Zvi, one of history’s most infamous false messiahs, whom they hoped would rescue them from their suffering.
The word pogrom itself comes from a Russian verb meaning “to destroy.” It came into use to describe violent mob attacks on Jewish communities under the czarist and early communist regimes of Russia between 1881 and 1921. At that time, millions of Jewish people lived in an area known as the Pale of Settlement (modern-day western Russia, parts of Poland, and most of Ukraine). It was a period of great political and social upheaval in the Russian empire.
Disgruntled Russian peasants resented the czars’ wealth and luxurious lifestyles, and revolution was in the air. Looking for a scapegoat to take the attention off their failures, the czars chose the Jews. The Jewish people were wrongly blamed for a host of economic problems, as well as the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881. The government’s secret police published pamphlets calling for pogroms against the Jewish people, to which the frustrated populace greedily complied.
After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the Red Army encouraged people to go after the Jews. Ukrainian soldiers were no better. Hundreds of pogroms resulted. Looting and theft were commonplace. Jewish property loss was incalculable. In Ukraine alone between 1881 and 1920, there were “between 1,200 and 1,326 pogroms, with between 70,000 to 250,000 Jewish dead, and half a million left homeless.”5
Consequently, millions of Jewish people immigrated to the United States, Palestine (Israel), and elsewhere.
- Philo, Flaccus 1:29, 56, 68.
- Henry Charles Lea, “Ferrand Martinez and the Massacres of 1391,” The American Historical Review 1, no. 2 (1896), 209–219, jstor.org (tinyurl.com/274j25an).
- Herman Rosenthal, “Chmielnicki, Bogdan Zinovi,” jewishencyclopedia.com (tinyurl.com/yj3xmy2h).
- Colin Tatz and Winton Higgins, The Magnitude of Genocide (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Security International, 2016), 26.