(Courtesy: Jewish Virtual Library – by Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson)
SELF-DEFENSE (in modern Jewish history). Jewish efforts against attacking mobs in Russia and in Austria-Hungary from the end of the 19th century until shortly after World War I. The nature of the pogroms in this period (especially in the years 1881–82, 1903–05, and 1917–20) taught Jews that they occurred with the compliance of the governing authorities and at times even at their instigation. The government, therefore, could be no guarantee of protection. A segment of the Jewish community gradually became aware of the necessity for Jews to come to their own defense and to concern themselves with the safety of their brethren and the protection of their property. They should not depend for their security on the forces of law and order of a hostile government, and on occasion they must even oppose those forces directly. This point of view gained strength in the wake of the revolutionary movement throughout Russia and the rise of modern Jewish nationalism (both its Zionist and its socialist-Diaspora manifestations) which reawakened the sense of national honor among Jews. In the *Pale of Settlement in Russia there was an overcrowded Jewish population, and in many of the cities and towns in this area Jews constituted the majority of the local population, or at least a very substantial minority. There was a steady increase in the number of Jewish artisans and workers who were physically fit and knew how to wield a knife or ax. Conscription into the Russian army created, especially among the lower strata of Jewish society, a pool of young men accustomed to military discipline and trained in defense tactics.
During the pogroms of 1881–82, self-defense was organized spontaneously in different places. Equipped mainly with light arms, the defenders relied on the numerical strength of the Jewish masses to try to prevent the rioting mobs from penetrating their streets (especially in *Berdichev and *Kirovograd (Yelizavetgrad), and *Warsaw ). In *Balta , the teacher Eliezer Mashbir organized a self-defense unit largely made up of porters, coachmen, and apprentices, and even set up a form of communication through signaling with blasts of the shofar. The founders of the self-defense movement in Odessa were M. *Ben-Ammi and W.M. *Haffkine . They had to overcome the opposition of those Jewish revolutionaries who believed that pogroms merely expressed the anger of the awakening Russian proletariat and therefore Jews should not act with the police against the people, even when the people were in the wrong. The first such group of defenders, composed mostly of students and Hebrew teachers, turned to the synagogues and made a special effort “to attract the butchers and coachmen.” The wealthy did not take part, nor did their synagogues participate. The equipment of these fighters consisted of “sticks, axes, and iron poles – pistols were rare.” During actual pogroms their defense activity had very limited success in itself; it was effective mainly in the poorest quarters, even when the Jews had to stand up to the combined strength of the army and the police. More than 100 of the defenders were arrested, among them Haffkine, who had a revolver in his hand when he was seized. Although those who were captured were mainly simple men, they never revealed at their trial that students were the initiators of the movement. In the succeeding years the youth and workers continued in their efforts to form defense organizations. In the proceedings instituted against 14 Jews in 1897, it became clear that in Minsk that year a group of defenders which had been hastily assembled had been able to strike back with combat weapons against soldiers rioting in the marketplace.
The pogroms of 1903, especially that in *Kishinev , created renewed interest in self-defense. Although even in Kishinev there had been individual examples of courageous defenders, the slaughter there symbolized in the mind of the Jewish community the weakness and shame of their general defenselessness in the face of their attackers. The Russian government had announced its official opposition to organized defense. However, all active nationalist Jewish circles, the youth in particular, whether Zionists or socialists, concluded that their collective defense was a spiritual as well as a physical necessity. In April 1903, two weeks after the Kishinev pogroms, the Aguddat Soferim Ivrim (“Hebrew Writers League”), including *Aḥad Ha-Am , Ḥ.N. *Bialik , M. Ben-Ammi, S. *Dubnow , and Y.Ḥ. *Rawnitzki , issued an announcement, composed by Aḥad Ha-Am, stating that “it is degrading for five million people … to stretch out their necks to be slaughtered and to call for help without attempting to protect their property, dignity, and lives with their own hands.” They demanded the establishment of a permanent organization to defend against and repel attackers “in all places where we live,” and they urged that “a general gathering of the representatives of all major Jewish communities within our land” should be convened for this purpose. This same outlook also gradually became evident within leftist Jewish circles, although for them the decision to act against the masses of the Russian people was a bitter one. In its policy statement of 1903, the *Bund declared “violence must be answered with violence, wherever it comes from.” A group of left-wing Zionist students called for “the same healthy, free response made by a man when a wild animal leaps upon him … acquire as many weapons as you possibly can!” This mood found its strongest poetic expression in Bialik’s poem “The City of Slaughter,” which sharply condemns the shame of the meek acquiescence of the “calves for the slaughter.”
In Odessa, collective defense was set up at this time, with Vladimir *Jabotinsky as one of the active participants. They collected money, bought guns by the dozens, and prepared small arms. In proclamations in Yiddish and in Russian they urged the youth to arm itself. However, the various leftist organizations, which had been fairly active in the area of self-defense, did not join forces with Jabotinsky’s group, and still less were they prepared to act jointly with bourgeois circles; the Bund in particular was strongly opposed to such cooperation. Between 1903 and 1905 collective defense units were set up in the cities and towns of Belorussia and the Ukraine. In Yekaterinoslav ( *Dnepropetrovsk ), for instance, the *Po’alei Zion were the organizers: they raised money, acquired guns, and “in the smithies special iron poles were fashioned, with iron spikes on them.” To improve their marksmanship, they went out to deserted islands on the River Dnieper for target practice. Two hundred students in *Kiev formed a defensive unit, “each armed with a large stick, a Finnish knife, and pistol.” The artisans in the group fashioned hand-combat weapons. The defenders were divided into groups of ten, and whenever the outbreak of a pogrom appeared imminent they took up their arms and mobilized for action in private homes with telephones. They also had spies among the potential attackers, and a number of non-Jewish teachers at the university aided the defenders. Similar organizations were established in *Shklov , *Vilna – where Michael *Helpern was one of the leaders – Warsaw, and *Rostov on the Don. The Minsk experience in setting up defensive units was used as a model for the entire area. The self-defense organization in *Gomel (Homel) developed from the nucleus known as Gibborei Ẓiyyon (“The Heroes of Zion”), the military unit of the Po’alei Zion, and “during the summer of 1903 the entire city was organized, blacksmiths … butchers, and wagon drivers, each separately,” and the rest of the citizens along occupational lines. (There was also a separate defense unit of the Bund.) When the army mounted an attack against them in 1903, many fell and numerous others were captured and brought to trial. Seeing that the army was on the point of attacking them, the defenders had tried to arouse the Jewish masses against the pogromists. Even the government-appointed rabbi of *Kremenchug , A.Y. Friedenberg, issued a proclamation in Russian in 1903 calling for collective defense and convening a conference of all the neighboring communities for the purpose of “consulting on the establishment of secret defensive units in various places.” Ḥayyim Berlin, the rabbi of Moscow, took part in this convention.
In 1904 the self-defense movement was widespread throughout many cities and towns, but the splintering-off into factions and the growing revolutionary tide among the workers prevented real cooperation and unity. In many cities there were a number of parallel defense groups – affiliated with the Bund, Po’alei Zion, etc. Yet in the face of a pogrom they usually united, and even secured the help of the ordinary “unpolitically minded” Jews. The Bund defense group in Dvinsk ( *Daugavpils ) successfully repelled its attackers in 1904, and, when its leader, Mendel Daitch, was sentenced to death for an attack on a police officer during what was actually a general revolutionary action, *Meir Simḥah ha-Kohen , the rabbi of Dvinsk, proclaimed a fast and called for the recitation of psalms to mark his righteous act of defending his fellow Jews. Revolutionary circles began to take pride in this central and unifying activity for Jewish self-defense. V. Fabrikant, the left-wing Zionist, described how in 1904 “a defensive unit … was set up. At its center was organized labor, and the rest of the elements both organized and unorganized were on the periphery.” He also stated that “every Jew, even one of the higher echelons of the bourgeoisie, is entitled to be defended by us if he is in danger of injury solely because he is a Jew.” Defining the goals of self-defense, he said it was a war “for our present … for the possessions of the poor; for the lives of our brethren of Israel who are in distress; for the honor of our sisters; for our national honor … for our future as a nation.” He also recommended taking retaliatory action against individuals who stirred up pogroms and against those officials who were lax in their duty to protect Jewish citizens. Even Bundist circles recognized as desirable the continued existence of defense units and of their branching-out into other cities and towns. The Bund claimed the honor of setting up the committees for self-defense. At the initiative of Po’alei Zion, an all-Russian conference on self-defense programs was convened in Odessa on Jan. 6, 1905; Aḥad Ha-Am and S. Dubnow promised to speak there. However, since some letters dealing with conference plans were intercepted and several of the delegates were arrested, the full-scale meeting envisaged did not take place.
When the government turned “the wrath of the masses” against the Jews in 1905, an extensive self-defense movement existed in many Russian cities and towns. The nucleus of the movement came from the Jewish labor parties and their military units, and it had a widespread following among the rest of the people. Although anxious to form countrywide links among its units, the movement was weakened by party and class divisions and suspicion. Organized defense groups are known to have existed in 42 cities; 30 of these went into action, particularly in October of 1905. The most important were in Odessa, Akkerman ( *Belgorod-Dnestrovski ), *Zhitomir , *Starodub , Yelizavetgrad, Yekaterinoslav, *Chernigov , and Rostov on the Don. Some enlightened Russian non-Jews aided the cause of Jewish self-defense and in Odessa the university assisted the defenders. In the battles of 1905, 132 fighters fell, including four women and a number of Russians. Both the strength and the weakness of the self-defense endeavor were clearly embodied in its activity in Zhitomir, in which three organizations were involved: the Bund, Po’alei Zion, and the “non-labor Zionists.” In clashes with rioters and security forces (May 6–7, 1905) all three groups worked together under the command of a young Bundist. The battle lasted for four hours and 13 of the defenders fell. From Berdichev and *Chudnov Jewish defense groups came to the aid of the Jews of Zhitomir. However, this example of cooperation between cities ended in tragedy; when the Berdichev unit came up against a crowd of rioters at a railway station, the local Jews – fearful of the mob – refused to give them refuge. Ten of the Berdichev group were killed. The dangers inherent in the movement of the Jewish defense units throughout Russia were also revealed in many other incidents, as in October 1905, when 23 fighters belonging to the defenders’ group from *Rechitsa perished in Odessa. Other cities also witnessed a wide range of defensive activities, including Poltava, where the head was Izhak *Ben-Zvi . In Yekaterinoslav the fighters succeeded in killing 47 of their attackers.
After 1905 the strength of the self-defense movement waned along with the lessening of revolutionary tensions within Russia. In 1909 the central ammunition storage dump of the Bund was liquidated. However, the circumstances of the civil war in 1917–20 brought new and stronger calls for self-defense and initiated new methods of setting it in motion. In those years pogroms were perpetrated not only by the rioting masses but also by bands of soldiers and even by regular units of the forces of the warring sides. In such conditions of social upheaval and the disintegration of the czarist army, the defense movement was obviously likely to gain greater support than previously through the aid of Jewish soldiers and because of the revolutionary excitement prevailing among the leftist factions. Nevertheless, it was also liable to rapid collapse, for it could not stand alone against attackers who were trained troops of regular or semi-regular armies. Those soldiers of the disintegrating army who had some nationalist consciousness made a great effort to set up a Jewish defense force which would concentrate on guarding the honor, lives, and property of their brethren. Drawing attention to the force of 400,000 Jewish soldiers in the Russian army, they pointed out that various other peoples were attempting to establish units of their own from the fragments of the czarist army. Especially active in the Ukraine in 1917 was the Iggud ha-Ẓeva’i ha-Yehudi (“Jewish Military League”), whose president was Isaac Gogol. In the beginning the leftist factions opposed the separatist goal of the defensive groups, but by the time they had come to the conclusion, in 1918, that Gogol was right, they had missed their opportunity. The Ukrainian army attacked the Iggud and murdered its president.
From then on self-defense became a local matter, at most the concern of a very limited area. Even then there were some Jewish soldiers among the defenders, but their success depended solely on local conditions and the qualities of the local defenders. In spite of these circumstances, there were defense units which enjoyed limited success. In *Golovanevsk , for instance, a township of 1,200 Jewish families, many of whom were artisans, a company of defenders which had repelled pogromists in 1905 was reformed in 1917 under the command of an ex-soldier. They set up a permanent guard of 25 men, who appeared as if they were “in charge of the place” and confiscated or bought arms from deserting soldiers and sailors. They also purchased a cannon and prepared bombs. Several times men of the defense force went to the outskirts of the town and fought in the fields – at times alongside the Red Army and at times on their own – to repel bands of approaching attackers. The defense organization was active there until its leader fell at the end of 1919. In *Bershad too the defenders rallied around a nucleus of soldiers who had just returned from the front. At their head was a capable leader, Moshe Dubrovensky. This defense unit waged bitter battles with roving armed bands and held its position of strength until 1919. On the eve of Purim 5679 (1919), some of the finest of their company, their leader among them, fell in action during a battle with a troop of Cossacks that stormed the city. Similar information has been preserved about defense fighters in other towns.
The value of Jewish self-defense in Russia was not limited to its own time and place alone. The goal which became clearly articulated in the movement – to protect the Jewish community independently of the state authorities – pointed the way for the Jews in Ereẓ Israel under Turkish rule and later in their struggle with the British Mandate authorities. From the ranks of these defenders came many of the methods and leaders of the *Haganah in Ereẓ Israel.
[Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson]