Thursday, October 24, 2013


It seems I didn’t get the story completely right last week when I wrote about the sex of chickens. I identified the German Hahn and Huhn with the Yiddish hon and hoon (rooster and hen). This is not quite right. Unlike the Yiddish hoon which is always a lady chicken, the German Huhn can be a man. If they want to specify the egg-laying gender, the German can speak of the Henne.
It is odd that the German rooster, the Yiddish rooster, and the German hen, representing three distinct vowel sounds, all take the identical vowel upon pluralization: die Hähne, die Hennen, and di henner. As you can see they are differentiated only by the trailing consonant.
So absent the German Henne, is Yiddish therefore lacking in a generic term for chicken, without specifiying male or female? Not quite. We have the option of referring to the bird as an oph, meaning fowl. No, it’s not from the French oeuf  (egg) but rather from the Hebrew. This ought to be a helpful word because in the diminutive it becomes eyphallach, meaning literally “little chickens”. But that too would be a mistake. When we speak of a mother with her kléine eyphallach, we are referring not to a mother hen but to a human mother with a brood of infants. The metaphoric meaning has entirely displaced the literal one. I have not found a Yiddish word for baby chicks; hendelach un hindelach convey to me merely the idea of small roosters and hens. The Germans, however, have Küken, which almost rhymes (allowing some leeway for the umlaut) with our chicken. In this case the German word, like Henne, didn’t seem to find its way into Yiddish.
Getting back to roosters, the German Hahn is different from our hon one one other respect: in addition to being a rooster a Hahn is also a water faucet. But then again, in English we sometimes call a faucet a water cock. And what is a cock but another word for rooster? So it comes full circle.
I remember when I visited Germany ten years ago we stopped in a small café, the kind operated by Turkish immigrants, where I was met with blank stares when I tried to order a gläsel Tee. Fortunately I happened to have my own tea bag, so I asked if they could just bring me some hot water? The waitress was still puzzled: “Hahnwasser?” she asked me hopefully. I regretfully declined. No, she wasn’t offering to have a rooster pee in a cup for me, but that’s just about as good a cup of tea as you can make with tap water.

Monday, October 21, 2013

How to Tell the Sex of a Chicken

My first article on Yiddish in the Jewish Post was a bit of a hit with Bernie's readers, so I followed up with this important story about chickens.

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How do you tell the sex of a chicken?

It’s not that easy. No, I’m not talking about those people in the hatchery that have to sort the males from the females; they’ve got it easy. I’m talking about Yiddish. This is something that has confused our people since time immemorial, and today I’m going to try and lay out the problem so you can see what’s going on.

My first problem was to figure out the whole business of roosters and chickens. We know a hen is a female chicken, but is there such a thing as a female rooster? Or is a rooster simply a male chicken? Inquiring minds want to know. To make a long story short, Wikipedia tells us that chickens come in both genders; and that a rooster is just a male chicken.  

In a perfectly logical world, then, we would say that the neutral term is chicken, and the gender-specific words are hen and rooster. Technically this is correct, but in popular usage I feel that the word chicken leans towarde the female of the species. For example, I don’t think anyone would be surprised to hear about a rooster humping a chicken, but it sounds a bit off if we say a chicken was doing it with a hen. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

In Yiddish we at least can dispense with this small discrepancy: we seem to have no word at all for the species at large, but only gender-specific words for the male and female. Does that make things easier? Hardly.

The situation is most readily understood if we begin with the Modern German cognates: Hahn (the rooster) and Huhn (the hen). In going from German to Yiddish, the “ah” vowel commonly shifts to a short “o” like the o in “corn”. So, according to the phonetic YIVO spelling system, we have hon (HO(r)N) for rooster and hun (HOON) for hen. It’s a little close for comfort, but still obviously two 
different words. 

The problems begin when we go into dialect.. There are two great branches of Eastern Yiddish, the northern and southern, known familiarly as  Litvish and Galitzianer. The YIVO standard pronunciation generally follows the Litvish system; for us Galitizianers, however, the rooster is a HOON and the hen is a HIN. These are systemic vowel shifts that you find everywhere…the same ones that turn kugel into kigel and neshomah into neshumah. But as a result, the Litvak’s hen is our rooster.

Things straighten out a bit when we go to the plural. Again, the German serves as a useful guide: the vowel shifts on pluralization are given by the umlaut, so we have Hahn/Hähne and Huhn/Hühner. The Yiddish follows similarly…the roosters are hener in both the North and South, and the hens are hinner

So in short, all Yiddish speakers have a HOON; they just don’t agree if it is male or female. The genders re-appear on pluralization, with Litvaks and Galitzianers in accord that henner are the roosters and hinner  the hens.

Except for one more complication. There seem to be a fair number of southerners who call a rooster a HOON but pluralize it as HINNER. This cannot be authentically correct. It’s inconsistent with the way all other similar nouns are pluralized. For example, the German Zahn (tooth) becomes the Litvish tson, which becomes the Galitzianer tsoon, which is pluralized by both of them as tseyn. (Compare the German Zähne.) 

I can only speculate that when the Galitzianer children went to Peretz School  they were taught that the plural of hoon (Litvish hen) was hinner; and that they inadvertently applied this same paradigm to their Galitzianer hoon (rooster). 

I hope that sets the record straight. The final word on the topic goes to the old adage, a bit of wordplay on the Yiddish terms for hither and thither. It goes like this: what do you get when you cross a chicken with a rabbit? Answer: Nischt ahin un nischt aher.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Genius of Yiddish

I was on a pretty good roll, with a series of provocative, hard-hitting articles in the Jewish Post starting in the summer of 2012. And then in December I got it in my head to write something fun and different. This one is about Yiddish, and it got such a positive response that Bernie asked me to keep 'em coming. Here then is the article that got it all started.

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The Genius of Yiddish

One of the small oddities of Yiddish is the situations where a German word and a Hebrew word have similar sounds and similar meanings.  I’ve always enjoyed noticing those, and recently I came across a new one. Here is a short list of some of my favorites:

Schlachten/Shekhten. The German word for slaughter is similar to the Hebrew. A schlacht-feld is a battle-field in both languages, but only the Germans call a slaughterhouse a shlacht-haus (SHLAKHT-HOWZ): by us it’s a shekht-haus (SHEKHT-HOYZ). A ritual slaughterer is of course a shoykhet. (If you read the Kurt Vonnegut novel, you might remember that the prisoners survived the Allied bombardment of Dresden in the safety of Schlachthaus Fünf. And you might also note that when I transcribe German words for a general audience, I like to break up the compound words with hyphens which the Germans find quaintly superfluous.)

Bühne/Bimah. The stage where the German actor performs (BEE-neh) is the podium in the synagogue where the cantor does his performance. The Hebrew National Theater in Mandatory Palestine was called Ha-Bimah.

Rausch/raash. A commotion is almost the same in both languages. (The German rausch (ROWSH) is pronounced ROYSH in Yiddish.)

Narr/na’ar. The homely German fool is confused with the Hebrew youth, familiar to us from the Birkat Hamazon, “na’ar hayiti ve-gam zakanti…. But the quality that most of us think of as naarischkeit should more correctly be written narrischkeit.

Sach (hard “s”) vs sakh (soft “s)”. The Hebrew quantity is used in context similar to the German thing, matter. It gets more confusing when you consider the European moss (measure, German Maß with an “ess-tset”), masse (mass, a completely different word) and the Hebrew mase (load or burden, spelled with a sin), all three of them present in Yiddish.

Kunde/koyne/kundes: The German kunde meaning “customer” is close to the Hebrew koyne with the same meaning, and even closer to the Hebrew for joker.
Schier/shiyur: This pair is so close you find them interchanged among even the most educated Yiddish writers in classical times. Schier nischt is used idiomatically as the equivalent of the English “all but”, as in “sie is schier nischt gestorben vun kharpeh un bushah” (she all but died from embarrassment).  Alternately, she might have been embarrassed “ohn a shiyur” – “without (or beyond) measure”, where this time it is the Hebrew word which is used idiomatically. Note that a shiyur can also be a Rabbi’s lecture on a passage from the Gemara; in this instance, the usage seems to suggest that vast knowledge is something that must bne portioned out in careful measures.

Kapoyer/kapuris: Sometimes it is a Slavic word which crosses paths with the Hebrew. If something makes your hair stand on end (azh die hâar is gestellt auf kapoyer) you are using the Russian word for topsy-turvy, not the Hebrew word for the chicken which you swing above your head on Yom Kippur. (And if you think I am being disrespectful in my characterization of this solemn ritual, you might note that the word kapuris is the punch line of countless jokes in Yiddish. So it’s not just me.)

Finally, from chickens to ducks: here’s the one I just learned this week. We have an odd expression which is used to “explain” something that doesn’t make any sense at all: “Derüber (derIBBer) gehen die katchkehs borvuss un die gändz (GENZ) ohn pludern” (Therefore the ducks go barefoot and the geese without trousers). Where does this come from? It seems that borvuss (German barfuss, barefoot) is a near-homonym with the Hebrew barvaz, meaning “duck”. It is the unique genius of the Yiddish language that random happenstance of this type can become the source of such a colorful and humorous expression.  

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Who Started It?

Just about a year ago, there was a major escalation in the violence level in and around Gaza...the rocket strikes from Gaza, and the Israeli counterstrikes. Of course, the way I described it here..."strikes" and "counterstrikes"...implies that our side was just responding to provocations from their side. But is that really what it was? I researched the situation and learned a few things. The result was the following article in the Jewish Post.

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Who Started It?
Let’s start with the facts. For the last year, the Palestinians have been launching missile attacks against Israel almost on a daily basis. No nation would tolerate such blatant violations of its territory, and Israel is legally justified in responding to these attacks with all means at her disposal. She is even entitled to argue that she shows admirable restraint by not responding with even greater force. These are the facts, and they can hardly be disputed.
Now let’s move on to opinions.
First there is the small matter of the Israeli blockade. Israel argues the blockade is justified, but she can hardly expect the Palestinians to accept this argument. Forty-five years ago, when Israel’s southernmost port was blockaded, she responded with a devastating attack that wiped out Egypt’s air force. If this was fair game, why do we doubt that the Palestinians see their missile campaign as a legitimate response to Israel’s blockade? But then, that’s just my opinion.
And now let’s return to more facts.
Over most of the last year, on a typical week the Palestinians have lobbed five or six projectiles into southern Israel. Prior to this October, there were exactly three escalations in the missile campaign. Following a tunnel strike on Feb. 11th in which a Palestinian was killed, there was a rather small barrage of half a dozen missiles a few days later. Following the March 9th targeted killing of Zuhair al Qaissi, there was a major barrage of some 300 missiles over the next week. And following a June 9th strike which killed two motor-bike riding activists (which was itself a retaliation for an earlier outrage in Haifa), the Palestinians responded with 100 missiles.
After each of these flare-ups, the situation reverted to the status quo within about a week. Then came the October 8th strike which killed Abdullah Maqawi and injured 11. This led to a massive missile barrage which did not quiet down until the end of the month. This was the lull before the storm.
Who started the latest round? November was quiet for about a week. On the fifth, a Gazan civilian was shot for approaching too close to the border. A rocket or two was fired, and the Israelis subsequently launched a cross-border raid, with a 13-year old boy dying in the crossfire. The next day the Gazans fired on a jeep patrolling the border, wounding four. An Israeli retaliatory strike misfired, killing 4 Gazans playing soccer and wounding 38. The Gazans let loose with massive rocket fire, and the Israelis hit back hard.
The next sequence of events is hard to interpret. There appears to have been a lull of over 24 hours around the 13th of November, with no missiles being launched. On the 14th we took out Ahmed Jabari. The Gazans responded with everything they had, targetting even Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The extent of Israel’s retaliation is well known. At the time of writing (Nov. 21st), a cease-fire has just been announced. Who knows if it will still be in effect if and when this article goes to press?
The chronology of events presented in this article was culled from the Wikipedia article “List of Palestinian Rocket Attacks on Israel, 2012. If I have mis-stated the facts as presented, or if I have been duped by mis-information, please let me know. The website seems to be one of ours, not theirs. If you find my chronology to be disturbing, take heart: all the facts you really need are contained in the very first paragraph of this article. The rest is just minor details.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Water Crisis

My next article in the Jewish Post was an appeal to the Canadian Government to release Omar Khadr from jail. Khadr was the 15-year old Islamic boy who was visiting Afghanistan when the U. S. invaded following 9-11, and he ended up fighting for the other side. The Americans captured him and declared him a war criminal, and sentenced him to a huge prison term. I asked my readers what they would think if a Jewish-Canadian kid on Birthright Israel got caught up in a war and ended up being captured by Iranian forces. I called the article "Birthright Afghanistan" and I think it is one of the most important things I've ever written. I've already posted it on my blogsite here.

The next article I posted was about the water crisis in Israel. I think it's pretty interesting; here it is:

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Is there no solution to the water crisis?
Everyone who has ever been to Israel knows about the water situation. There just isn’t enough fresh water to support a population of ten million souls between the River and the Sea. We do great things with drip irrigation and recycling, but it’s just not enough. Is there no solution to the problem?
We hear of desalination, but everyone knows that is terribly expensive. If only Israel were blessed with Canada’s abundant resources! To be sure, our water is not free, but imagine what your water bill would look like if you had to pay the astronomical cost of desalinated water?
Do you know how much we pay here in Winnipeg for water? I do. Domestic water costs about $3.00 per cubic meter. Actually, the water costs only $1, but you can’t buy the water unless you pay the sewer charge on top, which is double. It comes to $3 per cubic meter.
Now I’m going to ask you to guess what it would cost if we had to extract our freshwater from the sea by the complicated process of reverse osmosis. Ten? or twenty dollars? boggles the imagination. How is the ordinary Israeli going to be able to afford to take a shower and cook his dinner?
You may be surprised to learn that the actual cost of desalinaed water is less that one dollar per cubic meter; and I have seen it quoted as low as fifty cents. It’s a fraction of the cost we pay for our water in Winnipeg. To be sure, even in Israel they would also need to pay for distribution and disposal, but all things being equal I still don’t see how it comes to more than $3.50 at the tap. What is the problem?
Two years ago the experts were wringing their hands because the Sea of Gallilee had been drawn down two meters below the “red line”. A billion dollars worth of desalinated water (at a unit cost of $1.00) would add six meters to the level of Israel’s most important reservoir. Yes, a billion dollars is a fair chunk of money, but it’s a fraction of the annual U.S. military aid to Israel. If Sheldon Adelson could give $50 million to the Newt Gingrich campaign, I think we could find the money if we really wanted to.
For twenty years we’ve resisted a peace deal with Syria as much for the water rights as for the strategic value of the heights. For a billion dollars a year we could create an artificial Sea of Galilee in the Negev Desert. But what are the chances of that happening. There’s plenty of money for the latest fighter planes, the Iron Domes….and if we look a little closer to home, money for Human Rights museums and football stadiums. Seven hundred billion to bail out the banks? It’s a crime the things we spend money on.

Friday, October 4, 2013

How Bad Was Life In Russia?

My article comparing Palestinian life under Israel to Jewish life under the Czars drew some flak from my readers in the Jewish Post, so in the next issue I followed it up with the following:

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How Bad Was Life in Russia?
Last month I wrote about Jewish life under the Tsars, comparing it to Palestinian life under the Jews. Naturally people were outraged by the comparison. I was told in so many words that I didn’t know what I was talking about: from one side, that I had no idea how well the Palestinians lived under Israeli rule; and from the other side, that I had no idea how bad life was for the Jews in Old Russia.
I think I know a little about Jewish life in Russia. No, I never lived there, and I don’t speak Russian. But I’ve read some of our history, and what makes me unusual is that I’ve read it in the original language…the language we wrote it in when we lived there. So I think I have something to contribute to the debate.
Recently I started a blogsite where I am posting transcriptions of the essays of one S. Hurwitz, who wrote under the pen-name of A. Litvin and published a six-volume collection entitled Yiddishe Neshumos (Jewish Souls). The work is a series of vignettes written between 1905 and 1914, and intended to capture for history what was even then considered to be a vanishing way of life. (The link goes to a story about a woman who was punished by communal leaders for consorting with a Gentile.)
Last week I posted the following excerpt from an essay about the Jews of Ruzshinoy, a shtetl whose English name I do not know. Listen to how Hurwitz describes the abject poverty of the Jewish underclass:
“In ergitz is, dacht sich, der elend vun die massen nischt geween asõ grõss, die kontrasten zwischen beide seiten “brückel” asõ scharf, wie in Ruzhinoi. Vun éin seit – gvirim  (the wealthy), wâs leben in oysher  un gedulah (riches and splendor), wâs séier gvirschaft, yikhus (proud lineage), toyrah gehen über vun dor zu dor ; vun der ander seit – a temper, derschlâggener, âber nischt gâr umwissendig humon (the masses), wâs führt a leben vun sklaven, ephshar (possibly) noch äerger vun der sklaverei un leib-eigentum , in welcher es hâben gelebt die arumige pauerim bei séiere poreytzim.”
For those who are not able divine the meaning of this passage (it’s really not so hard if you know a little German), I will explain: there is no shtetl in Russia where the contrast is so great between the status of the rich and poor…where “the rich” in this case are the rich Jews! The status of the poor Jews is so downcast as to be possibly…possibly, mind you!...even worse than the lot of the local Russian peasants!
I have always believed that no nation on earth has suffered oppression and discrimination to the extent that the Jews have. I still believe this to be true. But I also remember a time in my adulthood when I believed that during the 300 years when Negroes were slaves in America, that even then the Jews in Russia were worse off than the blacks on the plantations. I no longer believe that to be true.
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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

One that got away

I was telling you the other day that Bernie lets me say whatever I want in my bi-weekly column for the Jewish Post, but today in going through my list of submissions, I came across the one article he didn't run. Some local Muslim community activists had hosted an event where the Jewish Community was invited to participate, and I though our response was shamefully inadequate so I wrote the following article. In Bernie's defence, he had already sent Myron to cover the meeting as a news item, so he didn't exactly need an op-ed piece which actually contradicted the slant Myron had given his story. And I also mentioned a couple of well-known local left-wing Jewish activists by name, guys who had actually attended the event but who hardly represent the local Jewish establishment. Anyhow, the overall tone of the article ranges from bitter to sarcastic, and in the end Bernie still has to sell papers (not to mention advertising space!) so we can't blame him for passing on this one. But here it is...

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There’s no one to talk to.
For years, that’s what we kept saying:  there’s no one to talk to.  And for the most part, it was true. Who can forget the “Three No’s” of Khartoum (1969): no negotiation, no recognition, no peace.  We knew where we stood with the Arabs.
And suddenly  it changed. Who can forget the feeling of elation mixed with disbelief when Sadat came to Jerusalem? Was it possilbe that the Arabs were ready to make peace with us? Sadly, it was not to be. Sadat proved to be the exception that proved the rule, as he payed with his life for the sin of talking to the Jews.
Of course, there were other exception: King Hussein talked to us, but only in secret. He was a good Arab – one of the very few. If only there were more like him…
We’ve always had a few crackpots like Abie Nathan among us who thought we could talk to the Arabs, but fortunately they never had any influence. The Arabs were terrorists, and we don’t talk to terrorists except through the muzzle of a gun.
Then, in the early 90’s we started hearing rumors about a small group of…let us be kind and call them  “misguided idealists” who were meeting in secret with the terrorists in a place called Oslo. Yes, we were willing to talk to anyone, anywhere, anytime..but THIS was going too far.  Well, we all know where Oslo led.  It just proves that you can’t talk to the Arabs. But we knew that all along, didn’t we?
Ten years later, when the Saudis floated their “peace plan”, we knew better. “If they’re serious, let King Fahd come to Jerusalem, like Sadat did”. Of course, King Fahd did not come to Jerusalem, which proves that he wasn’t serious in the first place. Oh, they could posture all they wanted, getting all 21 states of the Arab League to sign on to their offer of full normalization, but we know better than to be fooled by such transparent ruses.
But the Arabs just won’t give up. Last month a local Islamic group attempted to promote a conference to foster ”Muslim-Jewish dialogue”, or something like that. Whatever they called it it was obviously just a code word for the destruction of Israel. I attended their “conference” last weekend at the Hilton and was pleased to report that the Jews of Winnipeg were not fooled into attending by the kosher buffet spread that was put out for lunch.  Or perhaps those Muslims think they were successful in engaging the Winnipeg Jewish Community because of the presence of a few Mark Etkins and Alon Weinbergs, but I think we all know the joke was on them.  I think we can safely tell the Muslims, next time they come knocking, that there is no one to talk to.
PS If anyone hasn't heard of the Saudi Peace Plan (and if you haven't that in itself speaks worlds about our attitude towards the Arabs) you should read the very imporant article by Akiva Eldar in Haaretz:

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

My Articles in the Jewish Post

These days the physics has taken a bit of a back seat in my life to my fight with the U of Winnipeg, which you can read about in my other blog. So in the meantime I thought I'd use the present forum for another one of my projects, which is the writing I've been doing for Winnipeg's Jewish Post. Bernie, the editor, has shown a lot of guts in letting me speak out with my radical opinions in what is essentially a community newspaper, and over the last year I've built up quite a catalog. A few of them have already appeared in this blog, but there are so many more. So with Bernie's permission, I'm republishing them here on my website.

The first one in this series is an article I wrote last year where I said the people have got it wrong when they compare Israel to South Africa or (god forbid) Nazi Germany. But oddly enough, I find there is a pretty good case for comparing us to Czarist Russia vis-a-vis the Palestinians as the Jews! When I was pitching this article to Bernie (who was understandably skeptical), something came up which I thought more or less clinched my was a story about a Jewish policeman in Israel who was pardoned after "accidentally" shooting an innocent Arab. I wrote Bernie the following lines to make my point:

Bernie, if you needed any more justification for running my article, you should check out this apalling story in Haaretz this morning:
Go through this story and just substitute "Russian Interior Minister Count Plehve" for Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and "Yankel-Yisroel Shmulevitch of Kamenetz-Litovks" for Mahmoud Ganaim of Baka al-Garbiyeh and see how it reads.

Whether or not that tipped the scales, the fact is Bernie went ahead and ran the article. Here it is for your edification:

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These days you read about things happening in Israel that would have been unthinkable in the idealistic days of the first few decades of the beleaguered state. Even then, with its back to the sea and deadly enemies surrounding it on all sides, Israel was widely vilified as a second South Africa; even more outrageously, it was often compared to the Nazis. Sadly, with the passage of time, some of the old slanders have begun to take on elements of truth as the rights of Arabs under Israeli rule have come under increasing attack. Not that Arab life is Israel is remotely comparable to the worst excesses of South African apartheid, let alone the grotesque comparisons with Nazi persecution. Ironically, however, the critics and defenders of Israel alike have missed the most obvious and glaring comparison : there is an excellent case to be made for equating Arab life under Jewish rule with Jewish life in Imperial Russia!

We Jews are supposed to place great importance in knowing our history, but our collective memories of life in Russia are oddly skewed. I happen to have some expertise in these things because I am one of the few people in my generation who is able to read the literature of our people in its original language, and I have done so extensively. So I know something about Jewish life in Russia. I also know that if you ask modern Jews to give a single word that most succintcly expresses the nature of that life, they will almost unanimously say "pogroms".

Unfortunately, it seems we Jews, like all other peoples, remember only what it suits us to remember. We choose to remember life in Russia as an unmitigated series of horrors not least because it helps to justify our Zionist mythology. (By the way, because I call it a "mythology" does not mean I don't personally buy into it. I am a proud Zionist, but I am not proud of everything Israel does!) In fact the pogroms were a horrible episode in our history, but they were far from a dominant feature of Jewish life in old Russia. The actual picture is much more rich and nuanced. It is true that there were many episodes of persecution and injustice, but it these were interspersed with periods of great freedom and opportunity. And as we review the history it is surprising how many parallels we will find with lot of the Arabs in Israel.

We can begin with how the Jews came to be Russian subjects. Medieval Poland was a place of refuge for Jews fleeing the persecution of the Crusaders, and once established we fluorished there. Poland was in those days a huge kingdom covering much of present-day Eastern Europe; over the centuries, it was gradually picked apart by the surrounding powers of Austria, Germany, and Russia, until with the final Partition of Poland in 1793 the Russian Tsar awoke one day to find himself the proud ruler of close to a million Jews. Thus the Jews became unwanted subjects of Russia much the same way as the Palestinians became unwanted subjects of the Jews: through military conquest.

These Jews were not the educated intellectuals of North America who typify the modern Jewish stereotype: they were mostly, at least by modern standards, primitive black-frocked and bearded religious fanatics. The Tsars mistrusted the Jews for their alien beliefs and their close ties to their co-religionists living in hostile states across the border. Sound familiar? Keep reading. Over the course of the nineteenth century the pendulum swung from one extreme to another, the government sometimes trying to integrate the Jews into the modern economy as productive citizens, and sometimes trying to contain them by harsh discrimination. A great concern was the Jewish birthrate, with early marriages and up to a dozen children being the norm.

There is much nonsense written about the actual facts of daily life. People say that Jews weren't allowed to own land. They certainly were: however, there were restrictions on where they were allowed to buy land. Sound familiar? And there were certainly cases where the Jews were cheated out of their lawful property rights by the government. But at the same time we were entitled to go to court and contest such expropriations, and occasionaly we would win these cases. Mendel Bailiss was famously acquitted by a Russian judge and jury in the infamous blood-libel trial of 1912. But on the whole there is little doubt the courts were stacked against us. Sound familiar?

One of our greatest grievances against the Tsar was the "Pale of Settlement". Jews were forbidden to take up residence outside the areas which basically constituted the original Polish kingdom: in other words, they weren't allowed to leave the Occupied Territories to live inside the Green Line where there were greater economic opportunities. Oops, it wasn't called the Green Line...that's what we have in Israel.
Now let's remember a thing or two about the pogroms themselves. There were three significant waves of pogroms. The first was in the 1880's in the aftermath of the assasination of Tsar Alexander. Although the news of these outrages terrified the Jewish community throughout Russia, the total number of fatalities in this period was in fact less less than one hundred. A more serious outbreak began with the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, and over the next few years perhaps a thousand Jews died in the unrest.

There is a lot of nonsense about Cossacks and Russian police officers leading these outrages. In fact, while high officials in the Government undoubtedly knew and approved of what was going on, the fact remains that Russia was a country of law and justice and it was unthinkable for the police to allow these things to go on with their knowledge, let alone to participate in them.

The catch was: if they didn't know, they couldn't very well do anything about it! It's called plausible deniabilty and it's the oldest trick in the book. As long as they could pretend they didn't know, they would let it go on; but after a day or two they would invariably show up and restore order. A few ringleaders might be slapped on the wrist, but that would be the extent of it.

How similar is this to the pogrom which we allowed the Christian Phalangists to carry out under our noses in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in 1982? It is true that Ariel Sharon was eventually found accountable and demoted from his cabinet post, but that didn't stop him from later becoming Prime Minister. How do you think our Arab citizens should have felt about that?

There were some fifty deaths in the Kishinev pogrom, and the world was shocked. It was a time when people believed that freedom and human dignity were marching forward, and the backwardness of Russia was a huge embarrassment both inside and outside the Empire. The plight of the Jews attracted worldwide attention, and an upsurge in the Zionist movement was one of the immediate consequences.

This is not quite the end of the story. In 1914 war broke out and within four years the old order of kings and emperors simply ceased to exist. It was replaced by a new harsh world of nationalisms and ideologies. Civil war raged in Russia and in the Ukraine, a nationalist government took over that virtually declared war on the Jews. A hundred thousand died in the pogroms of 1919-20, and the world scarcely took the time to yawn. Even the Jews hardly remember these martyrs, as their suffering was eclipsed by the much greater disaster of the Holocaust twenty years later. But we ought to at the very least not blame those pogroms on the Tsar, who had already been killed by his Bolshevik captors.

History is a funny thing. We choose to remember whatever suits our purpose, and it suits our purpose to demonize the Tsar and everything he stood for. Yet when the Palestinians do the same to us (and they do), we feel aggrieved. "Why don't they appreciate that living under the Jews, they are far better off than their bretheren living under brutal dictatorships elsewhere in the Middle East?" We ought to remember that their attitude toward us is simply human nature, and it is not so different from our attitude towards the Russian Empire. Perhaps we have more in common than we like to admit.