|Man with a Hoe Jean Francois Millet|
Ukraine, a peaceful, largely agricultural nation, has been invaded by a power-mad monster. War crimes are rampant. Elderly Holocaust survivors have been murdered by Russians. The streets of Bucha were lined with the bodies of dead Ukrainians. Their hands were tied behind their backs and bullets penetrated their skulls. Russian soldiers are raping Ukrainian women. In one case, a husband was shot in the stomach and took days to die. His wife was raped after he was shot. In other cases, women are raped in front of their children.
Ukraine is smaller than Russia. Ukraine is poorer. Ukraine has fewer weapons. Russia is threatening the West with nuclear war. Putin has threatened NATO countries, including Poland. Ukraine is a major producer of grain and cooking oil. Food prices are rising around the world and famine in Africa may be one side effect of this war.
Is this really the time to stereotype Ukraine as a "slaughterhouse" full of primitive, violent, anti-Semitic pogromists? No. And shame on Tablet magazine for doing so.
On April 28, 2022, Tablet magazine published "Nostalgia for the Slaughterhouse: A New Documentary about the Making of Fiddler on the Roof Evokes Wonder at Our Idealization of a Past that Wasn't Very Nice."
The article's author is Phyllis Chesler, a groundbreaking feminist and critic of Islam's gender apartheid. I admire Phyllis Chesler and I am grateful for her work. This article was a mistake.
I wish Chesler would read my book Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype. Before I discuss Chesler's article, let me quote from my book Bieganski. First, I will give a sketch of the Bieganski stereotype. Though this sketch refers to Poles, it applies to all Eastern European, Christian, peasants and peasant-descent populations. Poles can be brutes, and so can Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Slovaks, etc.
In the stereotype in question, Poles are brutes. They possess the qualities of animals. They are physically strong, stupid, violent, fecund, anarchic, dirty, and especially hateful in a way that more evolved human beings are not. They are thuggishly, primitively nationalistic. The special hatefulness of Bieganski is epitomized by his Polish anti-Semitism. This stereotype relies on images of Eastern Europeans that have existed for centuries (Wolff), and has been produced, significantly, by Poles themselves, Jews, Germans, and Americans. Regardless of the actual status of the stereotyper, the stereotype reflects the perspective of someone relatively empowered, literate, urban, mobile, and mercantile observing relatively disempowered, oral, rural, poor, Eastern European Christian peasants. This stereotype relies for its power on a modern person's disgust and contempt for actual or imaginary qualities associated with peasantry: dirt, primitive dwellings, contact with animal dung, odiferousness, rootedness, powerlessness, sexual savagery, coarse social manners, and a lack of formal education or contact with the wider world and a concomitant lack of sophistication.
Second, it is important to note that protesting against stereotypes is not a protest against mentioning difficult history, or any attempt to erase that history or make excuses for it.
Yes, Poles have done very bad things. The focus of this document is Bieganski – the understanding of evil acts by Poles in terms of a stereotype, a stereotype that insists that Polish crimes are expressions of a debased Polish racial or cultural essence. This work's acknowledgement that there is a stereotype of Poles is not part of any effort to deny Polish culpability. At the same time that this work suggests that the reader "walk a mile in the Poles' shoes," and consider, for example, the devastating impact of one circumstance – the Nazi and Soviet invasions – this work also insists that Poles must work to extirpate another circumstance – pathological anti-Semitism that has become imbedded in Polish culture, in, for example, the blood libel.
Please remember these two points:
1.) There is a destructive and false stereotype of Eastern European, Christian peasants as essentially violent brutes.
2.) Calling out and condemning this stereotype is not the same as insisting that actual violent behavior be hidden, unpunished, or justified.
To Phyllis Chesler's article in Tablet.
Chesler condemns Jewish nostalgia for shtetls. She depicts Eastern Europe as a violent, oppressive place where Christian peasants torture and murder Jews. She calls Ukraine a "Slaughterhouse." She dismisses Ukraine as a "muddy" "freezing" place of "year-round poverty."
In reference to "Fiddler on the Roof," Chesler approvingly quotes Ruth Wisse, who views a Jewish character (Chava) marrying a Christian Ukrainian character (Fyedka) as an attack on "the integrity of the Jewish people."
To Wisse, a Jew marrying a Ukrainian is tantamount to participation in genocide. Even depicting, in a film, a Jewish character, Tevye, allowing his daughter to marry a Christian Ukrainian, is to rob Tevye of "dignity." "Some drive the Jews out of Russia, others drive Jewishness out of the Jews … (this) includes the authors of Fiddler, who demolish the dignity of their hero (Tevye, who allows his daughter Chava to marry a Christian Ukrainian.)"
I often resort to analogies when trying to communicate why the Bieganski stereotype is so problematic. I resort to analogies because Bieganski is so thoroughly ingrained in so many minds. Those invested in the Bieganski stereotype don't think it is a stereotype at all. These people really believe that I, because my mother was Slovak and my father was Polish and I am Catholic, am ready to explode into pogrom behavior at any given moment; such behavior, they are convinced, is in my genes, just latent, just waiting to burst out.
I will resort to an analogy here.
What if an author, in 2022, in a mainstream Christian publication, protested against a Christian character marrying a Jewish character, and said that such a marriage was an attack on "the integrity of the Christian people"? What if that author, further, said it robbed a character of "dignity" to depict his Christian daughter marrying a Jewish man? Would not such a quote raise hackles, and rightfully so?
Further, what if that Christian author said those inflammatory things at a time when Israel was, as Ukraine is now, fighting a lopsided battle for its very existence against a nuclear power threatening the world with wider war?
I personally would not want to read an author who said any such thing. Such a statement would frighten and offend me and raise many alarms.
Chesler goes on to castigate Tevye, and Anne Frank, for becoming "universal" protagonists.
This charge boggles my mind.
I would *love* it if a Polish character entered world consciousness the way that Tevye and Anne Frank have. It would touch me greatly if as many people around the world cried tears over Czeslawa Kwoka, a 14-year-old Polish Catholic girl who was beaten and murdered in Auschwitz, as have cried over Anne Frank. I wish as many people around the world had read of Good Soldier Svejk, a comical Czech everyman struggling to survive under oppressive foreign power, as have read of Tevye. Literature must be "universal" to be literature. The protest that non-Jews have taken Tevye and Anne Frank to heart is both misguided and telling.
According to Wikipedia, Phyllis Chesler grew up in Brooklyn.
My mother was not born in New York City. My mother was born in a small village in Slovakia. "Fiddler on the Roof" is not just about Jewishness, a Jewishness that a woman born in Brooklyn would share. "Fiddler on the Roof" is about small villages in Eastern Europe, villages that New-York-City girl Chesler can sneer at as "muddy" and "freezing." In fact my mothers' village was beautiful and cultured. Slovaks share musical roots, and much folklore, with Ukraine, including Ukraine's Jews. My mother listened to the "Fiddler on the Roof" soundtrack so many times that I, as a child, memorized every word to every song, which I can sing right now, if you ask me.
And this cultural sharing, of Jew with non-Jew, is something Chesler must protest. How dare Tevye be made universal? How dare non-Jews sing with, feel with, laugh with, cry with, Tevye?
How dare they, Phyllis Chelser? This is how they dare. I don't know who your neighbors were in Brooklyn but my mother's neighbors in Slovakia were Jews, and a Jewish boy saved her life when she was drowning in the River Nitra. Scholar Anna Maria Orla Bukowski documents the shared lives of Jews and non-Jews in Poland. You aren't "pure." You are part of us and we are part of you.
Then Chesler moves on to depicting Ukraine as the "slaughterhouse" of the title of her article.
"Jews were robbed in their homes and on railway stations … and Jewish men were tortured and subsequently killed … there were 'over a thousand pogroms in about five hundred localities.' Astashkevich considers this a 'genocide' and the frequent, systematic use of rape as a weapon may be considered 'genocidal rape.' … entire communities were erased, some women attempted suicide … Such 'violent riots' were scripted and 'aimed to ensure social death along with the physical extermination … many shtetls were destroyed never to be rebuilt … 'The carnival of violence, complete with scenes of torture, rape, and murder, played out on the second day of the pogrom as ‘celebratory street theater.’ … acts of torture took place in front of an audience of pogrom perpetrators, the local population, and frightened Jews.'"
And that's it. That is Chesler's picture of Ukraine. There are no decent Ukrainians in her article. There are no peaceful interactions between Jews and non-Jews. There is no balance. No call for balance. Not even a fig leaf like "Not all Ukrainians do this all the time."
Chesler goes on to compare Jews in Eastern Europe to Africans in chains on board a slave ship, and to African Americans being raped and lynched on a plantation, and to slave children being sold away from their mothers. Ukrainian cruelty, she says, must be "magnified … highlighted and condemned, not softened and overlooked."
Comparing Eastern European Jews to African American slaves, and Eastern European Christian peasants to slave owners in the American South is a frequent trope in the Bieganski stereotype.
Paul Berman managed to publish not once but at least thrice, once in an introduction for a book that would go on to serve as a text in college courses, the claim that life for Jews in "darkest Poland" was comparable to life for blacks in pre-civil rights era Mississippi. The phrase "darkest Poland," is, of course, a highly suggestive echo of the book title, In Darkest Africa, by Sir Henry Morton Stanley. In choosing "darkest Poland," Berman economically communicated his attitude toward Poland, and the assumption that his audience will not object to his racism.
Bieganski goes on to discuss in detail why the "Jews = black slaves; Eastern European Christian peasants = Southern slave owners" analogy is egregiously inaccurate.
When the link to Chesler's article came through my Facebook feed, I posted the following in response:
Under Nazi occupation, an estimated 100,000 Poles were massacred by Ukrainians.
Poles were raped, crucified, sawed in half, etc.
Ukrainian Orthodox priests blessed the weapons used to kill Poles.
Poles were driven out of areas their families had lived in for hundreds of years, never to return.
Towns with Polish names and Polish culture became towns with Ukrainian names and Ukrainian culture.
This was a mini genocide of Polish life in the region.
I personally know someone whose mother, aunt, and cousin were victims of this genocide. I know others who had family in the region, family that lost their homes, never to return.
And yet, in 2022, Poland is second to none in the generosity Poles have shown Ukraine.
I think for a couple of reasons.
One, we recognize that history is complicated. I could say more but I don't want to debate and I don't want anyone to think that I'm arguing that the massacres of Poles by Ukrainians were justified. They weren't justified. But yes history is complicated. These massacres did not arise in a vacuum.
We realize that massacring Poles is not something Ukrainians do as part of any essential Ukrainian nature. These massacres were specific to a time and place and a specific set of conditions.
And we recognize that Ukrainians today were born after these massacres took place, for the most part.
At this moment, when Ukraine is under attack by Russia, a much larger and more powerful country, anyone talking about atrocities committed by Ukrainians in the past needs to make the above points clear. I wish this article had done that, rather than leaving the reader with the impression that there is something inherently hateful and violent about Ukrainians. In fact, there is not. And Putin is not our friend.
After I posted this, it was suggested that I wanted to "hide" the past. This accusation was astounding. In fact there is nothing in the above post about "hiding" anything.
If you want to tell about the difficult passages in the past, tell the whole story.
I mentioned, for example, the situation with alcohol in Galicia, "poor Galicia," an area of legendary poverty. Norman Davies writes that Galicia was "the poorest province in Europe." In that extreme poverty, for a time, Jews were associated with the sale of alcohol. Poor people came to associate Jews with a major social problem.
Another difficult aspect of our shared histories, Polish, Ukrainian, and Jewish. After World War II, Jews were notable among those defaming, torturing, murdering, and burying in unmarked graves the very Polish heroes who fought against the Nazis. Witold Pilecki and General Nil are among those so victimized. Their victimizers included Jews like Jakub Berman and Helena Wolińska-Brus. From Wikipedia: "While Berman was one of the officials responsible for party oversight of the security apparatus, at least 200,000 people were imprisoned and some 6,000 executed on political charges. Hundreds of former members of the Polish resistance movement in World War II were persecuted, especially from the Home Army and the National Armed Forces." "Wolińska-Brus was accused of being an "accessory to a judicial murder", which is classified as a Stalinist crime and a crime of genocide and it is punishable by up to ten years in prison."
Lazar Kaganovich "played a central role during the Great Purge, personally signing over 180 lists that sent tens of thousands to their deaths. For his ruthlessness, he received the nickname 'Iron Lazar.' He also played a role in organizing, planning and supervising the collectivization policies that are said to have led to the catastrophic Soviet famine of 1932–33 (the Holodomor in Ukraine in particular)."
When I mention this difficult history, I will do what Chesler and Tablet did not do. I will emphasize that bad Jewish people are not representational of Jewish people or Judaism. Jews who did bad things were behaving as they did in response to historically and geographically limited circumstances, not in response to any racial essence. The same is true of Christians who have done bad things.
The Jewish monopoly on sale of alcohol was not a strictly Jewish affair. As the above-linked article shows, Polish nobility mistreated the peasants, and alcohol was a tool in that mistreatment. Note: Polish and Ukrainian peasants, in addition to carrying out pogroms, also committed mass murder of Polish nobility. See? Difficult history is also complicated history.
Does any of the difficult history mentioned above justify pogroms?
Justify the mass murder of Poles?
Justify stereotyping Ukraine as a "shithole country" – to use a Trumpian phrase – when Ukraine is fighting for its life?
No, but if you are going to tell the story, tell the whole story.
At specific times, in specific historical circumstances, Ukrainians did commit massacres of Jews, and Poles as well. That is a fact. If you are going to bring up that fact during a war, then please bring up the entire history, and make clear that Ukrainians today are not responsible for crimes committed by their ancestors under different circumstances at a different time. Tablet and Phyllis Chesler consciously chose not to do that, and their choice was morally and intellectually wrong.
It's always difficult to conclude a blog post like this one. One seeks balance. Because some insist on mishearing what is said, and clinging to selective histories, that balance can never be achieved, no matter how careful one is.
I want to close with this. Many Jews do not take the approach that Tablet and Phyllis Chesler took in this article.
The Jerusalem Post recently posted images of an Israeli field hospital in Ukraine. You can see those photos here. Jews are risking their lives to save Ukrainian lives. One of those Jews is Volodymyr Zelensky, who is proudly Ukrainian and proudly Jewish. Volodymyr Zelensky is also a "universal" – to borrow a word – hero.