Hero Shtetls: Jewish Armed Self-Defense From the Pale to Palestine, 1917-1970
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CitationKalman, Mihaly. 2017. Hero Shtetls: Jewish Armed Self-Defense From the Pale to Palestine, 1917-1970. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractRelying on a research in more than two dozen archives in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Israel, and the United States, my dissertation traces the history of Jewish paramilitarism from the waning days of the Russian Empire to early Mandatory Palestine.
By examining a heretofore neglected aspect of Jewish reactions to violence, my dissertation aims to contribute to the historiography of the pogroms, and of Jewish power, militarism, and violence. Situating self-defense vis-à-vis early Soviet Jewish policies and longue durée developments in Russian Jewish politics, I argue that Jewish self-defense developed in unison with the political violence of the period in question, and served as a tool for carving out an autonomous Jewish space during the Civil War. Finally, I detect how self-defense activists transplanted their experiences to Palestine.
In the wake of the February 1917 revolution the Russian Army began to disintegrate along ethnic lines. Zionist and other Jewish soldiers formed military organizations, culminating in the establishment of Union of Jewish Soldiers (UJS) in the fall, which strove to safeguard the national and civic rights of Jewish soldiers. In Ukraine, the nationalization of the army and the increasingly hostile authorities led to the dispersal of the UJS in January 1918, but its activists played a role in establishing self-defense across Ukraine. The UJS in Russia remained in existence for over a year, cooperating with Soviet Jewish authorities in providing aid to Jewish2soldiers, and setting up self-defense units. However, the internationalist ethos of the Soviet state, coupled with the encroachment of Soviet Jewish authorities on Jewish institutions rendered its existence untenable.
The deadliest pogroms erupted in 1919, claiming tens of thousands of victims, propelling Jews throughout Ukraine and Belarus to take to arms, with the first large and longevous unit established in Odessa. By early 1921, a network of a nearly 15,000-strong Jewish armed force uniting 50 localities operated in Central Ukraine, the area hit hardest by pogroms. Jewish units drafted local Jews, levied taxes on inhabitants, guarded settlements, and operated against insurgent bands, essentially fulfilling quasi-state functions. Soviet military and civilian authorities, struggling to reestablish state power in the rebellious countryside, cooperated with, relied on, and legalized Jewish paramilitaries, as Jews were seen as more trustworthy than non-Jewish locals on account of sharing enemies with the Soviet state. While Jewish units were trained, armed, and coopted by Soviet authorities throughout 1920-1923, they also evoked the ire of Soviet Jewish, and of some state and party authorities, anxious to gain influence among the local (Jewish) populace, and accusing self-defense groups of Zionist leanings. I untangle the complex web of negotiations conducted on the local and national level about the legalization and maintenance of Jewish self-defense units, particularly with an eye to how local Jewish communities and self-defense groups straddled the divide between their own existential fears and the professed values and institutional interests of Soviet military and civilian authorities.
The last chapter examines the migration of activists, ideas, and memories of self-defense to Mandatory Palestine. In particular, it focuses on the “Odessa Group,” a loose network of former Odessa self-defense members active in the Haganah and the Irgun. I detect concepts about paramilitarism originating in Civil War Russia and unearth examples when recollections of former self-defense members were publicized in pre-state Palestine, posing a direct challenge to the Zionist concept of a defenseless Diaspora Jewry.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:41140230
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