An Extraordinary Introduction to the Birth of Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict (with Haviv Rettig Gur) – Econlib


Intro. [Recording date: November 16, 2023.]

Russ Roberts: Today is November 16th, 2023, and my guest is journalist Haviv Rettig Gur. His last name is Gur, G-U-R. Haviv is a senior analyst for the English language newspaper at The Times of Israel. Haviv, welcome to EconTalk.

Haviv Rettig Gur: Hi, thanks for having me. It’s good to be here.


Russ Roberts: We have two topics for today. The first, we’re going to take an historical look at European Jew-hatred, antisemitism, and the second is the current situation here in Israel as the war in Gaza enters its sixth week. And we’ll see some of the ties between those two events.

Now, the first part of the conversation is based on a column we’ll link to, you did back in April of this year, long before the war. And, it stuck with me. I thought about asking you to do an interview on it even before the war. That piece was called “The forgotten horrors that hide in the Holocaust’s long, dark shadow.”

And you begin by saying the Holocaust is thought of as this terrible, unique catastrophe for the Jews. And of course, that’s true in some sense. But the genocidal uniqueness is a bit misleading. You write, quote:

… the 20th century was already among the bloodiest periods in Jewish history before the start of the genocide, that includes the flight of millions of Jews out of Europe and the way those who remained were delivered into the Nazi embrace by Western immigration quotas. It is a version of the story that begins not in 1939 or 1941, but in 1880.

Explain: Why do we need to go back to 1880?

Haviv Rettig Gur: It’s a good question. There is a European Jewish experience of the 20th century; we’ll call it the long 20th century from roughly 1881.

In 1881, a anarchist group, activist group assassinates the Czar of Russia. They had tried multiple times; they finally succeed. This is Czar Alexander I, a profoundly reformist czar, a czar who had in the 1860s abolished serfdom and a czar who apparently on the morning of his assassination–he was assassinated in the afternoon–on the morning of, he gave the order to draw up some kind of a constitutional document ahead of the establishment of a serious parliament for the Russian Empire. He was a reformist who looked at Western Europe and said, ‘I want Russia to be brought into the modern age.’ But, for these anarchists that wasn’t enough. They viewed these reforms as a way to preserve–with, I think, some justification, a way to preserve the prevailing social classes rather than abolish them and bring equality. And, they killed him. They managed to kill him. It was a clumsy thing, but it was ultimately successful.

Czar Alexander I was replaced by his son, Alexander II. Now, his son was a very different kind of man, a very conservative one, educated on Russian Orthodox religious teachings, uninterested in the reforms–in fact, blamed the reformist impulses of his father for his father’s ultimate death–and began a massive crackdown on everything that he came to view as enemies of the Russian Empire, reversed most of his father’s reforms. He didn’t reinstitute serfdom, but he did reverse many of his father’s reforms.

Part of that was passing, a year later into his reign, of the May Laws. The May Laws were antisemitic laws passed by the czarist regime. It’s a very short–I think on Wikipedia, people can find the 10 sentences or so that make up the May Laws–but essentially it further limited the already very strict limitations on where Jews can live and what employment they could pursue, and education, and essentially narrowed Jewish life.

But, another thing happened in the wake of the assassination of the Czar, and it was something that the Russian Empire didn’t expect and didn’t want. And it had a lot to do with industrialization, and it had a lot to do, especially with railroads and electrification of the empire. And, it mostly occurred in southern Russia–the Southern Russian Empire–and basically what is today Ukraine, cities like Odessa, and that was the beginning of mass popular pogroms. Started bottom-up where Jews and non-Jews lived together; and pogromists would march down the streets of cities in what would today be, I guess, Western Ukraine and attack Jewish homes, catch Jews in the streets, sometimes kill, often beat–really in 1881. And very, very quickly pogroms spread from one city to the next. And, there are these fascinating sociological studies of these early pogroms that they really did follow the rail network, and they were often spread by rail workers. [More to come, 5:46]

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