Adventures in Identity Politics; Or, Return of the Cossacks

Cossacks attack members of Pussy Riot in Sochi, Russia, during the 2014 Winter Olympics (from video for “Putin Will Teach You How to Love the Motherland” by Pussy Riot)

Once upon a time, Jews in Europe were targeted in a policy of ethnic cleansing, igniting a reaction of popular Jewish support for a national-messianic movement. This happened in 17th century Ukraine as a pogrom, in the form of an uprising initially led by Cossack chieftain Bognan Chmielnicki, followed by a messianic mass migration to Ottoman Jerusalem by the followers of Shabbetai Zvi.

“History does not repeat itself but it often rhymes,” as Mark Twain may or may not have said. But history is rhyming again. This is not to say that fate dooms us to repeat history verbatim as much as it reveals patterns of behavior and policy priorities on the part of both despotic leaderships and in the responses of affected communities and with a myriad of unforeseen consequences.

Today, of course, a Jewish state of Israel is more or less a functional member of the family of nations. Meanwhile, in eastern Europe, Cossacks are registered by the Russian Kremlin and deployed in service to domestic policy, including security matters. With or without specific discipline, Cossacks have attacked Russian demonstrators protesting Vladimir Putin’s recent reelection and the members and production crew of punk rock artists Pussy Riot as they recorded an action at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi for a Russian language song and music video, “Putin Will Teach You How to Love the Motherland,” complete with beatings from the Cossacks’ lead-tipped whips.

Social identities are human constructs and human civilization has been tremendously successful at creating delineations between peoples, both in efforts to control communities and to acquire or defend geopolitical resources. Cultures result from establishing systems of language, literature, art, ethics and law. In and of itself, culture is natural and neutral. Its toxicity or harmony depend largely on cultural integrity; or the potential integration with alien cultures as human beings inevitably exercise their physical mobility. The history of human civilization is a broader story of clash and commerce between tribal, national, religious and racial constructs amid competing interests, whether real or imagined.

To put it mildly, Jews have historically struggled with identity issues along the course of human civilization. “Who is a Jew?” is more than a simple question, it is a policy debate in the Israeli parliament and within the United States government. Is Jewish identity religious? It is ethnic? Is it national? Who decides?

Immigration to and citizenship in the Jewish State is codified by the Israeli Right of Return. “The rights of a Jew under this Law and the rights of an oleh [Hebrew: immigrant] under the Nationality Law, as well as the rights of an oleh under any other enactment, are also vested in a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion.” Further, the law defining who is a Jew respects rabbinic tradition. “For the purposes of this Law, ‘Jew’ means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.”

Israel is not a theocracy. The state is not governed according to rabbinic law (or halacha) but rather by civil law, as legislated by a parliament (or Knesset) and interpreted by an independent judiciary. Therefore, it is arguable that Zionism was never entirely a religious movement. In fact, Israeli legal citizenship requirements remain (so far) much more liberal than traditional rabbinic law regarding definitions of Jewish identity. According to Constitution for Israel, a joint project of the Knesset and the Jewish Agency for Israel and operated in North America by the Israeli American Jewish Forum, “the definition is based on Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws: the right of Return is granted to any individual with one Jewish grandparent, or who is married to someone with one Jewish grandparent.” Meanwhile, “the Israeli Rabbinate, a purely Orthodox body, is far more stringent about its definition of who is a Jew, leaving thousands of ‘Jewish’ immigrants ineligible for marriage and unrecognized by the state authorities.”

But Jews are certainly not alone in this state of socio-political ambiguity.

In 1648, Jews inhabited much of eastern Europe, governed by the Council of Four Lands. This limited autonomy existed at the pleasure of nations that themselves were constructed from disputed borders. Contemporaneous to this status, an uprising took place led by Cossack chieftain Bogdon Chmielnicki, zealously targeting Jewish representatives of the Polish nobility to Ukrainians under Polish rule and resulting in the brutal destruction of hundreds of Jewish communities with historical estimates as high as 100,000 deaths.

Chmielnicki’s experience was accumulated by a series of sputtering rebellions that led him to seek an alliance with the Tatars of Crimea to wage war against the Poles until his death — following which his Cossacks swore an oath of allegiance to the Muscovite Czar in 1654.

The ongoing slaughter by the Cossacks and their Tatar and Russian allies devastated the Jewish communities under the Council of Four Lands, which designated a fast on the Hebrew calendar date 20 Sivan in memory of the first significant massacre in 1648 in the city of Nemirov. Surviving women whose husbands went missing and presumed dead were freed from their marriage bonds by rabbinic rulings, establishing legal precedents in women’s marriage laws still recognized today.

News of the pogroms reached Turkey where Shabbetai Zvi, a young scholar of Jewish mystical traditions in Smyrna, envisioned himself taking revenge against the Cossacks and had dreams in which he led the Jewish people to the land of Israel to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. By the 60s of the 17th Century, either on his own or driven by force from Smyrna, Shabbetai Zvi traveled from Turkey to Salonika, studying at a Kabbalistic center there, then to Jerusalem where he met Nathan of Gaza, a self-proclaimed prophet, who insisted that Shabbetai was the messiah and promoted the redemption to the Jewish world across Europe and around the Mediterranean rim.

Shabbetai Zevi traveled with a community of followers to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1666 to talk the Sultan into giving Jerusalem to the Jews. For whatever reason, he was sent to prison instead, where his followers followed and Shabbetai continued to lead them, at one point even declaring the fast of Tisha b’Av a celebratory festival. Shabbetai was then taken to Adrianople and given a choice between conversion to Islam or death. Shabbetai agreed to convert and either took or was given the name Aziz Mehmed Effendi. The former Shabbetai and Nathan of Gaza continued Shabbetai’s messianic claim to his death in 1676 and Shabbatean groups continued to simmer on the fringes, inspiring the likes of Jacob Frank, who drifted around the Balkans in the middle of the 18th Century proclaiming himself the messianic reincarnation of Shabbetai Tzvi.

As Enlightenment revolution shook the world in the 18th Century, identity and authority were profoundly affected. “The declaration of the Rights of Man at the end of the eighteenth century was a turning point in history,” wrote Hannah Arendt in her sprawling post-war work, The Origins of Totalitarianism. “It meant nothing more nor less than that from then on Man, and not God’s command or the customs of history, should be the source of Law. Independent of the privileges which history had bestowed upon certain strata of society or certain nations, the declaration indicated man’s emancipation from all tutelage and announced that he had now come of age.”

A great deal of Arendt’s work revolves around the political fates of stateless peoples, whom without a national identity remained outside of the institutions that would otherwise ensure and protect their ostensibly inalienable human rights. “Not only did loss of national rights in all instances entail the loss of human rights; the restoration of human rights, as the recent example of the State of Israel proves, has been achieved so far only though the restoration or the establishment of national rights. The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships — except that they were still human. The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.”

More recently, the international news business has found its way back to the Cossacks who remain in Ukraine and parts of Russia. But while Cossack identity remains integral to some, political calculations arose to register, utilize and place their identity into precarious circumstances.

“Such concepts are the product of the Kremlin’s political technology — by shaping the military organisation of society and its confrontational attitude, it is not so much describing a reality as creating one,” writes Jolanta Darczewska in “Putin’s Cossacks: Folklore, Business or Politics,” for the Centre for Eastern Studies; Point of View, no. 68, Dec 2017. “Their basic distinguishing features are their control by the Kremlin and the exchange of mutual benefits (they serve the Kremlin in exchange for concessions and contracts). This is the result of the Kremlin’s long-term policy, which has led to the conversion of a spontaneous social movement into a movement controlled from the top down.”

The creative potential of civil constructs appears to be limited only by the imagination and the power of its leaders to strengthen the centralization of authority. “Sochi is blocked, Olympus is under surveillance,” sings Pussy Riot in their song, “Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland.”

“Conditions to change the relationship between the state and the Cossacks became more favourable thanks to the centralization of power, together with a change of emphasis in the direction of Russian imperial tradition,” continues Darczewska. “The idea of a state register of Cossacks took concrete shape in a law on the state service of Russian Cossackdom, which Vladimir Putin signed in 2005. This law also received a solid ideological foundation: the ethnological aspect of the Cossack community was pushed into the background, and its mission of state-building was emphasised. The Cossack associations were brought out of deep-freeze, reinforced with people from outside, and pro-Kremlin activists were placed at their head…. Critics treat them as ‘crossdressers’ who support Putin. Terms such as ‘a new type of Cossack’ or ‘the neo-Cossacks’ are increasingly being used to describe this group.”

In terms of ethnic and national identity, it appears increasingly that the state giveth and the state taketh away. And a glance back at Arendt over history’s proverbial shoulder might bring a chill: “For it is quite conceivable, and even within the realm of practical political possibilities, that one fine day a highly organized and mechanized humanity will conclude quite democratically — namely by majority decision — that for humanity as a whole it would be better to liquidate certain parts thereof.”

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