“I can talk about terrorism from today until doomsday,” Geifman says with a laugh, catching her breath and then adding, more seriously, “or until they stop.”
In Jerusalem, discussions of Palestinian terrorism do seem as if they’ll go on until doomsday, and the academics doing the talking are a dime a dozen. What makes Geifman different is that her expertise lies in another field, even in another era: revolutionary Russia. It’s a subject she teaches her students at Boston University and one that, she says, is strikingly similar to modern times.
“Everything you see today – every single aspect of terrorism – you can see it in the Russia of a century ago,” she says.
Before our lives were changed by the likes of Hamas and Hizbullah, Geifman notes, Russian society was devastated by rampant violence, from the turmoil leading up to the peasant revolt of 1905, through the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the establishment of the Soviet Union. Political violence in Russia – what we call terrorism today – developed primarily in Moscow and was perpetrated by “combat organizations” whose first targets were government officials.
“This was old-time, traditional terrorism – targeting people very carefully, assassinating people who were senior members of the government, people who affected policy,” Geifman says. “But then, they basically killed whoever they could attack, and very often there was no connection. Anyone who wore a uniform became a target – being a mailman was a very dangerous occupation, for example.”
Think attacks on police recruitment centers in Iraq are unique? Think again, says Geifman, noting that a quarter of the police in Riga were gunned down.
Think al-Qaida’s informal, decentralized network of cells and spinoffs is an innovation? Not so, she continues, saying that Moscow’s combat organizations spawned acolyte groups in outlying areas that often operated independently from the headquarters that, sometimes, were totally unaware of their existence.
As the bloodshed increased, Geifman says, “the violence descended into indiscriminate killing. They were no longer attacking people in uniform, but anyone who ‘looked bourgeois.’ If you had glasses, or a watch, or an umbrella, then obviously you were too rich to be a proletarian. That is where the descent into sheer terror begins.”
At some points in the early part of the 20th century, Geifman says, as many as 18 terrorist acts were carried out in Russia every day. That rivals the murderous activity here in 2002, for example, or more recently in Iraq. Likewise, the terrorism was similar.
“They would blow up train stations, they would blow up cafés,” Geifman says. “One such bombing was justified with the remark, ‘We just wanted to see how the bourgeois squirm in death.'”
Not only were the targets of the attacks indiscriminate, but so were the attackers. Every other person, it seemed, was declaring himself a “revolutionary terrorist” and joining one of myriad groups, with fanciful names like “The League of the Red Fuse,” in a hodgepodge of violent orders that blurred together.
Like the mind-numbing proliferation of Palestinian terrorist groups (that was so brilliantly lampooned by Monty Python) and the endless permutations of jihadi militias, Russian revolutionary terrorists’ claims of ideological affiliation and aims became so convoluted that they often even confused themselves. Terrorists testifying at their trials, Geifman notes, were often unable to explain what they believed – or, sometimes, to even accurately recall the full name of their organization.
“Some were honest enough to say, ‘Who the hell cares about ideology? The main thing is to kill.'”
SUCH SIMILARITIES between Russian terrorists and those on Israel’s doorstep are the subject of much of Geifman’s work these days. Since making aliya earlier this year – she plans to divide her time between teaching in Boston and writing in Jerusalem – Geifman has spent extended weekends in Sderot, meeting the people of the bombarded city and trying to raise awareness of their plight. Knowledge of Russian history, she believes, will provide valuable insight on the situation in Gaza City.
“Israelis know all about Hamas,” she says, “but they don’t know anything about the Russian precedent. People have no clue that the origins of the war on terrorism are in Russia.”
Geifman took a circuitous route to that knowledge herself. After moving from the Soviet Union to Boston with her family in 1976, the teenager “felt so un-American” that she took to studying Russian history as something of a refuge. It led to her eventually writing a biography of Viktor Chernov, leader of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party for which terror was a chief strategy, as well as Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia and other works.
Since a sabbatical visit to Israel in 2000, Geifman has focused on modern parallels to political violence in revolutionary Russia, especially in the Middle East. She has also become more Zionistic and more religiously observant.
“Whenever I hear someone suggest that Hamas might become a more responsible movement now that it is in charge, I think, ‘Why don’t you read a little about the Bolsheviks and see if you still believe that?'” she says.
It bothers her to hear speculation about Hamas being more open to negotiating with Israel and softening its radical positions, when history suggests otherwise.
“You want to know what happens when terrorists come to power? As soon as terrorists come to power, they begin building on what they did to get there. Look at the Bolsheviks, who were terrorists before they came to power in 1917. They used this terror-based revolution to build a terror-based state.”
It’s no surprise, for example, that Hamas is so heavily invested in its “security forces,” considering that the Bolsheviks established the forerunner to the KGB less than a month after taking over. Terror states, Geifman says, are based on a legacy, an ideology and a practice – specifically, the legacy, ideology and practice of terrorism.
So when anyone suggests that seeing a terrorist group like Hamas come to power in Gaza might actually be a positive development, Geifman says, “It scares me like you can’t imagine.”
If her analogy of Hamas as the Bolsheviks of Gaza is accurate, then there is “no way that Hamas will turn away from terrorism. No way! They will remain an organization committed to terror,” she says. “And the first victims of Hamas rule will not be the Israelis, but the Palestinians themselves – just as the the Bolsheviks’ primary victims were not the Poles, nor the Czechs, nor the Americans, nor anyone else, but the Russians and the Ukrainians.”
Avoiding this comparison, Geifman believes, turning to psychology, is an effect of the terrorism with which Western society is bombarded.
“I think we suffer – I think the whole world now suffers – from a collective Stockholm syndrome,” she says. “Our problem is that we so want to believe in the goodness of people that we can’t see how bad some people are. [There are people who] don’t want to call these people terrorists. Well, you can call them pussycats, if you want. But they’re not going to stop killing.”
Geifman draws on the Beslan school massacre for comparison with the Gaza terrorist groups’ missile barrages on Sderot and the Western Negev, noting that “they often fire their rockets in the morning, as children are going to school, and in the afternoon, as they are on their way home from school.” Children, she notes, are symbols of life, and as such serve as particularly attractive targets for groups whose culture is “death-based.”
At this, Geifman turns to thoughts from her growing religious observance, recalling the Torah’s directive to “choose life.”
“As Jews, we have an obligation to choose life, and to defend it. Otherwise,” she says, “death takes over.” In spite of this bleak view, though, Geifman says she is “very optimistic” that Hamas will eventually fade away.
Why? “Because,” she says, “in history, not a single death cult survives.”
Furthermore, how they meet their end is instructive.
“One of the basic characteristics of violence in culture is that it is like a living organism, in that it is mobile, and it must remain in motion in order to survive,” Geifman explains. “So long as the violence is directed externally, it can maintain its momentum – but once it is prevented from that goal, if you wall it off, it can’t stop. Like any organism, it must keep moving. So the violence turns on [its originators]. Consider the Nazis: When they could no longer kill others, they killed themselves.”
If history is a guide, she says, Hamas ought to pay attention.
“[Terrorist] leaders think that they control death, but in reality they are merely agents of death,” she says. “That is why every revolution ultimately swallows itself.”