The Jewish Diaspora after the destruction of the Second Temple and Jerusalem by the Romans. Part 6

The Russian Jews and the birth of Zionism.

Until the Polish partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795, when Poland, wrecked by invasions and wars, was annexed by her neighbors (Russia, Prussia, and Austria respectively) and no longer existed as an independent country, there were virtually no Jews in Russia, nor was there any formal recognition of Jewish residence. (Jews were not officially allowed to settle in “Holy Russia,” however, prior to 1772, some traders resided there whom the government pretended not to notice.) With the acquisition of Belorussia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine from Poland, the Russian state inherited hundreds of thousands of Jews–making Russia home to the largest Jewish community in the world. After 1795, Russia’s tsars struggled with the fundamental question of how to define the Jews legally, both as individuals and as a collective.

The Russian Haskalah (Jewish residence) struck a tenuous alliance with the Russian government in the name of the integration of Russia’s Jews into Russian society. During the reign of Nicholas I, for example, members of the Haskalah worked with the Ministry of Education to develop a state-sponsored system of Jewish schools in Russia, the crown schools. These schools, which taught the Russian language and other secular subjects, were met with opposition from traditional Jews, the Hasidim in particular. They opposed secular education, especially the sort provided by the government, which usually came with an invitation to convert. As a result, few Jewish children attended these schools. (It should be noted that all was not education and enlightenment under Nicholas I. His Jewish conscription policies were infamous for requiring the enlistment of Jewish boys ages 12-18 for a 25-year period during which they underwent a severe program of “Russification” aimed at conversion.)

Government officials set out to narrow the scope of so-called “Jewish exploitation” by passing a set of measures designed to resettle Jews from countryside to urban areas and passing restrictions on Jewish commerce and trade. These were the infamous “May Laws,” dubbed by Historian Simon Dubnow “legislative pogroms.” The May Laws forbade new Jewish settlement outside of towns, prohibited Jews from buying land in the countryside, and banned Jews from trading on Christian holidays and Sundays. Additional legislation sliced Jewish university quotas in half and effectively barred Jews from entering or practicing the professions.

The pogroms and the May Laws undermined the prevailing integrationist political ideology pushed by the Haskalah. The events of 1881-1882 shook the assumption that the steady acculturation of the Jew would naturally bring about equal rights and security. A range of new philosophies, including Zionism, socialism, and emigration, emerged in Russia. The adherents of these philosophies argued that Jews could not and should not integrate as individuals into the existing society, but that they should rather act to create their own destiny either within Russia or abroad.

There were still integrationists who hoped to achieve emancipation in the western sense. But, in addition, there were diaspora nationalists who wanted to establish an autonomous Jewish state in Russia, Zionists who wanted to build a Jewish state in Palestine, and Socialists who wanted a revolution to free all citizens from the oppressive grasp of the industrialized state.

Modern Zionism had its origins in Russia, in the so-called Pale of Settlement, a region in imperial Russia where Jews had been forced to settle.

PALE OF SETTLEMENT (Rus. Cherta [postoyannoy yevreyskoy] osedlosti), territory within the borders of czarist Russia wherein the residence of Jews was legally authorized. Limits for the area in which Jewish settlement was permissible in Russia came into being when Russia was confronted with the necessity of adjusting to a Jewish element within its borders, from which Jews had been excluded since the end of the 15th century. These limitations were consonant with the general conception of freedom of movement of persons which then applied. At the time, most of the inhabitants of Russia, not only the serfs but also townsmen and merchants, were deprived of freedom of movement and confined to their places of residence.

The language spoken by the Jews in the Pale of Settlement was Yiddish (according to the census of 1897 by 99% of the Jews). Most Jewish children received a Jewish education in the ḥeder and the yeshivah. Jewish literature and newspapers in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, and Polish circulated in many thousands of copies. The masses of ḥasidim were attached to the “courts” of their spiritual leaders in *Lubavich (Chabad), *Stolin , *Talnoye (Talna), *Gora Kalwaria (Gur), *Aleksandrow , etc. More modern movements such as *Ḥibbat Zion and Zionism, the *Bund and the socialist parties were also active in the towns and townlets of the Pale, either openly or illegally underground.

In this region a series of attacks (pogroms) on Jews erupted in 1881, tolerated if not inspired by the Russian government as a means to divert discontentment of the Russian peasantry from the administration. The pogroms resulted in the departure of no less than 1.5 million Russian Jews, who in great majority migrated to the United States. But small groups of younger Jews, mostly students, set their sights on settlement in Palestine. They found inspiration in a book by their fellow Jew Y.L. Pinsker, whose Selbstemanzipation (Auto-Emancipation), published in 1881, inspired the idea of the restoration of Eretz Israel. They founded a number of agricultural settlements with the financial support from Jewish philanthropists in Western Europe, among whom the French banker Edmond de Rothschild.

Chaim Weizmann and Vladimir Jabotinsky who were among the founding fathers of the state of Israel were Russian Jews.

World War I, the disintegration of the Russian Empire, the Revolution, and the civil war in Russia, destroyed the foundations of this Jewish world, which was finally annihilated in the Holocaust. With the perspective of time, assessment of the Pale of Settlement has changed; it is necessary to consider not only its negative aspects but also its positive, unintended results, as forming a framework for an independent Jewry, as the area of settlement of a whole Jewish nation in which generations of Jews developed their own culture, and as the source of the establishment and development of large Jewish centers in America, South Africa, and many other countries, as well as Israel.

Bibliography: russia/                       

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