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Notes from New North London Learning Spring 2005 (?)

Twentieth Nineteenth Century Jewish History

Michael Wegier

Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself; and accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed (even when I'm not struggling to decipher my shorthand).

[This was the first of a series of talks about twentieth century Jewish history; this talk focused on the nineteenth century Jewish history that set the stage for the twentieth century history. Nevertheless, the speaker mentioned at the beginning the impossibility of considering even the end of the nineteenth century without considering what came next: the Holocaust.]

This series of talks will be an intellectual history—what became of the ideologies at the beginning of the twentieth century. Aslo a polemic history—what would you have done?

Both in Russia at the turn of the century and Poland in the 1920s Jews became highly politicised, and took part in politics of the country of all flavours.

Point for debate: how would you vote in the Duma in 1900, not knowing what would come to pass?

What were the choices presenting themselves to a voter?

  • Some Jews voted communist in rejection of their Jewish heritage.
  • Zionist parties—both religious and secular.
  • Agudah—Orthodox and anti-Zionist.
  • The Bund—the Jewish socialists.
  • Chassidim, disengaged by the process, refused to vote.
  • Others voted with their feet and fled west.

The Bund were the largest voting bloc at the time. They were particularly strong in 1901–2, after the February Revolution (1905), and in 1937–9 in Poland, with the Bund the biggest, trouncing the Zionists. (This is the unknown subject of modern Judaism.)

Nineteenth century Jewish history can be seen as an act of negotiation between Europe/the USA and the Jewish people. The Jews were emancipated—subjects becoming citizens—in exchange for the following:

  • Loyalty and acculturation. Jews were being asked to give up what Europe saw as their most defensive—their most distinctive—practices. (Assimilation was one outcome of this but it was not seen as [a desired outcome].)
  • Military service. Jews embraced this in Western Europe and the USA (where they fought on both sides of the Civil War).
  • Language in secular schools—in schools built for Jews which did not do Jewish education.
  • Living with the population—eating their food, giving up Shabbos observance, intermarrying, etc.

There were, broadly speaking, three responses to these demands: One was: yes please—?Heine's "Passport to European civilisation". The second was outright rejection, by the Chassidim and other fringe non-Orthodox groups. The third—the biggest group of people—was "yes, but".

What happened to those people who tried to negotate, to integrate but also preserve their connection to Judaism?

As a result of this, what it meant to be Jewish became split. Judaism is both a religion and a nation, with the two inexorably linked; but in the nineteenth century these became separated. Some played up the secular part and viewed the religion as where they had come from. A second group up-played the religious aspect and downplayed the national. This was the Reform Movement: "We are Frenchmen of the Mosaic persuasion."

The end goal of both ?Psts and European liberals was that by the time you got to 1900 the Jewish problem would be solved. They would be integrated; they may have some attachment to their heritage but antisemitism would be gone and Europe could look forward to a golden age.

In actuality, however, the last twenty years of the nineteenth century saw the collapse of the commitment of the Jews to Europe and Europe to the Jews.

Historians are very divided over the causes of this. The price both parties were paying was not too much.

In Russia only economic factors were important. Racism—the development of Social Darwinism, and racialist language; the notion that racial characteristics played a part in the development of civilisation. This was due to the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century. Not all the people listening to this had internalised the fact that Jews "were one of us"—and not all Jews accepted this either.

A second cause was immigration [to the West, in the 1880s and 1890s, from the Pale of Settlement—the area down through the west of Russia, Poland, the Ukraine, etc, where Jews were allowed to live]. Why did so many Jews want to leave Russia? Primarily, conscription and pogroms. Poverty was a factor but the problem with this argument is that many people who were poor did not leave. Two million Jews left Russia within a very short time.

The role of pogroms is controversial. If you look at where pogroms occurred and where Jews lived they did not always tally. Rather it was fear of pogroms [presumably the pogroms they had heard about in other areas] that drove the Jews out. Before the First World War, pogroms did not kill many people. After the assassination of Czar Alexander II the Czar said he wanted to kill one third of the Jews, convert one third and drive out one third.

There was also the pull factor, the lure of a better life in the West. This too, however, was also not the biggest factor.

What changed in Polish and Russian Jewish communities to bring the change of attitude about? Answer: a huge increase in the Jewish population. The growth rate of the Jewish community was ten times the rate of Christian society; and it had got to the point where the Jewish community was not able to deal with its own, so its young began to flee. Why did this growth happen? Increased hygiene? Self-support networks? We don't really know.

Another factor in the changed attitudes toward and amongst Jews was the radicalisation of Jewish politics, due to all of the ?aslv?acv? plus exposure to some of the new ideas in Europe—socialism, nationalism: the Jews began to adapt these ideas to themselves.

It is well known that German Jews tried to embrace Germany. [By the 1930s the German Jews were the most assimilated in all of Europe.] It is less well-known how some Russian Jews tried to embrace Russia.

[Unfortunately the sheets my notes continued on seem to have been lost. :-( Still, rereading this transcript, it still comes across as an interesting half-talk.]

Jewish learning notes index

Russian Jews

Date: 2006-08-30 10:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
When was the best time for Russian and Polish Jews? They must have been able to live Jewish in peace and practice before they were persecuted or discriminated that much.

Re: Russian Jews

Date: 2006-08-31 06:50 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Not sure that was the case; Ashkenazi Jews never had a "golden age" like the Sephardim did. Between the Crusades, the Black Death, and pogroms based on the belief that the Jews were responsible for the Black Death, the Ashkenazi population dropped between 1096 and 1500 from 100 000 to 10–20 000. Then in the seventeenth century Chmielnicki's Cossacks killed off a third of the Jewish people—the same proportion, though lower numbers, as the Nazis. Then in the late nineteenth century there were many pogroms as discussed above. I'm not an expert on the subject, but it seems to me that if Jews in Russia and Poland ever had a chance to live in peace, it would have been only for short periods of time, a few decades at the most per time.


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