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1800 – 1925

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  • The French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic wars (1789-1815) completely changed the political organization of Europe, while the social landscape was shaken by the revolutionary appeal of the Rights of Man. Although the Congress of Vienna (1815) attempted to restore the Old Order, a series of uprisings culminating in a wave of revolts in 1848 ensured that in the second half of the 19th century the western and central European monarchies shared power with elected legislatures to a greater or lesser extent, Prussia being among the lesser extent. Russia remained the major bastion of absolute monarchy. In the industrializing nations in the second half of the 19th century, the growth of large scale enterprises for manufacture of textiles, chemicals, iron and steel, and railroad equipment, for example, initiated major population shifts from rural areas to newly industrialized cities and created requirements for investment capital beyond what could be provided by private bankers, such as the Rothschilds.
  • The Declaration of the Rights of Man by the French Revolution in 1789 was applied by logic, not by sentiment, to French Jewish communities in 1791. The result was emancipation of the Jews from all civil disabilities. The principle of Jewish equality was accepted in Holland in 1796, and subsequently enforced by the Armies of the Republic in the Rhineland, Italy, and Prussia. The ghetto walls were destroyed in these latter regions (there never were ghettos in Holland), and Jews began to participate in public life, including being conscripted or enlisting in the armies. The forces of reaction following 1815 tried to reestablish the Jewish legal disabilities, with no success in France or Holland, varying success in the German states, and complete success in Austria and the Papal States, where the ghettos and all other restrictions were restored. The ghetto in Rome, the last remaining ghetto in Europe, was finally abolished by force in 1870 when Italy was united and the Papal territory was reduced to the Vatican.
  • In 1807 Napoleon convened a Jewish “Sanhedrin,” an assembly of lay and rabbinic representatives. The government reiterated the elimination of civil disabilities for the Jews, and in turn the assembly agreed the primacy of French citizenship over Jewish laws and renounced Jewish national aspirations. Although the assembly had no legal or religious authority, the view of Napoleon’s government was that henceforth the Jews were no longer a nation and that Judaism was simply a religion. This view was also eagerly adopted by many Jews in western Europe and later in America, who aspired to assimilate into the general culture without necessarily losing their religious identity.
  • The Jewish community in Germany, by far the largest Jewish community in western Europe, faced a variety of conflicting forces during the first half of the 19th century. On the one hand, the tide of political liberalization from autocratic rule seemed destined to prevail in a future united Germany. Even in autocratic and militarized Prussia reform of the government following defeat by Napoleon resulted in emancipation of the Jews, at the same time as the Prussian peasants were liberated from serfdom. On the other hand, a variety of bureaucratic and social restrictions hampered the participation of Jews in normal German life. For example, despite the fact that the percentage of Jews who attended universities was far greater than their percentage in the population as a whole, there were no Jewish professors. Jews were banned from public office, could not become officers in the military, and were barred from certification as lawyers. Overt anti-Semitism was a constant fact of life in the streets where even urchins insulted dignified Jews, in schools and universities, and in social life, as attested without exception in the reminiscences of notable German Jews of the period. Not surprisingly, baptism was one response by educated Jews who simply wanted to become normal members of German society. Highly visible examples of conversion to Christianity were the children and grandchildren of Moses Mendelssohn and the poet Heinrich Heine, who dealt with guilt over his decision for the rest of his life. Many ordinary middle class Jews quietly let their religious observances lapse and gradually assimilated or intermarried into Christian society. Descendants of these converted Jews were later trapped by the Nazi racial laws.
  • Two positive responses to the situation of German Jewry were: 1) The initiation of the study of Judaism as a serious cultural, philosophical, and historical topic in its own right, not simply as a precursor to Christianity. The Society of Jewish Culture and Learning, founded by Leopold Zunz in 1819, systematized the study of post-Biblical Jewish literature, history, and liturgy. One important contribution was that Zunz established that rabbinic sermons had been common in Jewish religious services throughout post-Biblical times, an important finding at a time when Prussian authorities attempted to ban sermons by rabbis as a dangerous innovation. 2) The reform of Jewish worship services and religious studies was started in 1810 and gained rapid momentum. The traditional synagogue service, regarded as an embarrassment by educated Jews, was characterized by total lack of decorum, the sale of prayers, gossiping of women in the gallery, and was led by rabbis who had little or no education beyond Talmud and who barely spoke German. The first venture to reform the worship service was in 1810 by Israel Jacobsohn, who built a temple in Seesen, Germany, on the site of his highly regarded school for Jewish and Christian children. The temple service featured dignified quiet and order, prayers in German and Hebrew, and––in emulation of Protestant services––an organ. The Seesen temple was shut down by the Prussian government, which opposed any form of liberalization, even in Judaism. Jacobsohn then established Reform temples in the free city of Hamburg and in Berlin in 1815. Other Reform temples were soon established in Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and other German cities. Reformers continued to modify the liturgy, particularly by eliminating the Zion-oriented prayers to emphasize loyalty to the German state. Abraham Geiger, who became rabbi of the Reform temple in Breslau in 1840, was a major force in the evolution of Reform liturgy. By 1845 Reform had split between the radicals and conservatives, who felt that the changes in liturgy had gone too far. Modern Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism, first led by Samson Raphael Hirsch and Zechariah Frankel respectively, date from this period. All three new strains of Judaism, which really incorporated a continuous spectrum of liturgy and practices rather than totally unique systems, emphasized the value of good secular education and were led by men of broad modern learning. By the second half of the 19th century, most of the practicing Jews in Germany were congregants of one of the new Judaisms.
  • In 1848 a wave of revolutions swept across Europe, initiated by overthrow of the monarchy and reestablishment of a republic in France, the home of revolutions. Liberals in Germany took this as a sign that a new era in democracy was dawning and that the long desired unification of the many German states as a constitutional republic patterned on the U.S. model was at hand. A constitutional convention was convened in Frankfurt, the seat of the loose Confederation of German-Speaking States. At the same time, a rather low key uprising in Berlin forced the King of Prussia, to his great distaste, to call a constitutional convention in Berlin. Since the unrest in Berlin was not supported by the middle class, who preferred order to liberty, the king waited until he was able to disband the convention. In Frankfurt, a viable constitutional document was actually produced, but the Confederation had no power to implement it. The convention offered the King of Prussia the crown of emperor of a constitutional monarchy, and the king promptly rejected the offer. The constitutional convention then disbanded. An American observer remarked, “In 1848 both Germany and Italy could have won either unification or liberalism, but because they tried for both they did not win either.” Jews had been prominent in the leadership of the Frankfurt convention, and the collapse of the effort convinced them and other progressives that liberalism was not likely to succeed in Germany in their lifetime. About 300,000 Jews emigrated from Germany to the U.S. in the period 1848-1870, bringing with them the new German Jewish ideas.
  • Following the partitions of Poland and the defeat of Napoleon, about 1.6 million Jews, 50% of the world Jewish population, lived in the Russian portion of Poland plus the original Pale of Settlement. Most lived in small settlements (shtetls) in rural areas scattered across the vast Pale, which stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. A growing portion of the Jews in the western, or formerly Polish, area of the Pale were beginning to concentrate in urban areas, such as Vilna, Warsaw, and Krakow. Although the Jews lived among ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, and others, they spoke a different language (Yiddish) and had strangely different customs. They had little contact with the majority populations other than in the marketplace. The dominant religion in the Russian area of the Pale was Russian Orthodoxy. There were sporadic, largely unsuccessful efforts by Russians and by Jews to start integrating Jews into the Russian society. In the formerly Polish area, the dominant religion was Roman Catholicism, and here the Catholic Church continued its medieval implacable hatred and attempted subjugation of the Jews, possibly in retaliation for the period before 1648 when the Jewish community was actually more powerful than the Church (my speculation). In contrast to the Jews in Germany, there was no temptation (or opportunity) for the Polish Jews to assimilate into Polish society. By the second half of the 19th century, the Haskalah (enlightenment) movement had made inroads into Jewish life in the Pale, particularly in the cities, with the beginning of a “Golden Age” of Yiddish literature and a vibrant Yiddish theater, especially in Warsaw. The Hasidic movement moderated its anti-intellectual approach, and the intellectual religious movement centered in Vilna began to recognize the value of incorporating simple piety into its rituals.
  • In the U.S.A. at the end of the 18th century, in a total population of 3 million there were about 3 thousand Jews, mostly located in the Atlantic coast cities, roughly one half Sephardim (mainly Portuguese) and one half Ashkenazim. A large percentage of these earliest Jewish families intermarried and converted to Christianity. German immigrants, including Ashkenazi Jews, began to arrive in significant numbers starting in 1810, as a result of industrialization and the consequent rapid growth in population in central Europe. The main influx of German Jews occurred after the failed attempts in 1848 to form a unified democratic Germany. Between 1848 and 1870 about 300,000 Jews emigrated from Germany to the U.S. Additional thousands of Jews emigrated from reactionary Austria-Hungary, particularly from non-German speaking provinces, such as Bohemia and Galicia, where Yiddish speaking Jews were regarded unfavorably as possible precursors for German expansion. The German Jews in the U.S. at first concentrated near the ports of entry and then spread out to the newly developing cities of the Midwest and the Far West. The German Jews typically were “retailers,” a description which could cover backpack peddlers, horse and wagon peddlers, and small store owners. Within one or two generations, a few families had risen to found large department stores, garment manufacturing enterprises, and metal trading empires. Even average German Jewish families soon regarded themselves as middle class Americans. Spreading across the developing U.S., they found in contrast to Europe there was no compulsion to identify with an existing Jewish community. In many areas there was no organized Jewish community or any individual who was qualified to lead a local community. In the prevailing atmosphere of a new start in a free new country, the idea grew in the German Jewish community that Reform Judaism, which many had known from Germany, was more suited to the American Jewish experience than traditional Judaism. Several Reform congregations were established, starting in Charleston in 1824, and later in Baltimore, New York, and other east coast cities. Among the new immigrants from Germany were well educated Reform leaders, who found that the non-repressive atmosphere in the U.S. invited even more innovation than was prudent in Germany. The individual who had the greatest role in shaping Reform Judaism in the U.S. was Isaac M. Wise, born in Bohemia, who became rabbi of a congregation in Albany in 1846. Wise was scholarly, energetic, a skilled organizer, and personally aggressive. In 1854 he was invited to a prominent pulpit in Cincinnati, where he remained to his death in 1900. There he quickly became the most renowned rabbi in America. He published a new Reform prayer book and in 1873 was instrumental in organizing the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Two years later he organized Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. By the end of the 1880’s, Reform Judaism had been accepted by the majority of American German Jews.
  • Industrialized and militarized Prussia instigated and won wars with Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870-1871). Following the annihilating victory over France, Bismarck finally united Germany under the domination of Prussia. The unified structure was actually a patchwork affair, with the predominantly Catholic last holdout states joining predominantly Protestant Prussia. As is repeatedly the case, tension in the Christian community resulted in trouble for the Jewish community. To promote a German ethnic unity after centuries of Protestant/Catholic conflict, German philosophers invented the idea of a superior Aryan race, the ancestors of all true Germans. Non-Aryans living in Germany, i.e., Jews, could never become true Germans. Anti-Semitism became a respectable and popular position across the entire political spectrum. Jews were reviled as an alien people who could never successfully assimilate into German society, and (alternatively and simultaneously) as clever assimilationists who were gaining superior positions within German society with the ultimate objective of ruling it from within. Jewish innovators and leaders in the manufacturing, transportation, and retail industries simply reinforced the latter position by insisting on their loyalty to Germany. Political parties whose sole program was anti-Semitism gained 16 seats in the Reichstag in 1893.
  • During the Franco-Prussian War, after the destruction of all the French armies and the flight of the new republican government from Paris, the city of Paris held out against the besiegers for two months in 1871. The defense of the city was directed by a popularly elected government, the Paris Commune. After the fact, this government was cited as the first “dictatorship of the proletariat,” as predicted by Karl Marx, although Marx himself criticized the Commune on the grounds that the leaders were democratically elected rather than dictatorially appointed. During the brief period of the Commune, a botched hostage exchange resulted in the execution of the Archbishop of Paris by the Commune. The Church, which by nature was opposed to any form of liberalism, blamed this event on the theories of “that Jew Marx,” and later habitually referred to communism as “Jewish Bolshevism.” Following the disastrous war with Prussia, the French society was split between a strong liberal socialist movement and a reactionary anti-Semitic movement supported by the military and the Catholic Church. One manifestation of this split was the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1898), which convinced Theodor Herzl, who was writing from Paris for a Viennese periodical, that if Jews could not escape anti-Semitism in France, the home of liberalism, they could not escape it anywhere in Europe.
  • During the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire, “the sick man of Europe,” continued its long decline in administrative efficiency and central government control. Almost all the European and African possessions were lost to colonial powers or local independence movements, starting with the independence of Greece in 1829. Algeria was occupied by France in 1830, all Balkan countries gained independence in 1870, Tunisia was occupied by France in 1881, Egypt/Sudan/Cyprus by Britain in 1882, Libya by Italy in 1912, and Morocco by France in 1912. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the only territories remaining to the Ottoman Empire were a small area in Europe surrounding Constantinople, Anatolia, and the ancient Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine). Constantinople was coveted by Russia, Britain, and Germany, and the Fertile Crescent territories were subject to European colonial rivalries and awakening Arab nationalism. Palestine was very loosely administered from Constantinople, and most of the formal land titles were in the hands of a few old families. Britain was active in establishing its influence in Palestine primarily to enhance protection of the Suez Canal but also because of strong emotional ties to the Holy Land. Late in 1917, as the British army was slowly advancing against the Turks in Palestine, Prime Minister Lloyd George asked General Allenby to deliver Jerusalem to him “as a Christmas present.” Allenby did, with significant cost in lives of British soldiers.
  • The Russian government in the 19th century was pure autocracy, with the Czar as absolute ruler, no parliament, a large group of imperial favorites who tried to influence the Czar with competing pro- or anti-Western enlightenment philosophies, and about one-third of the population enslaved as serfs. Nicholas I, who reigned from 1825 to 1855, was by nature a Slavophile reactionary. Immediately after assuming the throne, he ruthlessly put down a revolt of liberal-leaning aristocrats who advocated a constitutional monarchy (the Decembrist Revolt), and in 1832 he defeated an attempt by Poland to regain independence. During the 1848 revolts, he suppressed an independence movement in Hungary on behalf of Austria, acting as “the policeman of Europe.” His objective was to impose Orthodoxy throughout Russia and eliminate separatist or nationalistic tendencies in the many non-Russian minorities. His attitude toward the Jews was, very simply, convert or die. Restrictions were increased on activities permitted to Jews in the 1835 “Charter of Disabilities,” and a 25 year army conscription for Jews was initiated, effectively a sentence of conversion or death. The quota of Jewish conscripts had to be provided by the Jewish community leaderships (Kahals). In 1844, in an attempt to “amalgamate” the Jews, essentially a separate state, into the Russian nation, the vestiges of the Kahals were eliminated. A state sponsored school system was initiated whose announced purpose was secularization of the Jews on the German model, but whose covert purpose was conversion to Orthodoxy. Despite the fact that enrollees in the new school system were exempt from military service, few students enrolled, and the scheme was abandoned when secret correspondence surfaced that confirmed the objective was conversion. Nicholas died in 1855, shortly after the Crimean War exposed the Russian military inefficiency and corruption.
  • Despite all repressive measures and later emigration, the Jewish population in the Pale increased from about 1 million in 1800 to about 5.5 million in 1900. While a few Russian Jewish families with access to western capital dominated railroad construction and initiated modern banking in Russia, the vast majority of Jews in the Pale existed on marginal trades, such as peddling. Despite the poverty, there was virtually no illiteracy in the Jewish community, primarily as a result of the emphasis on religious schooling. In addition, Haskalah (enlightenment) spread among the intellectuals, mainly in the western-oriented provinces (Galicia, Poland, Lithuania), resulting in an intense interest in western (particularly German) culture and the revival of Hebrew as a literary language. Later in the 19th century, in parallel with the intellectualism of the Haskalah, Yiddish literature, using the vernacular and describing daily life in the Pale, developed in quality and popularity. In contrast to the situation in Germany in the 18th century when the “Jewish problem” dealt with the question of whether Jews could ever be brought to the same level of civilization as ethnic Germans, the Jews in the Pale in the 19th century with good reason considered themselves superior to the surrounding majority peoples in learning and culture.
  • In 1855, the new czar, Alexander II, announced a policy of “equal justice and tolerance,” which was welcomed by the entire population. In 1861 he liberated the serfs (although under unfavorable terms) and reduced compulsory military service from 25 years to 6 years. Restrictions on “favored” Jews were relaxed, permitting them to live outside the Pale and engage in previously forbidden occupations, such as law and medicine. As a result, the Jewish community began to look favorably on Russification. A large number of students enteried the Russian school system, without pressure to convert, and many Jews learned the Russian language. However, in 1863 another Polish rebellion was brutally extinguished, and Alexander decided that the revolt had resulted from his liberalizing and Westernizing initiatives. All reforms were halted, and the dreaded secret police were ordered to hunt down “liberals” in the many ethnic minority communities. The Jewish community in particular, always suspected of disloyalty, suffered in the reaction. Jews were suspected of forming a separate Jewish state in Russia, and accusations of ritual murder were revived.
  • The brief period of reforms followed by repression set Russia on a course that would eventually overthrow the czar. A large fraction of the liberated serfs, although freed from bondage to landholders, lost their farm subsistences in the resulting rationalization of agriculture. Leaving the rural areas, they migrated to the cities and formed the core of the unskilled labor force in the vast new factories of Russia’s belated industrialization—the new Russian proletariat. The intellectuals, recognizing that peaceful reform was not going to happen, went underground and organized a myriad of clandestine societies promoting a constitutional monarchy, organizing labor to control the means of production, peaceful overthrow of the czar to establish a republic or a socialistic/communistic state, violent elimination of authority, or all of these objectives within factions of any single secret society. As the repression became more severe, the opposition gravitated toward violence. Several attempts were made by the People’s Will terrorist organization to assassinate Alexander II, finally succeeding in 1881.
  • Although Jews had not been prominent in the People’s Will society, popular opinion, ready to blame the Jews for anything, decided they had somehow been involved. This view was encouraged by local authorities, with the objective of diverting anti-government resentment against the Jews—the Jews as lightning rods. In addition, the displacement of a large portion of the Russian rural population to the cities, which already contained concentrations of Jews, exacerbated the centuries-old enmity to the Jewish “capitalists.” During Easter 1881, a wave of pogroms started in the Ukraine and swept across the Pale, finally subsiding after one year. Although Czar Alexander III was not personally responsible for or sympathetic to the pogroms, the fact that the local authorities stood by and allowed the violence to continue suggested that the government had been complicit. In May 1882 the government issued new restrictions on the Jews in order to “calm” the Russian population. The May Laws forced Jews in the rural communities, even within the Pale, to move to the cities (actually to urban ghettos), expelled the small communities of Jews who had lived legally outside the Pale, severely restricted occupations permitted to Jews, and greatly reduced the number of Jews allowed in the universities. Many Jews then entered universities in Central and Western Europe and later returned to Russia as revolutionaries or Zionists. When asked what would happen to the Jews, a Russian official said, “One third emigrate, one third convert, and one third die.” In fact, thousands of Jews attempted to flee to the West immediately following the pogroms and May Laws. Jewish organizations in Western Europe initially tried to stem the flow and then began to facilitate transport to the U.S., rather than encouraging settling in Europe. The mostly-German Jews in the U.S. at first resisted the influx of the “uncivilized” East European Jews. Nevertheless, with the Russian government adopting anti-Semitism as an official policy and the violence continuing, the flood of emigrants bound for the U.S. increased rapidly. Between 1881 and 1890, 161,000 Jews entered the U.S. from Russia. As the process continued, later emigrants were able to obtain funds for passage on their own and to ease settlement in the U.S. by joining family or fellow villagers from Russia. Jewish charitable organizations in the U.S., bowing to the inevitable, set up numerous programs to ameliorate the situation of the new arrivals. In 1903, a particularly ghastly government-organized pogrom in Kishinev (southern Russia) brought international condemnation, accelerated the Zionist movement in Russia, and gave further impetus to emigration. By 1914, about 2.4 million Jews had entered the U.S. from Eastern Europe.
  • Most of the Jewish immigrants to the U.S. from Eastern Europe settled in compact densely populated areas of major cities, particularly on the east coast. The Lower East Side of Manhattan (known as Jewtown to the outsiders and the Ghetto to the residents), received about half of the newcomers and was believed to be the most densely populated area of the world. Yiddish was the common language. The tenement housing conditions were appalling. The congestion in the living space was exacerbated by the presence of fabric workshops (“sweatshops”) in virtually every tenement building. The sweatshops were engaged in finishing garments—cutting, sewing, and pressing. All operations required hand labor. A typical sweatshop consisted of a boss with three to six sewing machines and perhaps a dozen women and men paid on piecework. During the busy seasons the work could be 12 to 16 hours per day, and the pay was barely at the subsistence level. Initial attempts to raise the pay failed because of the continuing arrival of new immigrants ready to take work at any pay. The other major occupation in the Ghetto was street peddling, characteristically from pushcarts. Jacob Riis describes the poverty, near starvation, chaos, and the toll on human lives in the Ghetto, but also notes––compared to other New York immigrant communities––the sobriety, level of literacy, and the universal desire for an American education for themselves and their children. Many adults attended night school classes after their hours in the sweatshops, and almost all the children attended public schools, rather than Old World style cheders, and generally were very good students. By 1898, Russian Jews constituted one-third of the students at CCNY, a free college. The Jewish Daily Forward, edited by Abraham Cahan, was the most influential of the scores of Yiddish publications. By 1905, a small but growing middle class were engaged in clothing and jewelry (manufacture and sale); liquor and drugstore managers; medicine and teaching. First and second generation immigrant song writers, often sons of cantors—Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and others—and lyricists (whose first language remarkably was Yiddish)—Berlin, Ira Gershwin, Yip Harburg—made a lasting impact on the American musical theatre.
  • Pure Marxism and socialism, imported from Russia with the Jewish intellectuals, did not thrive in America. After failing to gain traction with revolutionary slogans, labor organizers turned to practical matters of wages, hours, and working conditions. Samuel Gompers, a Sephardic Jew from London, pioneered in organizing trade unions and was a major figure in founding the AFL. A parallel effort by seamstresses resulted, after numerous strikes and police confrontations, in an agreement with the employers (the Protocol of Peace), negotiated by Louis Brandeis. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union, basically an all-Russian Jewish organization, became one of the most powerful unions in the country. The increasing influence of the unions had an unfortunate side effect. Although composed almost entirely of first and second generation immigrants, the unions began to support limiting further immigration. The growing national anti-immigration movement was directed specifically at immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, plus all Asians. The “scientific” basis for selective immigration restriction was the theory of the superiority of the Nordic race, as popularized by Madison Grant in his book, “The Passing of the Great Race” (1916). Even Samuel Gompers supported the effort despite the fact that Madison Grant was a dedicated and vocal anti-Semite, and any contemplated restrictions would be aimed specifically at Eastern European Jews. The post-World War I immigration restrictions, which stemmed directly from this movement, had the disastrous effect of trapping most of the Jews in Europe in the Nazi era.
  • While one-third of Eastern European Jews were emigrating, mostly to the U.S., in the late 1800’s, those remaining in the Pale developed two competing avenues of resistance to the intolerable conditions: the Socialist Revolutionary movement and Zionism. As in the U.S., the socialist revolutionary theorists at first gained little support among the mass of Jewish workers, who were more interested in wages and working conditions than in bloody revolution. After a series of successful worker-directed strikes, the Jewish leaders decided to change direction, concentrate on strike organization, and adopt Yiddish rather than Russian as the working language. Although many Jews, such as Trotsky, were leaders in the Russian revolutionary parties and were violently opposed a separate Jewish socialist party, the majority of Jewish labor gravitated toward the Jewish organization, the Bund, formed in 1897. In addition to conducting numerous strikes, the Bund leaders began to advocate Jewish national autonomy within Russia, including recognition of Yiddish as a legal language and state funding of a Yiddish school system. Marxist agitation against the government, accompanied by numerous assassinations, accelerated during the early 1900’s. In 1902, the czar appointed von Plehve Minister of the Interior. He announced his strategy for containing the threatened revolution, “We must drown the revolution in Jewish blood”––i.e., a Jewish conspiracy is the enemy, not the czar. Von Plehve orchestrated the notorious Kishinev pogrom in 1903, followed by additional pogroms in Ukraine and White Russia. Shortly after the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, von Plehve was assassinated. With the bulk of the Russian army in Manchuria, protest strikes, including several massive strikes organized by the Bund, broke out throughout Russia, threatening to topple the czar. The government made hasty concessions to the strikers, including promises of a constitution, civil rights, and an elected parliament (Duma). However, with the return of the army following the defeat by Japan, the promised reforms were systematically withdrawn, and an even more repressive regime was inaugurated by the new Minister of the Interior, Stolypin. By 1914 the Bund had ceased to be an effective organization. During the brief period of liberalization, there was little support by Socialist Revolutionaries for the specific Jewish objectives advanced by the Bund, despite the fact that the strikes led by the Bund had provided crucial assistance to the revolutionary cause. The basic premise of international socialism, the worldwide solidarity of the proletariat, was proven illusory by the ethnic divide in Russia in 1905 and the nationalistic divides in western Europe in 1914 at the beginning of World War I.
  • Zionism, the establishment of a Jewish national state in Palestine, was always present as a distant, almost Messianic, idea among East European Jews, particularly in times of trouble. The idea began to take more realistic shape with publications by Zvi Kalischer and Moses Hess (1862) and Perez Smolenskin (1875) urging Jews to assert their own nationality among the nations of the world, specifically by establishing a new nation in Palestine. Eliezer Ben Yehuda, from Lithuania, put his Zionist ideas into practice by moving his family to Jerusalem in 1881 and establishing the first household in which only modern Hebrew was spoken. His lifelong work on the Hebrew language resulted in the publication of his monumental modern Hebrew dictionary. Prior to 1881, while the goals of Zionism gained increasing support in Russia, there was little actual emigration to Palestine. However, with the pogroms of 1881 and May Laws of 1882, Jewish nationalism began to be perceived as a practical objective, and Jewish self-defense units were established in many cities in the Pale. In 1882, a pamphlet by Leo Pinsker, “Self-Emancipation,” emphasized that nationhood in Palestine must be achieved by Jewish efforts, rather than by largesse of other nations. A major problem was that the land of Palestine, after centuries of Ottoman rule, was eroded and deforested. Previously fertile valleys were now malarial swamps. Emigration to Palestine, in contrast to emigration to the U.S., required first establishing a viable economy virtually from scratch, and therefore required a different type of emigrant. A pioneer group of seven thousand young Russian Jews of the Hoveve Zion (Lovers of Zion) party emigrated to Palestine in 1881, the First Aliyah. Without independent resources, most drifted into cities and lived as artisans and shopkeepers. A few moved into agricultural settlements, mostly financed by a Paris Rothschild, and survived by hiring Arab labor to do the heavy work. For the next ten years, a trickle of immigrants from Russia continued to arrive in Jaffa with the intention of establishing agricultural settlements. Some succeeded but barely survived, with the help of sporadic financial assistance from Hoveve Zion in Odessa and from west Europe. At this point, it appeared that the pioneers of the First Aliyah had exchanged alien status in Russia for alien status in Turkish Palestine. The course of Zionism was then improbably transformed by Theodor Herzl, an assimilated Hungarian Jew with apparently minimal Jewish commitment. Trained in law, he was a successful playwright and a columnist for a fashionable Viennese periodical. He had continuously encountered the pervasive Austrian anti-Semitism and may have vaguely considered the need for a Jewish homeland. As a correspondent in Paris in 1894, Herzl witnessed the Dreyfus Affair and the violent anti-Semitism it unleashed even in France, the home of the Rights of Man. This experience apparently initiated a self-imposed decision to create the Jewish state, principally as a refuge from anti-Semitism. In 1895, he met with Baron de Hirsch to solicit financial backing for his idea and was rejected. Later in the year he met Max Nordau, a German physician and novelist, who warmly embraced the idea and became Herzl’s leading supporter. In 1896 he published the book, “The Jewish State.” As summarized in an article in The Jewish Chronicle (London), published 4 weeks before “The Jewish State,” Herzl’s vision of the new nation was:

    The new nation would be established by the peaceful emigration of emancipated (i.e., West European) Jews to the new land. The actual territory would be granted to the Jews by “the concert of nations.” These Jews would bring with them their skills, resources, and their many languages, and they would remain patriotic supporters of their previous homelands. This emigration would occur only after initial colonization by the poorest (i.e., East European) Jews, who first must be introduced to the concept of the new nation. [Herzl seems completely unaware of the practical Zionist writings and efforts of the Russian Jews in the previous 15 years.] Herzl speculates that the new land might be in the territory of Argentina, which is sparsely populated, with fertile soil and moderate climate. He acknowledges that Palestine has the appeal of centuries of prayer and devotion, and suggests that the Ottoman Sultan might give Palestine to the Jews in return for a pledge by the Jews to regulate the entire finances of Turkey.

    If this peculiarly naïve vision of the new nation had been the entire content of “The Jewish State,” Herzl would have been regarded as a foolish dreamer and quickly forgotten. However, Herzl also included in “The Jewish State” a practical program for getting started: a congress of Jewish representatives, the establishment of a national fund, and the need for engineers and technicians. This part of his message, the concept of a central international representative organization to direct and finance the Zionist effort, was received with great interest by the Russian Jews. The fact that Herzl personally was an imposing, authoritative figure well known to European intellectuals immediately brought international prestige (and condemnation) to Zionism. Herzl made additional futile efforts for support and financial backing from de Hirsch and the Rothschilds, as well as attempting without success to obtain a charter of settlement in Palestine from the Ottoman sultan in return for promised future Jewish financial assistance. While Herzl was traveling across Europe in pursuit of high level financial and political backing, he became aware to his surprise that his book had been widely circulated and enthusiastically received among East European Jews. At all railroad stations in areas with large Jewish populations he was greeted by cheering crowds. He then decided that, rather than wait for some initiating financial or political breakthrough, he would convene an international Zionist conference to demonstrate to the world the strength of the Zionist movement. His announcement was received with violent opposition by West European Jewish leaders, who continued to profess their allegiance to the Napoleonic pact of 1807, in which Jewish nationalism was abandoned in favor of loyalty to the nation of residence. Despite this expected opposition, Herzl proceeded with his plans for the congress. With his legal background, his skill in public relations and self-promotion, and his personal energy and magnetism, he was able to organize and convene the first Zionist Congress in Basle in August, 1897. About 200 delegates arrived from all corners of the Jewish world, including 80 from Russia. Also in attendance were newspaper reporters from most major European cities. Herzl required all delegates to wear formal clothes, and he conducted the meeting with dignity and strict adherence to the published agenda. The World Zionist Organization was established with Herzl as president, and an Actions Committee was set up in Vienna. After meeting the Russian delegates, Herzl became aware of the level of education (mostly in western European universities, since Russian universities were closed to Jews) and professional accomplishments of the leaders of the Jews in the Pale. It also would become clear that most of the energy and manpower for the Zionist movement would come from Russia. Following the first Congress, Herzl used his contacts to meet the German Kaiser, with the hope that the Kaiser would persuade the Ottoman sultan to grant the Jews a charter in Palestine. The incentive for the sultan would be promises of Jewish financial aid, and the implied incentive for the Kaiser would be to rid Germany of undesirable Jews. After about a year, which included a joint visit to Palestine by the Kaiser and Herzl, it appeared that this initiative would produce nothing. In 1899 and 1901, Herzl made direct contact with the sultan, again with no result. In the meantime, since the Congress of 1897, the Zionist Organization executives established the Jewish Colonial Trust to provide assistance to settlers in Palestine and the Jewish National Fund (JNF) to purchase land in Palestine for Jewish agricultural settlements. Each of the succeeding annual Congresses attracted more delegates, and membership increased dramatically in Zionist societies throughout the world. The JNF received modest financial backing, mostly via contribution boxes in synagogues. While the foundations were being laid for slow, practical progress, Herzl continued to pursue a dramatic political success. In 1903, Herzl was called to London to meet Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary. Having just returned from a trip to Africa, Chamberlain suggested to Herzl that Uganda, a fertile land with moderate climate and few European settlers, might be a favorable place for the Jewish national home. News of the Kishinev pogrom had just been received in the west, and Herzl in his own travels had seen the desperate conditions in the Pale. He decided to present Uganda to the 1903 Congress as a “temporary asylum.” The announcement was met with tumultuous dissent by the Russian delegates, who then walked out of the auditorium to meet on their own in Kharkov. The passions abated when it appeared the exercise had been futile––Chamberlain withdrew the offer under pressure from English settlers. The Uganda controversy imposed a fatal strain on Herzl. Within a year he died of a heart attack at age 44 and was buried in Vienna. His instructions were that his body should be moved and reburied when the Jewish State was created. Crowds of mourners gathered in Jewish communities as far away as Vilna and Odessa. The new president of the Zionist Organization, David Wolffsohn, born in Lithuania and living in Germany, benefited from the proto-national structures that had been established during Herzl’s presidency. Wolffsohn achieved a merging of the “political” and “practical” Zionists at the 1907 Congress. Arthur Ruppin was placed in charge of colonization, based in Jaffa. Starting in 1904, a new wave of immigrants from Russia, the Second Aliyah, had begun arriving in Palestine with the objective of joining or founding agricultural colonies. With the resources and borrowing capacity of the JNF, Ruppin purchased extensive land holdings in the Galilee and Judea. He also encouraged new farm communities to organize as collectives (kibbutzim). The first successful kibbutz, Degania, was founded in 1909 on the shore of Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). Many others followed. The city of Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 on the outskirts of Jaffa. Hebrew was adopted as the official language of the settlers. By 1914, at the start of the war, there were 90,000 Jews in Palestine, and the organization of the future Jewish state had been established.

  • One positive result of the Uganda affair was a meeting in Manchester, England, in 1906 between Arthur Balfour, then Prime Minister of England, and Chaim Weizmann, Zionist leader from Russia and professor at the university. Balfour, a descendant of the Cecil family and godson of the Duke of Wellington, had long admired the Jewish civilization and felt that Christianity owed an unacknowledged debt to the Jews. He took an hour out of an election campaign specifically to meet Weizmann and to discuss the rejection of Uganda. Balfour was impressed by Weizmann’s religious conviction expressed in political terms––Palestine and Zionism were inseparable. At one point, Weizmann said, “Supposing I were to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?” Balfour said, “But Dr. Weizmann, we have London.” Weizmann said, “But we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh.” Although the two did not meet again until 1914, Balfour frequently remarked on the impression the conversation made on him. In 1917, as Allenby’s army invaded Palestine, Balfour, then Foreign Secretary, Prime Minister Lloyd George, and Herbert Samuel, the only Jewish Cabinet minister, invited Weizmann to summarize for the Cabinet his ideas for the post-war structure of the Jewish community in Palestine. The primary political motives for considering the matter varied among the Cabinet members, including pressuring Turkey, excluding the French from the post-war division of the area, minimizing the influence of restive Egypt, and even demonstrating to Arabs the British support for nationalistic movements in the Middle East. In their memoirs, both Winston Churchill and Lloyd George, who knew less about the geography of France, where his troops were fighting, than the geography of the Holy Land (“The British Mandate in Palestine must run from Dan to BeerSheva”), said they supported the idea of Palestine as Jewish homeland primarily because it was the right thing to do. There was no question of the reasons for Balfour’s support. The text of the Balfour Declaration, issued in November 1917, stated in part, “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.” Although post-war British policy tilted toward Arab interests, leading to repudiation of the Balfour Declaration in 1939, we should recognize this moment in history when powerful statesmen took an action at least in part because they thought it was the right thing to do. Balfour later remarked that being able to assist the cause of the Jews gave him the most satisfaction of anything he had done in public life. In 1930, when he lay dying, he requested a final visit from Weizmann, who was the only person outside the family circle admitted to see him.

    WORLD WAR I (1914-1918) AND POST-WAR

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    Russia – The war on the Eastern Front was fought primarily within the Pale. The overthrow of the czar, the Bolshevik Revolution, and a peace treaty in early 1918 which for a short period ceded most of the Pale to Germany effectively ended the Pale and its restrictions. For two years after the war, until the Bolsheviks gained full control of Russia and the borders of the new country of Poland were established, confused four-way wars between the Red Russians, the White Russians, the Poles, and the Ukrainians devastated the former Pale area again. Each participant in these wars savaged the Jews at will. In particular, the Poles when invading the Ukraine treated each Jewish village as an enemy fort, shelling it and then invading and destroying it. Until 1921, British troops occupied Archangel and the Caucuses, and Japanese and American troops occupied Vladivostok, attempting to assist the White Russians against the Bolsheviks. At the same time, the Bolsheviks were trying to incite the proletariats to revolt in the “capitalist” western countries (including the U.S.), leading to recurrent Red Scares in these countries. By 1920, the Bolsheviks had consolidated their control, the Allied troops were withdrawn, and the borders of the USSR were virtually sealed. The Soviet regime implemented its economic theories by imposing collectivization on agriculture and manufacturing. The result was famine and the death of hundreds of thousands in 1921-1922. A New Economic Plan, which incorporated some capitalism, somewhat alleviated the situation. About 2.5 million Jews lived in the USSR, two thirds in the old Pale area and one third in the interior of Russia. Economically, the Jews fared about as well or as poorly as the general population. There was no official anti-Semitism, but all formal religions and minority nationalization initiatives were discouraged or banned. All religious schools were closed, and celebration of Jewish holidays was forbidden. Jewish communists emphasized their contempt for the ancient “superstitious” Jewish practices. Starting with the next generation, the Russian Jewish civilization, with its centuries-old beliefs, traditions, and strong community bonds, began to disintegrate.

    Poland – In November 1918 the Republic of Poland reconstituted itself from the Polish territory formerly in Russia, plus portions of Germany and the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire. The ambition of the Polish leaders was to restore Poland to its borders prior to the first partition of 1772, or even to the greater Poland of pre-1648, despite the fact that Poles were a minority in the eastern regions, which were populated primarily by Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, and others. The Poles referred to these majority populations as “guests.” According to the Polish far-right party, anyone at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference who objected to Polish claims for territories that were not ethnically Polish was “in league with the Jews.” After several wars with Ukraine and Russia in which the battle lines swung wildly from Kiev to Warsaw, an international boundary line between Poland and Russia was proposed by a commission established by the Peace Conference. However, the final agreement between Russia and Poland in 1920 included in Poland a large area east of the line proposed by the international commission. The population of this territory was only 30% Polish. In Poland as a whole, Poles were 69%, Ukrainians 14%, Jews 8%, and the balance Russians, Germans, and others. In the new, insecure Poland, the presence of large, hostile minorities which resulted from territorial overextension, particularly the Ukrainians on the eastern border and the Germans on the western border, proved to be a major obstacle to developing a strong nation. In contrast to Russia, there was no attempt by the majority ethnic Poles to encourage minorities to develop a sense of national identity. Polish political parties competed for the honor of being the most antagonistic to minorities, especially the Jews. The largest party in the parliament in 1919 made anti-Semitism a major plank in its platform. The 3 million Jews in Poland, which included several hundred thousand Russian Jews who fled to Poland after the 1920 treaty, had exchanged the rather inefficient Russian government-sponsored anti-Semitism for the virulent Church-abetted traditional Polish anti-Semitism. With no interest in assimilation into the majority society, the Jews lived as a separate nation within Poland, almost 90% speaking Yiddish as their “native” language, with their own schools, publications, literature, and theatre. Another Golden Age of Yiddish culture flourished for a brief period. I. B. Singer, the Nobel Prize winner for literature, was a product of this culture. By the mid-1930’s, Polish official anti-Semitic laws were following the lead of Nazi Germany, and the government was expressing its admiration for the “achievements” of Hitler’s Germany. During the 1930’s, about 200,000 Jews emigrated from Poland to Palestine, until Palestine was closed to further Jewish immigration by the British Mandatory authority in 1939.

    Germany – During the war, in which Jews participated in the military in excess of their proportion in the population, the German high command very publicly sent a questionnaire to field commanders asking for reports on how Jews were shirking duties, exhibiting cowardice, or deserting. The results of the survey showed that Jews in service were not less loyal in any way than other German soldiers. This result was not publicized, but the fact that the survey was conducted at all indicated the prevailing majority opinion that the Jews were somehow “non-German.” The defeat in the war, the ineffective Weimar Republic in which Jews had prominent leadership roles, inflation (which resulted in large part from the reparations demanded by the Allies), and then the worldwide depression were all blamed by a majority of Germans on the Jews, less than 1% of the German population. Nevertheless, during the early post-war period, Jews played a major role in the cultural life of Germany and western Europe. Jews were prominent, even dominant, in the fields of literature, classical music, sciences and mathematics, medical research, and psychiatry (universally regarded for better or worse as a Jewish science). Rather than evoking grudging admiration, Jewish prominence in European intellectual life was reviled by the Nazis as evidence of the “international Jew,” the debaser of true German culture. In 1933, the Nazi party gained a plurality in the Reichstag, and Hitler was appointed Chancellor.

    Palestine – At the conclusion of World War I, the League of Nations awarded Britain the mandate for Palestine. While the Balfour Declaration of 1917 committed Britain to support the establishment of the Jewish national home in Palestine, publication of conflicting British secret wartime understandings with Arab leaders seemed to undercut that commitment. Emir Faisal, son of Sherif Husein to whom the British had made promises of Arab independence after the war, began agitation against the British and the Jewish settlers, whom he regarded as agents of Britain. To attempt to appease the Arab nationalists, Britain made Faisal puppet king of Iraq and carved Transjordan out of Palestine to provide a kingship for Faisal’s brother. Arab leaders then demanded annulment of the Balfour Declaration, with the objective of ensuring that the now reduced Palestine would not become a Jewish nation. The British installed efficient postal, railroad, and telephone systems, but their attempts to create a representative legislature for the Mandate were boycotted by the Arabs. The Mandate authority was then forced to deal independently with the Arab and Jewish communities. In 1922, the Jewish Agency and the Supreme Moslem Council were established by the Mandate. The Jewish Agency was initially staffed at the top levels primarily by World Zionist Organization leaders. The Agency conducted diplomatic discussions with Britain and the League of Nations, and administered the Jewish National Fund (JNF), immigration, education, and the self-defense force (Haganah). Most of the day-to-day operating positions in the Agency were staffed by the settlers (Yishuv). The Agency was in effect a national government in waiting. From 1922 to 1936, 300,000 immigrants entered from Europe to escape anti-Semitism, mostly from Poland at first and later from central Europe. The JNF continued to purchase land as it became available, and the number of Jewish agricultural settlements steadily expanded. With the growth of Tel Aviv to 150,000, the formation of the Palestine Electric Corporation, and cement and fertilizer works, a modern economy was being established by the Jews. The Arabs benefitted to some extent from the Jewish economic activity, but the Arab oligarchy resented and feared the Jewish expansion. Most of the Arab population were illiterate poor farmers or herders on land owned primarily by a few old families. The Supreme Moslem Council developed into an anti-Jewish, anti-British ultra-nationalist organization. Throughout the Middle East Arab nationalism was forcing concessions from France and Britain, and it was clear that in Palestine also the political power was swinging to the Arabs. In 1929 the Moslem Council orchestrated a series of riots against Jewish settlements. To the shock of the Yishuv, two British investigations ascribed most of the blame to the Jews. For the next 8 years, the Yishuv redoubled efforts to purchase and develop land as the additional immigrants arrived from Europe. In 1937, following another series of Arab attacks, a British commission recommended partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. The Jewish Agency agreed to pursue partition, but the Arabs completely rejected it. In 1939, with the Arabs showing support for the Axis powers, the British complied with Arab demands to limit Jewish immigration to 75,000 over the next 5 years and none after that. Combined with immigration restrictions in the U.S., the closure of Palestine was a disaster for European Jews attempting to escape destruction.

    U.S.A. – The nativist anti-”undesirable” immigrant factions which had become influential, particularly in the Democratic party before World War I, strengthened as a result of the socialist/communist upheavals in Europe which followed the war. Bolshevism or international communism, linked in the public mind to Eastern European Jews, was regarded as an imminent threat to the American way of life. The racist theories that became widely accepted were those promoted by the 1916 Madison Grant book, which glorified Northern European races as opposed to Southern Europeans (particularly Italians), Eastern European Slavs and Jews, and all Asians. The legislative products of this racism were the Immigration Restriction Acts of 1921 and 1924. Under the 1924 act, total immigration into the U.S. was limited to 165,000 per year, of which 131,000 were allowed to enter from Great Britain, Germany, Ireland, and Scandinavia. The quota from Italy was 3845 per year, compared to about 200,000 immigrants per year from Italy in the years 1900-1910. The quotas from East Europe and Asia were minimal. The quotas were strictly applied to Jews throughout the 1930’s and even during World War II, when Jews attempting to escape Europe were literally turned away. In 1930 the population of Jews in the U.S. was about 5 million, of which about 2.3 million were in the New York City area. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, strict (although informal) internal quotas on Jews were applied to admission to universities, medical and law schools, employment in large corporations and law firms, and the purchase of homes in “restricted” areas. The result was the establishment of “Jewish” law firms, medical and dental practices, investment banks, brokerage houses, real estate agents, resort hotels, and (of course) country clubs. Following World War II the formal immigration quotas were eliminated, and the informal internal quotas were very gradually relaxed.