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The events of 1881-2 were a watershed for Jewish history because they forced Jews to re-establish their identity as an outsider group. The Russian Jews began to support Bundism, emigration, and Zionism because they received no support in the aftermath of the pogroms. The problem of emancipation laid before them post 1881 was two fold: assimilate or maintain, stay or go. The consistently increasing intensity of anti Semitism, founded in the event of 1881-82, differed from its previous variability. Jews had experienced cyclical repression and acceptance during the previous 100 years, when they entered the Russian Empire through the partition of the “Pale of Settlement” from Poland.
The Jews of the Pale had a hard life between barely making a living and the oppression of their rights. For the most part these Jews lived in shtetlech, small towns which isolated them from their gentile counterparts. During this period there was an effort made both by the government, through military conscription, and by some Jews, through Haskalah, for increased assimilation.
However, even during times of increased anti-Semitism there was little violence directed towards Jews and, as in the case of the Odessa pogroms, not necessarily anti-Semitic in cause.
Assimilation was officially no longer an option once the Jews were condemned for the assassination of Alexander II and pogroms broke out. The pogroms of 1881-82, which occurred throughout the southwestern Russian Empire, were of a different nature than those occurring previously. The pogroms of the 80s had more participants, occurred more frequently, and were focused on violence towards Jews and their property.
These pogroms were essentially a chaotic purge ritual; with a goal of purging Russia of Jews rather than themselves of sin. In such a situation, is there nothing to do but wait for the pogrom to begin? One anonymous author wrote, “If I had the courage || would kill all those close to me and then myself, and the farce would be over.”(1) As depressing as it sounds, it seems like a fairly normal reaction to the frightening situation the Jews found themselves in. It was often the case during the pogroms that military or police officers were bystanders, doing nothing to stop them. The pogroms’ demographics were largely rural peasants and urban lower class. Many serfs moved to the cities after Alexander II freed them, and the wealthier, better educated Jews they found there became sources for resentment. The government, led by Alexander III, instituted the May Laws (and subsequent numerus clausus) in reaction to the pogroms, which were viewed as popular protest. The May Laws heavily restricted the Jews dwelling and financial stability. Laws were subsequently added, further depriving the Jews of rights. The May Laws effectively pushed Russian Jews into poverty, with a large population subsiding completely on charity.
The Jewish reaction to the events of 1881-82 can be understood through a flight or fight mentality. The Jewish leadership made no united claims for emigration in fear of its impact on Jewish emancipation in Russia. However, many of the Russian Jews left, choosing either the West or Israel. Emigrants who favored America sought increased rights and financial stability. On the other hand, those who preferred Israel (Zionists) longed for a Jewish national identity after being pressured to assimilate.
The United States was viewed amiably as an option for emigration by many Russian Jews. A country founded upon religious toleration would seem like the perfect place for an oppressed religiously identifying ethnic community to live. The United States was a better option than Israel for Russian emigrants because, as Judah Leib Levin wrote, “it is a country settled by enlightened peoples of culture and civilized behavior.”(2) The United States was founded upon the enlightenment ideals rationalism and liberalism. Although Levin converted to Zionism shortly after he wrote this, he illustrated that just because Russian Jews had lost faith in Haskalah didn’t mean they had abandoned enlightenment ideals altogether. These Jews had come to realize how incompatible enlightenment was with an absolute monarchy. Levin was opposed to Israel because he thought that there would be no improvement from living under the Russian Empire as opposed to the Ottoman Empire.
Immigration to America might have seemed like a godsend, but it was no cakewalk. Life as an American immigrant was difficult, as stated in an anonymous letter, “Those who leave yearn with all their hearts to return to their homeland, but are unable to find the money for the return journey.”(3) Russian Jews were so desperate to leave Russia that they often didn’t plan for their future, or those they left behind. This letter depicts the sense of helplessness that existed after 1881-2, and also the fractured state of the Jewish community. There could be no certainty of which potential future gleamed brighter, but for certain there was little help to be given. Amongst all the hopeful possibilities in the United States and Israel, there was still plenty of pessimism in the face of survival.
Simon Dubnow created Jewish Autonomism as an ideology of hope for the future of Diaspora Jews. The post 1881-2 watershed era, as Simon Dubnow claimed, “must combine our equal civic and political rights with the social and cultural autonomy enjoyed by other nationalities whose historical conditions resemble our own.”(4) Dubnow thought Jews should strive for a life, both free of oppression and discrimination, and free to live and educate themselves as they saw fit. The ideology of Jewish Autonomism applied to components of other markedly distinct ideologies: the Bund’s nationality policy and the Helsingfors Program of the Zionists. Although Jewish Autonomism was no long lived, it reflects the important challenge that faced the Jews of secular modernity-assimilation.
Although prior to 1881 there had been Jewish participation in anti-czarist revolutionary movements, it was only after the fact that participation began to truly grow. This culminated in the formation of the Jewish socialist movement, the Bund. The Bund, consisting of the Jewish proletariat, supported the use of Yiddish, autonomism, and secular Jewish nationalism, in the hopes of a future in Eastern Europe. The Bund’s views on Zionism were officially stated at the fourth party convention in May of 1901 as, “a reaction of the bourgeois classes to the phenomenon of antisemitism and to the abnormal civil status of the Jewish people in Russia. “(5) The Bund considered Zionism a bourgeois response, and the bourgeois were happy to accept. This characterization was hardly true, as the original Zionists were often quite poor. However, they also viewed it as reactionary, which implies that they thought of Zionism as forced and unoriginal.
Although the notion of Jewish nationalism existed prior to the events of 1881-82, its foundation was truly planted with Leon Pinsker’s pamphlet Auto-Emancipation. Leon Pinsker described the inevitability of anti-Semitism as like men who are, “always terrified by a disembodied spirit, a soul wandering about with no physical covering; and terror breeds hatred.”(6) Pinsker sought to “scientifically” reduce anti-Semitism to something understandable and on an irrefutable premise, the Jews were not at home. The events of 1881-82, in their scope, must have seemed like a nightmare for many Russian Jews. Without the fortune of hindsight, the typical Russian Jew probably had no idea how to save their future. Therefore, the rational and “scientific” arguments of Pinsker seemed viable.
Although the Bund was at odds with Zionism, socialism and Zionism were not incompatible. A group of Russian Jewish students developed a plan for a commune style settlement of Israel, essentially an early kibbutz. In the Bilu Manifesto it was asked, “What hast thou been doing till 1882? Sleeping and dreaming the false dream of Assimilation.”7 The Bilu’s ardent denouncement of assimilation was correlated to the events of 1881-82. The Bilu opposed the “fake it til you make it” style of assimilation, claiming that the Russian Jews had nothing to fake. They had a rich national identity that they had only to reach out and claim it.
Twenty-four years after the events of 1881-82, and the romantic idea of settling Israel had become unrealistic for Russian Zionists. At the All-Russian Zionist Conference in Helsinki, the Helsingfor Program was developed as more realistic form of Zionism. Although aliyah to Israel was still the ultimate goal, they had to find a pragmatic solution for the present. Part of the program called for the, “Recognition of the Jewish people in Russia as a single political entity entitled to govern itself in matters of national culture. “8 This notion of political autonomy reflects the ideals of Dubnow. Although the Helsingfor Program may not have been directly applied and practiced, it opened the door for new forms of Zionism.
The events of 1881-82, namely the pogroms and the May Laws, were a watershed moment for not only Russian Jews, but Jews in general. They forced the realization of incompatibility in their situation. They had to make definitive choices about their future, rather than sit passively and hope for the best. These choices ultimately led to the bulk of the American Jewish population, the creation of Israel, and, in part, the Soviet Union.
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