A history of Zionism and the Jewish People in the Soviet Union

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A History of Zionism and the Jewish People

in the Soviet Union

by Yevgeny Goldenberg and Ashley Roof
December 5, 2003
Engineering 297
The Ethics of Development in Global Environments

Table of Contents

1. The Jewish People in Russia - Origins

2. Jews in Tsarist Russia
3. Zionism at the Beginning of the Soviet Union
4. The Jewish Religion in the Soviet Union - Changes Over Time
5. Soviet Policy and Theory: Marx, Lenin and Stalin on the Jewish Nationality
6. A Jewish Autonomous Republic
7. Soviet Jews and the Holocaust
8. Soviet Influence on the Formation of the Israeli State
9. Stalin's Anti-Semitism and the Doctor's Plot
10. Jews and Zionism in Post-Stalinist Russia in the 50s and 60s
11. The 1970s
12. Where did the Zionists go: Reasons for the Drop-off in Israel bound Jewish Immigration
13. The 1980s
14. Jewish Immigration from the Soviet Union 1989-Today
15. Jews in Russia and former Soviet States Today
16. Russia's Stance on Israel Today
17. A Jew in Soviet Russia - A Firsthand Account

Table of Figures

Figure 1: 
"The Jewish Pale of Settlement"
Figure 2: "Photo journal: Birobidzhan."
Figure 3: "Locations in the War in Russia 1941-1945"
Figure 4: "The Banner of the Zionist Gang"
Figure 5:  "International Zionism"
Figure 6: "Immigration to Israel - Statistics - 1996"
Figure 7: "Map and Graph: Religion - Top 100 Jews per Capita 2003"

The Jewish People in Russia - Origins

The Jewish religion first appeared around Russia sometime between the 8th and 9th centuries BC when the Khazar Empire, inhabited by a Turkic people, converted to Judaism. Khazaria was located mostly on the Steppes north of modern Azerbaijan and the former Byzantine Empire and bordered both the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The state of Khazaria existed from 652 AD to 1016 AD, when the empire was captured by Byzantine forces. After that date, the Jewish people in Russia endured centuries of relocation and persecution interspersed with pogroms (Wikipedia).

Towards the end of the middle ages the Jewish people began to leave Russia and Western Europe for places that were less hostile, such as Poland and Hungary. They moved to less populated areas of Eastern Europe, mostly areas of Ukraine and Lithuania, and began to set up shtetls, small towns that were entirely Jewish. These towns were run by governments set up by Jews according to religious principles from the ancient Hebrew texts (Wikipedia).
Jews in Tsarist Russia

Hostility towards the Jews within tsarist Russia traces its roots back to the earliest religious and social anti-Semitic ferment of the fifteenth century. Known as “the heresy of the Judaizers”, this movement forbade the settlement of Jews on Russian soil and encouraged violence and hostile military action against Jews outside Russia’s borders. These unprovoked harassments, and sometimes complete extermination, of Jewish settlements has to eventually be reevaluated as Russia gained political sovereignty over a vast population of hundreds of thousands of Jews under the Polish partition at the end of the eighteenth century. Suddenly finding itself in the possession of this large population of a traditionally hated and excluded group, Russia had to figure out a way to govern its new populous. The immediate need to keep Jews out of Russia’s borders led to the creation of the Pale of Settlement, a tsarist decree officially disallowing the Jews from leaving the new annexed territories. These were the first Russian policies identifying the Jews as a separate group within Russia, leading to their widespread hatred among the rest of the Russian population. Seeing that merely excluding such a vast group from Russia’s society would not maintain as a long term viable solution, tactics became aimed at assimilating Jews during the rule of Tsar Alexander I. Some of the more peaceful means to achieve this included resettling small groups of Jews into Black Sea regions in Russia, and encouraging them to take up crafts and industry with the hopes that they would eventually convert to Eastern Orthodoxy and be assimilated into Russian society1.

As integration replaced annihilation, Russia’s tsars looked to draw Jews into mainstream Russia, with varying levels of brutality and eventual success. Tsar Nicholas I made the conversion of Jews to Eastern Orthodoxy the crux of his agenda, even offering concessionary rights and privileges, allotted to Russians, to Jewish converts. He hoped to create a large group of converted Jews that would then be the impetus for other Jews to follow their lead. He would specifically force young Jews into compulsory military service, sometimes kidnapping them in childhood, hoping that through reeducation and conversion he would make an impact on the younger Jewish generations. These efforts however brought little success especially as these efforts to integrate went hand in hand with threats of removal of rights and, at one point, a proposal to classify over 80% of the Jewish people living in Russia as outlaws. The failed iron hand attempts by Nicholas to integrate Jews led to a stark contrasting approach by his successor, Alexander II, to include the Russian Jewry into mainstream society. Rich, educated Jews were, for the first time, allowed to leave the Pale of Settlement, to study, and even enter government service, in central Russia. The development of Jewish newspapers and a growing Jewish intelligentsia defined Alexander’s reign; yet, this increased recognition of Jews as an equitable part of Russia’s society was the catalyst for a renewed social hatred. Extreme Russian nationalists, or Slavophiles, portrayed the Jews as a corrupting, foreign force, bringing with them western influences. On the other hand, the emerging revolutionary Narodniki (Populists) saw the Jews as capitalist parasites exploiting Russia’s poor proletariat. The government itself began to worry about the emerging Jewry as they saw a developing revolutionary fervor among the urban Jews. A deep rooted cultural mistrust and fear of Jewish people became apparent as slogans such as “Жид Идёт” (the [derogatory term for Jew] is upon you) accompanied the new integration of Jews within Russian society2.

This mistrust and anti-Semitism exploded onto the political and social scene in 1881 with the assassination of Alexander II by revolutionaries and the ascension of Alexander III to power. The development of Jews within Russian society, their education and acceptance, was seen as a direct assault to the basic Russian societal and political traditions. Strict new guidelines were put into effect restricting civil service jobs, academic posts, and other liberal professions to Jews. The basis of the Pale of Settlement was reaffirmed and new harsher constraints were put on all Jewish economic activity. Jews who had been previously allowed into the Russian capital of Moscow, under the decree of Alexander II, were expelled in 1891. The Russian government, in the wake of a failed invasion of Japan in 1905, tried to gain public favor by staging pogroms, organized massacres first seen in the Middle Ages, in October 1905 when hundreds of Jewish settlements were destroyed by organized mobs of Russians under the protection of the Russian army. While the Russian government hoped to eradicate the revolutionary zeal that they felt was the result of the Jews, such a harsh treatment of their people directly contributed to anti-tsarist revolutionary sentiment among the Jewish people. Furthermore these anti-Semitic policies of the Tsarist rule led to the creation of a basic revolutionary Russian doctrine of equality amongst all people, with emphasis on eradication of anti-Semitic fervor, which allowed the Jews to briefly prosper with the onset of the Communist revolution.3

Zionism at the Beginning of the Soviet Union

“When, after a successful coup d'etat in October 1917, the Bolshevik party came to power, the new regime found in its domain a powerful, dynamic, deeply routed Zionist mass movement”(Schechtman). One could say that the Bolshevik revolution from a Jewish perspective was in fact an attempt to create a Zionist state like that mentioned in Herzl's Judenstaat, one of the first treatises of the modern Zionist ideals. After the severe Jewish oppression of the tsarist era, it is no wonder that many Jews were in the forefront during the very beginnings of the Bolshevik revolution.

Most Russian Jews were exceptionally poor proletariats who had been banished to serfdom hundreds of years before by anti-Semitic tsars. It is therefore logical that when the October Revolution took place, many Jews were active members and leaders, inspired by the idea of a completely egalitarian society without nationality, religion, or race. It seems rather ironic at this point that Jewish people who had struggled for centuries to maintain their cultural vibrancy and individuality would embrace an ideology that all but required them to give up all that defined them as a unique people .Trotsky himself was Jewish, as were many other leaders of the original Bolshevik revolution. Before the Bolshevik revolution there had been, at the beginning of the 20th century, an awakening of Zionist-Socialist idealism. Indeed, one could argue that the first true communist communities were created by Zionists who moved to Palestine in the late 19th century and set up communal Kabutz farms. It is important to note at this point that the majority of the forty settlements in Palestine before World War One were founded by Russian Jews, a foreshadowing of the later Zionist/Socialist ideology combination.

However, idealism mixed with realism during the changing times of the turn of the century as the first Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) conference was held in Katowitz in 1884. Several conferences of the same nature, featuring a discussion of Zionist ideas and possible opportunities for a Jewish state, were held over the following 40 years, each one with a large Russian Zionist contingent. During Tsarist Russia, the Zionist movement had been illegal; therefore, with the Revolution of February 1917, the Zionist movement in Russia was able to leap beyond where it had been previously possible to envision (Schechtman).

Immediately after the February Revolution, Zionist periodicals sprung up around Russia and 300,000 people throughout Russia belonged to the Zionist party. It is important to note though, that not all Russian Jews were Zionists or supported a Zionist agenda, however, the Zionist party outnumbered the other four Russian Jewish parties combined at the all-Russian Zionist convention in May 1917, only a few months after the February Revolution. It therefore seems logical that after the initial jolts of revolution, Lenin and other Soviet leaders found themselves with a large, powerful, and highly organized enemy to the anti-Zionist doctrines of the new communist state (Shechtman).
The Jewish Religion in the Soviet Union-Changes Over Time

At the time of the Bolshevik Revolution most of the Jews in Russia lived in Jewish communities centered around a synagogue. The first act of the Soviet Government that directly affects the rights of the Jews regarding nationality and religion was the Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia which rescinded all "national-religious privileges and restrictions.(Rothenberg, 161)" The Declaration acknowledged that Jewish religion was intertwined with its national and ethnic identity, however, soon after the Soviet government would attempt to forcefully separate all religion from any group's, including the Jew's, national identity. In January 1918 the Council of People's Commissars gave a decree, "On the Separation of Church from State and School from Church," which required, "the complete secularization of the state, the confiscation of all religious property and funds, the withdrawal of the status of legal entity from churches and church organizations, and the prohibition of religious instruction in schools (Rothenberg, 162)."

The decree, which was meant as a blow to the Russian Orthodox Church, also severely impeded the future of Judaism in Russia, and led to difficult questions never fully resolved about the dichotomy and relationship between the Jewish religion and the Jewish ethnicity/nationality. Soon, after a short period of respite from harassment by the government, the new Soviet government began to target the Jewish religion and Jewish people. They did away with Kehilahs, the judicial bodies of Jewish towns, without providing adequate replacements. They began to appoint Jewish communists (so as to hide any anti-Semitic undertones) to "turn in" Jewish religious leaders for their opposition to the new government (Rothenberg).

During this time, the Soviet government sought to seek a compromise with the Russian Orthodox Church in order to appease the masses of peasants. They attempted no such deal with the Jewish Synagogue, potentially because they lacked the same fear without millions of peasants to back up the Synagogue. Instead they created a committee, the Yevsektsia, to enforce government policies on the Jewish population. Shortly the Yevsektsia began a series of "trials" against the Jewish religion, Jewish Holidays, and Jewish Schools. Throughout this period they also took it upon themselves to liquidate the Jewish primary and secondary schools, even in areas where there were no other schools for the children to go to (Rothenberg).

By the late 1920's there were a large number of arrests and deportations of Jewish religious men, especially Rabbis, shokhtim (ritual slaughterers), and Moiles. They were accused of supporting Trotsky and of going against the collectivization of agriculture. Soviet officials also staged loud parades outside of Jewish places of worship on the religious holidays, and made it impossible for Jews to obtain unleavened bread for Passover (Rothenberg).

Throughout the rest of Stalin's dictatorship Jewish religious leaders were occasionally rounded up and executed or deported under the charges of following Trotsky. Throughout this time, the Jewish cultural base itself was suffering from problems that would continue through the rest of the history of the Soviet Union, the integration of the young people into Russian industrial society, therefore causing them to speak Russian instead of Yiddish as their mother tongue, and to begin to forget the principles behind religious rituals that were becoming less and less frequent.

Soviet Policy and Theory: Marx, Lenin and Stalin on the Jewish Nationality

The questions of Jewish nationality and how to treat the unusual circumstances of an ethnic group that is joined by a common language, religion, and customs, but not a national heritage were addressed in Socialist theory several times. Marx did not specifically address the idea of Jewish nationalism, and considered the Jewish people more of a "caste" or "chimerical nation" (Sawyer, 22). This is probably because the idea of the Jewish national state was not brought into the mainstream of literature and political thought until the 1890's, after Marx's death. However, within his writings of the ideal socialist order, Marx did emphasize a complete disintegration of religion and individual nationalism which led to later interpretations of his vision by Soviet leaders, namely Lenin and Stalin, which incorporated specific references to the question of the Jewish ethnicity and Jewish Nationalism, i.e. Zionism.

Main concepts of Marxist philosophy that were utilized by Lenin and Stalin when addressing the Jewish question include: the transient nature of nationalism and the approval of assimilation and amalgamation (Sawyer, 22). Lenin believed that the answer to the question of Jewish nationality lay in the total assimilation of the Jewish people into Soviet society, including the surrender of Judaism, Yiddish, and the Jewish culture. In theory, all Zionist tendencies ran contrary to the eventual goal of an international egalitarian socialist order. Somewhat ironically, Lenin was strongly against any form of anti-Semitism and believed that anti-Semitist acts actually impeded the assimilation of Jews into mainstream Soviet society. Therefore, Lenin was vocally against anti-Semitism, both ideologically and pragmatically, but was also strongly advocating the complete destruction of the language, religion, culture, and Zionist beliefs that distinguished the Jews as an ethnic group or as a people (Sawyer 23).

Stalin's theories regarding the Jews were largely similar to those of Lenin, basically depending on the dissolution of all nationalities, not just a Jewish one, as in the theoretical Marxist international socialist order. Soviet official policies regarding the Jews were rare and ambiguous, although they always contained messages of egalitarianism as an ultimate goal, which theoretically required the abolition of all characteristics that defined Jews as an ethnic group (Sawyer, 24). This overlying attitude contributed to a growing fear of a loss of cultural and ethnic identity by Jews and a flowering of Zionist beliefs as a possible refuge from anti-Semitic philosophies.

Although in theory, assimilation and a refusal to recognize a Jewish nationality characterized the Soviet view of the Jewish ethnicity, in practice the Soviet Union's actions did not support their own doctrine. Firstly, the Soviet government listed Jews as their own nationality with Yiddish as their national language. On the internal passport document that every comrade had to carry, Jews were categorized as “yevrei” (Jew), in the nationality section, therefore acknowledging the presence of not just a Jewish ethnicity but of a Jewish nationalism. This recognition was taken a step further when Stalin created an Autonomous Jewish Republic in 1928 (Wikipedia).
A Jewish Autonomous Republic

In 1928, as a result of Lenin's nationality policy which stated that every national group within the Soviet Union should be given a territory, the territory of Birobidzhan was created in one of the far eastern regions of Siberia. The goal of the project was to "pursue cultural autonomy in a socialist framework (Wikipedia)," which would conveniently also create a Zion-like Jewish proletariat state in which the Jewish population could settle, far away from the metropolis of the western Soviet Union. One of the major motivations for the creation of the territory was to take the attention of western and soviet Jews away from the formation of a real Zionist state. It has been proposed that Stalin chose the location of the Jewish state in Siberia with anti-Semitic thoughts in mind; however, there were other political and pragmatic reasons for the choice of location.

During this time, the Soviet government was trying to encourage resettlement to the Far East, especially along the vulnerable border with China. They also had to deal with the reality that most Jews within the Soviet Union lived in Belarus and Ukraine, both places with large populations of non-Jews. In order to avoid a situation similar to the future Israel/Palestine conflict, Stalin chose to create the Jewish territory in an area that was virtually unpopulated. Although the conditions were harsh and the Jewish settlers who moved there were going to have to live in the harsh conditions of rural Siberia, the Birobidzhan project did demonstrate recognition by the Soviet government of the Jewish nationality, and more importantly, its culture. In contrast to the Socialist theories previously mentioned according to which Jews should be forced to assimilate and give up their cultural and ethnic identity to create a true egalitarian society, Stalin not only recognized a nationality, but allowed the new inhabitants of Birobidzhan to mildly explore their Jewish culture and language.

A Yiddish newspaper and theatre group was created, Yiddish was taught in schools, streets in the city were named after famous Yiddish authors, and the Soviet government started a large propaganda campaign to try to motivate Jews from the Western regions to emigrate to Birobidzhan. They even undertook the writing of Yiddish novels about a Zionist Utopia in the region to promote migration. Yet, at the same time, there was a unique cultural fusion taking place as the Soviets tried to combine aspect of Jewish culture with a greater Soviet proletariat culture. They attempted to translate Yiddish, which is meant to be written in Hebrew text, into Cyrillic text. They also tried to promote the use of the Yiddish newspaper and theatre group for getting socialist messages to the people of Birobidzhan (Wikipedia).

However, the conditions in eastern Siberia were very harsh, and promoting immigration was a constant problem. The first group of immigrants left for Birobidzhan in 1928. 600 permits were granted, 450 for families and 150 for individuals; in total, 654 people left for Birobidzhan. The Soviet government tried to create an immigration plan to move many of the poorest Jews from Ukraine to the Siberian territory. By 1931, the Soviet authorities began recruiting young able-bodied men and ex-servicemen to the area as their relations with the Far East became shaky. Unfortunately, most of the settlers found the environment so inhospitable that after only two years, 20-30% of the immigrants left the area. The immigration statistics for the territory of Birobidzhan are as follows:

1928 1929 1930 1931 1932 1933

654 555 860 3,231 14,000 3,005 (Kochan, 71)

One notices that there was a sharp rise in immigration in 1932, many of whom were from the poorest group of Ukrainian Jews; however, what the chart does not show that as many as 80% of the total left that same year, although Soviet officials would not admit accurate numbers of settlers leaving. By 1933 more people left Birobidzhan that arrived and by 1937, during the height of the Yevhov purges, the secret police became responsible for escorting the Jews to Birobidzhan. During this time immigration virtually stopped. The Soviet government tried to make immigration more attractive by proclaiming the area a Jewish autonomous region. The president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Kalinin made a speech in which he said he supported preserving the Jewish Nationality and that if people were to continue immigrating, the region would become a Jewish national state within 10 years (Kochan 73).

Kalinin's prediction of a Jewish nation state never came true, and in 1948 all of the Jewish institutions were closed down, Yiddish was no longer taught in schools and immigration stopped (Kochan, 74). It was clear from the beginning that although the Birobidzhan project was the first possibility for Jews to exercise their recognition as a nationality, the actual conditions of the settlement and the pragmatic aspect of civilized people being forced to hack out an existence on collective farms in a virtual frontier wasteland was not the idea of a Jewish homeland that Zionists had been dreaming of. Although the Biribidzhan project is important in the history of the Jewish people's search for a homeland, the project itself seemed doomed to failure from the beginning. The creation of a Jewish territory in Siberia did not seem to quell a Soviet Zionist's search for a Jewish Homeland, but to stir an even stronger feeling that the Jewish nation needed to be in an accessible place with religious meaning and an ability to self-govern in the way the earlier Jewish settlers in the shtetls had been able to self-govern.
Soviet Jews and the Holocaust

At the first stages of Hitler’s rule of Germany, Stalin signed a treaty with Hitler’s regime. According to the treaty, both countries would abstain from attacking one another and Eastern Europe would be divided between the two powers. Because of the treaty, two million Jews suddenly became members of the Soviet population, and the Soviet Union became the country with the highest population of Jews in the world. There is a famous anecdote that when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union Stalin was so shocked that he locked himself in a room and drank for days until his generals had to break in and threaten to overthrow him if he did not take control of the country and make a decision about war. Whether or not the anecdote is true, the attack by Hitler on the Soviet Union was more devastating to the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe than to any other ethnic group.

At the beginning of Hitler’s reign, Poland, which was largely part of the ex- Pale of Settlement, had one of the largest concentrated populations of Jews. By the end of the war that population was reduced to a tiny fraction of what it had once been. Yet, within the Soviet block, there were similarly devastating massacres of Jews long before Auschwitz existed. The Jews who were exiled to Siberia by Stalin before the Nazi invasion of Russia were far luckier than the Jews who were allowed to stay in the Eastern European territories of the Soviet Union, especially in Ukraine. “The evidence indicated that the vast majority of Soviet Jews in the areas controlled by the Nazis perished. Dmitri Manuilsky, the Ukrainian delegate to the San Francisco Conference of 1945 (at which the United Nations was founded), said in an interview that most of the Jews of the Ukraine were slaughtered by the Germans. In Polodia, 200,000 Jews were murdered; in Kiev 132,000; in Odessa, most of the city’s 180,000 Jews were eliminated by the Nazis. The pattern remained the same in White Russia. Nearly 160,000 Jews lived in four of the area’s major cities before the war. After the Germans were driven out, only about 18,000 Jews remained (Chesler, 83).” It is obvious from the information, that Jews who were exiled to lands beyond the reach of the Nazis were saved by a blessing in disguise.

The most infamous slaughter of Soviet Jews during the Nazi invasion took place at Babi Yar outside of Kiev between the holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah in 1941. It is estimated that 100,000 Jews were killed in less than a week. At Babi Yar, Jews were killed and buried in the ground, dead or alive, and it is reported that for months after the killings, blood would leak from the ground. The killers at Babi Yar were not just the Nazis, but Ukrainians as well, and the Communist party officials did not do anything to stop the massacre. Disturbing events like Babi Yar, in which Jews were brutally murdered en masse while the communist party and government officials turned a blind eye, were undoubtedly seared into the minds of Soviet Jews, and contributed to the growing beliefs of Zionism (Chesler).

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