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Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia (Studies on the History of Society and Culture) JEWS EFFECTIVELY A SEPARATE NATION IN POLAND

jan peczkis|Sunday, December 29, 2013

This book includes details about Jews that lived within the Pale of Jewish Settlement. However, it notably features the Jews of St. Petersburg, which was located outside the Pale. It elaborates on Jewish social, political, educational, and other movements. In my review, I focus on Polish-Jewish relations, even though this is not a theme of this work.



The vast majority of Russia's Jews had been Poland's Jews in what became Russian-ruled eastern Poland after the Partitions. Up to that time, the privileges of Poland's Jews had gone far beyond tolerance, and were much more than that of the middleman situated between the nobility and the peasants. Nathans comments, (quote) Under Polish rule, the Jews had achieved a degree of political and social autonomy unsurpassed in the European diaspora. More than in any other country, the Jews of Poland were able to engage in the full range of practices that made Judaism a distinct social order. Not only their ritual observance but their rabbinic courts of law and system of taxation were recognized and protected by the state. In each community, a governing body known as the KAHAL gathered and apportioned Jewish taxes, policed the local Jewish population, and controlled residence and membership in the community. Moreover, a country-wide institution known as the Council of the Four Lands (referring to the four major regions of the Polish commonwealth) coordinated practices among the hundreds of Jewish communities and presented them vis-à-vis Polish rulers. Though not formally part of the hierarchy of estates that composed Polish society, in practice Jews functioned as one of the many corporate elements in their characteristically segmented "old regime" society. (unquote). (p. 25).


Any affinities of Poland's Jews to Poland largely disappeared in less than a generation after the Partitions. Russian Adjutant General A. A. Suvorov praised the Jews for their loyalty to the government of Russia during the Napoleonic invasion of 1812 [which Poles supported] and again during the November 1831 Polish Insurrection. (p. 46).

The tsarist Russian government did its part in driving Jews away from the Polish cause. Nathans comments, (quote) Even in Congress Poland, where in the early 1860's the tsarist government came closest to a European-style Jewish emancipation, the abolition of serfdom and the scaling back of aristocratic privileges--much like the granting of certain rights to Jews--were essentially tactical maneuvers designed to neutralize support for Polish independence. (unquote). (p. 78).


The tendency nowadays is to attribute hindrances to Jewish progress solely to the policies of non-Jewish authorities. In contrast, Nathans points out some self-imposed Jewish limitations. Thus, Jews had their own institutions of higher Jewish learning, the yeshivas, for the longest time, but were hostile to non-Jewish learning until relatively recent times. He quips, (quote) Much of the resistance, however, came from Jews themselves. In traditional Jewish society, secular knowledge was formally countenanced strictly as a tool for greater understanding of the Torah, or for the more complete fulfillment of divine commandments. The notion that non-Jewish learning was worthy of study carried with it the unsettling implication that not all truth was contained within the Torah. Compared to other Jewish communities, those of Eastern Europe were among the least interested in non-Jewish learning, and resistance only deepened with the spread of Hasidism in the late eighteenth century. During the preceding centuries, only a handful of Polish Jews are known to have found their way to universities... (unquote). (p. 206).

Now consider the beginnings of Jewish assimilation in the 19th century. Widespread Jewish resistance to assimilation went beyond the desire to preserve religious and cultural distinctiveness, and went beyond concerns that Jews were not getting equal rights as part of the process. For instance, the Zionists summarily denounced Jewish assimilation as a form of spiritual slavery. (pp. 334-335). Among surveyed early 20th century Jewish university students, arguably the avant garde of Jews in tsarist Russia, only about one-fifth unambiguously favored the assimilation of Jews, whereas nearly half favored the concept of Jews as a nation. (pp. 302-303).

Genrikh Borisovich Sliozberg was a notable Jewish historian (p. 319) and high-level member of Russia's Ministry of Internal affairs. (p. 326). Although a non-Zionist, Sliozberg asserted that he, and most Jews, were opposed to the "Poles of the Mosaic faith", and they instead recognized Jews as a nationality. This was on par with all the other nationalities that comprised the Russian Empire. (p. 335). Ironically, Endeks have been condemned for reckoning Jews a separate nationality. Many if not most Jews did likewise, and did so long before the Endeks.


Even though the USSR is outside the purview of this book, the author discusses the massive overrepresentation of Jews in Soviet Communism [sometimes called the Zydokomuna] as follows, (quote) After the Revolution of 1917 perceptions dramatically reversed, as Jews suddenly appeared as consummate insiders in the young Soviet state. They were extraordinarily visible in the upper echelons of the Communist Party, the Red Army, and the Cheka (the security apparatus that eventually became the KGB), achieving a level of integration within institutions of state power unmatched in any country at any time before or since (apart, of course, from ancient in modern Israel). In fact, Jewish visibility in the young Soviet state was even broader. In the 1920s and 1930s, Jews were a much-noted presence across virtually the entire white-collar sector of Soviet society, as journalists, physicians, scientists, academics, writers, engineers, economists, NEPmen, entertainers, and more. (unquote). (p. 2).
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