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The Politics of the Pale

Are Jewish politics as they exist today a result of our Russian past?

Joshua Meyers
October 20, 2020
 YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York
Ayzik Meyer Dik (center) and other ‘maskilim’; (clockwise from top) Mikhl Gordon, Yehudah Leib Gordon, Tsevi ha-Kohen Rabinovich, and Eli’ezer Zweifel YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York
 YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York
Ayzik Meyer Dik (center) and other ‘maskilim’; (clockwise from top) Mikhl Gordon, Yehudah Leib Gordon, Tsevi ha-Kohen Rabinovich, and Eli’ezer Zweifel YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York

The lives of Jews in the Russian Empire have been subject to no shortage of studies; every year brings forth a new wealth of scholarship plumbing the depths of Jewish culture, religion, and economics in the Pale of Settlement. Yet for all this, the politics of Russian Jewry have not been paid the same attention. Most remember Zionism, Bundism is—in some corners—recalled as well, but both largely as they relate—or are imagined to relate—to the needs of the 21st century. Orthodoxy and liberalism are rarely remembered at all. Yet all the same, the relationship between Jews and the state and the efforts to reshape or reimagine that relationship were central to Jewish life and deserve to be taken seriously as they existed in their own time. The politics of the Pale of Settlement were not the precursors to our own inevitable present, but a diverse and wild array of ideas reflecting the vitality and creativity of Russian Jewry.

Though often recalled for crisis, Jewish life in Russia was not always so. The first effort to reimagine the relationship between Jews and the state in Russia—to imagine Jews as citizens, equal members of the body politic—was born of remarkable optimism, coinciding significantly with Russia’s own era of liberalization and reforms. The impetus for these reforms had nothing to do with the Jews, but with Russia’s efforts to maintain its status as a Great Power. After losing the Crimean War (1853-6) to an alliance of the Ottoman Empire, Britain, and France, Czar Alexander II began an era of Great Reforms, sweeping changes aimed at strengthening the empire. These reforms opened up to new opportunities for education and employment. The Pale of Settlement—the limiting of Jewish residency to the western provinces of the empire—was slightly relaxed, allowing some small, elite groups of Jews to settle in St. Petersburg.

Where the reforms fell short in practice they made up for in promise, that Russia was on a path toward a full emancipation of its Jews. This optimism sparked new ideas about citizenship that allowed Jews and others to see themselves—or aspire to see themselves—no longer as members of an autonomous social corporation negotiating privileges from the government in exchange for service, but as members of the body politic, legally indistinguishable from any other population. It was against this backdrop that a distinctly Jewish form of liberalism emerged. This was a movement rooted among the elites—both cultural and economic.

Led by figures such as Alexander Zederbaum, Yehuda Leib Gordon, and the Gunzburg family, it manifested around organizations such as the OPE (Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia), the newspapers Ha-Melits and Kol Mevaser. In its first years it was distinctly acculturationist, hoping that by adopting Russian language and dress, Jews would be integrated into what seemed an ascendant liberal order in Russia. The goal was not to lose Jewish identity, but to modernize it; if they sought to replace Yiddish with Russian, they also hoped to maintain, even expand the use of Hebrew, reimagining that language as one not only for religious purposes, but for intellectual and aesthetic as well. Religious observance was to be reformed, but by no means abandoned—the Grand Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg stands as a monument of breathtaking beauty to their conviction that their Jewish faith was by no mean incompatible with modernity. Though not identical, many liberals identified substantially with the Haskalah, the broad effort to revitalize Jewish cultural, religious, and intellectual life by direct engagement with emerging European aesthetic and intellectual trends.

The heady optimism of the 1860s and 1870s did not last. In 1882, a group of revolutionaries, convinced that Alexander II’s liberalization policies—including the emancipation of the serfs—served only to replace the bonds of feudalism with capitalism, assassinated the czar. The Russian masses, furious that the czar who had emancipated so many of them had been murdered, began to lash out. One of those involved in the assassination had been Jewish; 20 years of liberalization and integration notwithstanding, many Russians saw this as sufficient cause to attack Jews, leading to a wave of pogroms in southern Russia. The situation was made worse by the decision of some groups of revolutionaries to encourage the pogroms, hoping that attacks against Jews might mature into a struggle against capitalism (other revolutionaries, it should be said, opposed and denounced the violence wholeheartedly).

The pogroms themselves were not overly devastating—tragic as they were, the death toll may have been as few as 50, half of whom may have been perpetrators. Yet the pogroms were not an isolated event. Though there is no evidence that the central government planned the violence, it is no secret that Alexander III—the new czar—was no friend to the Jews. In fact, the government went so far as to deny the existence of pogroms at all, insisting that newspapers refer only to “disturbances,” with no attribution of guilt or responsibility.

Moreover, Alexander III followed his father’s era of Great Reforms with a Great Reaction—sometimes referred to by Jews as a “legal pogrom” aimed at rolling back the gains made in the preceding decades. The hopes of the previous 20 years, now dashed, caused a transformation in the Jewish political world. The liberal movement survived, but within it an increasingly national direction emerged, that often associated with Simon Dubnov, which sought to combine political liberalism with Jewish cultural autonomy. Moreover, despite the persistence of Russianist and Hebraist movements, many came to see Yiddish as a worthy language in its own right. In part, this was a response to a growing national awareness among Russian Jews, but also to the impact of the decision by authors such as Mendele Mokher Sforim to begin writing in Yiddish, producing highbrow literature in the language and endowing it with a certain legitimacy along the way.

The 1880s also saw the emergence of the two best remembered movements of Russian Jewish politics: Zionism—the desire to create some form of modern Jewish space in the land Jews call Zion, and diaspora socialism—a collection of movements seeing the Jewish future lying in a socialist system with Jewish cultural autonomy. Though certainly affected by the pogroms of 1882 and ensuing reaction, it would be an oversimplification to see them only as a reaction to those events. Both national and revolutionary movements had been circulating in the Russian Empire for some time by that point. It was, after all, the assassination of a czar by revolutionaries that had sparked the pogroms. Leftist ideas, including both an indigenous Russian “populist” tradition that saw in the peasant village a socialist, communal existence to be defended, as well as imported Marxist and anarchist ideas. National movements were circulating as well, among many of the Jews’ neighbors. Poles, Lithuanians, even Ukrainians all experienced their own national awakenings in the last decades of the 19th century. Jews were certainly a distinct group in the Pale of Settlement, but they were not hermetically sealed off, and were impacted by the same currents.

There is a tendency to portray diaspora socialism and Zionism as opposites, but there is more to be gained by viewing the two as siblings, perhaps even twins, albeit fraternal ones. Both emerged in the same places in response to the same economic and political crises. Both first emerged in the 1880s before their standard bearers—the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Labor Bund—formed in the same year, 1897. Importantly, both were animated by a shared desperation, that the future of the Jewish people required drastic action, either the creation of a new homeland or a revolutionary reconstruction of their old one, and both were willing to consider a variety of methods and compromises in pursuit of that goal.

The programs themselves varied dramatically. Historian Ezra Mendelsohn once characterized Jewish politics in the 19th century as hinging on whether the Jewish question could be resolved “here [Russia] or there [somewhere else], and if there, where?” Palestine? America? Argentina? I would suggest a final line: here or there, how? Though most Zionists were fixated on Palestine, not all were. Leo Pinsker, among the first to formally articulate a Zionist idea in his 1882 pamphlet Autoemancipation, openly pondered the possibility of creating a Jewish homeland in the North American West. Others considered the possibility of southern Ukraine or Crimea. To the extent that Zionists were concerned with building some sort of Jewish space in the land Jews call Zion, disputes persisted as to what kind of space. While Theodor Herzl emphasized some sort of political space, Ahad Ha’am argued that the movement should focus on the cultural front, building in Palestine the network of universities, printing presses, and theater spaces that might serve as a modern equivalent to the Second Temple, a center of gravity for the diaspora. Even to the extent that Zionists were interested in politics, disagreements continued. While some envisioned a sovereign nation-state, others preferred some sort of federation with neighboring peoples. As late as 1948, Zionist luminaries such as Martin Buber and Henrietta Szold openly opposed the creation of the State of Israel, calling instead for a binational state.

Diaspora socialists were hardly more united. The Jewish Labor Bund, the best known of the diaspora socialists, took its time embracing a slogan of national-cultural rights as it questioned how such a position could fit in the politics of socialist internationalism. At times it was intentionally minimal in its national demands, at others it was quite aggressive. It did, however, limit itself to cultural autonomy—the right to have their own schools, newspapers, and publishing houses—viewing political rights as overly nationalist. In sharp contrast to them stood the Socialist Jewish Labor Party (SERP), founded by Yiddishist luminary Hayim Zhitlovsky. SERP was far more aggressive on the nationality issue, demanding the creation of an All-Russian Jewish Assembly (the party as also known as “Sejmists” after the Slavic word for parliament) with legal authority to legislate on all affairs of specific concern to the Jewish population. Though both parties emphasized that the Jewish future lay in a post-revolutionary Russia, they had rather different views regarding what that revolution ought to look like; the former thinking in terms of a worker-led Marxist movement, the latter in a populist direction depending largely on the peasantry.

There were also those groups who bridged the gap between diaspora socialism and Zionism. Poalei Zion, certainly had its interest in Palestine, but often saw that project as complementing the diaspora, not negating it. To account for the diaspora, it proposed a system of socialist autonomy, not unlike the Bund and SERP. Even closer was the Zionist Socialist Labor Party (ZS), founded by Nahum Syrkin, which sought a territorial solution to the Jewish question, but had no interest in Palestine. Following the absorption of its greater share into the communist movement following the Russian Revolution, this group became responsible for the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, which continues to exist in the Russian Far East, on the Russo-Chinese border. ZS and SERP would formally unite in 1917 as the short-lived United Jewish Socialist Labor Party (Faraynikte)—most would be absorbed into the Communist Party in 1919. A minority would later be absorbed by the non-communist wing of the Jewish Labor Bund.

It may be surprising to know that the Orthodox—often seen as the community with the greatest claim to antiquity—were the last to organize politically. Scholars debate the emergence of Orthodoxy as a religious phenomenon, placing it alternatively in response to the Sabbatean movement in the 17th century, or in opposition to Hasidism and reform in the 19th. However, as a political force, it was remarkably late. The first large-scale Orthodox movement was Agudas Yisroel, founded only in 1912. Other similar parties would come and go—Akhdus would play some role in Ukraine in 1917. As a political movement, Orthodoxy hoped to use the state to preserve or establish Orthodox hegemony over the Jewish community. It aspired to guarantee the rabbinate legal power—particularly over family life—and to secure the rabbinic authorities within the power structures of the state. Additionally, it sought to gain state sanction—and perhaps even funding—for schools offering religious curriculum. Though the least studied, it may be the most influential, especially if past growth trends continue.

For anyone living in New York or Israel, these platforms likely sound familiar. Today, the Orthodox are often understood through their skepticism toward Zionism, but this was not always their case. Despite their disagreements, the Orthodox and the Zionists often caucused together. For different reasons, both valued the Hebrew language and study of the Hebrew Bible. Both desired Jewish autonomy, though neither were necessarily anti-capitalist. Surprisingly, the Orthodox often offered a progressive economic platform. With much of their constituency drawn from the poorest ranks of the Jewish community, the Orthodox pushed for shorter workdays, higher wages, and improved working conditions. Had either side been so inclined, a coalition might have been possible between the diaspora socialists and the Orthodox (there was no interest and therefore, no cooperation).

Each of these moments had their moments of prominence. Depending on where we place Poalei Zion and ZS, we can see diaspora socialists doing well in 1905-1914 and even rivaling the Zionists in 1938-39 in Poland. The Orthodox did exceptionally well in Poland in the 1920s. The Zionists were the most successful, ranking among the largest political movements in Russia from the early 20th century through WWII, but with caveats. Most Jews were politically disengaged—in 1914, the year of peak political engagement in the prewar era, the parties together amounted to fewer than 200,000 members out of a population of a Jewish population that amounted to some 5,500,000. Even to the extent Jews supported the various groups, it seems their loyalties were not as purist as some assume. It is quite likely that many Jews sympathized with multiple parties to varying degrees, responding both to Zionist calls for Jewish national rights and Bundist appeals for improved working conditions. Parties also expanded their platform into each other’s spaces, as the Zionist Organization did in the 1906 Helsingfors program, in which it committed itself to the pursuit of liberalism in Russia with broad autonomy for the empire’s non-Russian peoples, effectively the position of the liberal Dubnov. It also is not always clear what support meant, and scholars continue to debate whether Jewish support for Zionism necessarily meant a political commitment to the Zionist idea, or a simpler tendency to respond positively to “Jews-as-Jews” rhetoric, regardless of attached politics.

Russian Jewry was large and contained multitudes. Though the ancestors of modern Jewish politics can be found there, we are not their inevitable children. A world where Ahad Ha’am had overtaken Herzl or where the Bund and Aguda put their ideologies aside to advance the economic needs of their overlapping constituencies was possible, a world as likely, if not more so than our own. This piece only scratches the surface, but even a shallow cut can be revealing. Russian Jewry faced a myriad of challenges and opportunities and responded to them with the full breadth of creativity that the community was known for. Jewish politics as they exist today are not the inevitable result of the past, but that does not suggest our world lacks meaning. Only that we should value and marvel at its existence all the more.

Joshua Meyers is a historian of modern Jewish politics, specializing in Russia and Eastern Europe.