Empirical Anti-Semitism fought by Jewish Russian Intelligentsia

Marc Chagall Synagogue (1917)

As a multi-ethnic country, Russia has always been the home of literary creativity, enriched by the works of Jewish authors writing in Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew or English, especially during the imperial period, i.e. from 1721, when Peter I founded the Rossiskaïa imperia, until 1917.

Under the reign of Empress Catherine II, imperial Russia expanded from 1791 with the annexation of territories such as Poland, Lithuania and the Principality of Moldavia, which then had “the largest concentration of Jews in the world”. It is estimated that 40% of the Jewish communities lived on these territories at that time.

A disease called ‘Tcherta’.

In order to protect Orthodox Christianity and to promote the growth of a purely Christian middle class, the Empress established the Tcherta osedlosti (the area of residence imposed on Jews which existed until February 1917) which covered a little more than a quarter of the surface area of European Russia. As a result, citizens born Jewish were systematically confined to the heart of this territory where they could prosper economically and culturally.

However, even in the Polish ghetto, the large agricultural estates of the former nobility managed by Polish Jews, who thus had a great economic hold, were confiscated by the imperial power and attributed to Russian nobles of Christian obedience. Finally, outside this “zone”, Jews were tolerated only as itinerant merchants and travelers.

The literary struggle is organized

The reign of Catherine II comes to an end when Lev Nevakhovitch (known through his French name Léon Tolstoï) takes up residence in Saint Petersburg. The founder of Russian-Jewish literature was a rabid and committed writer who immediately set out to denounce the injustices suffered by the Jews. With an impeccable level of Russian, he shouts out his indignation about the pogroms and the most demeaning Ukase-like residential areas in the country’s history.

In this enthusiastic struggle, which he entitled The Cry of the Daughter of the Jews, he demonstrated that Jews are upright and honest citizens, tired of filling the pages of unproven news stories, and who claim the same rights and duties as their compatriots. The book immediately became the badge of the Jews of Russia and all of Europe for several generations.

“The Jews have always been incriminated by the imperial power… accused of diablery, materialism, totemism… All their actions have been interpreted to their disadvantage and each time it turned out that they were innocent,” reads this historical account of the Jews who fled Moscovia and did not return to Russia until the end of the 18th century.

Several decades later, Lev Nevakhovitch was declared by his fellow men to be the initiator of committed Russian Jewish literature; one that denounced, and will denounce even in the middle of the 21st century, the blatant anti-Semitism of the imperial states.

An intelligentsia from here and elsewhere

Many intellectuals agreed in condemning this segregation, among them Shimon Meïerovitch Doubnov, better known as Simon Doubnov (1860–1941). A Jewish activist born into a poor milieu, he studied in a state Jewish school. With his pen, he campaigned for a better social and political life for Jews.

Among other things, he called for the adjustment and modernization of Jewish education, which was too traditional for his taste and anti-progressive. He is also known for organizing Jewish self-defense committees and for demanding equal rights, including the right to vote for Russian citizens regardless of their religious affiliation.

Only a small number of non-registered Jewish citizens were not affected by these laws, as those who were born German, Russian, Moldavian or Polish were ipso facto allowed to stay outside the area of residence, including in the cities and upper class neighborhoods of imperial Russia.

In the early 1890s, he published his first literary chronicles, philosophical essays and short stories in Russian. Prolific, he wrote a three-volume textbook of Jewish history, The New History of the Jewish People 1789–1914, and dozens of books also published in several volumes and in several languages, including two published posthumously.

At the same time, Sholem Aleichem, nicknamed the “Jewish Mark Twain”, born in Ukraine (1859–1916), wrote and spoke fluent sarcastic Yiddish, especially when he alluded to the Russian aristocracy who had grown rich under the Empire at the expense of the Jews. His novel Tevye and His Daughters has become a worldwide masterpiece and is translated into several languages including Russian, English, and Hebrew.

The same novel gave rise to the famous song “Ah si j’étais riche”, which was covered in French by an equally sardonic and mischievous Ivan Rebroff. He also produced hundreds of short stories, plays and novels narrating Russian anti-Semitism.

Beyond the chert and anti-Semitic propaganda, the writer Bernard Malamud (1914–1986), (of Judeo-Russian parents who fled a life conditioned by discriminatory laws to take up residence in New York) denounced the injustices suffered by the Jews.

In 1966, he wrote The Man from Kiev (The Fixer in English). In this novel, he is largely inspired by the Beilis affair: a young Jew accused in 1911 of having committed a ritual crime and unjustly imprisoned. The novel describes the pogroms, deprivations and land thefts, but above all the complicit silence of the middle class, witness of these discriminations. A masterpiece that won the year after the Pulitzer Prize.

“But, as a young schoolboy, Yakov had witnessed a real pogrom: a Cossack raid lasting three full days. On the morning of the fourth day, with the houses still smoking, Yakov was taken out of the cellar where he had hid in the company of half a dozen other kids; he then saw a Jew with a black beard, a white sausage stuck in his mouth, lying in the street on a pile of bloody feathers while a peasant’s pig devoured his arm”. (Excerpt from The Man from Kiev)

Other Hebrew-speaking writers joined the movement. Among them, Aaron Oksman, born in 1921 in Dunaevtzy (Ukraine), who wrote the History of the Jews of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union (1996–1999), which is still sold today in Israel.

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Houda BELABD

Houda BELABD

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Writer @ the Times of Israel. Journalist @ Le Petit Journal de New York. Philatelist. Numismatist. Haikist. Researcher in Judeo-Andalusian cultural legacy.