June 14, 2024
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June 14, 2024
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One hundred and thirty three years ago, on March 1, 1881, an assassination of a Russian Czar had a most profound impact upon Russia and the Jewish people.

Czar Alexander II was heading toward his winter palace in St. Petersburg. He had just signed a document granting the first ever constitution to Russia. En route, radical members of Narodaya Volya (The People’s Will) tossed bombs under his heavily fortified coach. When the Czar exited in order to check upon wounded guards, he was killed by a bomber who took his own life in the blast.

Alexander II, 1855-1881, who sought to modernize Russia, was more tolerant than his predecessors. The Czar abolished the system of tenant farmers known as serfdom which reduced the majority of Russians to poverty. It was also an era of hope and anticipation among Jews that Alexander II would grant them freedom.

Among the group of conspirators was a Jewess, Gesia Gelfman, giving rise to the charge that the Jews were responsible. A wave of antisemitism soon followed. Six weeks later, near the conclusion of the Passover holiday, pogroms broke out in Ukrainian city of Elizabethgrad resulting from a Blood Libel accusation. The disturbances soon spread to Kiev and other cities and villages. In the year and a half that followed, over 200 Jewish communities would be ravaged. Hundreds of Jews would be murdered and thousands wounded. Tens of thousands would be forced out of their homes to become refugees. According to accounts, over half of the houses belonging to the 10,000 Jews of Elizabethgrad were completely ruined. All the while, antisemitic publications blamed the Jews themselves for their predicament and for all the ills of Russia.

Along with deflecting the people’s frustrations, the pogroms were also meant to terrify Russia’s Jews. In that region, the Ukraine, Jews had experienced horrific massacres perpetrated by Ukrainian nationalists over the past 230 years. The attacks of 1881, though generally not as devastating in terms of loss of life, occurred following an era of new hopes and expectations.

The new Czar, Alexander the III, who was too slow in preventing the pogroms, enacted new restrictions against the Jews. Known as the May Laws, they prohibited Jewish residence in hundreds of villages forcing almost one million Jews out of their homes. He also outlawed the issuing of mortgages to Jews, and prohibited Jews from working on Sundays. Beaten down and oppressed, and now deprived of livelihood, Russian Jews contemplated their predicament. Many opted to emigrate. Over two million Jews left for America, Great Britain, and South Africa over the next 40 years to escape persecution and poverty. These emigrants dramatically changed the demographics of world Jewry.

Some maskilim, those Jews who had embraced the Jewish movement for emancipation in Eastern Europe, had a change of heart. During the reign of Alexander II, more opportunities were open to Jews in Russia. As in other parts of Europe a century earlier, Jews became accepted in universities and many fields once closed to them. Maskilim now reconsidered their future in Russia.

That fateful year, political Zionism took root among some maskilim, and the first wave of Zionist aliyah began. The small nucleus of the Zionist movement emerged with the conviction that the events in Russia signaled that Jews would never be free except in the land of Israel. Chaim Chissin, one of the founders of that first group known as BILU, penned in his diary, “Until these events began, I had thrust aside my Jewish origins. I had considered myself to be a devoted son of Russia.”

An early leader of political Zionism, Yehudah Leib Pinsker, concluded from the events of 1881 in his groundbreaking work, Auto Emancipation, “No matter how much the Jew renounces his nationality, he will never be viewed as an equal.”

Some reassessed their own identifications as Jews. In a synagogue in St. Petersburg, upcoming Jewish members of a Russian society gathered on January 22, 1882, and in solidarity with their Jewish brethren, adopted the slogan, Pora Domoi (“Time to go Home”) It was time to return to their Jewish roots. Journalist and editor of the New York daily Yiddish newspaper, The Forward, Abraham Cahan, wrote of a group of Jewish radicals who entered a synagogue filled with “weeping mournful Jews.” One member of the group went before the congregation and stated, “We are your brothers. We regret having considered ourselves Russian and not Jews. The rioting in Elizavetgrad, Smela, and here in Kiev, and the other towns, has shown us what a grievous mistake we were making. Yes, we are Jews.”

There were some Jews who, despite all, had always maintained hope that Russia would grant equality to its citizens. They became further radicalized by oppressive Czarist rule as they continued to agitate for change. Over the coming decades, they adamantly remained loyal to regime change in Russia. In their new found “utopia” following the November 1917, Bolshevik Revolution, the radicals were nonetheless despised as Jews.

Traditional Jewry maintained its distance from the Haskalah movement and emigrated from Russia in lower proportions to western lands where Torah observance was on the decline. Torah Jewry faced immense challenges in maintaining its communities in Eastern Europe and the West.

What might have happened if the Czar had not been assassinated is a matter of conjecture. The assassination and the abrupt changes that followed shook Jewry and sent Jews in different directions, embarking on different paths.

The traumatic events of that era should serve as a reminder that the winds of change can be swift and unpredictable. In current times, there is also much uncertainty as many nations are mired in the instability of dictatorship, revolutions, and civil war. How will such upheavals affect the world? How will such events impact Israel and the Jewish people?

History has a memory of its own. Events of the past have a way of creeping up to serve as a reminder and warning.

By Larry Domnitch

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