The Pale of Settlement
The Revolutionary Yiddishland of the book’s title refers to the former Pale of Settlement which was comprised of twenty-six governorships in Eastern Europe where Jews were allowed to live, but only in cities and towns. Out of the eleven million Jews in the world in the early twentieth century, Russia held more than five million, and of these, four and a half million resided in the cities and towns of the Pale. For the authors, this “Yiddishland” was not just a geographical territory, but a “social and cultural space, a linguistic and religious world.”[i] According to historian John Klier, the much-maligned Pale of Settlement was the only response the tsarist authorities could come up with when faced with how to deal with the “fanaticism of ultra-Orthodox Jewry” which was “unassimilable to official purposes.”
The social hierarchy of Jews in the Pale was, according to Brossat and Klingberg, made up of a wealthy financial bourgeoisie, a middling bourgeoisie which was “intellectual and commercial,” and “an immense Jewish proletariat.”[ii] The use of the term “proletariat” to describe poorer Jews in the Pale is questionable given that they typically operated as petty traders rather than industrial employees. Jewish peddlers were notorious throughout the Pale as smugglers of contraband (as referenced in Gogol’s Dead Souls). This large number of poorer Jews was the direct result of the Jewish population explosion in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century when their numbers grew from about 1.5 million at the beginning of the century to almost eight million by 1913.
This Jewish “proletariat,” a hotbed of radicalism characterized by “powerful organization,” played a “decisive part” in the “strikes and insurrections that broke out right across the Pale in the course of the 1905 Revolution.” Regarding revolutionary agitators at this time, Tsar Nicholas II claimed that “nine-tenths of the troublemakers are Jews” who also dominated the newspapers where “some Jew or another sits … making it his business to stir up passions of people against each other.”[iii]
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw millions of these poorer Jews migrate to destinations as diverse as North and South America, France, South Africa, Australia and Palestine. The ideological zealotry of these Jewish migrants directly influenced American immigration policy around this time, with Muller noting:
The image of the Jew as Communist played an often overlooked role in the history not only of Jews in America, but of the millions of Jews in Eastern Europe who would have liked to emigrate to the United States after World War I, but who were prevented from doing so by the immigration restrictions enacted in the early 1920s, culminating in the Reed-Johnson Act of 1924. For those restrictions were motivated in part by the identification of Jews with political radicalism.’[iv]
The prominent Jewish intellectual and writer Chaim Bermant observed that “To many minds, at the beginning of this [twentieth] century, the very words ‘radical’ and ‘Jew’ were almost one, and many a left-wing thinker or politician was taken to be Jewish through the very fact of his radicalism.”[v] Read more