Jewish Emigration in the 19th Century

Migration--within and from Europe--as a decisive factor in Jewish life.


The following article is reprinted with permission from A History of the Jewish People, edited by H.H. Ben-Sasson and published by Dvir Publishing House.

One of the fundamental changes in Jewish life in the period under review [the nineteenth century] was the enormous movement, mainly from Eastern to Western Europe and overseas, and above all to the United States of America. This migration was the consequence of demographic, economic, and political developments. The high rate of natural increase created population surpluses that could not be absorbed in the traditional Jewish occupations. Capitalist development, which commenced at a rapid pace in Russia after the liberation of the serfs in 1861 and also reached Galicia and Austria at about the same time, opened up new sources of livelihood for a small number of Jews, but caused deprivation to greater numbers, as it had eradicated many of the traditional occupations.


This development was exacerbated by the expulsion of the Jews from the villages and their eviction from occupations connected with the rural economy. Many Jews became artisans and there was fierce competition among them, while others became day‑labourers and, in fact, remained without livelihood. These two groups, the artisans and the hired labourers, provided the main candidates for emigration. Under the backward conditions of Galicia, the increase in sources of livelihood could not catch up with the growth of the Jewish population, particularly when the Poles began to organize rural cooperatives and other economic institutions in order to exclude the Jews from economic life. In Rumania, the government and population conducted an economic war on the Jews, the declared aim of which was to drive them out of the country, while in Russia, oppression and harsh decrees were the official method of  “solving the Jewish problem.”

Persecution was no less effective a factor than the economic causes. The great wave of Jewish migration commenced with the flight from pogroms. In 1881, thou­sands of Jews fled the towns of the Pale of Settlement in Russia and concentrated in the Austrian border town of Brody, in overcrowded conditions and deprivation. With the aid of Jewish communities and organizations, some of these refugees were sent to the United States, while the majority were returned to their homes. Jewish organizations to a large extent later lost control over migration, and it became based on individual initiative, as family members who had established themselves in the New World brought over their relatives. A factor of considerable importance in encouraging emigration, even after the first panic of the pogroms had died down, was the disillusionment of the Jews of Russia and Rumania with the hope of obtaining legal equality or at least ameliorating their condition. This emigration movement was largely a “flight to emancipation.”

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Historian Shmuel Ettinger was the head of the Dinur Center for Research in Jewish History at Hebrew University until his death in 1998.

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