Soviet Jewry Between the Wars
Russian Jewry had been in a state of continuing crisis since the passage of the May Laws by Czar Alexander III in 1881. WWI was a staggering disaster for Russian Jewry. The Pale of Settlement, the area that was home to the majority of the Russian Jewish community, was the Russian front. The war going on in their backyards hopelessly disrupted organized Jewish life. What was in store for the Jews under the new Soviet state? This article describes Soviet policy toward the Jews between 1917 and 1941. It is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.
The democratic February Revolution (March 1917) raised great hopes among Russian Jews. The Provisional Government, declaring that citizen's rights would no longer be determined by national or religious identity, accorded to the Jews long‑awaited civic emancipation and abolished about 150 discriminatory laws, including the prohibition on residence outside the Pale of Settlement. All the Jewish parties united jointly to prepare an "All‑Russian Jewish Convention," which was to establish a politico‑cultural autonomous organization and provide the central representative body for all the Jews in Russia.
The convention, however, never took place. The Bolshevik Coup in November 1917 (the October Revolution) ended Soviet Jewry's brief springtime. Most Jewish organizations, well aware that the new rulers intended to centralize all political power in their own hands, felt little sympathy for Lenin's party. At the same time, however, a significant number of members of the Bolshevik leadership (around 25 percent) were of Jewish origin. This is why the Jews were automatically identified with the new regime. During the civil war (1918‑1921), those loyal to the old regime used this false identification as another excuse to massacre Jews. The "White Army" of Anton Denikin killed thousands in pogroms perpetrated in over 160 Jewish settlements; about 100,000 Jews were murdered in the Ukraine alone.
Meanwhile, while the Bolsheviks repudiated anti-semitism and severely punished soldiers who attacked Jews, they were ideologically committed to the destruction of Jewish religion, culture, and national identity. In early 1918, many Jewish organizations were liquidated. The Zionist movement and the socialist and autonomist Bund ("Zionists who suffer from sea sickness," according to Plekhanov) were outlawed, publication of' Hebrew books and journals was forbidden, and Yiddish publications were placed under strict control. A Jewish commissariat, active between 1918 and 1923, dealt with Jewish affairs. "Jewish Sections" were also set up in branches of the Communist Party. A violent campaign against the Jewish religion and its leaders was conducted, and heavy taxes were imposed on rabbis and other religious officials.