The Formation of the Soviet Jewish Homeland – Birobidzhan

birobidzhanmap

This article was published by Alliance (Marxist-Leninist) as part of the publication Alliance, issue #30, “Marx, Lenin and Stalin on Zionism.”

Russian Jewry prior to the revolution had been intensely persecuted. The Russian census of 1897 had enumerated 5,215,800 Jews – of whom nearly 2 million emigrated between the years 1881 and 1914. (Zvi Gitelman: p. 1; Introduction to Robert Weinberg: “Stalin’s Forgotten Zion-Birobidzhan & the Making of A Soviet Jewish Homeland, An Illustrated History 1928-1996.” Berkeley 1998 ).

The majority that stayed were left in the “Pale of Settlement.” The majority were peasants and earned their living from agriculture. But since they were banned from owning any land, they were condemned always to be at the poorest status of peasantry. By the beginning of the First World War, about 50,000 Jews (3% of the total Jewish population of the Russian Empire) were tilling agricultural land. Most Jews were engaged in commerce, manufacturing and services – mainly in a petit bourgeois capacity. (Weinberg Ibid, p. 18.)

Subject to the worst racism and pogroms, the Jewish leaders were split as to how to deal with this. One section argued they should readily embrace the limited reforms offered by some of the Tsars – and assimilate completely. At the extreme were those advocating conversion to Christianity. Another “moderate” section however wanted to modernise the Jewish traditions and including a dropping of the Yiddish language for Hebrew. These were known as the maskilim (enlighteners) and their movement as the Haskalah (enlightenment).

Others in reacting to the pogroms of Tsar Alexander III (1881-94) and Nicholas II (1894-1917) argued for a completely separate Jewish state. This tradition, led by such as the physician Leon Pinsker, became known as shivat zion (Return To Zion). In the midst of this was the Jewish Bund whose positions have been already discussed above.

After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the situation of the Jewish people was considered as part of the overall question of the minorities within the Soviet Union. Within a year the Bolsheviks had organised Jewish Sections within the Communist party (Evreiskie seketsii or Evsektsii or Yevsektsii). A commissariat for Jewish Affairs was set up known as Evkom. It was placed within the Commissariat of Nationalities, headed by Stalin. The language question was resolved in favour of Yiddish this being the language of the Jewish masses and not Hebrew.

There is no doubt that the correct Soviet policy of restricting the medium of the religious Hebrew language and encouraging Yiddish was at least in part responsible for the rapid assimilation of the USSR Jews:

“The Yevsektsii also campaign against the Hebrew language. In their eyes, Hebrew is the reactionary language of the Jewish bourgeoisie, whatever its content, and has to be eliminated in favour of Yiddish, the language of the Jewish proletariat. Hebrew schools and printing are closed. At the end of the 1920’s, Hebrew becomes the only language which is officially outlawed in the Soviet Union. Jewish religious education is now impossible. The only permitted expressions of Soviet-Jewish life are secular Yiddish education, literature, press and theatre… The newly established Yiddish schools are very popular at first. But as only few secondary school and no university courses are in Yiddish, their numbers decline. At the end of the 1930’s, they have completely disappeared. With the almost complete elimination of organized Jewish religious and communal life, the Yevsektsii have become redundant and are dissolved in 1930.”

WWW site “Beyond the Pale”; A History of Soviet Jews;
http://www.friends-partners.org/partners/beyond-the-pale/index.html

The same source makes the point that many of the Yevsektsii were later persecuted as “nationalists”:

“During the Stalinist purges of the late 1930’s, most of its members are accused of having had “nationalist tendencies”, and are deported or killed.”

“Beyond The Pale”; Ibid.

But the point has been repeatedly proven in the pages of Alliance, that the purges of the 1930’s were not under the control of Stalin, but the hidden revisionists such as Yezhov. They were aimed at the alienation and or physical elimination of the best Bolsheviks from the party. A policy of Korenizatsiia (“Implanting Bolshevism in the non-Russian masses”) was launched. Stalin’s view at the Commissariat of Nationalities was to stimulate cultural diversity, if it was “National in form and socialist in content”. (Cited Weinberg p.15)

As Gitelman puts it, the promotion of the Yiddish culture was – and remains – a unique experiment:

“This would be done by having party and government institutions operate in their language and educating their children with a Bolshevik content but a national form, as Stalin put it. For Jews this meant the creation of networks of Yiddish schools, newspapers, journals, and theatres. Two academic institutions operating in Yiddish were set up in Kiev and Minsk. Courts, trade unions and even party cells were encouraged to operate in Yiddish. This was the only time in history that a state invested heavily in Yiddish institutions and the promotion of Yiddish culture.”

Gitelman Ibid; p. 6-7.

According to Gitelman, largely speaking, the Jews rejected this effort to build a Jewish state. But this view is countered by Weinberg – who has become the most visible historian of the Birobidzhan:

“The notion of a Jewish homeland appealed to many Soviet Jews, and the Birobidzhan project was intended to undercut the Zionist focus on Palestine.”

Weinberg Ibid, p.13.

Weinberg’s book corroborates the view that a general interest was definitely present. In any case, if Gitelman’s view is accepted, Gitelman explains the lack of interest as being due to the power of the assimilation offered by the new Soviet state. For Gitelman, the main reason was an embrace of Russian language and the opportunities given by the revolution:

“Traditional Jews saw it as an attempt to replace authentic grassroots Judaism with an ersatz product imposed Afrom above”.. Those uninterested n traditional forms of Jewishness saw no reason to remain loyal to Yiddish culture when the broader horizons of Russian culture beckoned to them. Jews rushed to take advantage of the educational and vocational opportunities the revolution had given to them. Clearly Russian was much more useful than Yiddish.”

Gitelman Ibid; p. 6-7.

This confirmed the views of Lenin and Stalin – that once the Jews were allowed to play a part in society in free democratic manner – links to the past would be eroded. Gitelman draws an explicit parallel to the dying of Yiddish as a language in America.. where English was the key to assimilation. Gitelman’s states that on this basis:

“The idea of a territory in which Yiddish would be the dominant language as Birobidzhan, had limited appeal to Soviet Jews in the 1920’s.”

Gitelman, Ibid, p.7.

But as Weinberg argues, nonetheless there were still many Soviet Jews who retained the belief in a separate entity. In May 1934 that the Jewish Autonomous region was set up. It was located as Map 2 shows, in remote and poorly populated area of the Soviet Far East. In this setting it would not displace indigenous peoples. Of course this was in contrast to the creation of the future Israel which displaced the Palestinians in a brutal manner. To this end the plan was evolved to settle 100,000 Jews in agricultural colonies.

In Hard Copy form only:
MAP 2: From page 15 Weinberg Ibid.

By the early 1920’s the number of poor Jewish unemployed in the USSR was high. Around Belarus, in the city of Gomel it was about 70%. (Cited Weinberg Ibid; p. 16).

In addition, many of the petit bourgeoisie of the Jewish population had to be brought into the socialist economy. Since the petit bourgeois nature of their work had in the majority of Jews, been continually eroded by the socialist policies of collectivisation in both manufacturing and agriculture, a question arose of the “productivization” of Jewish life. Weinberg comments:

“Given the devastated condition of Soviet industry in the 1920’s government officials focused on agricultural resettlement as a strategy. Despite the long-term objectives of presiding over an industrialised society, the Kremlin in the 1920’s could not pursue a concerted policy of industrialisation that could absorb significant numbers of economically marginal Jews. The publication of two issues of the journal Evreiskii krest’ianin (The Jewish Peasant) in 1925 and 1926 underscores this official interest in Jewish land settlement.”

Cited Weinberg Ibid; p. 19.

In the 1920’s therefore two organisations were set up, OZET (Society for the Settlement of Jewish Toilers on the Land) and KOMZET (Committee for the Settlement of Jewish Toilers on the Land). OZET was controlled by KOMZET members, who examined conditions for settlement in Ukraine, Belarus, and the Crimea. After 1928, attention focused on the formation of a Jewish Autonomous Region (J.A.R).

Jews from the Shetls (Shetls were the villages or ghettoes where large numbers of Jews were concentrated) were moved to the area. By 1930, some 47,000 Jewish families were working in agriculture in the Soviet Union.
The 1928 decision to make the Biro-Bidzhanskii district a JAR – took in a region the size of Belgium. It had been annexed in 1858 by Russia. The Biro and the Bidzhan were tributaries of the river Amur. The population consisted then of “several hundred” indigenous Siberians and some settlers – Russians, Cossacks, Koreans and Ukrainians over the late 19th-early 20th century. There was some early resistance from 1924, until the decision was finally taken in 1928, to have the Biro-Bidzhanskii district as the site of the JAR. This resistance, from some activists in KOMZET, argued that it was too far from the current pockets of Jewish populations. Many Jews argued that Birobidzhan was preferable to Palestine, since it was within an area they already had roots – an argument put by I.Sudarskii in 1930 in the book “Birobdizhan And Palestine”. (Cited Weinberg Ibid; p. 22).

Moreover the Ukraine Belarus and Crimea were becoming crowded and the Far East resources had not been sufficiently tapped. This meant that the Soviet Government made conditions attractive for Jews to move there:

“Many in the Kremlin were interested in creating a Jewish national territory within the borders of the Soviet Union… Soviet policy in the 1920’s aimed at normalizing the status of non-territorial minorities by establishing official enclaves.”

Cited Weinberg Ibid; p. 21-22.

Official USSR sanction for the project was given by President Mikhail Kalinin:

“It is completely natural that the Jewish population.. Strives to find its place in the Soviet Union.. The Jewish people faces the great task of preserving its own nationality, and to this end a page part of the Jewish population must be transformed into an economically stable, agriculturally compact group, which should number at least hundreds of thousands. Only under such conditions can the Jewish masses hope for the further existence of their nationality.”

Cited Weinberg Ibid; p. 22

In March 1928 a decree was published reserving the district for the settlement of Jews who would work the land:

“The decree banned agricultural settlement by non-Jews and states that if Jewish settlement were successful, “a Jewish national administrative – territorial entity” might be set up. This idea was realised in 1934, when the district was designated as the Jewish Autonomous Region, (JAR) with Birobidzhan as its capital city.”

Cited Weinberg Ibid; p. 23.

Strong incentives were provided to move impoverished Jews to the JAR. Even those who had been declared as Anon-labourers” were allowed to have electoral rights in the JAR if they engaged in productive work. (Cited Weinberg Ibid; p. 24). But no doubt, conditions were hard, and were not helped by a serious flood in 1928 and 1932, and Soviet reporters criticised the lack of preparations for the settlers. So there was a yearly drop-out rate of about 50% in the first few years. By 1931, the territory was however decreed to become an autonomous administrative entity, and accordingly a broadening of the original agricultural focus allowed more scope for settlers to stay if they were not farmers. By 1939, only 23% (4,404 of 17,695) lived in the countryside of the JAR. (Cited Weinberg Ibid; p. 32.)

But the JAR grew as more Jews came . By World War II it’s capital Birobidzhan, had a population numbered at 30,000, and the JAR was an important source of cement, tin, bricks, paper products, and clothing. (Cited Weinberg Ibid; p. 39).

A number of non-Jews went also despite the original intention. In fact gentiles outnumbered Jews. By 1939 Jews were 18,000 of the 109,000 residents of the JAR. Seman Dimanshtein, a leading Jewish activist proclaimed:

“We do not set ourselves the goal of establishing quickly a Jewish majority in the JAR; we are confident that this will come about as a natural consequence of migration.. Our first task is the expansion of and strengthening of socialist construction in the JAR. Therefore we shall welcome assistance from abroad and non-Jewish cadres as the most important and vital form of help.”

Cited Weinberg Ibid; p. 43.

It is not surprising that foreign Jewish support was sought, including foreign emigration. Over one thousand foreign Jews moved to the JAR by the mid-1930’s. From 1935, each foreign Jew who wanted to move to the JAR, had to pay KOMZET two hundred dollars. The wholly bourgeois American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) (Later often known simply as the Joint) and the Jewish Colonization Committee were:

“Enthusiastic about the idea of Soviet Jews working the land. In 1928 there were nearly 220,000 Jewish farmers. By the mid 1930’s the JDC had depended $13.8 million on other agricultural work and an additional $10.3 million on other assistance.”

Gitelman Ibid; p. 8.

Gitelman cites one of the American leaders of the JDC, James Rosenberg saying approvingly in an international report:

“Anti-Semitism in Russia is a crime. The ghetto dwellers of Russia have been transformed into hardy workers on farms and in factories. For us in the United States, there is no Jewish problem in Russia”.

Gitelman Ibid; p. 8.

By 1930 the drive towards creating a socialist state, had both unified many of the former minorities into a common struggle, and had created a higher purpose. “Accordingly the Evsektii were abolished in 1930.” (Gitelman Ibid; p. 8). But still the JAR continued to attract world wide Jewish attention. Although certainly, simultaneously many Zionists bitterly attacked it. However many cites throughout the world organised committees of support that continued to donate both monies and equipment and people. Prominent Jews the world over defended the JAR. Lion Feuchtwangler, the prominent Jewish writer, wrote:

“The Jewish Republic of Birobidzhan is a reality”.

Weinberg Ibid; p. 53.

In the context of the Soviet state, hidden revisionists aiming to disrupt socialism sought ways of alienating the world wide Jewish support. The secret security apparatus was controlled by hidden revisionists such as Ezhov. At this juncture correct tactics to the minorites was subverted. Thus at this juncture, an anti-Jewish attack did take place. For example the leading Jewish official Iosif Liberberg – the former head of the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture in Kiev – was arrested and charged with:

“Attempting to establish the JAR as the center of Jewish culture in the Soviet Union.”

Weinberg Ibid; p. 67

But, since this was precisely what had been intended for the JAR, such charges themselves can be seen as provocative and anti-Soviet.

Further anti-Soviet acts ensued:

Following the charges, both OZET and KOMZET were disbanded; and Semen Dimanshei was executed. (Weinberg Ibid; p. 68).

By 1941, virtually all the Yiddish schools in the JAR were closed barring only two. But the institutional and legal foundations of the region were un-changed.

Nonetheless by 1939, the Jews accounted for only 16 % of the population(17,695 of about 109,000 inhabitants. Weinberg Ibid; p. 69.

After the war, while there was a temporary set-back for the hidden revisionists, there was a resurgence of Jewish immigration in the JAR. In 1948 Mikhail Kalinin continued his public support for the JAR:

“He stated in 1948 that he considered the region a “Jewish national state” that will Aregenerate Soviet Jews through creative toil.”

Cited Weinberg Ibid, p. 72.

Thus, following the war there was a revived Government sponsored support. Again only Jewish immigration was allowed into the JAR. In 1946 a synagogue was approved by the Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults. In early 1946 the:

“Council of Ministers announced a plan to stimulate the development of the region……. focused on the building of industrial enterprise and the construction of new houses….. the government also offered free transportation a and loans and other incentives to those settlers who chose to till the land.”

Cited Weinberg Ibid, p. 72.

Again the international community of Jews rallied to the JAR. Between 1945 and 1948 some 6 million rubles worth of food and supplies were sent to the JAR from the USA alone. Albert Einstein was one of the prominent supporters.

The conventional wisdom is that:

“In 1948, Stalin launched a murderous campaign to destroy all Jewish intellectual and cultural activity throughout the Soviet Union. His ruthless attacks on “rootless cosmopolitanism” and Abourgeois nationalists” culminated in early 1953 with the infamous “Doctor’s Plot”. .. A rumour circulated that the JAR barracks to house the deported Jews were reportedly built, but Stalin’s death in 1953 prevented the implementation of this sinister plan.”

Cited Weinberg Ibid, p. 82.

As even Gitelman points out the ultimate failure of Birobidzhan left the reactionary alternative of a so-called “Homeland”, of Israel-Palestine , as was then being heavily promoted by the Zionists – with no competition from a socialist alternative:

“Even if the Project (Birobidzhan) was not designed to fail, the fate of Soviet Jewry raise serious questions about the viability of secular Jewishness outside a Jewish state….. The attempt to create a Jewish Autonomous Region in the Soviet Far East remains largely forgotten.. And Birobidzhan’s chief competitors, the Zionists have emerged triumphant.”

Gitelman Ibid, p. 9.

In Summary

 – It is no accident that a veneer of “socialism” was adopted in the fledgling state of Israel.
 – Not only did it serve to better harness the energies of immigrant Jews into the new state.
 – But it served to confuse those Jews who had been previously drawn to the example of the JAR of Birobidzhan.
 – The JAR itself was conciously sabotaged as a potential homeland for Jewish workers.

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