ChaeRan Freeze

in Jewish Studies

ISBN: 9780199840731
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:

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Following the partitions of Poland (1772–1795), the Russian Empire inherited one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. Catherine II extended religious tolerance to her new subjects, a decision that exploited existing confessional structures to maintain the status quo and impose a semblance of order in the borderlands. At the same time, eager to integrate her new subjects, Catherine II required Jews to register in the social estate system, which defined juridical identities. The dual impulse to integrate while exploiting separation was one of the key characteristics of tsarist policies toward the Jews throughout the imperial period. The Jews became subject to an increasingly invasive complex of legislation including conscription, compulsory education, and other reforms intended to break down Jewish insularity. At the same time, they confronted legal discrimination, especially the notorious Pale of Settlement, which enforced Jewish segregation. During the Great Reforms, the regime began to liberalize policy, allowing “useful” categories of Jews to settle beyond the Pale, creating unprecedented opportunities for social and geographic mobility and professional advancement. The state also unintentionally unleashed dangerous expectations and ambitions for more radical change, planting the seeds of revolution and violence. By the mid-1880s, the regime began to reverse its concessions, promulgating the infamous May Laws (1882) with educational quotas and other legal restrictions and failing to act decisively against the pogroms. In response to violence, discrimination, poverty, and the tumultuous events of the Revolution of 1905 and World War I, Jews opted to emigrate, revitalize Jewish life in Russia through civic and cultural initiatives, or participate in revolutionary political movements. The Jewish population in the Russian Empire was astonishingly diverse in terms of its religious traditions and subcultures. The rapid spread of Hasidim during the 19th century spurred opposition and reinvigorated institutions of Torah study among the mitnagdim and ethical studies among the adherents of the Musar movement. The Jewish Enlightenment movement, though it boasted only a small number of adherents, was influential in shaping new sensibilities and cultural codes. It gave birth to a modern Jewish literature in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian and a secular culture. Though Jewish enlightened thinkers embraced modernization, some feared radical assimilation and searched for national solutions, especially following the failure of reformism and the rise of anti-Semitism and nationalism. Movements such as Zionism, Bundism, and autonomism provided a secular framework for expressing Jewish identity and political aspirations.

Article.  23729 words. 

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies

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