The period from 1900 to 1914, which marks the last time Europe would know peace for almost 50 years, was tumultuous for the Jewish people.
From 1880 onward we see a continually mounting tide of anti-Semitism both in Eastern and Western Europe. This tide of anti-Semitism, which culminated in the Second World War and the destruction of European Jewry by Hitler, did not start with Hitler. It built upon 50 to 70 years of official government sanctioned anti-Semitism. In this new, racially-based anti-Semitism Jews had no place in European society. They were not to be tolerated under any conditions.
Jewish life was on the verge of destruction. The Dreyfus trial, the beginnings of the Zionist movement, vast emigration and the secularization of a large portion of the Jewish people all were motivated by the basic underlying force of anti-Semitism.
There are two incidents that happened in Russia before the First World War that had a profound impact upon the Jewish people. The first was the infamous Kishinev pogrom of April 1903.
Kishinev is a town about 50 miles northwest of Odessa in Bessarabia. Around the turn of the century it had a Jewish population of about 25,000, which was large by Jewish standards. The Russian government had for many years pursued an official-unofficial policy of fomenting pogroms. It was unofficial in the sense that the government did not do any of the rampaging directly. It was official, however, in the sense that the police and the army would come into a town and announce that they were leaving for the next few days. That was a signal to the anti-Semites and thugs that they could destroy and plunder Jewish property and attack and murder Jews with impunity and without fear of consequences.
Sometimes the Russian authorities let it rage for a few hours and sometimes for a few days. Kishinev raged for three days. Golda Meir said that her first memory in life was the horrific pogrom of Kiev when her upstairs neighbor, a Jew, was nailed to the door of his apartment.
The Kishinev pogrom awakened in the world a reaction that Russia did not expect.
Compared to the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust, the number of Jews killed (142) and wounded (1500) in the Kishinev pogrom – to say nothing of Jewish businesses destroyed (2000) — may not seem particularly large. But this was the beginning of the age of photographs. The Vietnam War was an excellent example of how the media affected policy. The fact that it was televised into every home eventually forced the political and diplomatic withdrawal of the United States from Vietnam. In a similar way, the photographs of the Kishinev massacre were telegraphed and subsequently published in all the newspapers of the world. They drove home in graphic detail the terrible brutality of the Russians and ignited a stinging international reaction against them.
The Czar claimed the government had nothing to do with it and that he was going to investigate it. Only fools believed him. In actuality, no one was ever punished for the Kishinev pogrom. No item of Jewish property was ever returned. No compensation was ever paid to any of the victims.
The President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, officially protested to the Russian government over its behavior. This was the first time the United States ever did something like that. The catalyst for his protest was the growing influence of Jews in American political and economic life. Now there was a large Jewish population in the state of New York and Roosevelt was aware of that. Though we can assume he was sincerely disgusted at Russian behavior, to some extent he responded to pressure of Jews in America.
The Kishinev massacre convinced the Jews in Russia more than ever that there really was no future and no hope for them there. The only hope lay in three areas.
To the secular Jews, the only hope was to overthrow the Russian government. Kishinev made more Jews revolutionaries than anything else. It wasn’t so much that the Jews believed in revolution, but that they knew that under the Czar there was no hope and things would never change. In order for the Jewish situation to change someone had to get rid of the Czar, his autocratic government and break the power of the Russian Orthodox Church. The only ones prepared to do so were the left-wing socialists, communists, anarchists and revolutionaries. That was their platform.
Therefore, Jews became revolutionaries in great numbers during both of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. They were disproportionately represented. Though about 1% of the Russian population they were 15-20% of the revolutionaries. And in the leadership echelon they were even more disproportionately represented. There was a time that the higher echelon of the Bolshevik party in Russia was over one-third Jewish. That naturally brought about the other reaction that accused the Bolsheviks of being Jews and vice-versa.
The second reaction to Kishinev was the enormous strengthening of the Zionist movement. The movement may have originally been conceived, supported and led by Western European Jews but its membership came from Eastern European Jews. These secularized Jews looked at the Zionist movement with religious fervor. In effect, they took the belief and enthusiasm that Jews had in Judaism and transferred it to the cause of Zionism. They served it with the same dedication, tenacity and spirit. That is how they stood against all odds.
After Kishinev, the numbers behind the Zionist movement exploded. All over Eastern Europe Zionist cells grew. They even absorbed the whole Haskalah membership. A great deal of the Jewish socialist phenomenon was absorbed into the Zionist movement, though hardcore Jewish socialists like the Bund remained anti-Zionist to the bitter end, because they thought it was a diversion from the revolution that would overthrow the Czar and bring the rule of the proletariat to the entire world.
There was also now a strong push for religious Zionism, including great Chassidic rabbis. Most of the early religious Zionists, in fact, came from Chassidic backgrounds. Many great Chassidic rabbis, even if they did not pay it public support gave it private support.
The third response to Kishinev was the acceleration of the already accelerated pace of immigration of Jews to the United States. The situation in Russia was so desperate that parents sent children alone or husbands left their wives and family to travel to the New World in the hope of arranging for them to eventually come too.
The general, overall response to Kishinev can be summarized in one word: fatalism. Many Jews felt that nothing would help. All of the hopes of the 18th and 19th centuries for the betterment of the situation of the Jewish people were dashed. Therefore, a large element of the Jewish people became fatalistic — passive and willing to accept what was coming. They were not prepared to leave — for all sorts of reasons, including philosophic, religious, economic or physical. They were going to hang on no matter what and hope against hope that somehow they would ride out the storm.
Compounding the fatalism was an event that occurred in 1911: the Beilus trial. It was not quite as famous as the Dreyfus trial, which began in 1894, but it was close. And in terms of infamy and the revelation of how deeply anti-Semitic the “civilized” world was it was comparable.
Before Passover in 1911 a non-Jewish child in Kiev disappeared. Unfortunately, children have been disappearing mysteriously since time immemorial. When non-Jewish children disappeared in the Middle Ages, especially before Passover in the spring, it often meant trouble for the Jews. They were blamed for kidnapping him in order to use his blood in a Passover ritual. By the 19th century, most people – Jew and non-Jew — thought that this type of xenophobic behavior was a thing of the past. It could not happen in enlightened Europe.
But it did… in 1911 – and the Jewish scapegoat was a tailor named Mendel Beilus. A neighbor said that he saw him take the child. The authorities accused him of killing the child to use the blood to bake Passover matzah (unleavened bread).
In 1840, there had been a blood libel in Damascus. Syrian Jews were tortured and killed. There the Russian government protested to the Turks, telling them that it was a terrible thing how a civilized country could behave in such a way. Now they were the perpetrators.
The trial took place in 1913 amidst much publicity. The Russian government intended to use the trial as an example how they dealt with enemies, and reveal for all the power and truth of the Czar, the Romanoffs and the Russian autocratic system. But there was a great liberal element in Russia, and they rose to the defense of Beilus. Furthermore, the Dreyfus trial was still fresh in everyone’s mind and there was a cry throughout the world, creating a world climate of public opinion that put pressure on the Russian authorities. In the end, the court had to admit that it had no evidence to prove the guilt of Beilus and he was freed.
It was a terrible defeat for the Czarist government. But it was an even greater blow for the Jewish people. If such an anti-Semitic accusation could happen in 1913, then they were no better off than in the Middle Ages.
That is how the Jewish world looked immediately before the First World War. There was tremendous pessimism. In the pessimism, Jews gave up on many things. They gave up on their religion and they gave up on themselves.
The few idealists who remained were either very pious Jews, very secular revolutionaries or the Zionists. However, the great masses didn’t really have a commitment to any of these groups. They were drifting along without any direction. Their commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people was aptly described as a mile wide and an inch deep.
The coming storm that would be called the First World War would wash away those with shallow roots and change the Jewish world in Europe irrevocably.