The Vexing 'Jewish Question': A Nineteenth-Century Scholar's View
(IHR) -- by Goldwin Smith --
...In 1880, anti-Semitic disturbances broke out in Russia. A narrative of them entitled "The Persecution of the Jews in Russia," was put forth (in 1881) by the Jewish community in England as an appeal to the British heart. In that narrative the Russian Christians were charged with having committed the most fiendish atrocities on the most enormous scale. A tract of country equal in area to the British Islands and France combined had, it was averred, been the scene of horrors theretofore perpetrated only in times of war. Men had been ruthlessly murdered, tender infants had been dashed on the stones or roasted alive in their own homes, married women had been made the prey of a brutal lust which had in many cases caused their death, and young girls had been violated in sight of their relatives by soldiers who should have been guardians of their honor. Whole streets inhabited by Jews had been razed, and the Jewish quarters of towns had been systematically fired.
In one place, Elizabethgrad [or Elizavetgrad, now Kirovohrad, Ukraine], 30 Jewesses at once had been outraged, two young girls in dread of violation had thrown themselves from the windows, and an old man, who was attempting to save his daughter from a fate worse than death, had been flung from the roof, while 20 soldiers proceeded to work their will on the maiden. This was a specimen of atrocities which had been committed over the whole area. The most atrocious charge of all was that against the Christian women of Russia, who were accused of assisting their friends to violate the Jewesses by holding the victims down, their motive being, as the manifesto suggests, jealousy of the superiority of the Jewesses in dress. The government was charged with criminal sympathy, the local authorities generally with criminal inaction, and some of the troops with active participation.
The British heart responded to the appeal. Great public meetings were held, at one of which the Archbishop of Canterbury, with a Roman Cardinal, as the representative of religious liberty in general, and especially of opposition to Jew-burning, at his side, denounced the persecuting bigotry of the Russian Christians. Indignant addresses were largely signed. Russia was accused of re-enacting the worst crimes of the Middle Ages. It was taken for granted on all sides that religious fanaticism was the cause of the riots.
Russia, as usual, was silent. But the British government directed its consuls at the different points to report upon the facts. The reports composed two Blue Books, in which, as very few probably took the pains to look into them, the unpopular truth lies buried (Correspondence Respecting the Treatment of Jews in Russia, Nos. 1 and 2, 1882, 1883).
Those who did read them learned, in the first place, that though the riots were deplorable and criminal, the Jewish account was in most cases exaggerated, and in some to an extravagant extent. The damage to Jewish property at Odessa, rated in the Jewish account at 1,137,381 rubles, or, according to their higher estimates, 3,000,000 rubles, was rated, Consul-General Stanley tells us, by a respectable Jew on the spot at 50,000 rubles, while the Consul-General himself rates it at 20,000. At Elizabethgrad, instead of whole streets being razed to the ground, only one hut had been unroofed. It appeared that few Jews, if any, had been intentionally killed, though some died of injuries received in the riots. There were conflicts between the Jews who defended their houses and the rioters.
The outrages on women, by which public indignation in England had been most fiercely aroused, and of which, according to the Jewish accounts, there had been a frightful number, no less than 30 in one place and 25 in another, appeared, after careful inquiries by the consuls, to have been very rare. This is the more remarkable because the riots commonly began with the sacking of the gin shops, which were kept by the Jews, so that the passions of the mob must have been inflamed by drink. The horrible charge brought in the Jewish manifesto against the Russian women, of having incited men to outrage Jewesses and held the Jewesses down, is found to be utterly baseless. The charge of roasting children alive also falls to the ground. So does the charge of violating a Jew's wife and then setting fire to his house. The Jewish manifesto states that a Jewish innkeeper was cooped in one of his own barrels and cast into the Dnieper. This turns out to be a fable, the village which was the alleged scene of it being ten miles from the Dnieper and near no other river of consequence.
The Russian peasant, Christian though he may be, is entitled to justice. As a rule, while ignorant and often intemperate, he is good-natured. There was much brutality in his riot, but fiendish atrocity there was not, and if he struck savagely, perhaps he had suffered long. For the belief that the mob was "doing the will of the Tsar," in other words, that the government was at the bottom of the rising, there does not appear to have been a shadow of foundation. The action of the authorities was not in all cases equally prompt. In some cases it was culpably slack. At Warsaw the commandant held back, though as Lord Granville, the British ambassador, bears witness, his motive for hesitation was humanity. But many of the rioters were shot down or bayoneted by the troops, hundreds were flogged, some were imprisoned, and some were sent to Siberia. That any of the military took part in the riots seems to be a fiction. It was not likely that the Russian government, menaced as it is by revolutionary conspiracy, would encourage insurrection.
People of the upper class, who fancied that in the agitation they saw the work of Socialists, though they might dislike the Jews, would hardly sympathize with the rioters. Efforts were made by the government to restore Jewish property, and handsome sums were subscribed for the relief of the sufferers. Yet those who, while they heartily condemned outrage, were willing to accept proof that the Christian men and women of Russia had not behaved like demons, were saluted as modern counterparts of Haman by an eminent Rabbi, who, if the objects of his strictures had cared to retort, might have been asked whether the crucifixion of Haman's ten sons and the slaughter of 75,000 of the enemies of Israel in one day, which, after the lapse of so many centuries, the feast of Purim still joyously commemorates, were not horrors as great as any which have been shown to have actually occurred at Odessa or Elizabethgrad.
Cause of the Troubles
The most important part of the evidence given in the consuls' reports, however, is that which relates to the cause of the troubles. At Warsaw, where the people are Roman Catholics, there appears to have been a certain amount of passive sympathy with the insurgents on religious grounds. But everywhere else the concurrent testimony of the consuls is that the source of the agitation was economical and social, not religious. Bitterness produced by the exactions of the Jew, envy of his wealth, irritation at the display of it in such things as the fine dresses of his women, jealousy of his ascendancy, combined in the lowest of the mob with the love of plunder, were the motives of the people for attacking him, not hatred of his faith. Vice-Consul Wagstaff, who seems to have paid particular attention to the question and made the most careful inquiry, after paying a tribute to the sober, laborious, thrifty character and the superior intelligence of the Jew, and ascribing to these his increasing monopoly of commerce, proceeds (in Correspondence Respecting the Treatment of Jews in Russia, No. 1, 1882, pp. 11, 12):
It is chiefly as brokers or middlemen that the Jews are so prominent. Seldom a business transaction of any kind takes place without their intervention, and from both sides they receive compensation. To enumerate some of their other occupations, constantly denounced by the public: they are the principal dealers in spirits; keepers of "vodka" (drinking) shops and houses of ill-fame; receivers of stolen goods; illegal pawnbrokers and usurers. A branch they also succeed in is as government contractors. With their knowledge of handling money, they collude with unscrupulous officials in defrauding the State to vast amounts annually. In fact, the malpractices of some of the Jewish community have a bad influence on those whom they come in contact with.The peasants, the vice-consul tells us, often say, when they look at the property of a Jew, "That is my blood." In confirmation of his view he cites the list of demands formulated by the peasants and laid before a mixed committee of inquiry into the causes of the disorder. These demands are all economical or social, with the exception of the complaint that Russian girls in Jewish service forget their religion and with it lose their morals. Everything, in short, seems to bear out the statement of the Russian Minister of the Interior, in a manifesto given in the Blue Book, that "the movement had its main cause in circumstances purely economical;" provided that to "economical" we add "social," and include all that is meant by the phrase "hatred of Jewish usurpation," used in another document...MORE...LINK
It must, however, be said that there are many well educated, highly respectable, and honorable Jews in Russia, but they form a small minority. This class is not treated upon in this paper. They thoroughly condemn the occupations of their lower brethren, and one of the results of the late disturbances is noticed in the movement at present amongst the Jews. They themselves acknowledge the abuses practised by some of their own members, and suggest remedial measures to allay the irritation existing among the working classes.
Another thing the Jews are accused of is that there exists among them a system of boycotting; they use their religion for business purposes. This is expressed by the words "koul," or "kagal," and "kherim." For instance, in Bessarabia, the produce of a vineyard is drawn for by lot, and falls, say to Jabob Levy; the other Jews of the district cannot compete with Levy, who buys the wine at his own price. In the leasing by auction of government and provincial lands, it is invariably a Jew who outbids the others and afterwards re-lets plots to the peasantry at exorbitant prices. Very crying abuses of farming out land have lately come to light and greatly shocked public opinion. Again, where estates are farmed by Jews, it is distressing to see the pitiable condition in which they are handed over on the expiration of the lease. Experience also shows they are very bad colonists.
Their fame as usurers is well known. Given a Jewish recruit with a few rubles' capital, it can be worked out, mathematically, what time it will take him to become the money-lender of his company or regiment, from the drummer to the colonel. Take the case of a peasant: if he once gets into the hands of this class, he is irretrievably lost. The proprietor, in his turn, from a small loan gradually mortgages and eventually loses his estate. A great deal of landed property in south Russia has of late years passed into the hands of the Israelites, but principally into the hands of intelligent and sober peasants.
From first to last, the Jew has his hand in everything. He advances the seed for sowing, which is generally returned in kind -- quarters for bushels. As harvest time comes round, money is required to gather in the crops. This is sometimes advanced on hard conditions; but the peasant has no choice; there is no one to lend him money, and it is better to secure something than to lose all. Very often the Jew buys the whole crop as it stands in the field on his own terms. It is thus seen that they themselves do not raise agricultural products, but they reap the benefits of others' labor, and steadily become rich, while proprietors are gradually getting ruined. In their relation to Russia they are compared to parasites that have settled on a plant not vigorous enough to throw them off, and which is being sapped of its vitality.