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Overview // Pogroms // Famine Relief

A pogrom (meaning “riot” or “devastation” in Russian) was an act of mob violence perpetrated against Jews in Russia during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.  The first major pogroms erupted after the assassination of Czar Alexander II on March 1, 1881.  The czar had implemented some reforms during his reign including freeing the serfs and allowing some Jews in “useful” occupations to live outside the Pale of Settlement—the western provinces where they had been restricted by law since the 1790s.  Nevertheless, he ruled as an autocrat, prompting various radical groups, identified under the catchall label of “Nihilist,” to seek destruction of the autocratic regime and its replacement with a communist system.  During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, incidents of revolutionary terrorism escalated within Russia.  A group called Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”) targeted high government officials and royal figures, and on March 1, 1881, assassinated the czar.

The assassin of Czar Alexander II was not Jewish and had only one Jewish associate, but false rumors about the involvement of the long-hated religious minority swept the country.  For a year beginning in April 1881 pogroms occurred in over 160 Russian towns and cities, where Jewish homes and property were destroyed, women raped, and large numbers of men, women, and children injured or killed.  Although the imperial government had not organized the pogroms, it largely ignored them and appeared to sanction them.  The government made matters worse by issuing edicts on May 15, 1882 under which all Jewish-held mortgages and leases were cancelled and Jews were forbidden to live outside cities and towns in the Pale of Settlement.  That meant that a half-million Jews living in rural areas were compelled to relocate to towns within the Pale, and by 1891 700,000 Jews living east of the Pale were forced within its borders.

As a result of the pogroms and “May Laws,” hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews immigrated to the United States.  An article in the February 11, 1882 issue of Harper’s Weekly condemned the violence against Jews in czarist Russia, arguing that the government’s “sympathy with the rioters … amounts to complicity.”  The story detailed the stream of immigrants entering the Port of New York, and ended with a sincere if futile warning:  “If Russia has any regard for the public opinion of Christendom, she will do justice to her Jewish population.”  In the next week’s issue, an illustrated article referred to the Jewish immigrants as “refugees from the rage of fanaticism…”

Violent persecution and legal discrimination in Russia continued over the years, including the expulsion of Jews from Moscow in 1891.  That year, over 75,000 Jews immigrated to the United States.  In his editorial  for the July 4, 1891 issue of Harper’s Weekly, George William Curtis asserted that no one can reasonably doubt Czar Alexander III’s “approval of the cruel policy of exclusion.”  The editor equally criticized the treatment of non-Jews in Russia.  The list of “flagrant and brutal” atrocities against the Russian people included arbitrary arrests, imprisonment or exile without trial, and suppression of free speech and a free press.  Curtis encouraged a movement in Britain and the United States that advocated constitutional government for Russia in place of czarist despotism or communist nihilism.

In an editorial two months later, Curtis commented on the American government’s attempt to raise with the czar’s administration the issue of Russian Jews immigrating to the United States.  The editor observed that the Russian government exiled but did not direct the emigration, and that “as a class the Russian Hebrews are not desired in this country.”  The latter remark, in the context of his other comments on the subject and an earlier (1877) charge that anti-Semitism was “a prejudice which is simply monstrous,” seemed to reflect not so much a religious or ethnic bias on Curtis’s part as a class prejudice:  unlike earlier German Jews, many Russians were unskilled workers.  It may also have been his sense of how the Jewish Russians were being received in the United States.  (Many nations had been unwilling to accept the refugees).

The editor mentioned a petition signed by notable Americans encouraging the U.S. government to back plans for a Jewish settlement/state in Palestine (of which he was skeptical).  Baron Hirsch discussed in the July and September editorials referred to Maurice Hirsch, a German-Jewish financier and philanthropist who established the Jewish Colonization Association in 1891 in order to facilitate resettlement of Russian Jews to North and South America, particularly Argentina and Brazil.  Hirsch did not back the Palestine proposal because he considered it to be unrealistic at the time.

Harper's Weekly References

1)  February 11, 1882, p. 93, c. 2-3
article, “The Hebrew Exodus from Russia”

2)  February 18, 1882, p. 109
illustrated article, “Exiles from Russia”

3)  July 4, 1891, p. 490, c. 2-3
editorial, “Russia and Christendom”

4)  September 5, 1891, p. 671, c. 2
editorial, “The Hebrew Exodus from Russia”

Sources Consulted

“American Jewish Immigration.”  Jewish Museum.

“Baron Maurice de Hirsch.”

“Hirsch, Maurice, baron de.”  The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth edition, 2001.

“Pogrom.”  Encyclopædia Britannica 2003.  Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.

Rosenthal, Herman.  “Alexander III, Alexandrovich, Emperor of Russia.”

Rosenthal, Herman.  “Pale of Settlement.”

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Overview // Pogroms // Famine Relief





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