Jewish Emancipation In The East

What differed from the West?

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It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that society in Eastern Europe was truly transformed. This metamorphosis, however, occurred not due to government coercion, but as a result of overall modernizing processes. Within a few decades, the economic and social upheavals liquidated the traditional way of life and caused the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Jews.

Alexander II's accession opened an era of reform in Russia. Serfdom was abolished and the empire was opened to capitalist enterprise.  The ­former seigniorial system which had incorporated the Jews for centuries was crumbling, and the Jewish townlet (the shtetl) was thus cut off from its economic roots. At both ends of the social ladder, as both proletarians and as capitalists, the Jews gradually entered the new socioeconomic system. The political liberalization introduced by Alexander II's reforms was a catalyst for the emergence of a prosperous Jewish bourgeoisie, and a new Jewish intelligentsia was graduating from Russian high schools and universities. In the 1850s and 1860s, Jewish periodicals in Hebrew, Russian, and Polish began to appear in St. Petersburg, Odessa, Kiev, Warsaw, and Lvov, weaving a network of communication cross eastern Europe.

Modernization, obviously, is never a painless process. The westernization of Russo-Polish Jewry was no exception. Two major developments reflected the difficulties: first, the rise of radical ideologies; second, mass migration, both internal (from Lithuania to southern Russia and western Poland) and external, towards the West.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University