Jewish genealogy in Argentina
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jewish genealogy in Argentina



by S.M. Dubnow

A Project Gutenberg EBook


Following upon the removal of the "black stain" of conscription came the question of lightening the "yoke of slavery," that heavy burden of rightlessness which pressed so grievously upon the outcasts of the Jewish Pale. Already in March, 1856, Count Kiselev, a semi-liberal official and formerly the president of the "Jewish Committee" which had been appointed in 1840 [1] and which was composed of the heads of the various ministries, submitted a memorandum to Alexander II. in which he took occasion to point out that "the attainment of the goal indicated in the imperial ukase of 1840, that of bringing about the fusion of the Jews with the general population, is hampered by various provisionally enacted restrictions which, when taken in conjunction with the general laws, contain contradictions and engender confusion."

[Footnote 1: See above, p. 49 et seq.]

The result was an imperial order, dated March 31, 1856, "to revise all existing regulations affecting the Jews so as to bring them into harmony with the general policy of fusing this people with the original inhabitants, as far as the moral status of the Jews may render it possible." The same ministers who had taken part in the labors of the Jewish Committee were instructed to draft a plan looking to the modification of the laws affecting the Jews and to submit their suggestions to the Tzar.

In this way the inception of the new reign was marked by a characteristic slogan: the fusion of the Jews with the Russian people, to be promoted by alleviations in their legal status. The way leading to this "fusion" was, in the judgment of Russian officialdom, blocked by the historic unity of the Jewish nation, a unity which in governmental phraseology was styled "Jewish separatism" and interpreted as the effect of the inferior "moral status" of the Jews. At the same time it was implied that Jews with better "morals," i.e., those who have shown a leaning toward Russification, might be accorded special legal advantages over their retrograde coreligionists.

From that moment the bureaucratic circles of St. Petersburg became obsessed with the idea of picking out special groups from among the Jewish population, distinguished by financial or educational qualifications, for the purpose of bestowing upon them certain rights and privileges. It was the old coin--Nicholas' idea of the "assortment" of the Jews--with a new legend stamped upon it. Formerly it had been intended to penalize the "useless" or "unsettled burghers" by intensifying their rightlessness; now this plan gave way to the policy of rewarding the "useful" elements by enlarging their rights or reducing their rightlessness. The objectionable principle upon which this whole system was founded, the division of a people into categories of favorites and outcasts, remained in full force. There was only a difference in degree: the threat of legal restrictions for the disobedient was replaced by holding out promises of legal alleviations for the obedient.

A small group of influential Jewish merchants in St. Petersburg, which stood in close relations to the highest official spheres, the purveyor and banker Baron Joseph Yozel Guenzburg [1] and others, seized eagerly upon this idea which bade fair to shower privileges upon the well-to-do classes. In June, 1856, this group addressed a petition to Alexander II., complaining about the disabilities which weighed so heavily upon all Jews, "from the artisan to the first guild merchant, from the private soldier to the Master of Arts, and forced them down to the level of a degraded, suspected, untolerated tribe." At the same time they assured the Tzar that, were the Government to give a certain amount of encouragement to the Jews, the latter would gladly meet it half-way and help in the realization of its policy to draw the Jews nearer to the original inhabitants and turn them in the direction of productive labor.

[Footnote 1: Popularly known by his middle name as _Yozel_.]

  Were--the petitioners declare--the new generation which has been   brought up in the spirit and under the control of the Government,   were the higher mercantile class which for many years has diffused   life, activity, and wealth in the land, were the conscientious   artisans who earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, to receive   from the Government, as a mark of distinction, larger rights than   those who have done nothing to attest their well-meaningness,   usefulness, and industry, then the whole Jewish people, seeing that   these few favored ones are the object of the Government's   righteousness and benevolence and models of what it desires the Jews   to become, would joyfully hasten to attain the goal marked out by   the Government. Our present petition, therefore, is to the effect   that our gracious sovereign may bestow his kindness upon us, and, by   distinguishing the grain from the chaff, may be pleased to accord a   few moderate privileges to the most educated among us, to wit:

  1. "Equal rights with the other (Russian) subjects or with the   Karaite Jews [1] to the educated and well-deserving Jews who possess   the title of Honorary Citizens, to the merchants affiliated for a   number of years with the first or second guild and distinguished by   their business integrity, to the soldiers who have served   irreproachably in the army."

  2. The right of residence outside the Pale of Settlement "to the   best among the artisans" who possess laudatory certificates from the   trade-unions. The privileges thus accorded to "the best among us"   will help to realize the consummation of the Government "that the   sharply marked traits which distinguish the Jews from the native   Russians should be levelled, and that the Jews should in their way   of thinking and acting become akin to the latter." Once placed   outside their secluded "Pale," the Jews "will succeed in adopting   from the genuine Russians the praise-worthy qualities, by which they   are distinguished, and the striving for culture and useful endeavor   will become universal."

[Footnote 1: On the emancipation of the Karaites see Vol. I, p. 318.]

The petition reflects the humiliating attitude of men who were standing on the boundary line between slavery and freedom, whose cast of mind had been formed under the regime of oppression and caprice. Pointing to the example of the West where the bestowal of equal rights had contributed to the success of Jewish assimilation, the St. Petersburg petitioners were not even courageous enough to demand equal rights as the price of assimilation, and professed, perhaps from diplomatic considerations, to content themselves with miserable crumbs of rights and privileges for "the best among us." They failed to realize the meanness of their suggestion to divide a nation into best and worst, into those worthy of a human existence and those unworthy of it.

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