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HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN RUSSIA AND POLAND - S.M. Dubnow




jewish genealogy in Argentina

HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN RUSSIA AND POLAND

FROM THE DEATH OF ALEXANDER I UNTIL THE DEATH OF ALEXANDER III

by S.M. Dubnow

A Project Gutenberg EBook

2. THE SOCIETY FOR THE DIFFUSION OF ENLIGHTENMENT

Though intensely engaged in this cultural movement, Russian Jewry did not yet command sufficient resources for carrying on a well-ordered and well-systematized activity. The only modern Jewish organization of that period was the "Society for the Diffusion of Enlightenment amongst the Jews," which had been founded in 1867 by a small coterie of Jewish financiers and intellectuals of St. Petersburg. It would seem that the Jewish colony of the Russian metropolis, consisting of big merchants and university graduates, who, by virtue of the laws of 1859 and 1861, enjoyed the right of residence outside the Pale, did not yet contain a sufficient number of competent public workers. For during the first decade of the Society its Executive Committee included, apart from its Jewish founders--Baron Guenzburg, Leon Rosenthal, Rabbi Neuman--, two apostates, Professor Daniel Chwolson and the court physician, I. Berthenson.

The purpose of the Society was explained by one of the founders, Leon Rosenthal, in the following unsophisticated manner:

  We constantly hear men in high positions, with whom we come in   contact, complain about the separatism and fanaticism of the Jews   and about their aloofness from everything Russian, and we have   received assurances on all hands that, with, the removal of these   peculiarities, the condition of our brethren in Russia will be   improved, and we shall all become full-fledged citizens of this   country. Actuated by this motive, we have organized a league of   educated men for the purpose of eradicating our above-mentioned   shortcomings by disseminating among the Jews the knowledge of the   Russian language and other useful subjects.

What the Society evidently aimed at was to place itself at the head of the Russian-Jewish _intelligenzia_, which had undertaken to act as negotiators between the Government and the Jews in the cause of Russification. In reality, the mission of the Society was carried out within exceedingly narrow limits. "Education for the sake of Emancipation" became the watchword of the Society. It promoted higher education by granting monetary assistance to Jewish students, but it did nothing either for the upbuilding of a normal Jewish school or for the improvement of the heders and yeshibahs. The dissemination of the knowledge of "useful subjects" reduced itself to the grant of a few subsidies to Jewish writers for translating a few books on history and natural science into Hebrew.

Even more circumscribed and utilitarian was the point of view adopted by the Odessa branch of the Society. This branch, founded in 1867, adopted as its slogan "the enlightenment of the Jews through the Russian language and _in the Russian spirit_." The Russification of the Jews was to be promoted by translating the Bible and the prayer-book into the Russian language, "which must become the national tongue of the Jews." However, the headlong rush for assimilation was soon halted by the sinister spectacle of the Odessa pogrom of 1871. The moving spirits of the local branch could not help, to use the language of its president, "losing heart and becoming rather doubtful as to whether the goal pursued by them is in reality a good one, seeing that all the endeavors of our brethren to draw nearer to the Russians are of no avail so long as the Russian masses remain in their present unenlightened condition and harbor hostile sentiments towards the Jews." The pogrom put a temporary stop to the activity of the Odessa branch.

As for the central Committee in St. Petersburg, its experience was not less disappointing. For, despite all the endeavors of the Society to adapt itself to the official point of view, it was regarded with suspicion by the powers that be, having been included by the informer Brafman among the constituent organizations of the dreadful and mysterious "Jewish Kahal." The Russian assimilators, now branded as separatists, found themselves in a tragic conflict. Moreover, the work of the Society in promoting general culture among the Jews was gradually losing its _raison d'etre_, since, without any effort on its part, the Jews began to flock to the _gymnazia_ and universities. The former practical stimulus to general culture--the acquisition of a diploma for the sake of equal rights--was intensified by the promulgation of the military statute of 1874 which conferred a number of privileges in the discharge of military duty on those possessing a higher education. These privileges induced many parents, particularly among the merchant class which was then drafted into the army for the first time, to send their children to the middle and higher educational institutions. As a result, the role of the Society in the dissemination of enlightenment reduced itself to a mere dispensation of charity, and the great crisis of the eighties found this organization standing irresolute at the cross-roads.



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