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by S.M. Dubnow

A Project Gutenberg EBook


The horrors of Balta cast their shadow upon the conference of Jewish delegates which met in St. Petersburg on April 8-11, 1882. The conference, which had been called by Baron Horace Guenzburg, with the permission of Ignatyev, was made up of some twenty-five delegates from the provinces--among them Dr. Mandelstamm of Kiev, Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Specter of Kovno--and fifteen notables from the capital, including Baron Guenzburg himself, the railroad magnate Polakov, and Professor Bakst. The question of Jewish emigration was the central issue of the conference, although, in connection with it, the general situation of Russian Jewry came up for discussion. There was a mixed element of tragedy and timidity in the deliberations of this miniature congress, at which neither the voice of the masses nor that of the _intelligentzia_ were given a full hearing. On the one hand, the conference listened to heartrending speeches, picturing the intolerable position of the Jews; and one of the delegates, Shmerling from Moghilev, who had just delivered such a speech, was so overcome that he fainted and died in a few hours. On the other hand, the most influential delegates, particularly those from the capital, were looking about timorously, fearing lest the Government suspect them of a lack of patriotism. Others again looked upon emigration as an illicit form of protest, as "sedition," and they clung to this conviction, even when the conference had been told in the name of the Minister of the Interior that it was expected to consider the question of "thinning out the Jewish population in the Pale of Settlement, in view of the fact that the Jews will not be admitted into the interior governments of Russia."

At the second meeting of the conference, the rabbi of St. Petersburg, Dr. Drabkin, reported to the delegates about his last conversation with Ignatyev. In reply to the rabbi who had stated that the Jews were waiting for an imperial word ordering the suppression of the pogroms, and were anticipating the removal of their legal disabilities, the Minister had characterized these assertions as "commonplaces," and had added in an irritated tone: "The Jews themselves are responsible for the pogroms. By joining the Nihilists they thereby deprive the Government of the possibility of sheltering them against violence." The sophistry of the Minister was refuted on the spot by his own confession that the Balta pogrom was due to "a false rumor charging the Jews with having undermined the local Greek-Orthodox church," in other words, that the cause of the Balta pogrom was not to be traced to any tendencies within Jewry but rather to the agitation of evil-minded Jew-baiters.

At the same session, the discussion of the emigration question was side-tracked by a new design of the slippery Minister. The financier Samuel Polakov, who was close to Ignatyev, declared in a spirit of base flunkeyism that the labors of the conference would prove fruitless unless they were carried on in accordance with "Government instructions." On this occasion he informed the conference that in a talk which he had with the Minister the latter had branded the endeavors to stimulate emigration as "an incitement to sedition," on the ground that "emigration does not exist for Russian citizens." Asked by the Minister for suggestions as to the best means of relieving the congestion of the Jews in the Pale, Polakov had replied: "By settling them all over Russia." To this the Minister had retorted that he could not allow the settlement of Jews except in Central Asia and in the newly conquered oasis of Akhal-Tekke, [1] In obedience to these ministerial utterances, the obsequious financier sharply opposed the plan of a Jewish emigration to foreign lands, and seriously recommended to the conference to consider the proposal made by Ignatyev. The Minister's suggestion was bitterly attacked by Dr. Mandelstamm, who saw in it a new attempt to make sport of the Jews, Even Professor Bakst, who objected to emigration on principle, declared that the proposed scheme of settling the Jews amounted in reality to "a deportation to far-off places" and was tantamount to an official "classification of the Jews as criminals."

[Footnote 1: In the Trans-Caspian region. It had been occupied by Russian troops shortly before--in 1880.]

From the project of deportation, which failed to meet with the sympathy of the conference, the delegates proceeded to discuss the burning question of pogroms. It was proposed to send a deputation to the Tzar, appealing to him to put a stop to the legislative restrictions, which were bound to inspire the Russian population with the belief that the Jews were outside the pale of the law.

In the question of foreign emigration the majority of the conference voted against the establishment of emigration committees, on the ground that the latter might give the impression as if the Jews were desirous of leaving Russia.

After a debate lasting four days the following resolutions were adopted:

  _First_, to reject completely the thought of organizing emigration,   as being subversive of the dignity of the Russian body politic and   of the historic rights of the Jews to their present fatherland.

  _Second_, to point to the necessity of abolishing the present   discriminating legislation concerning the Jews, this abolition being   the only means to regulate the relationship of the Jewish population   to the original inhabitants.

  _Third_, to bring to the knowledge of the Government the passive   attitude of the authorities which had clearly manifested itself   during the time of the disorders.

  _Fourth_, to petition the Government to find means for compensating   the Jewish population, which had suffered from the pogroms as a   result of inadequate police protection.

At the same time the conference took occasion to refute the old accusation, which had again been brought up in the gubernatorial commissions, that the Jews still retained their ancient autonomous Kahal organization, and that the latter was operating secretly and was fostering Jewish separatism to the detriment of the other elements of the population.

The resolution of the conference on this score read as follows:

  We, the undersigned, the representatives of various centers of   Jewish settlement in Russia, rabbis, members of religious   organizations and synagogue boards, consider it our sacred duty,   calling to witness God Omniscient, to declare publicly, in the   presence of the whole of Russia, that there exists neither an open   nor a secret Kahal administration among the Russian Jews; that   Jewish life is entirely foreign to any organization of this kind and   to any of the attributes ascribed to such an organization by evil   minded persons.

The signers of this solemn pronouncement were evidently unaware of the degrading renunciation of national rights which was implied in the declaration that not only had the Jews lost their former comprehensive communal organization--this was in accordance with the facts--but that, were such an inner autonomous organization to exist, they would regard it as a criminal offence, subversive of the public order and punishable by the forfeiture of civil rights.

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