classless_on the social status of jews in russia and eastern europe in the late nineteenth century

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Comparative Studies in Society and History 2008;50(2):509 534. 0010-4175/08 $15.00 # 2008 Society for Comparative Study of Society and History doi: 10.1017/S0010417508000224

Classless: On the Social Status of Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe in the Late Nineteenth CenturyELI LEDERHENDLERAvraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem In this paper I examine the economic and political factors that undermined the social class structure in an ethnic communitythe Jews of Russia and eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century.1 Compared with the documented rise and articulation of working classes in non-Jewish society in that region, Jews were caught in an opposite process, largely owing to discriminatory state policies and social pressures: Among Jews, artisans and petty merchants were increasingly reduced to a single, caste-like status. A Jewish middle class of signicant size did not emerge from the petty trade sector and no signicant industrial working class emerged from the crafts sector. Historians have largely overlooked the signicance of these facts, in part because they have viewed this east European situation as a mere preamble to more sophisticated, modern class formation processes among immigrant Jews in Western societies, particularly in light of the long-term middle-class trajectory of their children. Those historians interested in labor history have mainly shown interest in such continuity as they could infer from the self-narratives of the Jewish labor movement, and have thus overstated the case for a long-standing Jewish proletarian tradition. In reassessing the historical record, I wish to put the Jewish social and economic situation in eastern Europe into better perspective by looking at the overall social and economic situation, rather than at incipient worker organizations alone. I also query whether a developing class culture, along the lines suggested by

Acknowledgments: I want to thank the three anonymous CSSH readers whose suggestions and questions were very helpful in reworking an earlier draft of this essay. All translations are mine unless otherwise stated. 1 Throughout this paper, I use eastern Europe and Russia almost interchangeably, despite differences in legal, political, and economic status that obtained across the region. I do so partly for convenience, given the Russian Empires domination over 80 percent of east European Jewry. In addition, my use of eastern Europe underscores that Russian Jews did not actually live in Russia, per se, but in lands that were ethnically Polish, Lithuanian, Belorussian, Ukrainian, and Moldavian (among others).




E. P. Thompson, was at all in evidence before Jewish mass emigration. This paper is thus a contribution to the history of laborrather than organized laboras well as a discussion of the roots of ethnic economic identity. In addition, a reexamination of the economic background of the east European Jews who migrated in mass to the West suggests that theories of selfselection among the migrating population, which ostensibly favored those from the light-manufacturing sector, overstate the case for individual agency in the migration process, and the neat t between Old World and New World occupational structures. Finally, conventional ethnic histories of Jews in the United States have largely focused on cultural transmission issues. I hope to reintroduce the economic factor into the discussion. In that sense, this paper argues for a more rigorous comparison between the status of pre-migration east European Jewry and that of post-migration communities in the United States. It forms the rst part of a longer work in progress on Jewish immigrant life in America and the processes of economic integration.

Some ve million Jewsnearly half of the world totallived under Russian imperial rule at the end of the nineteenth century. (These included 1.3 million who lived within the Kingdom of Poland.) As of 1910, an additional 850,000 were living in Habsburg Galicia and some 400,000 were spread throughout southeastern Europe (chiey in the Balkans and Romania), bringing the total Jewish population for all of eastern Europe to 6.25 million. Nearly one-third, or about two million, of these immigrated to the United States over a fty-year period, beginning in the 1870s and peaking between 1905 and the First World War.2 This mass outpouring ended in the 1920s when the U. S. government instituted country-of-origin-based immigration quotas weighted against east European countries. The emigration of one-third of a population in so short a time-span is rare (only the mass out-migrations of the Irish or the Norwegians come to mind as comparable), and it has aroused interest about the conditions that spurred such an exodus. Jewish immigrants comprised about 11 percent of total American immigrants between 1899 and 1914, and 14 percent of those who remained permanently (i.e., net immigration). Jews made up one-quarter of the immigrants from southern, central, and eastern Europe.32 Evyatar Friesel, Atlas of Modern Jewish History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 1015, 3236; Simon Kuznets, Immigration of Russian Jews to the United States: Background and Structure, Perspectives in American History 9 (1975): 38, Table 1; Isaac M. Rubinow, Economic Conditions of the Jews in Russia, Bulletin of the Bureau of Labor, No. 72 (Washington, D.C.: Department of Commerce and Labor, 1907; repr. New York: Arno Press, 1975), 495 96. 3 Niles Carpenter, Immigrants and Their Children, 1920. Census Monographs, vol. 7 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Ofce, 1927), 344, Table 158; Joel Perlmann,



Research on the causes and the timing of the Jewish immigration has dwelt upon both the social-political element (persecutions) and on economic elements (socioeconomic deprivation). Mob violence against Jews and Jewish propertypogroms, a Russian word coined expressly for this casebroke out in the Pale of Settlement in the spring of 1881, following the assassination of the tsar, Alexander II, and this is often considered to be the spark that touched off the large-scale exodus. The question is far from settled, and is far more complex than it would appear, for several reasons: (a) The migration actually began, albeit on a smaller scale, in the 1870s; (b) scholars have shown that the 1881-era immigrants came initially from centers of Jewish population hardest hit by poverty more than from those areas directly affected by the pogroms4; (c) the migration was selectivemigration was much higher among younger, working-age people, and did not represent a cross-section of the Jewish populationand was responsive to business cycles in the American economy; and (d) although Jews were, like other migrating groups, clearly economically motivated, they did emigrate more than non-Jews. Jews comprised over two-fths of all Russian emigrants between 1890 and 1915, and they tended to bring more dependent family members with them, thus placing themselves at an initial economic disadvantage in adjusting to their new home. These two idiosyncratic factorsmore intensive out-migration

Italians Then, Mexicans Now. Immigrant Origins and Second-Generation Progress, 1890 2000 (New York: Russell Sage Foundation and the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, 2005), 11 12. For the general literature, see Walter Nugent, Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 18701914 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992); Alan M. Kraut, The Huddled Masses: The Immigrant in American Society, 18801921 (Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1982); Salo W. Baron, United States 1880 1914, in Steeled By Adversity. Essays and Addresses on American Jewish Life (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1971), 269 414; Liebman Hersch, International Migration of the Jews, in Imre Ferenczi and Walter F. Willcox, eds., International Migrations (New York: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1931), vol. 2, 471520; and idem, Jewish Migrations during the Last Hundred Years, in The Jewish People Past and Present (New York: Jewish Encyclopedic Handbooks, Central Yiddish Culture Organization [CYCO], 1946), vol. I, 407 30; Samuel Joseph, Jewish Immigration to the United States from 1881 to 1910 (New York: Arno, 1969; repr. of 1914 ed., New York: Longmans, Green). 4 Kuznets, Immigration: 116 19; Shaul Stampfer, The Geographic Background of East European Jewish Migration to the United States before World War I, in, Ira A. Glazier and Luigi De Rosa, eds., Migration across Time and Nations: Population Mobility in Historical Contexts (New York and London: Holmes and Meier, 1986), 227 28; idem, Patterns of Internal Jewish Migration in the Russian Empire, in, Yaacov Roi, ed., Jews and Jewish Life in Russia and the Soviet Union (Ilford, Essex: Frank Cass, 1995), 37; Rubinow, Economic Conditions, 49192, 495 96, 502. On the pogroms see: I. Michael Aronson, Troubled Waters: The Origins of the 1881 Anti-Jewish Pogroms in Russia (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990); Jonathan Frankel, The Crisis of 188182 as a Turning Point in Modern Jewish History, in, David Berger, ed., The Legacy of Jewish Migration: 1881 and Its Impact (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 9 22; Shlomo Lambroza and John Klier, eds., Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).



and higher family migrationmay attest to the added motivating push of a particularly harsh political situation for Jews.5 We can assume, then, that both economic and other historical causes served as push factors in the emigration of east European Jews, and that political oppression and economic causes were interrelated. The following discussion is intended to delineate


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