A People that will Dwell Alone
In the early 19th century, Western Europe underwent many changes in the aftermath of the French Revolution, which enabled the granting of rights to Jews in Central and Western Europe, but had no effect on the status of Jews in Eastern Europe. Pestel, leader of the nobility in Russia, claimed that the Jews could not blend in with any nation, because their character was that of ?a people that dwell alone.?
In 1825 the Czar Nicolai the First rose to power; he was known for his antagonism towards the Jews. He was a narrow-minded man who had reservations about the West and the changes that had taken place there. Nicolai the First regarded the Jews as an onerous burden and aspired to rectify the situation through assimilation. He believed that one of the main conditions for Russia?s power was complete spiritual and cultural uniformity that would not tolerate exceptions. The czar imposed decrees on the Jews in various areas, such as restricting the ?Pale? of Jewish residence. Jewish children were forced to attend state schools, which was meant to impair their Talmudic studies.
Another law was the Cantonist Decree, which banned Jews from redeeming themselves with money to avoid serving in the Russian army. The conscription quota for Jews was higher than that of any other nationality. The law enabled the conscription of children from the age of 12, who were to be placed in dormitories under the supervision of priests and harsh military men. Many of the children died of sorrow, disease and starvation when they refused to eat non-kosher meat. Many died as religious martyrs or were forced to undergo baptism. Tens of thousands of them disappeared. This decree caused grave demoralization among the Jews.
After a drought in the ?Pale? of Jewish residence, Jews who made a living from winemaking were exiled from their homes in order to protect the farmers. Tens of thousands of Jews became refugees in the crowded cities. Jews were not allowed traditional garb or to grow their sidelocks. In addition, Nicolai the First declared the disbanding of the community committees.