100 Years of Struggle


Jews and the military were two concepts that were far apart throughout the Middle Ages and up to the end of the eighteenth century. With the acceleration of the emancipation process in Europe and the appearance of national liberation movements in the 19th century, the number of Jews serving in regular European armies or that fought in the ranks of national liberation movements steadily increased. At the end of the 19th century Jews also began to join revolutionary terror organizations. In all forms of military organization ? the regular national army, national uprisings based on militias or a revolutionary terror organization ? Jews served among non-Jews for general objectives.

The Jews in the eastern part of the continent evinced a different attitude towards military service than that of the Jews in the West. In the western countries, military service was perceived as an entrance ticket to society and as an integral part of emancipation. In Eastern Europe ? where emancipation was nipped in the bud and the army was identified with an oppressive regime ? Jews developed a norm of shirking the enforced service both within the ranks of the traditional public and among the radical youth, which turned to the revolutionary movements. 

In Muslim states, where Jews lived under the patronage of local rulers, there was no possibility of Jews joining the army or of their involvement in a military framework.
In the beginning of the 20th century, in the aftermath of the pogroms that Jewish Europe underwent, self-defense groups were founded throughout the Jewish "Pale" of residence in Russia. These groups constituted the first organization on behalf of a Jewish cause


A Tradition of Hostility

In the mid-19th century the majority of the Jewish people was concentrated in Eastern Europe. In Russia, the czars maintained a strict anti-Jewish tradition whose main expression was the banning of the entry of Jews into Russia until the second half of the 18th century.

Following the partition of Poland at the end of the 18th century, large parts of that country were annexed to Russia. In the beginning, Czarina Catherine the Great treated them in the manner of enlightened leaders: She recognized their religious community life and granted them freedom of movement and commerce. However, in the aftermath of the French Revolution she changed her policy and restricted the "Pale" of Jewish residence to New Russia, White Russia and the Ukraine. The Czarina limited commerce, imposed heavy taxes, established harsh rental conditions and introduced restrictions in the area of employment.

The Czar Paul, Catherine?s heir, also adopted a heavy-handed policy towards the Jews, banned their communities, and prohibited the dissemination of religion and religious schools. Alexander the First, who rose to power in 1801, enacted the Jewish Constitution three years later, with the aim of distancing the Jews from tradition and religion.

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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.

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