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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 8.2 (2007) 409-430

The "Jewish Question" in Eastern Europe
Reviewed by
Theodore R. Weeks
Grażyna Borkowska and Magdalena Rudkowska, eds., Kwestia żydowska w XIX wieku: Spory o tożsamość Polaków [The Jewish Question in the 19th Century: Controversies about Polish Identity]. 493 pp. Warsaw: Cyklady, 2004. ISBN 838685992X.
Oleg V. Budnitskii, Konstantin Iu. Burmistrov, Aleksandr B. Kamenskii, and Viktoriia V. Mochalovaia, eds., Istoriia i kul´tura rossiiskogo i vostochnoevropeiskogo evreistva: Novye istochniki, novye podkhody. Materialy mezhdunarodnoi nauchnoi konferentsii, Moskva, 8–10 dekabria 2003 g. [The History and Culture of Russian and East European Jewry: New Sources, New Approaches. Materials from an International Scholarly Conference, Moscow, 8–10 December 2003]. 423 pp. Moscow: Dom evreiskoi knigi, 2004. ISBN 5983700170.
Marina Dmitrieva and Heidemarie Petersen, eds., Jüdische Kultur(en) im Neuen Europa: Wilna 1918–1939 [Jewish Culture(s) in the New Europe: Vilna (Vilnius) 1918–1939]. 214 pp. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2004. ISBN 3447050195. €54.00.
Yuri Slezkine, The Jewish Century. 438 pp. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. ISBN 0691119953. $29.95.
Liudas Truska, Vygantas Vareikis, et al., Holokausto prielaidos: Antisemitizmas Lietuvoje [The Preconditions for the Holocaust: Antisemitism in Lithuania]. Vol. 1 of Totalitarinių režimų nusikaltimai Lietuvoje [The Crimes of the Totalitarian Regimes in Lithuania]. 332 pp. Vilnius: Margi raštai, 2004. ISBN 9986092809.

Winston Churchill's notorious comment about Russia—"a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma"—could perhaps more appropriately be applied [End Page 409] to the course of Jewish history in Eastern Europe. The eternal "Jewish question" continues to haunt Europe (not just those regions east of the Oder-Neisse), a complex and uncomfortable mixture of recriminations, scholarly interest, vivid personal memories, identity issues, and silences. One can also not ignore the political agendas connected with the fortunes of Zionism, Israeli policies, and the tortured relations between Israel and the Palestinians that arise when one examines the Jewish past. To complicate matters further, there is no one generally accepted definition of "Jew"—whether as a cultural, religious, ethno-national, or political designation. Despite all this, the centrality of the "Jewish question" and Jews themselves for the history of the 20th century, especially in Europe, cannot be denied. The burgeoning library of books and articles addressing the history of Jews in Eastern Europe and, conversely, the place of Jews in East European history, reveals the continuing fascination with this topic.

Under "Soviet power" the continued existence of a "Jewish question" (and some would say, of Jews) was rather an annoyance—or worse. To be sure, Moscow's (and later, its satellites') attitude and policies toward the Jews were never consistent. Lenin was not, of course, an antisemite, but it is equally clear that he had no time for Jewish nationalists of any stripe, a fact that is amply illustrated by his polemics against the Bund.1 The large presence of Jews in the socialist movement is well known, and certainly every antisemite on earth after November 1917 knew that one of the ringleaders of events in Russia was Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, alias Trotskii. While the Communists did not pursue explicitly anti-Jewish policies (with the possible exception of the "Doctors' Plot"), they never felt comfortable with the idea of Jews qua Jews. Trotskii's statement that he was "only a Social Democrat" (by nationality!) reflects the discomfort that the Communists felt about the entire issue.

After World War II and the foundation of the Jewish state in 1948, the Jewish question— now in quite different form—again loomed large in world affairs. While Moscow hurried to recognize the state of Israel, relations between the capital of world communism and world Jewry soured in the 1950s and came to a complete break after the stunning Israeli victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. From that point to the end of the USSR, Israel and Zionism were consistently demonized by the Soviet propaganda machine (among the first items on the list of objects forbidden entry into the USSR: "pornography...


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