- From Assimilation to Antisemitism: The “Jewish Question” in Poland, 1850–1914
Any evaluation of Theodore Weeks’s new book will depend to a great degree on the reader’s expectations. If you expect the book to provide an overview of Polish periodical literature in the kingdom of Poland on Polish–Jewish relations, then the book will prove completely satisfactory. Weeks quite thoroughly shows the gradual evolution of Polish public opinion in the kingdom, from the “liberal invitation to assimilation” of the 1850s and 1860s to the triumph of the harsh racialist antisemitism of the early 20th century.
The first chapter provides a short overview of Polish–Jewish relations and Polish approaches to the Jewish question from the final decades of the Rzeczpospolita to the end of the reign of Tsar Nicholas I. This chapter, like the book in general, suffers from a lack of statistical information: for example, in the discussion of rabbinical schools (30), there is no information on the number of graduates, who the students were, and how long—or even what—they studied. There is also little statistical information in the section on economic and social development (72–73) or on the language issue among the Jewish population.
The detailed treatment starts with the end of the 1850s. It covers the first stage of discussions on the possible expansion of Jewish rights, the unexpected (for Polish society) emancipation of the Jews under the civil administration in the kingdom led by Marquis Aleksander Wielopolski, and the increasing solidarity between Poles and Jews during the patriotic demonstrations of 1861–62 and the national uprising of 1863.
In this chapter the author ought to have paid more attention to the conflict arising from Gazeta Warszawska’s publication in 1859 of antisemitic articles penned by Józef Kenig. First, this incident begs comparison with the effects of similar antisemitic pieces published by the St. Petersburg paper Illiustratsiia in 1858. In Russia, the publication of these articles set off a wave of protests, while Polish society remained largely indifferent to the articles in Gazeta Warszawska. Yet Weeks does not mention the articles published in Illiustratsiia or the events that followed. [End Page 679]
Second, Weeks unfortunately does not investigate the decision of the court that sentenced a number of Jews to several months-long prison terms for sending Kenig a letter containing threats to his life. Weeks merely touches on the “clearly unjust” sentence (40). It would have been interesting to look into the motivation behind the court’s decision since, on the surface at least, sending a threatening letter certainly appears to be a criminal offense. In general, scholars are too inclined to describe individual decisions by tsarist authorities as being motivated by antisemitism without looking into the specific circumstances of each case. It is sufficient merely to cite the well-known example of the 1791 prohibition on Jews joining the Moscow merchants’ guild. No matter how much you look in the literature, you will not find a clear description of what, specifically, Jewish merchants were doing that caused their Moscow colleagues to complain so vehemently.
The contents of Kenig’s articles are particularly noteworthy. They contain practically a complete list of the arguments that we normally describe as characteristic of modern antisemitism, the origins of which are typically dated to the late 1870s or early 1880s. (Weeks’s chapter on modern antisemitism covers the period from 1883 to 1892, starting with the journalistic activity of Jan Jelenski [68–69].) Even if by the emergence of modern antisemitism we mean the adoption of such an outlook by wide circles of society, the conventional dating is flawed insofar as the ideological repertoire of modern antisemitism, which no longer sees the Jew as alien and dark but as a dangerous capitalist rogue, could be found in both Polish and Russian periodical literature as early as the late 1850s.
Weeks’s subsequent chapters describe in chronological order the Polish periodical literature of the period when the “liberal invitation to assimilation” predominated—including...