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1 A Condition of Imbalance

The 1880s have a large significance in modern Jewish history, marking the beginning of the mass East European Jewish emigration to the United States. It was also at this time that the Jewish farm movement became a substantial force but in no sense an historical accident. To understand what lay behind not only the unprecedentedly sizable migration from Eastern Europe but also the smaller-scale effort to establish Jews on the land and thereby effect what Victorians saw as the “normalization of Jewish life,”1 the position of the Jews in the Eastern Europe from which they fled in such numbers must be examined.

The bulk of European Jewry in the nineteenth century was concentrated in a zone which, before the late eighteenth-century partitions by Austria, Prussia, and Russia, had been part of the old Polish kingdom. This zone constituted the “center of gravity” of the Jewish population in Eastern Europe. Together with Galicia (Austrian Poland, with a quarter of a million Jews), the “Pale of Settlement” (the Russian territories of Congress Poland, Lithuania, Byelorussia, and the Ukraine) formed the vast reservoir from which the great majority of Jewish immigrants to the United States was drawn.2

The Jew in Russia, Early 1800s

The economic, political, and social conditions prevailing in the Russian empire in the first half of the nineteenth century realized the ideal of one of the czars, Nicholas I: “Russia is to be kept frozen.” Economically, what the freeze meant was the absence of industrialization and the continuance of serfdom and of pronounced economic conservatism. Political autocracy was in full sway; the czar remained absolute in power, for there was no constitution or legislative body to check his authority. His chief supporters, the nobles and the higher clergy, enjoyed extensive privileges. Even though they occupied the highest level in the social order, they were nevertheless state officials as much subject to the will of the czar as any merchant, townsman, or peasant. Civil liberties were non-existent, and while in Western Europe the trend was toward separation of church and state, in Russia the state employed the church as a prime agent in enforcing its will. With great fervor the church preached implicit obedience to the czar, the “Little Father,” as a religious duty. Acting on the theory that the only true Russian was a communicant of the Orthodox Church and that everyone else was, if not quite a heretic, at the least a foreigner or outsider, the church assigned all non-believers an inferior status and not seldom subjected them to persecution. Moreover, by the ruthless suppression of the national feeling of the many diverse non-Russian ethnic groups within her borders, Russia not only cut herself off from the Western current of European life, but ran counter to it. The French Revolution which had swept over Europe had stopped at the doors of Russia. Democracy and secular nationalism had never entered. What prevailed instead was “the old Trinity of true-Russian Principles: Orthodoxy, Nationality, Autocracy.”3

Beginning with the 1860’s, however, the picture had changed. One sign was Czar Alexander II’s Emancipation Edict, aimed at solving the perennially thorny land-tenure problem Russia confronted. The czar sought a compromise between the interests of the landowners and those of the serfs, but the defects of the edict far outweighed its accomplishments. Legally serfdom was abolished and the erstwhile serf gained a previously unknown degree of personal freedom. But even so, the peasant often remained bound to the soil by the requirements of a government passport; he could not in any case hope to become a proprietor because ownership of the land was vested in the mir, a village commune of peasant farmers. “The serf of the manorial village,” as one authority has said, “did not become under the terms of the Emancipation a free-moving, landless man.”4 The peasant, moreover, remained a serf mentally and in the modesty of his demands.5 The most significant result of the edict was that it created a potential source of labor. The emancipation left the industrial peasants, the so-called free hired laborers, with allotments generally even smaller than those of their agricultural neighbors, and sometimes with none at all. The “courtyard people,” landless serfs totally dependent upon the landlord, drifted away to the slums and factories of the towns, to what has been called “the recruiting ground of the new industrial army.”6 This potential source of labor made possible the establishment of factories, the growth of towns and a money economy, and some increase in the size and influence of the middle classes. It is at this time, in the 1860s, that one meets in Russia early signs of capitalism.7 Industrial growth did not, however, reach its stride until the last decade of the nineteenth century, when vast quantities of French capital were poured into Russia.

In the period immediately preceding Jewish mass emigration, Russia, then, was in the throes of a nervous transition from feudal agrarianism to a more modern industrial character. She was still, of course, predominantly agricultural, with three-fifths of her population engaged in agriculture and 85 percent of her exports agricultural products.8 Her methods of cultivation were primitive and crude. Systematic fertilization, deep plowing, and a complex diversification and rotation of crops were on the whole beyond the power of the Russian peasant and even beyond his knowledge and desire.9 The conditions of modern life had yet to be created. In this world, which the French historian Leroy-Beaulieu described as being “on the opposite pole of modern civilization with the United States,”10 the Jews played a part, small in total numbers but rather large in impact.

Russia was a vast land of many millions, and the Jews formed only 4 percent of the total population. The distribution of the Jews was such that some 95 percent of them lived in the Pale.11 Both within the Pale and without, however, the Jews pursued primarily industrial and commercial occupations. Within the Pale, they predominated as petty artisans, traders, and merchants. In the empire as a whole, they played a significant part as manufacturers and wholesale merchants, but a negligible number earned their living as farmers. The Jews, to be sure, occupied an important role in the empire’s agricultural life, but it was in the capacity of middlemen. Thus, there were twenty-six times as many Jews as non-Jews sup-porting themselves as grain dealers in the Pale, while three-fourths of all dealers in cattle were Jews. As such statistics emphasize, Jews formed a nonagricultural minority in an agricultural society.

Few were the Jews who achieved any notable economic success, but Jews often possessed liquid wealth, however modest, to a greater extent than did nobles or peasants. Being a “commercial” people and given to non-agrarian pursuits, the Jews congregated largely in towns and cities. They formed 12 percent of the total population within the Pale, but 38 percent of the town population. Jews formed 4 percent of the population of the whole empire, but 51 percent of the Jews lived in incorporated towns, while only 12 percent of the non-Jews lived in towns. Their concentration in towns gave Jews a cultural position and influence far out of proportion to their numbers.12 The Jew was often enough the antithesis of the non-Jewish peasant. He tended to be relatively bourgeois in aspiration, proportionately more “urban,” more familiar with town life; and he included in his ranks a larger percentage of intellectuals, or at least of people who were literate. In short, the Jews exhibited what by non-Jewish standards was a condition of socio-economic imbalance, a condition which resulted from the repressive policies Russian governments had adopted toward the Jews for some centuries. By governmental decree, the Jew had been denied the right to engage in agriculture and, up to the era of emerging capitalism, had been virtually condemned to a life of tavern-keeping.13 Yet there did exist within the Russian empire a group of Jewish farmers, admittedly small in number, but nonetheless significant.

The story of Jewish agricultural efforts in Russia would deserve a full exposition here if it could be shown that the Jewish farmers of the Southern Ukraine were the very ones who, upon coming to America, engaged in agriculture. Incontrovertible evidence exists, however, to indicate that, in general, there was no link between the Jewish farmer in the Russian empire and the Jewish farmer in the United States. Those East European Jews who participated in the various colonizing experiments of the 1880s and 1890s in the United States were virtually without exception inexperienced as farmers and were drawn from the artisan and intellectual classes.

The history of Jewish agriculture in Russia is a checkered one, filled with hopes and disappointments. From Czar Paul’s appointment in 1799 of a commission to study what the government regarded as the problematic nature of Jewish life and that commission’s recommendation in 1802 that Jews be encouraged to take up agriculture, right up to the infamous May Laws of 1882 which put an end to all such efforts, there runs a single thread.14 That was the belief that, by permitting the Jew to go into agriculture and to work on the land, his position in Russia would be “normalized.” On returning to that basic occupation upon which all else depends, he would become, or be made, productively useful in terms more readily understandable to a pre-capitalist, pre-industrial structure like Russia’s in the early 1800s. Czars Paul and Alexander I hoped agriculture would contribute to a healthy Jewish communal life while Nicholas I hoped it would break down Jewish isolation and Jewish separateness and thus act as a stepping stone in the Russification of the Jew. Whatever the ultimate objectives of these czars, each recognized that barring the Jews from farming imposed on them an inevitable and uncomfortable economic and social difference. By 1856, according to one source, the number of Jewish farmers in Russia was 65,000.15 Another places the number in 1865 at only 33,000.16 In all likelihood, it was due mainly to the harshness of the government’s policy that the number was not larger. Unfortunately, the tensions and instabilities plaguing the empire made it impossible for the czarist government to adopt a consistently intelligent and humane policy on this question.

By 1881, it was apparent that the Jewish problem, of which agriculture was only one facet, was still stubbornly unsolved. A number of indications were present in the 1870s, however, to suggest the turn the solution might take. In 1871, for example, a serious outbreak against the Jews had taken place in Odessa, but it was minimized by the leaders of Russian Jewry and passed off as little more than an anachronism. Influenced by Czar Alexander II’s reformist tendencies, Jewish leaders were encouraged to believe the day of medieval pogroms had passed. Certainly it is noteworthy that, while anti-Jewish factors had always been present, it was more than a century since popular animosity toward the Jews in Russia had resulted in any widespread violence.

During the 1870s, too, the pseudo-science of Rassenkunde (“racialism”) was being exploited in Germany by Adolf Stoecker, Heinrich von Treitschke, et al., all of whom were influenced by the French racialist Count Arthur de Gobineau and his belief in an “Aryan” superiority. These potentially vicious new racist doctrines of Nordic supremacy had found their way into Russian circles as well and thus paved the way, psychologically, for the atrocities which became all too common under Alexander II’s successors.

Above all, there was the personal anti-Jewish background of Alexander III, who came to the throne in 1881 after the assassination of his father. This prince had for his tutor none other than Constantin Pobyedonestsev, the head of the reactionary party and an arch-Judeophobe. Pobyedonestsev’s influence, which included unrelenting efforts to link the czar’s assassination to Jewish sources, virtually insured a violent “solution” to the Jewish problem. Even as crown prince, however, Alexander III had been a comfort to the anti-Semites. In 1876 he had subvented the work of Hippolyte Lutostanski, who published a scurrilous pamphlet entitled Concerning the Use of Christian Blood by the Jews. In 1879 he had looked with favor on the scandalous spectacle of a blood libel charge—the trial of ten Jews for the “ritual murder” of a Christian child—at Kutais in the Caucasus. He had also approved the Judeophobic propaganda of the informer Jacob Brafman.

The oppressed and ignorant Russian peasant was invited to vent his resentment against a minority that enjoyed a slightly better economic status than his own. Anti-Semitism was finally the inchoate expression of resentment by the masses against their own misery. The true source of their wretchedness lay elsewhere, but, as had been done in Russia and elsewhere in the past, the Jew was made a scapegoat.17

The pogroms of 1881 were the most virulent form Judeo-phobia had taken in the nineteenth century. The ranking American diplomat in Russia spoke of them as “more worthy of the dark ages than of the present century.” But apparently what troubled the czar most was not the human crisis which the pogroms bespoke; it was that because of the attacks on Jewish lives and property his government had “to defend the Jews.” Based on a variety of factors, psychological, religious, economic, social, and political, the riots burst upon the Jews of Russia, and their effect was cataclysmic.

Refugee Assistance in America, 1880s

The mass response was emigration, flight from the scourge. At first, as all records testify, this emigration was wild, chaotic, and disorganized.18 Thousands, for example, descended upon the Galician town of Brody, whereupon the Austrian government threatened to send them back to Russia unless the congestion were immediately relieved. The necessity for organized action was apparent. The Franco-Jewish Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), therefore, came to the rescue by sending its representative, Charles Netter, to remedy the situation at Brody. His efforts enabled 1,500 refugees to come to the United States. What Netter attempted was yeoman work, but the number helped was insignificant in contrast to the thousands who needed aid. Moreover, he could not help the thousands who fled from Russia and who managed to find their way to western Europe or to the United States, but who lacked support once they had arrived.

To assist the victims of czarist oppression, committees throughout Europe and the United States were hastily formed. Primarily, their object was to render immediate aid to the newcomers. Thus in New York City the Russo-Jewish Committee was set up. (Similarly, in London the Mansion House Committee was established to take care of the unexpected influx.) An eyewitness reports:

The condition in which they arrived [at New York] baffles description. Terror was written all over their faces, as they knew not whither they were going or what was to become of them. Many of them had been arbitrarily separated from their wives and children and were fearful of what had become of them. Castle Garden—now the Aquarium—was then the place of entry. . . . They were permitted to remain in Castle Garden for days, sleeping on the floor or on boards as best they might, with such covering as was at hand or as kindly people in the city provided.19

Because of their plight, their numbers, and the lack of a quota system, the Commissioner of Immigration permitted them to remain in Castle Garden. In the meantime various B’nai B’rith branches offered to take in families. In the fall of 1881, the Russian Emigrant Relief Fund Committee on Behalf of the Russian Exiles was organized in New York City at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association. Some two months later, on November 27, 1881, however, because of the continuing influx from Russia and the apparent need for a more basic solution to the problem than that provided by temporary shelter, the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society (HEAS) was formed. The charter of the organization stated that its purpose was “to afford aid and advice to emigrants of the Hebrew faith coming to the United States from countries where they have suffered by reason of oppressive laws or hostile populace; [and] to afford aid and advice to emigrants desiring the help of the society in settling in the United States upon lands of the society or otherwise.”20

Agriculture: A Means of Resettlement

The HEAS was to be larger than the Russian Emigrant Relief Fund Committee on Behalf of Russian Exiles, and was to devote itself primarily to agricultural work for the Jews.21 The stress upon agriculture is understandable when one considers that the social critic Henry George’s impressive Progress and Poverty had appeared just a few years before the pogroms of 1881. George was convinced, and convinced others, that the only way to remedy “the unequal distribution of wealth . . . the curse and menace of modem civilization” was to “substitute for the individual ownership of land a common ownership.” Earlier, arguing for a reform of American land policy, he had insisted that public lands should be given not to speculators or industrialists but exclusively to “actual settlers,” and that “our great object should be to give every one an opportunity of employing his own labour, and to give no opportunity to any one to appropriate the labour of others.”

The American Jewish philanthropists who stood behind an agency like the HEAS might have been wary of George’s political radicalism, but they would not have failed to see the application of his ideas to the immigrant problems they hoped to solve. Farming seemed the answer, farming which, as late as 1906, was still thought to be the most important industry in the United States. No wonder late nineteenth-century immigrant relief agencies, reflecting the upper-class anxieties as well as idealism of their leaders, saw in agriculture a way to prevent repetition of the unhappy history of the Jew in Eastern Europe, “to afford opportunities in which the highest capacities of mind and heart will be more rapidly developed than our present life admits.”

Even before the Russian crisis of the early 1880s, an editorial in The American Hebrew, a New York weekly, saw in Jewish agricultural settlements a chance “to furnish a profitable and useful opening for the able-bodied poor who find the avenues of petty traffic already too crowded for them.” Such an enterprise, “the healthy, invigorating and independence-fostering avocation of the farmer,” would save “the thousands of poor Israelites who live and die as pedlers and small hucksters . . . from the slough of pinching privation and mind-debasing penury.” The editorialist despised “the mob of pedlers and petty traders” who, presumably, dominated the Jewish street in urban America: what a blessing to be confronted no longer with “the paper muscle and pack-thread sinews of your average tenement house peddler.”

A sophisticated communal worker and agriculturist like Hirsch L. Sabsovich knew, of course, that Jewish farming in America could not be considered “the result of a spontaneous movement . . . but . . . the result of certain philanthropic efforts to . . . prevent . . . an unnecessary waste of means, energy and enthusiasm [among immigrant Jews] in their efforts to better their material conditions.” For the most part, Sabsovich was right in considering “Jewish farming as one of the preventive measures which present themselves to Jewish philanthropy in the United States.”

Louis Mounier, of Vineland, New Jersey, who, like Sabsovich, was eager to advance the South Jersey agricultural colonization designs, conceded that “the colonization was . . . the result . . . of dire necessity—a means to remove ‘a thorn in the side’ of people who saw in the [immigrant Jewish] congestion of the large cities a danger to the Jewish cause.” Mounier, a non-Jew, was well enough acquainted with the American Jewish scene to recognize how much importance the leaders of American Jewry attached to avoidance of urban “congestion.”

In the fall of 1881, one American Jewish spokesman described “the position of the Jews in America” as “not such that they can well afford to run any risk of incurring the ill-feeling of their fellow citizens.” Still, even among Jewish newcomers, agriculture might be viewed with a reverence that was nothing less than religious. A member of the pioneering Am Olam utopians summed up the agricultural orientation with eloquence in a diary he kept: “Our motto is labor in the fields, and our goal is the physical and spiritual rejuvenation of our people. In free America . . . we Jews . . . shall find a corner in which to rest our heads. We shall prove to the world that we are qualified for physical labor.”22

In short, all these energies were harnessed to achieve that “normalization” of Jewish life toward which the earlier agricultural efforts of the nineteenth century had been directed. For two years, from 1881 to 1883, the local branches of the AIU and the HEAS were the chief organizations devoted to the aid of the immigrants. Later, other societies, among them the Montefiore Agricultural Aid Society (MAAS) and the Baron de Hirsch Fund, were set up to participate in the task of helping immigrant Jews establish themselves securely in the New World.23

What all these efforts amounted to was an attempt to “repeal” the lengthy socio-economic history that had seen the evolution in Europe of a Christian policy designed to drive the Jews off the land, deny them agricultural experience, and confine them to commercial activities. In Eastern Europe, the Jews were, for the most part, no longer needed to develop the economy of the area for its rulers. Indeed non-Jewish German settlers had come to be looked to for that. The Jews were employed to manage the latifundia of the nobility, to fill the invidious function of tax-gathering, and to provide the peasants with small loans and cheap merchandise. The well-to-do, Westernized leaders of the AIU, the HEAS, the Baron de Hirsch Fund, and similar agencies wanted to do away with this whole unsavory history of socio-economic grotesquerie. Sabsovich put the matter thus: “For the general Jewish welfare we must . . . have a farming population, as we will stand better with our [non-Jewish] neighbors when we are able to point out that the agricultural industries are taken up by us as a life vocation.” But he went on: “From an economic standpoint, farming, as a new Jewish trade, is . . . an absolute necessity.”

Not all the immigrants saw farming as Sabsovich did. Not many could share his essentially Utopian wish to “de-commercialize” and to “re-agriculturize” Jewish life. The preponderant majority of nineteenth-century non-Jewish immigrants from lands like Ireland, Italy, Germany, Sweden, and Poland were people of peasant stock driven off their ancestral farmsteads by higher birthrates, changes in agricultural technology, and famine. Even they were not notably attracted to farming in America, but at least they would have known how to make use of any good agricultural opportunities America offered. Most of the East European Jewish immigrants, however, were incapable of imagining themselves as farmers. During the first decade of the twentieth century, for example, Jews constituted scarcely more than 1 percent of the nearly 1,400,000 agriculturists who immigrated to the United States during those years. Jews thus, almost as a matter of course, sought to establish themselves in the burgeoning urban centers of the New World.24 They would have agreed with the poet Eliakum Zunser that the Jews, those “hitherto Russian slaves,” had become “giants . . . under the bright sun of free America” and could now “progress and advance along the road of true civilization, culture, art and industry.”25

Not everyone, however, was willing to seek self-fulfillment in an urban setting like the Lower East Side of New York. A much smaller, yet hardly inconsequential group was determined to look up to the bright sun of free America not from a crowded, malodorous urban pavement but from the land itself, the fields and forestland, that lay waiting beyond the borders of the city. The members of this group would attempt in a more literal way to strike roots in American soil. They would seek to maintain themselves and their families through cultivation of the soil, more often than not communally or collectively. The goldene medineh, the Eldorado, of the newly emergent American industrialization which had its reflections in city life meant little to them, or meant something they felt compelled to negate. The merest handful had had any farming experience at all, but many of these would-be cultivators had been influenced by earlier nineteenth-century utopian thinkers like Charles Fourier and Robert Owens. The established Jewish community they found on their arrival on American shores was unlikely to have known very much about Fourierist and Owenite goals, but included people influenced by the related, though quite contemporary, utopianism of the American social thinker Henry George.

Thus, not the direct ferment of the industrial revolution and the new urbanization, but an older, reactive, and more utopian or more messianist tradition lived in the would-be farmers and their sympathizers. Their salvation was to be through giving oneself, one’s hopes and energies, to an agrarian way of life in the New World.26

Newcomers to the New World, enroute to becoming “giants . . . under the bright sun of free America.” (Courtesy AJA, Cincinnati)

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