Friday, September 23, 2011

Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia

Nathans, Ben. Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Although I cannot do justice to University of Pennsylvania professor Benjamin Nathans's book Beyond the Pale, I will nonetheless attempt to briefly describe it. Essentially, Nathans describes the Jewish community that left the restricted area of the Russian Pale and went to St. Petersburg. Part of this story is the changing circumstances of Jews in Russia. The Jewish population expanded considerably at the time of Catherine the Great after she annexed Poland and other Baltic countries, which were home to much of Europe's Jewish population. This annexation led to official concern for the integration of Jews into Russian life. Nathans makes the point that this concern was not unique to the Jewish minority population in Russia--integration was always an imperial goal, but it was more overt and much more pronounced. Education and conscription seemed to be avenues to integration. Russia's draconian conscription policy of 25 years of service took many young Jews away from their families. At the end of the 25 year period, if you were still alive, you could move out of the Pale and into St. Petersburg. Special privileges to leave the restricted Jewish area (as large as the country of France) were also given to certain artisans, professionals, and to students. But Imperial Russia was never satisfied with the results of their policies over a hundred years of trying: quotas were tightened, loosened, and tightened again. Officials could not decide, for instance, if the Jews were a bad influence on Russians--turning them away from Christianity and toward Nihilism, or if Russians were a bad influence on the Jews--turning them into revolutionaries. In addition, popular and official beliefs were that the Jewish migrants to St. Petersburg were viewed as too successful; they were taking all the places in the professions; they had more babies than Russians; and they were invading the schools. Nathans looks at census documents, the shift of primary languages among the Jewish population and other details of acculturation; he explores the verifiable and mythological stories of the various ways some of the population attempted to circumvent the quotas and restrictions; compares Russia's policy toward its Jewish population with the policies of Europe. In many ways, Russia lagged far behind Europe both in its policies and its modernization. But it also has the sad legacy of anticipating the virulent anti-semitism that spread through Europe as the century turned. As with any excellent book, Nathans, by describing a particular opens the readers eyes to other similar instances perhaps closer to home, teaching a broader lesson in history. Nathan shows how Russia, though seeking to acculturate its Jewish population, could not resist continuing to single them out through laws of quotas and restrictions, thereby, creating a clearly defined "other," ripe for scape-goating and vilification. 

Find this book at a library near you.

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