The Pale of Settlement: Disapora victimhood examined

Israelis like to argue that that atrocities done by Jews cannot be compared to atrocities done to Jews, because the Diaspora Jews were innocent victims, and the victims of Israeli Jews today are not. But is this the case, and just how morally wholesome is the argument?

by Shalom Boguslavsky | Translation: Rechavia Berman

The Pale of Settlement: Disapora victimhood examined
"The Meeting: A Jewish youth and two women in a city alley", Bruno Schulz

An old Jewish joke tells of Moishele, who was forced into serving in the Czar’s army during the Russo-Turkish war. His weeping mother packs his bags, makes sure to put some extra sweaters and, and while going through other such yiddishe mamme fuss, dispenses some advice:

“Now listen to me, Moishele,” she says, “the most important thing is that you keep your health. Don’t work too hard and wear yourself out. Kill a Turk and rest, then kill a Turk and rest some more.”

“But Mother,” says Moishe, “What if, as I’m resting, the Turk should come and kill me?”

“Why should he??” exclaims the mother. “What did you ever do to him?!”

* *

“In our time,” George Orwell wrote in 1946, “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” Orwell’s observation remains just as true today. Just take a recurring motif of political argument, which Proud Jews in Israel use to fend off arguments on what “lessons from Jewish history” have to say about discrimination. They reply by insisting that Jews in Europe and other places in which they were persecuted were always as pure as the driven snow.

That is to say, that unlike Arabs who do this that and the other thing to us, seek to destroy our state as a Jewish and Democratic, and install some hideous tyranny in its stead; support or engage in terrorism, harass our women, show disloyalty etc. etc; Jews were an innocent victim, and so one cannot justify the treatment they had received.

First of all, this is a morally bereft argument, since its flip side is that the persecution of the Jews would have been justified had the Jews not been a paragon of virtue. Indeed, I have more than once heard Jews claim that had Jews in Europe behaved like Arabs behave in Israel, the Holocaust itself would have been justified. I assume the immediate implications of this argument need no elaboration.

But more than that, this notion offends me personally. As a member of the Jewish People (whatever that may be), I’m insulted to see my history made shallow and flattened into a bullshit narrative, which presents the Jew not as a human being but as some cartoon, a pious weakling of a yeshiva student who never hurt a fly, and who in the short intervals in which he wasn’t too busy hiding from the Cossacks, managed to split some Talmudic hairs here and there. This stereotype, by the way, is alive and well to this day and especially in Israel. A Jew is not a human being who has conflicts with others, in the course of which he may hurt or be hurt. When a Jew is hurt, he is immediately transformed into an innocent, righteous victim.

Historical reality, of course, is completely different. Jews arrived in Russia, for instance, not as immigrants but because the Russian Empire conquered the territories in which they dwelled at the end of the 18th century. Until then, there were very few Jews in Russia and Jews were forbidden to emigrate to it for fear that they would harm its Christian character.

That being the case, the annexed Jewish population, soon to be the largest Jewish congregation in the world, constituted a problem very familiar to us here in Israel today. The state coveted the territory upon which the Jews sat, and did not really covet the Jews themselves, but could not expel them.

The solution that was found to the Jewish problem was called “The Pale of Settlement” – designated areas in which Jews were allowed to live and manage their local and intra-communal affairs on their own. The movements of Jews living outside the Pale were constrained, and most of them were forced to leave Russian areas and live “with their own kind”. Among the justifications for this policy were the need to make sure that Jews be loyal to the Russian-Orthodox state, and the desire to defend the Russian population from having its livelihood stolen by Jews.

As common in such cases, the Russians also justified the discrimination of the Jews by the behavior of the Jews themselves. Jews had no particular reason to be loyal to the Russian-Orthodox state, and were therefore perennial suspects. And indeed, the percentage of Jews in revolutionary movements was huge, many times more than their relative share of the population. Jews played a very active and central part in various subversive organizations, including anarchist terror groups, whose main modus operandi was the assassination of government officials.

Jews played a prominent role in the Bolshevik revolution, and many of them were infamously brutal terrorists both before it and as members of the oppression mechanism thereafter. So they definitely sought to destroy the Russian Empire as a Russian and Orthodox state and, and were to establish an equally tyrannical regime in its stead.

Jews were also active in crime. Odessa, a “mixed city” half of whose residents were Jews up to WW2, had a thriving Jewish underworld. Odessa was not alone but it was the most famous in this regard and to this very day there are many Yiddish words in Russian slang, particularly criminal slang. The Jewish novelist Isaak Babel described this world of crime in his stories, which he based on a reality he knew firsthand, through the character of Jewish gangster Benya Krik, who terrorized Gentiles and Jews alike, but also aided and supported the latter. In addition to run-of-the-mill criminal activity, including the torching of a police precinct to intimidate a new police chief who thought he could mess with the Jewish mafia, Kriek is described as being revered for his sexual prowess with shiksas.

If anyone thinks that young Jewish males limited themselves to chaste Jewish damsels from the shtetl, they have another thing coming. Jewish guys definitely sought adventure away from home, where not everybody knew them, where the girl’s father wasn’t sure to come round and drag them to a shotgun wedding or shame them in front of everyone they knew. One may also assume that casual sex was perceived as disrespectful towards Jewish women (it is doubtful whether the young men themselves cared much about this, but these things have implications), but permissible and even desirable with “their” women, and of course it brought Russian girls to “miscegenation”.

One may doubt whether desirable Russian girls, from good families and the upper classes, could or even wanted to consort with Jews, and the truth is that where there were such girls, there were nearly no Jews. But the less desirable girls in the poor hinterlands were definitely in “danger” of being seduced by the smooth tongues and energetic wooing of Jewish youngsters. Who knows, maybe old Jewish crones cooked up all sorts of potions from rabbit lungs to take care of that (as pious Jews are currently claiming of Arab grannies). I’m sure they were accused of it, in any event. For bottom of the ladder Russian girls, Jews could also be a decent potential match, and at least as far as I know, modern research agrees that most of the Gentiles who joined the Jewish people were in fact females.

If there’s one thing I hate to do its grasp at clichés. But often clichés become clichés because they are true. There is a marked similarity between the arguments that were used to justify the discrimination against Jews in Czarist Russia and the arguments by which the discrimination and exclusion of Arabs are justified today. In both cases, the arguments are not unfounded. After all, back then nobody, and definitely not the rich, wanted a Jew for a neighbor either.

Not only did we manage to convince ourselves that what was done to us was the epitome of evil, whereas what we are doing isn’t, but one should notice the similar solution found to the problem in both cases. Here as well, in order to prevent the Arabs from harming the character of the state and so on, some claim they should stay “with their own” and run their community affairs themselves, as long as they don’t mess with us and most importantly, don’t mix with us. To a large extent, this is how the state has operated since its inception, but today we see a public surge seeking to establish a completely identical situation to the Czarist “Pale of Settlement” policy, only for Arabs.

And to this one might say that history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.


Shalom Boguslavsky was born in Russia in 1976, has been living in Jerusalem since 1981, studies history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and makes his living as a group leader, facilitating discussions about Jewish-Israeli identity, dialogue & conflict management. He blogs at “Put Down the Scissors and Let’s Talk About It“, where this post originally appeared.