The Bolshevik Zionism
by Gad Nahshon
In 1931, Morris and Rose Becker, with their children, Elizabeth and Mitchell, a Jewish family from Monrovia, California, decided to emigrate from the United States to their dream socialist country or the Jewish Autonomous Region ("J.A.R.") in the Soviet Russia's Far East, better known as Birobidzhan (near Russia's border with China. The Beckers, who were Zionists and radicals, were victims of a successful propaganda campaign which took place all over the world: The Bolsheviks and Joseph Stalin himself suddenly decided to establish a new Zion: a Jewish Republic inside Soviet Russia. They, the communists and the Jewish communists decided to steal the show from the Zionist movement, a movement which they defined as a capitalist-imperialistic one. So in 1934 they established a new paradise for the Jewish working class masses, a new Republic.
In America, they founded an agency called "The Association for Jewish Colonization in the Soviet Union ("ICOR"), together with the Jewish section of the American Communist Party, and developed a great propaganda campaign. It published special publications such as "New Life." The response was impressive. People were looking for salvation in the Age of the Great Depression. Some decided to go over there to build the new Socialist society.
In 1930, the Soviets produced a film entitled "The Seekers of Happiness." It is the story of a poor American family in the United States which decided to emigrate to Birobidzhan.
This propaganda stimulated Jews from many countries to emigrate to J.A.R. but many were just victims of this propaganda. In 1939, only 18,000 Jews lived in this J.A.R. There was never a majority of Jews in J.A.R. Most of the population was non-Jewish and even anti-Semitic. By 1994, only 1,000 Jews lived in Birobidzhan. It was always clear that the territorialistic approach to the "Jewish question" will lose. Herzl could not "sell" Uganda, even as a temporary shelter or refuge for Jews.
Israel Zangwill, the famous writer and playwright, established I.T.A., a territorialistic organization in order to find alternatives to Palestine but he failed. The story of the Soviets surprise to establish J.A.R. is being told and superbly documented in Robert Weinberg's "Stalin's Forgotten Zion- Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland, An Illustrated History" (1928-1996). It was published by University of California Press, Berkeley. This book is an outcome of a unique exhibition of the Birobidzhan story at the Judah L. Magnes Museum of Berkeley. The idea to have this unique exhibition came from Tatiana Kosvintseva, the director of J.A.R.'s State Historical Museum in Birobidzhan, of course.
Robert Weinberg wrote the story and Professor Zvi Gitelman wrote the introduction to this illuminating book. Why did the Soviets decide to establish J.A.R.? The first answer is very simple. They knew that the Jews would not move to J.A.R. Stalin did not even force all of the Russian Jews to migrate to this Far East Region. But the idea was to populate this empty region, to defend the borders of Russian with China. It was a very important national interest. But this is not the only answer. In general, even today we do not have the secret Soviet documents which will expose the inside discussion of this issue of Zion in the Soviet Union. Wek now that the Bolsheviks tried to dismantle the Jewish identity of the Russian Jews, by force. We know that Lenin argued that the Jews are not "a nation." Lenin fought anti- Semitism in a forceful way: even produced special educational records against anti-Semitism. But he believed that the Communist idea will work like a strong melting pot. The new Soviet-Socialist infrastructure meant a new Soviet nation in which the "Jewish problem" will disappear. And, suddenly, the Bolsheviks recognized the Jews to be a nation not a region and established J.A.R., a Jewish Republic in the making.
For many years, the Bolsheviks and their collaborators (Hebrew section) fought against Jewish religion and Jewish nationalism. Synagogues were destroyed. Yeshivas and Jewish bakeries were closed. Zionists and rabbis were arrested, tortured or sent to labor camps, to the "gulags." The Hebrew culture was dismantled. But the Soviets decided to promote the Yiddish culture since it was defined as a proletarian culture, the language of the working class masses. Therefore, the famous writer, Shalom Aliechem, who died in the Bronx, was legitimized in Soviet Russia.
J.A.R., the Jewish Republic, was a Yiddish Republic: the official language was Yiddish, some streets received Yiddish titles. The lectures, the curriculum in the school was in Yiddish. And, indeed, you could hear Yiddish on the street as a living language. Today, there are only around 1,000 Jews in this region but the Yiddish culture still exists over there. Even the famous daily, the symbol of this culture, "The Birobidzhan Stern" (Star) is still being published. Of course, there is an active Jewish theater in the J.A.R. In the past, the leaders of the J.A.R. fought against religion as a capitalist kind of "opium" to the masses. But today there is a synagogue in the J.A.R. and the last Jews celebrate all of the Jewish holidays. But even the recognition of the existence of a Jewish/Yiddish nationality by the Bolsheviks could not stimulate Jews to migrate to the J.A.R. Indeed, the Bolsheviks who planned the idea of J.A.R. such as the President of the U.S.S.R. in 1934, Michail Kalinik, were pessimistic as to the success of their new Zion.
The Bolsheviks also failed to change the occupational profile of the Jews. They believed that the Jews in J.A.R. will be a new tribe of Jews: working class, farmers, factory workers. But they failed. Some Jews tried to develop a "Soviet Kibbutz" and were part of the Soviet collectivization process. But the idea did not attract all the Jews in J.A.R. They, the Soviets, tried to destroy the Shtetl, to dismantle the old Jewish characteristics. They used propaganda, they preached communism, but they failed as well.
Jews in Russia preferred to live in the big cities such as Moscow, Leningrad, Minsk and Odessa, rather than to migrate to this J.A.R., this Yiddish paradise. As Robert Weinberg concluded in his fascinating illustrated history "Stalin's Forgotten Zion," the idea of the J.A.R., a Soviet Jewish Republic near China, the first precedent of a "Yiddish state," could not but fail. Only Palestine, the holy land and Israel today, had or have the so-called "appeal" or the "pull factors" in the eyes of the Jews.
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