From Assimilation to Antisemitism: The "Jewish Question" in Poland, 1850-1914

By Zimmerman, Joshua | Canadian Slavonic Papers, March-June 2008 | Go to article overview

From Assimilation to Antisemitism: The "Jewish Question" in Poland, 1850-1914


Zimmerman, Joshua, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Theodore R. Weeks. From Assimilation to Antisemitism: The "Jewish Question" in Poland, 1850-1914. DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 2006.242 pp. Select Bibliography. Index.

Since the landmark 1984 conference in Oxford on Polish-Jewish relations as well as several subsequent international scholarly gatherings, a substantial array of historical works has appeared covering nearly all aspects of the complex history of Polish Jewry and its relations with the surrounding Christian population. Among the several areas of investigation is the topic of Polish-Jewish relations in the nineteenth century, a dramatic period that witnessed the rise of Jewish social integration into Polish society but one that, by 1900, also saw emerging national movements on the Polish and Jewish streets that mitigated against such a merging of the two peoples into one nation.

The book under review, From Assimilation to Antisemitism by Theodore R. Weeks, chronicles the history of Polish-Jewish relations and the Jewish question in the Polish lands between the 1850s and 1914. This is not uncharted territory. Beginning with Jacob Shatzky's Di yidn inpoyln (1946) and his Geshikhtefimyidn in Varshe_( 1947-1953), and later, for example, with M.Opalski and I.Bartal's Poles and Jews: a Failed Brotherhood (1992), which used primarily literary sources (Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish) to examine mutual perceptions between the two peoples from the 185Os to 1914, scholars of Polish Jewry have identified this trend of worsening relations. Weeks examines the rhetoric and ideologies of Polish "society" (spoleczenstwo)-a term which in the nineteenth century referred to the educated middle class-and the causes of the deterioration of Polish-Jewish relations by the beginning of the twentieth century. The central focus is the way in which the definition of "Polish society" came, Weeks maintains, to largely exclude Jews by 1900. "While in mid-century the ideology of assimilation... predominated within Polish educated society," Weeks writes, "by 1914 few Poles or Jews continued to defend assimilation" (p. 3). In addition to the increasingly sharp Polish-Jewish economic competition brought on by rapid urbanization and economic growth in the period under review, Weeks regards the rise of modem antisemitism in Polish lands as a central feature of the era.

Weeks points to economic change, political and cultural repression and the steady increase of national consciousness as factors that led to what he argues was the failure of the assimiltionist idea. In addition to general trends, such as the rise of antisemitic Polish thinkers and political parties in the 1880s and 1890s, Weeks argues that there were two crucial turning points that hastened the declines in Polish-Jewish relations and in the way Polish society viewed the Jews: the 1905 Revolution and the 1912 Fourth State Duma elections, when the Polish Right became publicly and pronouncedly antisemitic.

To determine the cause of the deterioration of Polish-Jewish relations-and particularly the growing call to exclude Jews from the Polish "nation"-Weeks meticulously collected an array of archival and printed primary sources in Poland, Lithuania and Russia revealing the attitudes and positions of the Polish educated classes, while sifting judiciously through the often polemical secondary works. Sources include, among others, contemporary writings, pamphlets, correspondence and a sizable contemporary press collection of some forty-five periodicals. A polyglot, Weeks uses materials in no less than five languages: Russian, German, Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew.

A characteristic of this work is the author's sensitive treatment of divisive issues. A good example is Weeks's comment on the attitudes among Jewish national and radical groups to Polish politics and culture. Acknowledging that Poles may have exaggerated the hostility of such groups as the Bund and Zionists, "...the fact remained," Weeks states, "that by choosing to organize as Jews, these groups separated themselves from Poles" (p. …

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