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From Assimilation to Antisemitism: The Jewish Question in Poland, 1850-1914 Hardcover – 5 Jan 2006


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"Well-written, thoroughly researched, and carefully balanced ... a reliable, concise, and highly accessible account." "American Historical Review"

"A significant contribution to our understanding of the relations between Poles and Jews before World War I. An important achievement." "The Polish Review"

"Erudite and fascinating. Essential reading." "Religious Studies Review""

About the Author

Theodore R. Weeks is Associate Professor of History at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and is the author of "Nation and State in Late Imperial Russia."

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Limitations of 19th-Century Jewish Assimilation in the Improvement of Polish-Jewish Relations 24 Mar. 2013
By Jan Peczkis - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Author Theodore R. Weeks sees the first impulses towards the assimilation of Polish Jews as resulting from the Enlightenment, as exemplified by Polish thinkers and their Jewish counterparts, the MASKILIM. (pp. 18-19). The concept of human equality would lead to citizenship replacing the previous divisions based on religious separatism and class privileges. Early models, of Jews and Poles coming together, were conceived in terms of Jews shedding their particularism in exchange for full acceptance as Poles.

Rabbi Ber Meisels, who was Orthodox and unsympathetic to assimilation, strongly supported the Poles in the events leading up to and including the January 1863 Insurrection. According to some Jewish and Russian analysts, he hoped to win concessions for Jews in exchange for supporting the Polish cause. (pp. 47-48). To put this in perspective, the vast majority of Poland's Jews--the Hasidic and Orthodox--did not support the Insurrection. In fact, the Gerer Reb and other Hasidic leaders specifically condemned it. (p. 49). Jewish support for the earlier November 1830 Insurrection had been even weaker. (p. 49).

Jewish acculturation and assimilation were, from the beginning, matters of degree. (p. 30). Theodore R. Weeks defines assimilated Jews as ones who had accepted Polish culture, spoke Polish, and participated "to one extent or another" in Polish social and public life. (p. 38). Obviously, even by his own definition, assimilated Polish Jews, however relatively few in number (see below), were not necessarily connected to essential Polishness.

Furthermore, even assimilation to the point of converting to the majority religion did not necessarily imply identification with the host nation. Weeks acknowledges that many Jews converted to Christianity for practical reasons, and cites Heinrich Heine's statement about the baptismal certificate as the "entrance ticket" to European society. (p. 94).

In addition to all this (as pointed out, for example, by Boleslaw Prus), the antiquity of Jewish civilization, and not some anti-Christian or "racial" characteristic of being Jewish, implied that assimilated Jews tended to remain essentially Jewish (and not Polish) in their thinking. (p. 103). This anticipated later Polish fears about influential Polish circles becoming "Judaized" because of the influences of assimilated Jews.

The reader familiar with Polish-Jewish history knows that, whatever the degree or implications of assimilation, only a small fraction of Polish Jews ever assimilated. This trend continued right up to the destruction of Polish Jewry by the German Nazis during WWII. By the late 1850's, assimilated Polish Jews "remained a small, select, and generally prosperous group." (p. 38). Though Weeks does not consider this, it is obvious that the successes of the assimilated Polish Jews could only reinforce the perception that Jewish assimilation occurs, in outcome if not also in motive, primarily for the benefit of the Jews, and not that of Poles and Poland.

In addition, the relative infrequency of Jewish assimilation could only mean that assimilated Jews remained unappreciated, by Poles, if only because of the glaring fact of the unassimilated majority. In addition, the rarity of Jewish assimilation would mean that it would increasingly be considered marginal, among both Poles and Jews, in terms of the alteration, still less improvement, of overall Polish-Jewish relations.

The essential irrelevance of Jewish assimilation, in terms of significantly reducing millennia-old Jewish particularism, and of reducing the age-old status of Jews as primarily a "privileged" economic class (as emphasized, for example, by Boleslaw Prus: p. 102), is borne out by the facts. A detailed tsarist Russian census, even at the late date of 1897, showed that nearly 75% of the Jews of Congress Poland (that is, Warsaw-area ethnographic Poland) were employed in either industry or trade. (p. 57). Jewish cultural separatism also remained intact. For example, as of the 1880's, Jews still had their own social institutions, and attended their own schools--the CHEDARIM and the YESHIVOT. (e. g, p. 75, 82, 91). In 1897, nearly 84% of cosmopolitan Warsaw's Jews claimed Yiddish as their native tongue. (p. 218).

With and without assimilation, dislikes between Poles and Jews, as those based on religion and social position, worked both ways. Weeks points out, "to be fair", that "the Jews were seldom complimentary in their opinions of the Polish peasants." (p. 81).However, the strong polarization between Poles and Jews developed relatively late. It was mutual, and based in large part on the popularization of nationalism (including both the Polish and Jewish variety: see pp. 124-on) from about the mid to late 19th century. (p. 8, 86).

Although Theodore R. Weeks tries to downplay the Litvak (Litwak) problem (pp. 156-on), he acknowledges that the Jewish intelligentsia outside the Kingdom readily accepted Russification, after about 1863, and on a large scale with specific connotations of hostility to Polish national aspirations (e. g, p. 54, 191). Both Polish and Jewish sources confirm the reality of the Litvak problem (p. 198, 215), which came to the fore by 1892. (p. 108).

Open anti-Semitism among Poles was unusual before about 1881. (pp. 67-68). One major development was the publication of Jan Jelenski's ROLA (p. 9, 89), in the 1880's, which Theodore R. Weeks called "the first overtly anti-Semitic journal in Poland." (p. 89). In a slightly earlier publication, Jelenski's had cited the deleterious effects of "foreign and Jewish capital" in Poland. Theodore R. Weeks tries to dispute this by citing an industrial exhibition held at St. Petersburg in 1870. Out of 200 firms represented from Congress Poland ("ethnographic" Poland), "only 30" were Jewish owned, compared with 131 foreign-owned and 39 Polish owned. (p. 56). Jelenski's statements may have been unacceptable according to today's "politically correct" notions, but the facts do support them. Jews, comprising less than 10% of the population of Congress Poland at the time (1870), owned almost as many firms as the Poles, who constituted 90% of the population! Moreover, Jelenski's comments were not directed solely at Jews, but were voiced in the larger context of non-Polish-owned (161 out of 200!) firms.

Jelenski promoted the economic self-defense of Poles through the boycott of Jews, and Theodore R. Weeks puts this in somewhat broader context than the stereotyped Polish hostility directed at Jewish scapegoats. He quips, "The use of the economic boycott for nationalist purposes was not a novelty; in the Prussian partition Poles boycotted German goods..." (pp. 91-92).

Now consider the Church and the Jews. Weeks points out that, "In 1914, as in 1800, the Catholic church regarded Jews with suspicion and wariness but did not, on the whole, push for militant political or economic action against them." (p. 10).

Interestingly, the much-condemned Endek hostility of Jews was a very recent development. Endek publications did not have particularly anti-Jewish themes until about 1903. (p. 115). Unlike those who try to lump all opposition to Jews as the same, Theodore R. Weeks does not. He comments, "We must remember that Polish anti-Semites--take Jelenski or Dmowski for example--always condemned physical violence towards the Jews." (p. 9).

One of the factors leading to the 1912 Dmowski-led boycott of Jews was not only the increasing nationalism among both Jews and Poles, but also the increasing competition between Poles and Jews for political influence in the Duma. The large size of the Jewish population further exacerbated this competition. After all, cities such as Warsaw, Lodz, Lomza, Kielce, Lublin, and many others, were a third or more Jewish in population. (p. 151).

Theodore R. Weeks rejects the common exculpation that the Jews, in 1912, had refused to support Jan Kucharzewski because he was an anti-Semite. Instead, Kucharzewski had refused to disavow publicly any possible restrictions on Jews in future city governments. (p. 163). In other words, and not stated by Weeks, the Jews were simply promoting their own influence, and so Dmowski and the Endeks responded in kind by promoting Polish influence. The Endek enmity towards Jews soon became shared by many Polish liberals. (pp. 165-on).

The author misrepresents the views and positions of patriotic Polish Jew Julian Unszlicht. (pp. 158-159). For corrective, see the first Comment.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written, very informative 18 April 2008
By D. Pichon - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Antisemitism in pre WWII Europe has always fascinated me, and Professor Weeks lays an excellent foundation for understanding the seeds of antisemitism in Poland which later came to horrific fruition under the fascists. Professor's Weeks' in-depth knowledge of his subject and familiarity with Polish culture shows, but even the novice history buff will benefit from his detailed and easy to follow presentation of the facts. I would love to see a segue to this book - 1914 up to today!
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