Sunday, March 23, 2008

80th Anniversary of Birobidzhan

2008 marks eighty years since the founding of The Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan in the Soviet far east near Mongolia. It was intended to provide the Jews of the USSR equality with all of the other Soviet nationalities by providing them with a homeland as well. Because of its distant location and the necessity of building it from scratch,it never caught on as a national homeland. Periodic purges of its population and its Yiddish library also curtailed the growth of Jewish culture in Birobidzhan. Today, although Yiddish is taught in its schools and enjoys official use, Jews amount to about 5% of its population of 220,000.
Two reasons are additionally cited as reasons for the failure of the Jewish Autonomous Region. The first obstacle was the J.A.R. founders' implacable opposition to Israel as a Jewish homeland. The second difficulty was the militant opposition to Torah of the J.A.R's founding fathers. Throughout Jewish history, groups which separated themselves from Torah as a source of Jewish identity faded from the world scene. Torah and the Land of Israel are a common wellspring of identity for Ashkenazic Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews.
Even within the U.S.S.R., the J.A.R only reached out to Ashkenazim, promoting Yiddish as a Jewish national language. The orthography and vocabulary of Soviet Yiddish were redesigned to minimise the Hebraic components of the officially approved language. The U.S.S.R. had within its borders Bukharian, Georgian, Crimean and other non Ashkenazic strains of Jews with distinctly differing religious customs and languages. A true Soviet Jewish homeland should have recognised these groups in designing a Jewish political entity. Instead, they were ignored in the J.A.R. In retrospect it was probably a blessing in disguise that the Jews of Soviet Asia were ignored in the founding of this ill fated attempt at a Jewish utopia. Had they taken part, they too would have fallen victim to Stalinist paranoia and the accompanying purges. Although Jews in the west should certainly remember the Jews still living in Birobidzhan, its value today is its lessons to this generation.
The State of Israel will be 60 years old this year. While it certainly has not repudiated Torah as its raison d'etre, the flashes of ambivalence in Israeli society towards orthodoxy are impossible to ignore. Jews from Arab countries and Sephardim make up a large plurality of Israel's Jewish population. Their percentage of the political leadership in Israel still falls well short of their percentage of the population. The official history of the founding of the State of Israel has yet to incorporate the observations, trials and tribulations of Israel's Jews from Arab countries. A stronger Israeli position can and should be taken in negotiations with its Arab neighbours. There were Arabs who left Israel, but similar numbers of Jews also fled Arab countries, often having been stripped of their property. This important facet of Israeli history is ignored with negative consequences for all Israelis. The shortage of Jews from Arab countries in diplomatic efforts has hindered Israel's understanding and effectiveness in negotiations with its Arab neighbours.
To a far lesser degree, the Israeli Government has some of the same bias towards Ashkenazim that was present in the Jewish Autonomous Region. Fortunately Israel's democracy and free market economy are correcting some of these imbalances. Despite this, the lessons of Birobidzhan's failure deserve to be studied in Israel.
Setting a course for the future should always involve learning from the past. Those who care about Israel's future would do well to study the lessons of Birobidzhan.

Copyright 2008 by Magdeburger Joe Sphere: Related Content

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