by David Chakofsky
In the far-eastern region of Russia, there exists a city that was built for the
Jewish people by the Soviet Union. It lies about 200 kilometers North of the Amur
River, which divides Russia from Northeastern China, and 200 kilometers West from Khabarovsk, a major industrial city in Russia) The very concept of Birobidzhan is curious, forming a new Jewish homeland thousands of miles away from the land of Israel, in a land that had no historic or cultural relevance to the Jewish people, proved to be quite a challenge for the Soviets.
To understand the founding of Birobidzhan, we must first discuss the history of the Jewish people in Russia at large. Under the Tsarist regime, Jews were forced to live in the Westernmost region of the Russian Empire, today comprising Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, and Western parts of the Russian Federation, which was called the “Pale of Settlement”. Jews were allowed permanent residency here, but outside of this region Jews were forbidden from temporary or permanent residence. In this region, Jews faced pogroms, violent riots that killed thousands of Jews, egged on by the Tsar and his government. Outside of the Pale of Settlement Jews were not treated any better. Travel was restricted to only certain merchants, university educated Jews, or Jews who converted from Judaism. Antisemitism was rampant through the Empire, and Tsar Nicholas II’s secret police fanned the flames by creating a faux document called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is still to this day used as a blueprint for antisemitic conspiracy theories by fascists. Safe to say, life in Tsarist Russia was hard for the Jewish people, and out of this adversity two major groups emerged: the Zionists and the Bundists. The Zionist movement has existed throughout the history of diaspora Jews, but as a modern ideology wasn’t fully developed until a Austro-Hungarian Jew named Theodor Herzl came along. Herzl led the movement to turn Palestine into a Jewish state, with the clear intent of colonizing a land that was already lived on. Many Jews were persuaded by this alliyah, or a return to the land of Israel, a holy ritual that was supposed to occur after the return of the Messiah. Other Jews, however, were not so convinced by the Zionist movement. The General Jewish Labour Bund in Lithuania, Poland and Russia was a secular Jewish socialist movement that was formed initially in the Russian Empire. The Bund, as they were known, stood for Jewish autonomy, but did not agree with the Zionists’ opinion that a return to Israel was necessary and would in fact continue the cycle of oppression that they were currently facing in Tsarist Russia. Instead of appealing to the bourgeoisie interests of land-owning Jews, the Bund focused on the Jewish working class. They stood for Jewish autonomy instead of assimilation, fighting for the right to continue their cultural practices. By 1906, the Bund had 40,000 members making it the largest socialist party in the Russian Empire at the time.
In 1917 the Great October Socialist Revolution happened. After the Bolsheviks took power the “Declaration of Rights of the Peoples of Russia’ was adopted and abolished exploitation of man by man and restrictions regarding who could live where were eliminated. Various programs were started to integrate the Jewish population into the new socialist Soviet life, while maintaining their Jewish culture. Schools that taught in Yiddish were opened, antisemitism was made illegal and
punishable with death, and the perpetrators of the mass pogroms were punished. However, there were still some that yearned for a place of their own. A committee named the Komzet, or Committee for the Settlement of Toiling Jews on the Land, was tasked with helping the former residents of the Pale of Settlement transition from their isolated shtetls (predominantly Jewish towns) to being proud Soviet-Jews who fought for socialism. On March 28, 1928 the Soviet government announced that The COMERD is assured that the Amur Valley and the contiguous region in the Far East is designated as free soil for Jewish workers”. With this decree, a place that Jews could call home was created, with the intent of Jewish autonomy being realized once conditions were right; “When the expected results, following the colonization of Jewish workers in this region, are realized… the building of a Jewish administered national unity in the territory of this region shall be carried out.’ By 1930, only two years after its creation, 12,000 Jews lived in Birobidzhan. In 1934, the region reached such a high level of agricultural and industrial development that the Jewish Autonomous Region was created. It encompassed Birobidzhan and the territory around it, almost equivalent to the size of Belgium. Despite being established as a Jewish region, the Amur Cossacks lived there as well alongside Koreans, and Russians. The culture of Birobidzhan was decidedly Jewish, with Yiddish being the main spoken language, two Jewish theatres were built (one for professionals and one for amateur actors), and a daily paper printed in Yiddish. The region also had a bounty of natural resources. Fish lived in the region’s rivers, two thousand species of flowers grew there for quality honey, various mineral resources like coal, iron, and even marble (which was used to build the Moscow subway) existed in the earth there. Hunters could find wild game and collective farms were established. Birobidzhan’s proximity to the Trans-Siberian Railway gave its inhabitants access to other major cities in the region like Khabarovsk and Vladivostok.
Today, Birobidzhan still exists inside the Jewish Autonomous Oblast of the Russian Federation. It has a Population around 75,000 as of 2010. Sadly, not as many Jews moved there as did to Israel, much to do with the West’s view of the Soviet Union as antisemitic and the desire for a Western aligned nation in the Middle East. The official language of Birobidzhan remains Yiddish, but it’s reputation as a new Jewish homeland is long gone and forgotten by most. I would like to end with some lyrics from a Yiddish song called “Oy Ir Narishe Tsienistn/Oh You Foolish Little Zionists.”
Oh, you foolish little Zionists
With your utopian mentality,
You’d better go down to the factory
And learn the worker’s reality!
You want to take us to Jerusalem
So we can die as a nation
We’d rather stay in the Diaspora
And fight for our liberation!