Birobidzhan railway station. as a stop on the Trans-Siberian railroad. CC BY-SA 3.0 - Photo: 2023

A Russian Region is an Alternative to Jewish Settlements in Palestine

By Jonathan Power

LUND, Sweden | 7 November 2023 (IDN) — Could this century-long upheaval between Israel and the Palestinians have been avoided? There were alternative places for the Jews to create their own state—some in the Jewish leadership in the early years of the last century thought Uganda and Argentina were possibilities.

At that time, before polls admittedly, one could say that a majority of Jews would have preferred one of those, rather than displacing Arabs. Unlike the Zionists, they were not beholden to the idea of “the land of milk and honey” only being on Arab land.

By and large, until the Holocaust, most Jews didn’t believe it was their Biblical destiny to settle in Palestine and for the more thoughtful ones, who read the ancient texts with an open mind, the original push by Moses, leading the Jewish people out of bondage in Egypt, was not a history they felt obliged to repeat. After all, Moses had made his way clear to “the promised land” by genocide. “The Lord spoke unto Moses, saying ‘Vex the Midianites [a tribe that controlled Arabia] and smite them’.”

Armed with this admonishment, Moses, who had led his people into battle against one tribe after another that stood in their way, not only ordered all the men to be killed but also all the women and their male children. (This is recorded in the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers or, to give it its Jewish name, “In the Wilderness.”) 

The story about alternative settlements in Uganda and Argentina is well known. Less known is the creation by the Soviet Union’s Politburo in 1928 of a Jewish autonomous region in the Far East, Birobidzhan, near the border with China. Many Russian Jews moved to live there, although there was no compulsion to do so. Some settlers came to its city and villages from outside Russia, from the US, Poland, Lithuania and Germany. The Soviet government had a slogan: “To the Jewish homeland”.

“After World War II, tens of thousands of eastern European and displaced Jews settled in Birobidzhan.”

It was conceived before the creation of Israel. The Russian constitution says it is Russia’s only autonomous Oblast (province). It is one of two officially Jewish jurisdictions in the world—the other is Israel. 

After World War II, tens of thousands of eastern European and displaced Jews settled in Birobidzhan. Albert Einstein was president of an organisation which made large contributions to help the region to get on its feet. In his opinion, it was to be a haven of peace for European Jews. Birobidzhan became the world’s premier teaching center for the preservation and promotion of Yiddish culture. Traditionally, its Jews have been anti-Zionist.

By 1948, Jews were 25% of Birobidzhan’s population. The region prospered, helped partly because it was a stop on the Trans-Siberian railway. But Stalin drove many Jewish settlers away, and the demise of the Soviet Union accelerated departures.

The town was designed by the well-known Swiss architect of the Bauhaus school, Hannes Meyer. He and others called it the “Far East Zion”. The town of Beaverton, Oregon, decided to twin with it. But by 2002, its Jewish population was down to 4,000. Today it is less—a mere 837. For decades, Moscow did not give it the resources to survive; the land was poor, and the weather was sometimes torrid (not unlike Israel’s). But it now has fairly well-developed industry, mining and agriculture, and 530 km of rail. Today, the autonomous region’s total population is a mere 75,000. However, in recent years, Jews have been trickling back, a few hundred coming from Israel.

“The notion of an almost exclusive Jewish Israel dominating Palestine and its own Arabs forever is becoming an impossibility.”

President Vladimir Putin has consistently spoken out against anti-Semitism. He is very different from his predecessors, apart from Mikhail Gorbachev. Old-time Soviet leaders, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev, disparaged the settlers. Stalin persecuted the Jews. Nevertheless, Russia, since 1948, has long kept close ties with Israel. These days, under pro-Jewish Putin, it might welcome the intellectual prowess of Israeli Jewish settlers. He has been careful, during the present crisis, not to be too critical of Israel.

In the early 1970s, Birobizshan set out on what will be a long road of economic and social development in an attempt to reverse the downward slide. The capital now has 14 public schools that must teach Yiddish and Jewish tradition, as does the university. In 2004, a new synagogue opened next to a complex housing a Sunday school classroom, library, and museum. The university has a basic course in Hebrew language, history and classics. Several state-run schools teach Yiddish and Jewish tradition. One school has a half Yiddish/half Russian curriculum.

There are social groups for the elderly that teach Jewish rituals. There is a Yiddish radio station and theatre. In the central square, there is a memorial to Sholom Aleichman whose stories of life in Russian villages in Birobidzhan formed the basis for the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”.

Who knows, as that reality sinks into Israel’s consciousness, some Jews might look at Birobidzhan with a fresh eye. Israel’s population is 20% Russian-born. Many of them are homesick, and quite a few have already returned to Russia. Many like starting something from nothing.

They should take a look at Birobidzhan. It is well-placed for investors as a stop on the Trans-Siberian railroad, boasting an impressive station, and the nearby Russian city, Vladivostok, at the end of the line, is thriving with a growth rate three times the Russian average. So is adjacent northern China. The new 2,200-metre bridge across the Amur river linking the city with China is functioning. Birobidzhan could become a major trading post between Russia and China, a good place to build a new Silicon Valley.

Birobidzhan could provide an alternative to more Jews settling on Arab territory. The stage is partly set. It needs the players. The US and EU could subsidize the transition. It would help Israel avoid becoming a disastrous, self-defeating, apartheid state, which its policy of encouraging and increasing the present settler movement seems to be leading to. [IDN-InDepthNews]


Copyright: Jonathan Power.

Image: Birobidzhan railway station as a stop on the Trans-Siberian railroad. CC BY-SA 3.0

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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