Commentary Magazine

Jews in Old Russia

To the Editor:

Since I know that you always strive for accuracy of fact in the contributions you publish, I was a little surprised by Léon Poliakov’s “Official Anti-Semitism in Old Russia” (July 1956). It is nothing new to attribute the beginning of official anti-Semitism in Russia to the struggle against the “Judaizing heresy” at the start of the 16th century. Dubnow pointed this out and it was reasserted in a recent article in the Israeli quarterly Zion.

It is, however, regrettable that Poliakov allows himself a number of misstatements of fact and exaggerations, explicit or by implication.

1) There is no evidence that “Jews were welcomed with open arms at the court of Kiev.” And Zacharia was apparently not the instigator of the “Judaizing heresy” in Novgorod: a Russian sect, “Strigolniki,” preceded.

2) The Jew Hoza Kokos who served as “intermediary between Ivan and his ally Menghi-Guirez,” in negotiating a treaty with the Khan, was not a Russian Jew but came from Kaffa (Theodosia), which was at that time a Genoan trading colony. Not knowing the situation in Moscow, he wrote some letters to Ivan in Hebrew, and the latter requested him to write in Russian or the “Basurman language” (meaning probably Tataric).

3) Poliakov speaks of the Chmelnitsky massacres and the Russian invasion as if they were the same. The Chmelnitsky massacres began in 1648 and reached their peak during the years 1648-49 (the memorable tach and tat of the Jewish chronicles); the Russian invasion of 1654-56 was of much less importance.

4) Die Judenstadt von Lublin is hardly “a German report of the period”; probably Mayer Balaban’s book (Berlin, 1919) is meant.

5) Polish Jews continued to trade in Moscow after 1504 until the mid-16th century (Schipper, History of Jewish Trade in Poland, p. 45).

6) The Pale of Settlement came about as a result not of the government’s “official anti-Semitism,” but of the demand of the Moscow merchants (1790, 1791).

Bernard D. Weinryb
Dropsie College
Philadelphia, Pa.



Mr. Poliakov writes:

There is an old French saying: “If anyone accused me of stealing the towers of Notre-Dame, I would start running.” Because Mr. Weinryb’s objections are—to put it mildly—entirely without foundation, they are not easy to answer. But, point by point:

1) For the treatment of the Jews at the court of Kiev, I refer Mr. Weinryb to Dubnow and Hessen, the two authorities on that question. As to the origin of the Judaizing heresy at Novgorod, three different chronicles attribute its instigation to the advent and influence of Skaria (not Zacharia) and his friends. Not one of the various historians—Jewish or Russian—who have studied the matter has ever expressed any doubt about the facts. It is true, of course, that there were other heresies at Novgorod, a fact which has no relevance, since I have not undertaken to give the history of all the Russian religious sects.

2) I certainly did not say that Hoza Kokos was a Russian Jew. I said: “One such Jew, Hoza Kokos”—and then below: “another rich Crimean Jew named Zacharia. . . .”

3) Likewise, I never suggested that the Chmelnitsky massacres and the Russian invasion were the same. I simply wrote that the “atrocities committed against Jews by the Russian armies reached a height in the middle of the 17th century after the insurrection of Bogdan Chmelnitsky.” I was dealing with Russia, not with Poland or the Ukraine.

4) Here is the full title of the “German report” on Lublin [translated from the German]: “Report or complete description of the lamentable and pitiful destruction of the beautiful city of Lublin as perpetrated in barbaric manner by the Muscovites and Cossacks. Year 1655” (without any indication of place).

5) Jewish merchants did live in Moscow at the beginning of the 17th century and I said so in my article (“Nevertheless, in that same period a little Jewish colony was founded in Moscow”). But these Jews managed to settle there despite the official ban. Check on identity of residents was then less strict than in our own time. Between 1550 and 1917, I believe there was not a single Russian ruler who did not renew the ban, under one form or another. For instance, at the beginning of the year 1638 the Polish king asked Czar Michael to authorize an exception and permit his “court agent” Aaron ben Mordecai to go to the city of Moscow for the purpose of doing some buying. The Czar replied that “any Polish merchant could get into Moscow but not a Jewish merchant, because entrance of Jews into Russia had been banned since ancient times, inasmuch as Christians will have nothing to do with them.”

6) The Pale of Settlement was established from the time of the annexation by Russia of territories inhabited by Jews (beginning of the 18th century). Catherine II’s ukase of December 23, 1791, which Mr. Weinryb must have had in mind, simply renews, after the partition of Poland, the ban against Jewish residence in the Russian territories proper.


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