Ethnic Peripheries Versus Ethnic Cores: Jewish Political Strategies in Interwar Poland

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  • Ethnic Peripheries Versus Ethnic Cores: Jewish Political Strategies in Interwar PolandAuthor(s): Joseph RothschildSource: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 96, No. 4 (Winter, 1981-1982), pp. 591-606Published by: The Academy of Political ScienceStable URL: .Accessed: 03/12/2014 23:35

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  • Ethnic Peripheries Versus Ethnic Cores: Jewish Political Strategies in Interwar Poland


    This article is intended as an interpretive study, based on second- ary rather than primary research. It seeks to analyze and assess the political op- tions and choices that were perceived as available and feasible by the leadership of the Jewish community of interwar Poland. This community was at that time one of several ethnic minorities in a multiethnic state newly restored to political sovereignty and independence at the close of World War I and passing through a particularly difficult phase in its political consolidation and socioeconomic development. Though the following analysis is a case study of a particular historical situation, the dilemmas confronted by Polish Jewry and by the Polish host-government during the interwar period may be relevant for multiethnic states undergoing similar "state-building" or "nation-building" strains today.

    More specifically, the case of interwar Poland belongs to the pattern of multiethnic states characterized by a dominant central ethnic core (in this case the Poles) vis-a-vis an aggregation of several peripheral ethnic segments (here Belorussians, Ukrainians, Germans, and Jews).' In this pattern the core views itself as the historic, institutional, and symbolic creator, and hence appropriate hegemon, of the state, while the leaders of each of the peripheral minority segments must decide whether to pursue their respective group's goals and pro- tect its interests through an alliance with the other minority segments or through

    I "Core" and "periphery" may be, but need not be, understood in a geographical sense.

    JOSEPH ROTHSCHILD, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science in Columbia University, is the author of numerous books on Eastern European politics. His most recent work is Ethnopolitics: A Conceptual Framework.

    Political Science Quarterly Volume 96 Number 4 Winter 1981-82 591

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    a separate bilateral arrangement with the dominant core's ruling elite. This choice may entail serious dilemmas of political strategy selection. For example, some Scottish nationalist leaders today propose cooperation with the Welsh to apply leverage on London, while others recommend negotiating a bilateral arrange- ment with the English, as one "historic kingdom" with another. In Canada, moreover, the Francophone Quebecois have emphatically - and understand- ably - chosen the second strategy by insisting that they are one of the two "founding nations" (the other being "the British") who should renegotiate on a one-to-one basis the country's political structure. To share this political niche with other ethnic groups such as Canada's Ukrainians, Poles, Italians, Jews, Germans, Inuits, Amerindians, and others, would - the Quebecois fear - gratuitously dilute their own historico-moral status. Alternatively, Jewish ac- tivists in the Soviet Union ponder whether to ally themselves with other ethnic and political dissidents in a joint effort to restructure the Russian-dominated Soviet system, or to extract the core regime's assent to their own group's emigra- tion only. In both interwar and contemporary Yugoslavia, again, Croatian leaders have ruminated whether to organize a broad ethnic coalition to restrain real or alleged Serbian hegemony or to bid for bilateral balance with the core Serbs. American ethnic groups confront analogous quandaries. In turn, of course, these strategic dilemmas of the subordinate (or self-perceived as subor- dinate) peripheral ethnic minorities open up opportunities for maneuvering to the leaders of the dominant core who may thus neutralize an incipient coalition of minorities by satisfying some of its prospective members at the expense of others. The dialectics of these several dilemmas and opportunities, options, and choices will now be probed in the case of Jewish-Polish relations in interwar Poland.


    It is conventionally, but erroneously, assumed that Polish-Jewish relations were chronically bad throughout the seven centuries of their symbiotic and shared history in Poland. But medieval and early modern Poland-that is, the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, before its partition in the second half of the eighteenth century-was for long Europe's most hospitable state to Jews, the country where normative Ashkenazic Jewish culture developed and flourished, to become Judaism's intellectual and demographic center of gravity. Here Talmudic scholarship reached its apogee; here, too, Hassidism, a spiritual- mystical innovation complementary to rabbinic scholarship, was born; and here Jewish communal self-government, with an autonomous system of educational, judicial, fiscal, and social institutions, reached the highest elaboration ever at- tained by European Jewry.

    It is implausible to enumerate and to celebrate such achievements and suc- cesses by the Jewish community of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth without acknowledging due credit to the host society. During the high and late

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    middle ages and in the early modern era - that is, until deep into the seventeenth century - old Poland was Europe's most latitudinarian and tolerant state in mat- ters of religion. It was a home for a wide spectrum of Christian denominations and non-Christian religions, and a place of refuge for religious dissenters and minorities from all over Europe - including Jews - at a time when most other European states and societies were insisting on religious exclusivity and unifor- mity and were convulsed by religious wars and persecutions.

    The main reason for this openness was that the dominant legal and political class of old Poland, the szlachta or nobility, was engaged in a sustained (and ultimately successful) contest to preserve its hegemony against both the Crown and the Polish bourgeoisie. To maintain its internal political cohesion in this struggle, the szlachta de-emphasized religious, linguistic, or ethnic tests and criteria. Its members might be Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Uniate, Calvinist, Lutheran, or Unitarian and might be of Polish, Lithuanian, Belorus- sian, Ukrainian, or even Tatar provenance. What united them was their opposi- tion to any emulation in their country of the late medieval West European developmental pattern whereby the nobility was legally curbed and politically defeated by an alliance between the centralizing, rationalizing monarchy and the nascent urban bourgeoisie. To the extent that certain bourgeois commercial and artisanal functions could not be dispensed with, the Polish nobility preferred them to be conducted by immigrant foreigners, that is, by German and Jewish colonists and immigrants, rather than by native Polish burghers, since the former were less likely than the latter to challenge the szlachta's monopoly of political power in the state.

    Jews soon became active and valued partners of this nobility in many enterprises.... The interests of the Jews and Polish magnates coincided and complemented each other in one most important aspect of the economic and social activity of the Polish- Lithuanian nobility. On their huge estates the nobles began to establish and encourage the development of new townships, creating a network of "private towns." Because of the nature of their relationship with their own peasant population they were keen to at- tract settlers from afar, and Jews well suited their plans. The tempo and scale of expan- sion were great.... For their part, the Jews, who were hard pressed by the enmity of the populace in the old royal cities, gladly moved to places where they sometimes be- came the majority, in some cases even the whole, of the population.... Through charters granted by kings and magnates to communities and settlers in these new towns, the real legal status of the Jews gradually changed very much for the better. By the second half of the 17th century everywhere in Poland Jews had become part of the "third estate" and in some places and in some respects the only one.2

    The szlachta itself, of course, disdained as beneath its social dignity and status those bourgeois economic activities that it funneled toward the Jews as a productive, yet politically unthreatening, group to perform them. In other

    2 Encyclopedia Judaica, s.v. "Poland" (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House Jerusalem Ltd., 1972), XIII, columns 723, 725.

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    words, the Polish nobility wished to benefit from the increasing opportunities to export agricultural products to the West, to develop processing industries, and to commercialize its estates; yet it lacked the requisite interest, skills, and ethos to undertake these activities itself and instead leased them out to the Jews. The traditional overrepresentation of Jews in Polish commerce, trade, and artisanal activities -an overrepresentation that persisted throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries -was thus in its historic origins as much a product of Polish abstention as of the Jews' own inclinations.

    The traditional benign symbiosis between the Jewish community and the host society began to sour in the eighteenth century and became quite frictional in the nineteenth. In the last decades before its partition, the old Commonwealth sought to stem and reverse its decline by focusing public solidarity on Roman Catholicism as the national ideological consolidating "cement" of the society. Not only Jews, but also Protestant and Eastern Orthodox believers were alienated. There is a terrible irony here in the timing, or, rather, mistiming, of old Poland's public policy toward religion: this policy had been exceptionally latitudinarian and tolerant in the Reformation-Counterreformation era, when most other European states had adopted stances of religious exclusivity and persecution of dissenters, and now it turned illiberal precisely when the rest of Europe was shifting toward the more tolerant values of the Enlightenment. As a result of tnis aberrant, out-of-phase sequence, Polish society's earlier, ad- mirable yet quixotic virtue of religious and ethnic toleration went largely un- credited and Poland entered the modern era with a reputation for benighted bigotry that was exploited to rationalize and justify its partition at the hands of Austria, Prussia, and Russia.

    Then, during the second half of the nineteenth century, when Polish society was seeking to modernize and revitalize itself despite the political and legal travails of being partitioned among three empires, the symbiosis between that society and its still very numerous Jewish minority was further irritated by the belated rise of a Polish bourgeoisie that challenged the traditional Jewish near- monopoly of urban "third estate" roles and positions that had survived from the old Commonwealth. To the extent that the Tsarist regimes of Alexander III (1881-1894) and Nicholas 11 (1894-1917) systematically eliminated Poles from governmental administrative posts in the Russian sector - the largest - of parti- tioned Poland, they propelled ever more members of the Polish bourgeoisie and intelligentsia toward private-sector economic and professional careers where they found themselves in competition with established Jews. By this time, the Jews were employing the strategy of high turnover and low profit margins -a strategy that benefited in principle both the consumer and the economy as a whole, but hampered the younger and less experienced Polish bourgeoisie which found it extremely difficult to compete by purely economic means and devices.3

    3 Pawel Korzec, "Antisemitism in Poland as an Intellectual, Social, and Political Movement," in Studies in Polish Jewry 1919-1939, ed. Joshua A. Fishman (New York: Yivo Institute for Jewish Research, 1974), p. 21.

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    The stage was thus set for the Polish bourgeoisie's demands of the interwar era that the newly restored Polish state use political and administrative measures to break the "alien" Jewish "stranglehold" over the commercial, industrial, and ar- tisanal sectors of the state's economy.


    Political life in the restored Polish state after 1918 was heavily colored by a crav- ing to avoid repeating the errors that had weakened the old Commonwealth. There was, however, no unanimity in identifying and defining those errors. Did historic Poland's mistake lie in its early hospitality toward a wide spectrum of religious beliefs and practices in an age when national and state consolidation had been closely identified with a particular religion, or in subsequently having alienated its Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, and Jewish subjects through Roman Catholic exclusivity? Had the old Commonwealth been too generous or too restrictive toward its non-Polish ethnic segments? Had its quasi-federalistic and decentral...