Controversy arose over the Israeli government’s recent decision to temporarily prevent non-Israelis from entering the country due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
American businessman Martin Oliner recently recalled that Theodor Herzl cited the “distress of the Jews” in explaining the need for a Jewish state in his 1896 book, “Der Judenstaat.” Today, according to Oliner, “Jews around the world are once again in distress,” this time because of the Israeli travel decision.
It’s certainly unfortunate that many Diaspora Jews were temporarily unable to attend family events in Israel or complete business deals with their Israeli partners. But when one surveys the suffering that Jews were enduring in the 1890s, at the time Herzl was writing his book, is there really a basis for comparison?
In Czarist Russia, discrimination and violence against Jews reached such levels that U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, in his annual message to Congress in 1891, denounced “the severe and oppressive civil restrictions… [and other] harsh measures now being enforced against the Hebrews in Russia,” as a result of which, he forecast, “over 1,000,000 [Jews] will be forced from Russia within a few years.” Konstantin Pobedonostsev, adviser to the Czar, reportedly remarked in 1894 that one-third of Russian Jews should leave the country, one-third should become Christians and one-third should die.
In “The Russian Jew Under Tsars and Soviets,” eminent historian Salo Baron found that after the ascension to power of Czar Nicholas II, in 1894, “the old screws of legal and administrative discrimination [against Jews] were turned more tightly.” The quota on Jews admitted to Russian universities and colleges was lowered from 7% to 3%, and the number of Jewish paupers in Russia grew by 27% from 1894 to 1898.
“In many communities, fully 50% of the Jewish population depended on charity,” Baron wrote. Discriminatory legislation (the infamous May Laws) was partially extended to Russian-occupied Poland in 1891, deepening the misery of Polish Jewry.
In Germany, there was a massive surge of antisemitism in the 1890s, ranging from a blood libel trial in 1891-1892 to a series of electoral victories for Jew-haters. The number of openly antisemitic deputies in the Reichstag increased from one to five in 1890, and then to 16 in 1893, and the Conservative Party became the first major political party in modern Germany to embrace antisemitism, vowing to “fight the multifarious and obtrusive Jewish influence that decomposes our people’s life.”
The rising tide of antisemitism prompted German Jews to create defense groups such as the Association for Defense Against Anti-Semitism (1890), as well as the more assimilationist Centralverein of German Citizens of Jewish Faith (1893), and, because of campus antisemitism, the Confederation of Jewish Fraternities (1896.)
Herzl was particularly troubled by events in France, and in Austria, where he had lived since his teens. The Dreyfus Affair, which Herzl followed closely, began in 1894, culminating in mass anti-Jewish riots in Paris in 1898. In Austria, the openly antisemitic Karl Lueger became mayor of Vienna in 1895 and was repeatedly re-elected. Adolf Hitler later cited Lueger as a source of inspiration.
This snapshot of the distress suffered by some major Diaspora communities in the 1890s is obviously quite different from what Jews in the Five Towns or Beverly Hills are experiencing today.
This is not to minimize the unhappiness of those who have missed family celebrations or whose academic conferences have had to be conducted via Zoom. But the history of the Jewish people is filled with all too many instances of life-or-death distress. Careless historical comparisons contribute little to the public conversation concerning temporary travel restrictions to Israel.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books about the Holocaust and Jewish history. This essay is based in part on the research for his most recent book, “The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust.”
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.