Most of the reasons why the Jewish intelligentsia and higher bourgeoisie accepted the Emancipation as an ultimate fulfillment are well known; but one, less obvious, consideration needs to be added. For the first time anti-Semitism could be thought of in a rationalist framework. Now, at last, its “cause” was known and its “cure,” self-evident. It had existed in the late, “medieval” era because of religious fanaticism. That age was now at an end, and in the new day of reason and progress it must entirely disappear.
In order really to believe in the Emancipation, the Jew could not allow himself to imagine that anti-Semitism was a constant, beyond the dissolving power of the new ideas of the Enlightenment, or, worse still, that it might find ways of legitimizing itself in every theoretically universalist movement. And yet, Jew-hatred continued to exist, and it was not merely a leftover from the past. It was in the intellectual realm, however, in the inner history of modern Jewish thought, that the year 1881 had its most fateful consequences.
In actuality, none of the other forces mentioned above really began in that year. Mass migration from Russia and the prominence of Jews in the revolutionist parties, with all their by-products, were accelerated by the pogroms, but their origins were a decade or two earlier. The one sharp change that is datable in that year is to be seen in the emotions and outlook of the Russian Jewish intelligentsia. Before the pogroms it was under the willing tutelage of west European Jewry; in that year it consciously kicked over the traces and struck out on its own.
In addition to faith in the state, the other axiom of the western Jew was belief in education, the certainty that it was not only his passport into a wider world but also that the educated classes were his unshakable allies. He had chosen to believe this, despite the growing Jew-hatred among the intelligentsia in the second half of the nineteenth century, and before 1881 the intellectuals of Russian Jewry followed after him in that faith. But university students had joined in the making of pogroms and the outbursts of violence had been defended in respectable newspapers as valid expressions of popular discontent.
Even the Narodnaya Volya, the organ of the respected Narodnik (Back to the People) movement, had viewed them as a praiseworthy revolt of the peasants against their oppressors, and Tolstoy and Turgenev, the greatest living Russian writers, had remained silent. This, as many contemporary Jewish intellectuals have attested, was, for them, the most searing feature of the pogroms, because it shook the last pillar of their trust in the gentile world. Moshe Leib Lilienblum’s reactions were, therefore, at once typical and symbolic.
Before 1881, he was a leading paladin of the Haskalah, a sworn enemy of religion, a socialist, and, though already in his thirties, a student preparing himself for a diploma in secular studies. He was inspired by a new ideal, the national identity of his people, which he was to serve for the rest of his days as a radical exponent of the policy of total evacuation of the western world. The most significant reaction to the events of 1881 was the pamphlet Auto-Emancipation by Leo Pinsker. Pinsker, therefore, did not pretend to himself that Jew-hatred was merely a hang-over from the medieval past.
On the contrary, the historic importance of his essay is in its assertion that anti-Semitism is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, beyond the reach of any future triumphs of “humanity and enlightenment” in society as a whole. Pinsker defined three causes of anti-Semitism: the Jews are a “ghost people,” unlike any other in the world, and therefore feared as a thing apart; they are everywhere foreigners and nowhere hosts in their own national right; and they are in economic competition with every majority within which they live.
To hope for better days in Russia, or wherever else the Jews were under serious attack, was, therefore, a delusion, and piecemeal emigration to a variety of underdeveloped lands which might be hospitable for a moment meant merely to export and to exacerbate the problem. There was only one workable solution: the Jews must organize all their strength and, with whatever help they could muster from the world as a whole, they must find a country of their own (if possible, their ancestral home in the Holy Land) where the bulk of Jewry would at last come to rest.