Jewish History, Jewish Religion: Israel Shahak …

Posted By on July 17, 2015

Certain issues raised by Shahak are undeveloped by other reviewers, and I elaborate on the situation facing Polish Jews and peasants at about the time of the Partitions and thereafter.

The anti-Semitism in part of the peasantry of eastern and central Europe is commonly stereotyped as the product of Christian religion and of their backwardness. By contrast, Shahak emphasizes the evolution of Polish society in a direction that placed peasants and Jews into a quasi-adversarial position. It began with the uncontrolled growth of the power of self-interested nobility since about 1600: "This process was accompanied by a debasement in the position of the Polish peasants (who had been free in the Middle Ages) to the point of utter serfdom, hardly distinguishable from outright slavery and certainly the worst in Europe." (p. 61).

The Jewish situation then was very different: "Polish Jewry burst into social and political prominence accompanied, as usual, with a much greater degree of autonomy. It was at this time that Poland's Jews were granted their greatest privileges...Until 1939, the population of many towns east of the river Bug was at least 90 percent Jewish...Outside the towns very many Jews throughout Poland, but especially in the east, were employed as the direct supervisors and oppressors of the enserfed peasantry." (pp. 62-63).

"But, as we have remarked, the peasants suffered worse oppression at the hands of both landlords and Jews; and one may assume that, except in times of peasant uprisings, the full weight of the Jewish religious laws against Gentiles fell upon the peasants." (p. 63).

Shahak continues: "Internal conditions within the Jewish community moved in a similar course...In the period 1500-1795...

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