Whether we consider 40 years of trudging through the desert or 50 years of trying to establish a peaceful homeland in Israel, it seems the one state Jews have perpetually found themselves in is that of displacement.
In 1928 Joseph Stalin attempted an experiment to give Jews in the Soviet Union a permanent enclave and an alternative to Palestine: He created the Jewish Autonomous Region and named its capital Birobidzhan. Located on the Chinese border nearly 5000 miles from Moscow, Birobidzhan was expected to give rise to a flourishing secular Jewish culture in which Yiddish would be the dominant language and socialism would prevail. Jews were supposed to swap their high-profile professions as merchants and artisans for simple lives as farmers and factory workers.
Needless to say the idea failed and, in the rising tide of anti-Semitism of the late Thirties, Birobidzhan Jews were held accountable for the failure. Once Stalin's secret police began their notorious purges, millions of Jews were arrested, executed, or sentenced to hard labor in prison camps. After World War II, with the horrors of the conflict fresh in their minds, some optimistic Jews still flocked to Birobidzhan. In the United States many believers supported the cause, sending substantial amounts of money or even moving there. Other Soviet Jews, mindful of Stalin's continued attempts to destroy their intellectual and cultural life, quickly emigrated to Israel.
"Every nationality in Russia is supposed to have a territorial home, and most do," says Robert Weinberg, a professor of Russian history at Swarthmore College and curator of the exhibition Stalin's Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland, which opens Thursday at the Sanford L. Ziff Jewish Museum. "The difference with the Jews is they didn't have a historic homeland in Russia, and the one they gave them was 5000 miles away from anywhere any Jews had lived. With Birobidzhan there were built-in problems because the content of the culture was very diluted, not very Jewish.
"It was all going to be about applauding the accomplishments of Soviet power, but in Yiddish. It wasn't very appealing to the average Jew. Jewish identity is very diverse," adds the professor, who will deliver a lecture titled "Birobidzhan: How Did It Happen?" at the museum Thursday evening.
Today 215,000 people still live in Birobidzhan, but only a little more than one percent (2500) are Jews. The question that remains is whether Birobidzhan was Stalin's misguided but sincere effort to create a utopia or a malevolent attempt to rid Soviet society of Jews. Through rare historic materials seen for the first time outside the Russian Far East -- KGB documents, artifacts, photographs, archival film clips, propaganda posters, and a Yiddish newspaper that is still published in the region -- the exhibition tries to provide some answers.
"We want people to learn about a part of Jewish history that is very unfamiliar, but to understand that this policy toward the Jews, even though it was anti-religious from the start, didn't necessarily make it anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic," Weinberg explains. "There are different ways of looking at Soviet policy toward the Jews. It's a little more complex and nuanced than just saying that Stalin hated Jews and that the Soviets mistreated them. These policies evolve over time. There's a larger context."
"Stalin's Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland" runs from Thursday, October 8, through January 6, 1999, at the Sanford L. Ziff Jewish Museum, 301 Washington Ave, Miami Beach. Robert Weinberg speaks at the museum Thursday, October 8, at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $5. Call 305-672-5044.