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Part 6 of 8
The February Revolution (1917)

The nine months following the February Revolution of 1917 constituted a brief springtime in the history of Russian Jewry. The Provisional Government abolished all the restrictions affecting the Jews on March 16, 1917, as one of its first measures. Jews were immediately given the chance to hold office in the government administration, to practice at the bar, and rise in the army ranks. All at once opportunity opened up to them for free development in every sphere of life, both as citizens of the state and as a national group. The hatred of the Jews, which had served as a political weapon in the hands of the ancient regime, became incompatible with the Revolution and was forced underground.

Naturally the Jews supported the Revolution and participated in the active political life which began to flourish in the country. There were Jews in all the democratic and socialist parties at all levels, from the leadership to the rank and file. The leaders of the Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadets) included the jurist M. Vinawer; among the Socialist Revolutionaries there was O. Minor, who was elected mayor of Moscow, and I. N. Steinberg, who later became commissar for justice in the first Soviet government headed by Lenin; other leaders included: among the Mensheviks, J. Martov, and F. I. Dan; and among the Bolsheviks, L. Trotsky, Y. M. Sverdlov, L. B. Kamenev, and G. Zinoviev. Many Jews led the revolutionaries in the provinces, which were poor in intellectual forces. Despite their numbers in the general revolutionary movement, these revolutionaries were only a minute section of the vast numbers of Russian Jews who remained attached to their national and religious culture and society. This adhesion was expressed by the tremendous progress made by the Zionist movement in 1917. In May 1917 the seventh conference of the Zionists of Russia, representing 140,000 members, was held in Petrograd. Youth groups under the name of He-Halutz, who prepared themselves to settle in Erez Israel, were formed in many towns and townlets. The Zionists also promoted an intensive cultural activity. The Hovevei Sefat Ever ("Lovers of the Hebrew Language") society founded under the czarist regime, became the Tarbut society. In Moscow a Hebrew daily, Ha-Am, was published and Hebrew publishing houses financed by the wealthy arts patrons Stybel (Stybel Publishing) and Zlatopolsky-Persitz (Omanut Publishing) were established. Training colleges for teachers and kindergarten teachers were founded, as well as elementary and secondary schools. The first steps were taken for the establishment of a Hebrew theater, Habimah. In all the elections which were held during that year by the general and Jewish institutions, the Zionists and related groups headed the Jewish lists, leaving the Bund and other Jewish parties far behind.

In November 1917 information on the Balfour Declaration reached Russia and it was acclaimed with immense enthusiasm by the Jews throughout the country. Largescale Zionist demonstrations and meetings were held in Odessa, Kiev, Moscow, and other communities. All the Jewish parties united in joint activity to prepare the "All-Russian Jewish Convention" which was to establish a political-cultural autonomous organization and central representation of all the Jews in Russia. A powerful national awakening was manifested among the hundreds of thousands of Jewish soldiers who served in the Russian army. Thousands of them enrolled in the military colleges and obtained officers' rank. At meetings and conventions of soldiers, debates were held on the establishment of a "Union of Jewish Soldiers," one of whose principal objectives would be the organization of self-defense on a military basis, to prevent and suppress pogroms. This union was headed by Joseph Trumpeldor. Indeed, as the Provisional Government weakened and anarchy became widespread, anti-Semitism lifted up its head, and here and there pogroms characterized by looting and assaults on Jews were perpetrated by undisciplined soldiers and mobs. The necessity for an organization which could stand in the breach was felt.

The Jews of the Ukraine, where in 1917 about 60% of all the Jews living under Russian rule were to be found, faced in the summer of this year the tendency toward separatism that began to manifest itself there. A Central Ukrainian Council (Rada) was formed which at first demanded autonomy for the Ukraine and later (in January 1918) complete independence. The Jewish masses in the Ukraine did not regard Ukrainian separatism with favor. They felt no affinity to Ukrainian culture and retained in mind the tradition of hatred toward the Jews and the massacres of the 17th century (Chmielnicki) and the 18th (the Uman massacre) by Ukrainians. The Jews there regarded themselves as an integral part of Russian Jewry. The Jewish parties, Zionist and socialist, were however inclined to collaborate with the Ukrainians, both because of the doctrinal principle of supporting non-Russian nationalism and out of political considerations. The Ukrainians on their side were most anxious to acquire the support of the large Jewish minority which lived with them. Extensive internal national autonomy was promised to the Jews. A National Jewish Council was established, and at the end of 1917 an undersecretary for Jewish affairs (M. Silberfarb) was appointed in the Provisional Government of the Ukraine. He became minister after the proclamation of Ukrainian independence.