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For nearly two thousand years Judaism was a pacifist, or at least passive religion. I should perhaps say Judaism in Europe and the Middle East since there is the case of the 'Beta Israeli' Jews in Ethiopia and also the Himyarite Kingdom in Yemen. But Judaism as we know it in our own history refused in principle to respond, even to the worst oppression, with violence. They regarded themselves as a people with a special relationship to God - a 'Godbearing people', to use a phrase well-known to Orthodox Christianity - but who had displeased God and were living lives of penitence. When they were persecuted it was because they had displeased God further and the proper response was deeper penitence. Surrounded by people who, despite, in the case of Christians, the injunctions of Jesus ('I say unto you that ye resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also'), regarded military prowess as one of the highest signs of manhood, their passivity in the face of ill-treatment was regarded with contempt.

This of course is not the image of Jews we have at the present time. Something has changed and I suppose if you were to ask most people what brought about the change they would answer 'the Shoah' - the Nazi occupation of Europe which enabled them, under cover of war, to pursue a policy of destroying the Jewish presence in Europe, either by expelling them to some far-off part of Russia or, when that proved impossible, by killing them.

I'm going to suggest, however, that the psychological change within the Jewish community that rendered their present policy in Israel possible, occurred earlier, that it was already well-developed by the end of the nineteenth century and that one of the main places in which it occurred was what was called the 'Pale of Settlement' - the area of modern-day Moldova, Belarus, the Baltic States and, most importantly, Ukraine.

The Jews had been expelled from Russia proper (called at the time 'Great Russia') in the sixteenth century (they had been expelled from England in the thirteenth century and only allowed back under Cromwell in the seventeenth century) but they had been welcomed, and enjoyed a quite privileged position, in Poland. According to the account by the French Jewish historian Léon Poliakov: 

'In a country with a rudimentary economy, whose population consisted only of nobles and serfs, the Jews soon gained a dominant role in all activities connected to the circulation of goods and money … they formed a whole social class - that urban middle class that had taken so long to form in Poland'. In those circumstances 'the Jews in Poland enjoyed a very high degree of autonomy … They more or less administered themselves … At the local level there was the community, or "kahal". At the national level the "Council of the Four Lands" …' (1)

(1)  Léon Poliakov: Histoire de l'antisémitisme. t.1. L'âge de la foi, Calmann-Lévy, 1981, pp.388-394.

German laws relating to the Jews consisted of simple diktats imposed on them. In Poland they were contracts drawn up between the Polish aristocracy and the Jews as a collective body. (2) Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that Poland became a place of refuge for Jews and ended up hosting the largest Jewish population in Europe. But this Polish idyll came to an end in the seventeenth century with a series of Cossack uprisings culminating in the Khmelnitsky rising of 1648.

(2)  François Guesnet: 'Agreements between neighbours. The 'ugody' as a source on Jewish-Christian relations in early modern Poland,' Jewish History, Vol 24, No 3/4, 2010, p.263.