This short course looks at Jewish history in the context of two multinational empires: the Russian and the Habsburg. Both of these states must be understood as fundamentally pre-modern, non-national (even anti-national) political structures, a fact that is crucial for understanding Jewish history here. In the mid-19th century, the great majority of world Jewry made its home in this region and even at the end of the First World War, after the great wave of emigration to the Americas, western Europe, Erets Israel / Palestine, and South Africa, the Jewish presence here was considerable. In 1918 even antisemites could hardly imagine a Warsaw, Wilno, Lwów, Odesa (etc.) without Jews.
During our week together, we will examine a number of crucial topics in Jewish history, all of which were affected by the surrounding politics, populations, and economy of this territory. Our approach will attempt to integrate Jewish history into larger trends and transformations of this period. In European history, Jews provide an unusual (though not absolutely unique) example of a ethno-cultural group that to a great extent retained its cultural separateness into the twentieth century. As we will see, however, even in the shtetlekh of the Pale of Settlement and Galicia, Jews were affected by economic, political, and cultural transformations coming from Paris, Berlin, London, even New York. Some of our readings and discussions will look into these influences across the European continent and beyond, e.g., relations between Jews and the states, tensions between tradition and “modernity” (however defined!) in the Jewish community, the creation of modern Jewish politics, Jews as urban dwellers, and the rise of modern antisemitism (as opposed to traditional Christian prejudice against Jews).