Russian Town Birobidzhan Is An Alternative To Jewish Settlements In Palestine – OpEd


By Jonathan Power*

The Israeli government allows its settler movement to go on and on claiming more of the West Bank. Is there nothing that can be done? The might of America, combined with the influence of the European Union and the Arab world, have not been able to halt the territorial growth of Israel.

Most American Jews, according to polls, don’t like what is happening but are seemingly helpless before the shrewd lobbying of long-time pressure groups which have built up over decades a disproportionate influence on Congress. They make sure that the large US aid program to Israel continues. It liberates funds for Israel to build roads and defences for the settlers pushing deep into Palestinian territory, as well as giving Israel massive amounts of sophisticated arms.

Yet even if the aid were withdrawn, even if the US stopped vetoing UN resolutions that criticize Israel, nothing is likely to change. Israel has the upper hand and will ruthlessly make sure it always has—witness its threats to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites.

Israeli leaders should realize that before long at present rates of population growth the number of Arabs in the area under Israeli control will outnumber the Jews. Since it won’t give them the vote (except to those already resident inside Israel’s present-day boundaries) it will become a de facto apartheid state just as South Africa was, subject to the likelihood of ever-increasing violence and deaths from within—to the point when Israel is pushed into retreat and some strong Palestinian leader is elected who will wrest by force what the Palestinians ask for.

Could all this be avoided? There were alternative places for the Jews to create their own state—some in the Jewish leadership in the early years of the last century thought Uganda and Argentina were possibilities. At that time, before polls admittedly, one could say that a majority of Jews would have preferred one of those, rather than displacing Arabs. Unlike the Zionists they were not beholden to the idea of “the land of milk and honey” only being on Arab land.

By and large, until the Holocaust, most Jews didn’t believe it was their Biblical destiny to settle in Palestine and for the more thoughtful ones, who read the ancient texts with an open mind, the original push by Moses, leading the Jewish people out of bondage in Egypt, was not a history they felt obliged to repeat. After all, Moses had made his way clear to “the promised land” by genocide. “The Lord spoke unto Moses, saying ‘Vex the Midianites [a tribe that controlled Arabia] and smite them’”. Armed with this admonishment, Moses, who had led his people into battle against one tribe after another that stood in their way, not only ordered all the men to be killed but also all the women and their male children. (This is recorded in the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers or, to give it its Jewish name, “In the Wilderness”.)

The story about alternative settlement in Uganda and Argentina is well known. Less known is the creation by the Soviet Union’s Politburo in 1928 of a Jewish autonomous region in the Far East, Birobidzhan, near the border with China. Many Russian Jews moved to live there, although there was no compulsion to do so. Some settlers came to its city and villages from outside Russia, from the US, Poland, Lithuania and Germany. The Soviet government had a slogan: “To the Jewish homeland”.

After World War 2 tens of thousands of eastern European and displaced Jews settled in Birobidzhan. The town was designed by the well-known Swiss architect of the Bauhaus school, Hannes Meyer. He and others called it the “Far East Zion”. Even so, by 2002 its Jewish population was down to 2,300. Moscow did not give it the resources to survive, the land was poor and the weather torrid, (although not unlike Israel’s). Today the autonomous region’s population is a mere 75,000.

However, Jews are trickling back, a few hundred coming from Israel. President Vladimir Putin has consistently spoken out against anti-Semitism. He is very different from his predecessors. Old time Soviet leaders, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, disparaged the settlers. Stalin persecuted the Jews. Nevertheless, Russia since 1948 has long kept close ties with Israel. These days under pro-Jewish Putin it might welcome the intellectual prowess of Israeli Jewish settlers.

In the early 1970s, Birobizshan set out on what will be a long road of economic and social development in an attempt to reverse the downward slide. The capital now has 14 public schools that must teach Yiddish and Jewish tradition, as does the university. In 2004 a new synagogue opened next to a complex housing a Sunday school classroom, library and museum.  The university has a basic course in Hebrew language, history and classics. Several state-run schools teach Yiddish and Jewish tradition. One school has a half Yiddish/half Russian curriculum.

There are social groups for the elderly that teach Jewish rituals. There is a Yiddish radio station and theatre. In the central square, there is a memorial to Sholom Aleichman whose stories of life in Russian villages in Birobidzhan formed the basis for the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”. Jews are now 5% of its population.

The notion of an almost exclusive Jewish Israel dominating Palestine and its own Arabs forever is becoming an impossibility. Who knows, as that reality sinks into Israel consciousness, some Jews might look at Birobidzhan with a fresh eye? Israel’s population is 20% Russian-born. Many of them are homesick. Many like starting something from nothing. They should take a look at Birobidzhan. It is well-placed as a stop on the Trans-Siberian railroad, boasting an impressive station, and the nearby Russian city, Vladivostok, at the end of the line, is thriving with a growth rate three times the Russian average. So is adjacent northern China. The 2,200-metre bridge across the Amur rover linking the city with China opened last year. Birobidzhan will become a major trading post between Russia and China, a good place to build a new Silicon Valley.

Birobidzhan could provide an alternative to more Jewish settlers on Arab territory. The stage is partly set. It needs the players. The US and EU could partly fund the transition. It would help Israel avoid becoming a disastrous, self-defeating, apartheid state which its policy of encouraging and increasing the present settler movement seems to be leading to.

* About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: 


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