The furore over the Israel-Hamas war has reached all the way to Birobidzhan in Russia’s Far East, the world’s only autonomous Jewish territory outside Israel, after a local newspaper published its support for the Palestinian cause. FRANCE 24 examines the history of this remote region – which in many ways is “Jewish” and “autonomous” in name only – and how it came to be.
In Russia’s little-known region of Birobidzhan last week, the local newspaper Nabat posted an online banner that read, “No to the aggression of the Israeli military against the Gaza Strip! Freedom to the people of Palestine!”
The reaction was swift and menacing.
“Remove this banner immediately or we – who were born in Birobidzhan – will make you pay,” one comment threatened. “Several ex-members of the Israeli special forces will come with me to show you what the Israeli army is capable of,” read another.
‘The first home conceived for the Jewish people’
“What surprised me was that these messages were full of hatred and not at all constructive,” says Vladimir Sakharovski, Nabat’s editor-in-chief and a member of the regional Duma (legislature).
Sakharovski wants to make it clear that neither he nor his paper supports Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that launched the October 7 attack on Israeli soil, killing at least 1,400 people and kidnapping hundreds of others. His newspaper “does not support terrorist acts and what happened on October 7”, he says, instead insisting that he is merely echoing the position of Russian President Vladimir Putin, “who has maintained that we must think of the people first”.
As a Socialist publication, Sakharovski says, “we must support civilians first and foremost”.
But many felt that publishing a banner showing someone wearing a traditional Palestinian keffiyeh headscarf, brandishing the Palestinian flag and doing the “V” sign for victory was inappropriate for one of the main (and few) newspapers in Birobidzhan, also known as the Jewish Autonomous Oblast.
For some, the autonomous region is a failure and a historical absurdity. It has even been characterised as a “Jewish Disneyland“, with only a small percentage of the world’s Jewish population living there. But for others it remains an important part of Jewish history.
It was “the first home conceived for the Jewish people, well before the creation of Israel”, says Alessandro Vitale, a Russian history specialist at the University of Milan who has written about Birobidzhan and visited it on several occasions.
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin established the province in 1928. Known as the “Little Father of the Peoples” due to his diminutive stature, Stalin wanted to realise Lenin’s plan to create autonomous socialist nations for the ethnic minorities within the Soviet Union, says Jeff Hawn, a Russia specialist and consultant for the New Lines Institute, a US geopolitical research centre.
But Stalin had another idea in mind when he proposed that Soviet Jews move to this province, which is slightly smaller than the Netherlands. He wanted to establish a Russian presence in this remote area because he was afraid that the Chinese, Koreans or even “White Russians” (Russians with tsarist or anti-Soviet sympathies in the period following the 1917 Russian Revolution) would try to take it over, explains Stephen Hall, a specialist in Russian politics at the University of Bath.
Furthermore, this settlement policy resolved the “problem of the Jews” who – in the eyes of some Soviet leaders including Stalin – were suspected of not being loyal enough to the new Communist regime, Hall says.
Birobidzhan was seen as an alternative to the Zionist plan of resettling them in Palestinian territories and therefore a win-win solution – except for the Jews. In fact, Hawn says the idea was to turn Birobidzhan into an agricultural province, but the Jews who went there often had no farming experience and the land in the region was not really suitable for growing crops.
Albert Einstein, honorary president
Parts of the Jewish world were enthusiastic about this “Siberian Zion” project. US associations such as the American Birobidzhan Committee – of which Albert Einstein was the honorary president – “made significant financial contributions to the establishment of this region”, Vitale wrote in one of his articles on the history of the province.
Just after World War II, Birobidzhan seemed to be a haven of peace for European Jews. Hall says it is estimated that in 1948, the Jewish population reached its peak and represented nearly 25% of the region’s inhabitants, alongside Orthodox Russians, Chinese and Koreans.
But the end of Stalin’s reign, marked by virulent anti-Semitism, signalled the beginning of the decline of the Jewish presence in Birobidzhan. A number of the province’s inhabitants were victims of the purge organised against the “White Coats” conspiracy, an affair fabricated by Stalinist propaganda in 1952 accusing doctors, almost all of them Jewish, of attempting to assassinate Soviet officials. Stalin subsequently declared that every Zionist was an “agent” of US intelligence services.
It was a traumatic experience for Soviet Jews, many of whom decided to leave the USSR instead of settling in one of the country’s most remote regions.
And the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 only accelerated this movement. “Many Jews from the region made aliyah [emigrated to Israel] in the 1990s,” says Sakharovski.
An even smaller minority group
Some experts – including Hawn and Sakharovski – believe that Jews now make up just 0.5 or 0.7% of the region’s 170,000 inhabitants while the more optimistic ones, such as Vitale, estimate that up to 2% of the population still claim Jewish heritage. What’s more, there is only one synagogue in the region.
All agree that this region is Jewish and autonomous in name only. What sets the Birobidzhan region apart, according to Hawn, is that there are two official languages, Russian and Yiddish.
That’s both a little and a lot. “The Jewish autonomous region in Russia remains the world’s leading centre for the preservation and promotion of Yiddish culture,” says Vitale. There are Yiddish libraries, street names are still written in Yiddish and, at school, “children, whether Jewish or not, have lessons on the history of Yiddish”, he wrote. One of the last remaining Yiddish daily newspapers, the Birobidzhaner Shtern, was founded there in 1930.
Another unique feature is the peaceful coexistence between the various ethnic groups and religions that live there, particularly between Jews and Muslims, who have been settling there in increasing numbers since 2008, says Vitale.
This peaceful coexistence is now in danger of being undermined by the current upsurge in violence in the Middle East, he says.
Not all Jewish people in Birobidzhan unconditionally support Israel. The province has a complicated relationship with Israel as it is traditionally anti-Zionist, according to Sakharovski. Moreover, the Jewish state has always regarded the province with suspicion, as if it were a competitor, Vitale says.
The war between Israel and Hamas has rekindled some of the old resentments. In its latest editorial on the conflict, Nabat says those who criticised its stance are the same people who “swapped the dreams of the Far East for those of the Middle East in their search for paradise”.
“Most of the hate messages we receive are from Jews who live in Israel but come from here,” says Sakharovski, adding that they gave up their right to criticise Birobidzhan when they decided to leave.
This article is a translation of the original in French.
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