Faith and Fate - The Dawn of the Century (1900 - 1910)
This episode introduces the uniqueness of Jewish history in the 20th century within the context of world history. At the turn of the 20th century, Jews were scattered across the globe, representing only ¼ of one percent of the world population. It was a time of empires, imperial rule and colonial expansionism. In Russia the masses, including the Jews, lived in dire poverty which was compounded by grassroots antisemitism. In 1905 the Russian masses revolted and there was a general strike. On Bloody Sunday the Czar responded with force. The Czar did not abdicate until 1917, which is typically the date given for the second Russian Revolution, which, in turn, led to increased pogroms against the Jews. The pogroms and the economic conditions forced approximately 40% of Jewish population to leave the Russian Empire and go to Western countries including the United States and to Palestine and other countries as far away as South Africa and Australia.
Emigration and the Enlightenment presented Jews with the dilemma and opportunity to maintain or reject their traditional Jewish upbringing, and many decided to forgo their traditional Judaism and blend in with their larger non-Jewish society. Within the traditional Jewish world, change was occurring as well, with the rise and acceptance of the Mussar Movement, an ethical approach to Judaism. Because Jews were not allowed into institutions of higher education in Eastern Europe, most of them went to study in yeshivas to sharpen their intellect. The traditional yeshiva, unintentionally, became a breeding ground for all philosophies, Jewish and secular alike. Zionism grew as a national movement, and was led by secular Jews antithetical to traditional Judaism. While most rabbis rejected Zionism and its leaders, because of their nontraditional beliefs, a minority of rabbis developed religious Zionism, which combined traditional Judaism with Zionist philosophy. The Old Yishuv Jews, who had settled in Palestine in the late 1800s, were committed to traditional Judaism and rejected secular, nationalistic ideas of the New Yishuv Zionists.
The Sephardic Jews living in Moslem and Arab countries at the turn of the 20th Century maintained their own rich Jewish traditions and heritage, which often differed from those of the Ashkenazim. There was relative peace within the Jewish community and among the leadership in these Arab and Moslem countries, and although life was sometimes difficult, these Sephardic Jews did not experience, by and large, pogroms or the influences of the Enlightenment or Reform Judaism.
In Europe, Jews were the leaders of the Labor and Socialist movements and spearheaded the establishment of labor unions in America. The challenge of assimilation in the United States was the greatest difficulty confronting Jewish immigrants. Attempts were made to stem the tide. Reform Judaism became a symbol of acceptance into modern American society and Dr. Solomon Schechter initiated the Universal Synagogue movement which became Conservative Judaism. Also Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewish immigrants had to find their respective places within the Jewish community and in their new host country, the United States, as well. A small, strong group of American Jewish immigrants managed to cling to their Jewish traditions and adapt themselves to the new reality in America. Meanwhile, for Jews around the world, with the threat of WWI looming, the imperial race for supremacy was escalating.