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Jews in the Crimean War

Lawrence Bush
March 29, 2017

The three-year Crimean War, pitting the Russian Empire against France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia, ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on this date in 1856. For the Jews of Russia, the world’s largest Jewish population, the war had brought about the quadrupling of the quota for Jewish recruits required by the military: 30 out of every 1,000. According to Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern at the YIVO Encyclopedia of Eastern Europe, “All recruits, including Jews, had to serve 25 years in the army, and, if they married, their offspring, as children of Russian soldiers, became the patrimony of the military and were destined to attend schools for soldiers’ children ... Jews were required to provide conscripts between the ages of 12 and 25, whereas for others the conscripts were between 18 and 35.... [Jewish] communal elders first interceded with the military authorities and the tsar to make sure that the privilege for Jewish soldiers to practice Judaism was enforced, especially for minors. Second, they did their best to include ‘non-useful Jews’ in the draft lists so that the heads of tax-paying middle-class families were predominantly exempt from conscription, whereas single Jews, as well as heretics . . . beggars, outcasts, and orphaned children were drafted. Third, they used their power to suppress protests and intimidate potential informers who sought to expose the arbitrariness of the kahal [the Jewish communal authorities] to the Russian government.” Jewish authorities also used khapers, paid kidnappers, to fill their quota.

“[D]espite widespread forced conscription, Jews fought valiantly for Russia and hundreds were killed; and the memory of Jewish sacrifice was preserved both by assimilationists proud of Russian Jewish patriotism and by Zionists who aimed to revive Jewish militancy in the process of nation-building.” --David Aberbach, The European Jews, Patriotism and the Liberal State, 1789-1939

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.