1929: Map­ping the Jew­ish World

Hasia R. Din­er and Gen­nady Estraikh, eds.
  • Review
By – December 10, 2013

In seek­ing to estab­lish 1929 as a water­shed in mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry, the con­trib­u­tors to this vol­ume explore impor­tant polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and cul­tur­al devel­op­ments in Europe and the U.S. through a transna­tion­al lens. The events of 1929 had tumul­tuous and trag­ic con­se­quences but the pre­ced­ing years were in many ways remark­ably opti­mistic. The authors make a strong case that key insights into mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry can be gleaned by study­ing the interconnected­ness of Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties around the globe in the 1920s and ear­ly 1930s. 

If 1929 fea­tures here as a date of unusu­al sig­nif­i­cance to Jew­ish his­to­ry, it is part­ly as a con­se­quence of the dis­rup­tion brought about by the First World War. In the U.S., inter­war iso­la­tion­ism and xeno­pho­bia led to immi­gra­tion restric­tions in 1921, 1924, and 1929 that near­ly halt­ed Jew­ish immi­gra­tion; the coun­try that had been the des­ti­na­tion for over two mil­lion Euro­pean Jews between the 1880s and 1914 closed its doors. Con­tacts between the U.S. and Europe did not cease, how­ev­er, and uncer­tain polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic con­di­tions in inter­war Europe made east Euro­pean Jews ever more reliant on aid from Ameri­can core­li­gion­ists. Amer­i­can Jews donat­ed and dis­trib­uted an astonish­ing $100 mil­lion between 1914 and 1929. The scale of the phil­an­thropic efforts was vast and nec­es­sar­i­ly involved close con­tacts; indeed, many con­trib­u­tors had only recent­ly immi­grat­ed to the U.S. from Europe. Fur­ther east, the young Sovi­et state tran­si­tioned from rev­o­lu­tion and war to a peri­od of rel­a­tive open­ness in the 1920s. Many Sovi­et Jews took part in the state’s agri­cul­tur­al col­o­niza­tion projects intend­ed to nor­mal­ize” Jews social­ly by trans­form­ing them into farm­ers. Enthusi­astic Amer­i­can sup­port­ers sent mon­ey and even a sci­en­tif­ic com­mis­sion to test the suit­abil­i­ty of the Sovi­et Far East for Jew­ish colonization. 

To under­stand 1929 as a turn­ing point, the authors point to develop­ments includ­ing the stock mar­ket crash in the U.S., the onset of Stal­in­ist autoc­ra­cy in the Sovi­et Union, and the increas­ing ten­den­cy of Zion­ists and phil­an­thropists to for­sake the mech­a­nisms of inter­na­tion­al law and diplo­ma­cy in favor of advo­cat­ing a sov­er­eign Jew­ish state. 1929 cer­tain­ly end­ed with dras­ti­cal­ly reduced oppor­tu­ni­ties for polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic maneu­ver. Was the opti­mism of the 1920s mis­placed or mere­ly unful­filled? The con­trib­u­tors to this vol­ume fruit­ful­ly exam­ine the sig­nif­i­cance of 1929 and pro­vide many avenues for fur­ther exploration.

Relat­ed content:

  • Essays on World Jew­ry
  • Sto­ries from the Great War read­ing list
  • David Gold­er, the Ball, Snow in Autumn, the Courilof Affair by Irene Nemirovsky
  • Christo­pher Barthel is an ACLS Pub­lic Fel­low at the Cen­ter for Jew­ish His­to­ry. He holds a Ph.D. in mod­ern Ger­man his­to­ry from Brown University.

    Discussion Questions