The major cause of emigration from Tzarist Russia (which included modern day Lithuania) in the late 1880s were the notorious May Laws of 1882. The following is a description of the background to the May Laws and their impact on the Jewish population
The year 1881 was a turning point in the history of the Jews of Russia. In March 1881 revolutionaries assassinated Alexander II. Confusion reigned throughout the country. The revolutionaries called on the people to rebel. The regime was compelled to protect itself, and the Russian government found a scapegoat: the Jews.
Government-organized anti-Jewish riots (pogroms) broke out in a number of towns and shtetls (townlets) of southern Russia. These disorders consisted of looting, murder and rape. Similar pogroms were repeated in 1882, 1883, and 1884.
The government's intellectuals' indifference and, at times, encouragement to the rioters shocked many Jews, especially the maskilim among them. Revolutionary circles which hoped to transform these disorders into a revolt against the landowners and government also supported the rioters.
The new czar, Alexander III and his cabinet underlined these trends in their policy toward the Jews. Provincial commissions were appointed in the wake of the pogroms to investigate their causes. In the main these commissions stated that "Jewish exploitation" and Alexander II's liberal policies toward the Jews had caused the pogroms.
Based on this finding, the "Temporary Laws" were published on May 3, 1882. They were called the May Laws.
The May Laws stated:
1. Jews were forbidden to settle outside the towns and shtetls (townlets);
2. Deeds of sale and lease of real estate in the name of Jews outside the towns and shtetls were canceled; and
3.Jews were prohibited from trading on Sundays and Christian holidays.
The May Laws cancelled all of the exemptions which Alexander II had enacted. It limited Jewish college students to 10%. It encouraged the police to brutally enforce the new rules. Jews were systematically expelled from towns and villages where they had lived for almost a century.
Although the pogroms were stopped, the threat of riots was kept alive by a virulently anti-Semitic press.K. Pobedonostsev, the head of the governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church, formulated the objectives of Alexander III's government when he expressed the hope that "one-third of the Jews will convert, one-third will die, and one- third will flee the country."
At least part of his "dream" came to fruition. Disillusioned students left the country. Large numbers of homeless Jews left the country. From 1881 to 1914 more than 2,000,000 Jews left Russia. One small group, the Bilu, went to Palestine. The vast majority fled to the United States, England, Ireland and South Africa. Indeed almost all Irish and South African Jews can trace their roots back to the same small area of Norther Lithuania in the 1880s
Those who stayed remained primarily in small shtetls, the world of "Fiddler on the Roof." At the same time, angry Jewish youth organized and joined secret revolutionary organizations. Others dreamed about a Jewish homeland. Encouraged by the writings of Leon Pinkser and his Chibbat Zion Movement, they joined Zionist groups and planned for their eventual move to Israel.
The May Laws and their aftermath did not succeed in the way that Alexander III and Pobedonostsev hoped. True, almost one third of the Jewish population did leave. But the remaining two- thirds became a powerful influence against Czarist Russia.
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