It might be surprising to learn that the first Jewish “state” was not Israel. It might be more surprising to find out that the first attempt to create an autonomous Jewish region occurred in the Soviet Union, which also went to great lengths to suppress Judaism. The region, which still exists today, although the Jewish community there is quite small, is known as the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. It’s capital is the city of Birobidzhan.

The idea of a “state” for the Jewish people originated with Lenin, who felt that the Jews might assimilate better if they felt like all other nations, and all other Soviet nationalities had their own autonomous regions. These “republics,” as they were known, allowed their nationalities to use their own language and organize their own organizations. In the case of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, the language was Yiddish, which was to be taught in the schools there as well as used for publications.

The land dedicated for the Jewish Autonomous Oblast was in southern Siberia. It was hoped that the plan would encourage population resettlement and thus strengthen the border in the area. It being part of Siberia, the climate and land conditions were less than hospitable.

As the program went into effect around 1928, the government (now lead by Stalin) made an active campaign to promote Jewish migration to Birobidzhan. They dropped pamphlets, published novels and even produced a Yiddish film called Seekers of Happiness. And tens of thousands of Jews did respond. Some American Jewish Communists even came. For a while things even looked hopeful. They managed a Yiddish theater, newspapers and Yiddish was taught in school. However, the actual living conditions and lack of economic and social support were discouraging and a large majority left.

While Stalin had initially supported the plan, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast was greatly affected by his murderous purges of the 1940s. It never recovered, and, today, fewer than 1,000 Jews are believed to live in the area even as it retains its Soviet-era Jewish designation.

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