Baron Hirsch’s Jewish Farmers Dream

Where did it come from?

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, White House Historical Association

Dreams of turning Jewish tradesmen into farmers date back to the mid-eighteenth century and feature some strange bedfellows. Besides Baron Hirsch, these utopian efforts involved Polish patriots, Russian Czars, German Mennonites, and of course, the Zionists. Like Thomas Jefferson, these Europeans and many other eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century thinkers believed that “cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens . . , the most vigorous. . . [and] the most virtuous.”1

The idea of turning Jews into farmers to make them vigorous and virtuous was first proposed In Eastern Europe in the mid-eighteenth century when Austria, Germany, and Russia were trying to gobble up Poland. To ward off this national decapitation the Polish government sought to strengthen Polish society.  One concern was the large number of non-assimilated Jews who had settled in Poland since the 12th Century because of the relatively liberal environment that allowed them to prosper and practice their religion. Many of the Jews worked for the nobles, managing estates and selling crops.   

By the late 18th century, half of the world’s Jews, about 1.5 million, lived in Poland. The Polish bourgeoisie considered this large community of Jews to be unwelcome competitors and the general populous put the Jews in the same basket as the nobles, resenting both.  Polish leaders saw these conflicts as one more cause for the weakness of the country. They thought that if Jews would become farmers they would be like everyone else and the conflicts would cease. Plans were drawn up but were never implemented.  And Austria, Germany, and Russia did gobble up Poland. 

The areas of Poland annexed by Russia are shown in mauve, lilac, and gray.

The majority of the Polish Jews, approximately 1 million, lived in the areas of Eastern Poland that were annexed by Russia between 1772 and 1795. (Listen to a discussion on how this annexation affected these Polish Jews.)

 So when Czar Alexander I rose to the throne in 1801 he faced a dual dilemma. First, how could he populate New Russia and Crimea in southern Russia, lands recently conquered from the Ottomans following the Russo-Turkish Wars? In addition, how could the Czar integrate the one million Jews who had recently come under Russian rule through these partitions of Poland

Jewish Farmers in Russia

Map of some of the Jewish agricultural colonies in southern Russia. Credit: Yaakov Pasik, Rutgers University: Russian Empire, USSR & Bessarabia, Jewish Agriculturalism in the Garden State.

Believing that the wealth of nations depended on agriculture and agreeing with the Polish leaders that as farmers Jews would be less “parasitical”.2 Czar Alexander I passed a law in 1804 allowing Jews to purchase land. Then he settled tens of thousands of these Jews in thirty-eight agricultural colonies in the southern Russian provinces of Kherson y Yekaterinoslav.3

When the crops did not totally fulfill their promise, the Russian government enlisted Mennonite farmers in the “convert the Jews into farmers movement.”  German Mennonites had been settling in Russia since the eighteenth century, when their compatriot, Czarina Catherine the Great, offered them religious freedom and financial incentives. By 1911, 104,000 Mennonites were farming on their own lands in southern Russia. In the mid-19th Century, the Russian government paid Mennonites to live as “model farmers” in the Jewish agricultural colonies and to teach in their schools. 4.  

Some of the original Jewish agricultural colonies in southern Russia with dates of founding. See lists of many more aquí.5

Though not always successful, by 1900, close to 100,000 Jews Including the father of Lev Bronstein, better known as Leon Trotsky, were living in 170 farming communities and those living in “twenty-two colonies had achieved standards of living equal to or better than those of their non-Jewish neighbors”.  Many believe that these colonies inspired the Kibbutz movement in Palestine.

The assassination of Czar Alexander II, March 1881, Winter Palace, St. Petersburg

In later years Russian laws changed, and Jews could no longer buy land. 6.  Some restraints on land purchases were issued in the 1860s but in 1882, following the assassination of the liberal serf-freeing Czar Alexander II, a crime blamed on the Jews, the Russian government passed laws that severely curtailed the rights of Jews to purchase land. They also severely affected all Jewish economic activities and educational opportunities.   

A concert, organized in Boston in 1882, to assist Jewish refugees from Czarist Russia, Smithsonian National Museum of American History

And that is when the Russian Jews started looking for a way out and educated and wealthy Western European and American Jews tried to help them. These educated and assimilated Jews were very concerned that the spotlight on the poor backward Russian Jews, especially if these Russians flooded Western Europe and the United States, would threaten the status of those that had followed Moses Mendelssohn and others into the higher ranks of Western society. This fear underlined all of their philanthropic efforts because “what was at stake for them was nothing less than the collective reputation of the Jews.” 7

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Baron Hirsch Seeks to Create More Jewish Farmers

An 1898 poster for the railroad that made the fortune that established Jewish farmers throughout the Americas. By Gewis B. – Poster-auctioneer, Public Domain

A principal Western European benefactor of the Russian Jews was Baron Maurice de Hirsch who was also a strong proponent of the “turn the outcast Jew into a productive citizen through farming effort”. 8 Hirsch was a German-born Belgian financier who had made the bulk of his fortune building the Vienna- Constantinople railroad.

Baron Hirsch, saw agriculture as the solution for the Jews not only in Russia but in Romania and Galicia as well. He had an almost “compulsive feeling” that Jews should become farmers, that agriculture was the road away from misery.9 If Jews were farmers, they would be like everyone else and anti-semitism would dissolve.

 

The Biblical Ruth in Boaz’s fields, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1828 National Gallery, London, Public Domain

Hirsch strongly countered arguments that  Russian and other Eastern European Jews weren’t fit for farming. He knew that the relative success of the Jewish farming colonies in Russia had not overcome what Hirsch called the “typical reproach,” that Jews were not suited for farming. So he asked that doubters look at history. He reminded them that in Christ’s time the Jews were the farmers, while commerce was conducted by “Phoenicians, Greeks and [other] Mediterranean peoples”. 10

At first Baron Hirsch hoped to realize this transformation “in-place” within Russia itself. He offered the Russian government fifty million francs (approximately $US 245 million in today’s dollars) to allow him to educate the Jews through “the establishment of elementary and agricultural schools.” 

But despite spending today’s equivalent of $US 5 million in bribes, the Baron’s negotiations with the Russian government did not succeed, which “ . . . convinced [him] that emigration was the only solution for the Russian Jews”. 11. (Note, one of the reasons the Russian turned down the Baron’s offer to finance a network of schools was because he insisted that the schools be attended by both Jewish and Christian students. Hirsch, it seems wanted to “encourage the ‘fusion’ of the Russian Jews with their fellow citizens. “; the Russian government didn’t. ) 12.

From the Tip of South America to the Shores of Hudson Bay

Hirsch Enables Jewish Farming

Postage stamp commemorating Baron Hirsch’s first colony in the Americas, Moises Ville in Argentina

At about the same time, in 1889, Baron Hirsch learned by chance of 500 Russian Jewish immigrants existing only on crackers and housed in railroad wagons in rural Argentina. The land they had been promised previous to emigration was not available upon their arrival. 13.  The Baron stepped in to set them up as farmers.

Seeing an actualization of his dream for Russian Jews inspired Hirsch to dedicate significant resources to settling more impoverished Jews in the New World. He decided “to stake my wealth and intellectual powers . . . to give a portion of my companions in faith the possibility of finding a new existence, primarily as farmers and also as handicraftsmen, in those lands where the laws and religious tolerance permit them to carry on the struggle for existence”. 14

Baron Maurice de Hirsch

In 1891, as a memorial to his only son, Baron Hirsch formed the Jewish Colonization Agency (JCA) with a working capital of two million pounds sterling (the equivalent of $US 250 million in today’s dollars) “to assist and promote the emigration of Jews from any part of Europe or Asia . . and to form and establish colonies in various parts of North and South America . . . ”. 15 The following year the Baron gave the JCA an even larger donation of 7.2 million pounds sterling, the equivalent of $US 1.2 billion today,16 making the JCA at that time ” the largest charitable organization in the world”. 17 The JCA Board consisted of Lord Rothschild and many of the “grand dukes of British and FrenchJewry,”18  but Baron Hirsch contributed 99 percent of the funding. 19  Rothschild was spending most of his money developing Palestine.

At first, the JCA focused on settling Jews in scarcely populated Argentina with its vast low-cost fertile plains. By 1906 there were close to 7,000 settlers living in JCA-supported Argentine farming colonies.

Then the  JCA and its sister organization the Baron de Hirsch Fund carried out settlement plans in Brazil, Canada, and the United States. While I was conducting research on the Hirsch Fund, an old friend pointed out that the chicken farm in Connecticut that I visited each summer while growing up began as a Baron Hirsch project.

Available from the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford. (at the link scroll down to publication. )

The chicken farm was part of a group of Baron Hirsch-supported Jewish farmers in Colchester, Connecticut. The Colchester settlers, like those in Argentina, were successful. In Colchester, the colonists specialized in easily marketable products, chickens, eggs, and milk, that they could sell to nearby metropolitan areas. They also offered inexpensive kosher bed and breakfast inns, as retreats for residents of New York’s Lower East Side and other urban Jewish immigrant neighborhoods.

Other large clusters of Baron Hirsch-supported farmers were to be found in southern New Jersey, the Catskill hills in New York, and the three provinces of the Canadian prairies, Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. Smaller clusters developed in Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming. In all, Baron Hirsch assisted Jewish farmers in 40 states. And the settlements his Jewish Colonization Association supported in South America formed the foundations for the Argentine y Brazilian Jewish communities.

You can read about many of the experiences of these Jewish pioneers throughout the posts on this blog. Enjoy!!

  1. JEFFERSON, Thomas. Letter to John Jay, Aug. 23, 1785, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (DLC) Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters, Thomas Jefferson, Monticello. []
  2. TABUACH, Shimshon (1972). “Agriculture.” In Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jerusalem: Ketter Publishing, pp. 404-415. []
  3. Ibid., p. 407; and KLIER, John D. (1995). Imperial Russia’s Jewish Question, 1855-1881, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 301-302. []
  4. EPP, Jacob D. (2013). A Mennonite in Russia: the diaries of Jacob D. Epp, 1851-1880, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 75-130. Read an overview of the Mennonite-Jewish project in the Introduction to the Epp Diaries on pages 38-46. []
  5. Pasik, Yakov, Jewish Agricultural Colonies of Southern Ukraine and Crimea, Haifa, 2005-2009, p. 5 []
  6. DUBNOW, Semen M. (1920). “From the Accession of Nicholas II to the Present Day.”, in History of the Jews in Russia and Poland from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, vol. 3, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, pp. 24-25.  []
  7. Lehmann, Matthias (2022), THE BARON, Maurice de Hirsch and the Jewish Nineteenth Century, Stanford: Stanford University Press, p. 170. []
  8. HIRSCH, Maurice (1891). “My Views on Philanthropy,” North American Review 153, no. 416 (July 1891), p. 3.  []
  9. NORMAN, Theodore (1985). An outstretched arm: a history of the Jewish Colonization Association, London: Routledge & K. Paul, p. 2. Note – the document is on achive.org which might require that you set up a free account.  []
  10. Hirsch (1891) p. 3 []
  11. Norman, 1985, p. xii. []
  12. Lehmann, Matthias (2022), pp. 185-186. []
  13. ROZENBLUM, Serge-Allain (2006). Le Baron de Hirsch, Un financier au service de l’humanité, Paris: Punctum Editions, p. 216.  []
  14. Hirsch (1891), p. 2. []
  15. Norman, (1985), pp. 19-20. []
  16. Lehmann (2022), p. 211 []
  17. Ibid. p. 1 []
  18. Norman, (1985) p. 11 []
  19. Ibid., p. 19. []

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