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

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  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. []