MINORITY RIGHTS


MINORITY RIGHTS, rights enjoyed by Jews and other ethnic minorities between the two world wars in some countries, mainly eastern and southeastern Europe, according to the provisions of the minorities treaties at the Versailles Peace Conference, 1919. In all the other states the treatment of minority nationals was regarded as an internal matter, subject only to the state's own laws and not to international law. In those states which were bound, between the two world wars, by the minorities treaties, Jews and other minority nationals were guaranteed certain minimal rights, and the *League of Nations created a machinery for supervising their implementation. These were rights granted in addition to civil, political, and religious freedoms. Whereas the *French Revolution and *Napoleon brought *emancipation of the individual in parts of Europe as an equal citizen of the state, the minority rights expanded the concept of equality to include ethnic and cultural distinctions within the territory of the state. These national rights differed from medieval *autonomy in that the latter presupposed a society that is subdivided into corporations, each of which lives according to its own distinct law. The minority rights, on the other hand, posited an egalitarian society, where the individual enjoyed individual rights plus his rights as a person belonging to an ethnic or religious minority. The proponents of the idea gave it widely differing interpretations. Minority rights tended to embrace largely secular, as opposed to religious, elements; therefore the terms cultural, national, ethnic, or linguistic are interchangeable with the term minority.

Development of the Idea

The idea originated at the beginning of the 20th century in the multi-national states of Eastern Europe where it was impossible to carve out territorial units to accommodate particular ethnic groups. Karl Renner, an Austrian socialist, published in 1902 his Der Kampf der oesterreichischen Nationen um den Staat in which he developed the proposition that national affiliation was primarily a personal and not a territorial matter. He therefore advocated that the state represent a federation of nationalities, without separation of state and nationality, similar to the separation of Church and state. Since the Jews represented an extraterritorial minority par excellence the idea that they constitute a distinct nationality and are therefore entitled to a special national existence appealed very strongly to East European Jewish intellectuals. Chaim *Zhitlowsky and Simon *Dubnow in Russia, and Nathan *Birnbaum in Austria, attracted at first only a small group of intellectuals to their ideas of national autonomy. Zhitlowsky, an émigré socialist revolutionary, sought to synthesize socialism with nationalism as early as 1883. He demanded for Jews "national equal rights with all peoples" and asserted that only through the Yiddish language could the social and national revival of the Jewish people be effected. He maintained that one could remain identified with the Jewish nationality even if abandoning the Jewish religion. He urged the Jewish masses to participate in the class struggle as a national unit. Alone among the cosmopolitan Jewish socialists he favored national socialism.

In 1897 he began publishing philosophical studies in Jewish history and a comprehensive program of action which later appeared in book form as Pisma o starom i novom yevreystvie ("Letters on Old and Modern Judaism," 1907). His main thesis was that national consciousness consists mainly of spiritual-cultural determinants and that these national characteristics can be maintained by the Jews in the future in the lands of their dispersion, just as they have survived the lack of territory or unity of language since the end of the second commonwealth. After emancipation of the individual the Jews as a group should be granted national self-government within the framework of the state along with other national minorities. His secularization of the national idea as opposed to those who saw the essence of Judaism in religion, and his optimistic view of the future of Judaism in the Diaspora, were the main underpinnings of his insistence on national cultural autonomy.

Popular Movement

These meager beginnings in academic speculation turned into a powerful popular movement during the 1905 revolution in Russia (1904–07), petered out from 1907 to 1914, and then gained in volume in both east and west during World War I. A number of middle-class parties and socialists tended toward "*assimilation"; i.e. they sought only civil and political rights, and shied away from nationalist identification. Before long, however, *autonomism developed into a mighty stream; most Jewish parties adopted Diaspora nationalist plans in their platforms. The League for Equal Rights for Jews, consisting of middle-class liberals and Zionists, met illegally in 1905 and declared in favor of "civil, political, and national rights… the freedom of national-cultural self-determination… a comprehensive kehillah autonomy, freedom of language and of school education." This was adopted despite the wishes of the top leadership which was anti-nationalistic. The Zionists, too, at their conference in *Helsingfors, Finland, in 1906, demanded "the recognition of the Jewish nationality with the right of self-government in all affairs of Jewish life." This was achieved although large segments of political Zionists clung to the doctrine that creative Jewish living was possible in Palestine only. In 1918 the Zionist headquarters issued the "Copenhagen Manifesto," which demanded a national home in Palestine, and in all other countries full equality of rights, including "national autonomy, cultural, social, and political, for the Jewish population of countries largely settled by Jews, as well as of all other countries whose Jewish population demands it"; and admission into the "League of Free Nations."

The followers of Dubnow's Diaspora nationalism formed the *Folkspartei (People's Party) in 1906, only to remain a mere handful. The *Bund in Russia, Poland, and Lithuania was organized in 1897. Though it initially had made the class struggle paramount in its program, it soon became a major protagonist of autonomism, with especial emphasis on Yiddish as the national language. The proletarian Zionist groups, the *Jewish Socialist Workers' Party (Sejmists), the *Jewish Social Democratic Party, *Po'alei Zion, and the *Zionist Socialist Workers' Party, more or less hesitantly, also came around to demand national self-determination. Similar agitation took place in Austrian Jewry and to a lesser extent in the Ottoman Empire and the United States. Thus in the space of less than two decades national autonomy grew from a mere theory into a mass movement. During World War I activity was transferred to the west. In the United States, after several years of numerous meetings, the *American Jewish Congress was organized in 1918 to present the Jewish case for Palestine and minority rights for the Jews of Europe at the Peace Conference. They adopted a "Jewish Bill of Rights" to be presented to the conference. In addition to guarantees of equal civil, political, religious, and national rights, it proposed autonomous management of communal institutions by minorities, respect for the languages of ethnic groups, and no discrimination against Sabbath observance. Whereas in the U.S. a modicum of accommodations was arrived at between the nationalists and the members of the non-nationalist *American Jewish Committee, no such rapprochement was achieved in England or France.

At the Peace Conference

At the Versailles Conference the Jews assumed leadership in the struggle for minority rights. Delegations and petitions from Jews in many countries began to arrive in Paris. Immediately an attempt was made to form a united front, and a Committee of Jewish Delegations (*Comité des Délégations Juives) was formed. Most of the erstwhile opponents bowed to the desires of the East European Jews who were directly concerned. The French and British delegations, who refused to join the Committee of Jewish Delegations, agreed not to oppose actively the efforts of the majority to attain national rights.

Minority Treaties

After prolonged and stubborn negotiations that lasted in some cases until 1923, minorities treaties were signed by the newly created states of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Greece; and by the defeated states of Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey; declarations of willingness to abide by minority stipulations were secured from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Albania, and several other localities. Iraq made its Minorities Declaration when it became independent in 1932. The Polish Minority Treaty became the model for all the rest. It had 12 articles. Some of them dealt with the basic civil, political, and religious rights of minorities. The specific rights of minority nations were dealt with in detail. Polish nationals were to have the free use "of any language in private intercourse, in commerce, in religion, in the press, or in publications of any kind, or at public meetings." Minority nationals were guaranteed "the use of their own language, either orally or in writing, before the courts." They were also authorized "to establish and control, at their own expense, charitable, educational, religious and social institutions, with the right to use their own language and to exercise their religion freely therein." Minorities were guaranteed the right to establish schools in their own language, and to obtain an equitable share of public funds for their "educational, religious, and charitable purposes." Finally, in view of the special position of the Jews in Poland, who were not concentrated in any one area in compact masses but were diffused over the entire country, and in view of Polish antisemitism, two special "Jewish articles" were inserted to safeguard their unique position. Article 10 read:

Educational Committees appointed locally by the Jewish communities of Poland will, subject to the general control of the State, provide for the distribution of the proportional share of public funds allocated to Jewish schools in accordance with article 9, and for the organization and management of these schools.

Article 11 provided that: "Jews shall not be compelled to perform any act which constitutes a violation of their Sabbath," with specific reference to attendance at courts of law, and elections or registration for electoral or other purposes. Other articles dealt with enforcement. The minority obligations must be recognized as fundamental law of the country. Infractions were to be supervised by the League of Nations, and member-states of the League Council were entitled to appeal to a world court. Some of the other countries resolutely resisted the minorities provisions, but were forced to sign them. The "Jewish articles" were omitted in some treaties. There was general satisfaction among Jews with the provisions of the Minorities Treaties. Some were jubilant over the new era that had dawned to enable them to live their own lives and to develop their own culture.

Implementation of Treaty Provisions

The minorities system represented a remarkable experiment in international control that lasted some 20 years. With all its faults, substantive and procedural, it could have developed into a major force for minority protection. However, it crumbled along with the League of Nations that sponsored it. The system helped prevent serious disturbances by providing minorities an outlet in the international provisions for resolving grievances and by serving as a brake on oppressive chauvinism. In most minority states there were provisions for national education, and protection against undesirable assimilation, and some of them experimented, on their own initiative, in autonomous minority institutions on a considerable scale. The main weakness lay in the refusal of minority states to act on their international pledges in good faith. Some of the substantive provisions of the Minority Treaties lacked precision. The procedure in hearing complaints was faulty. The League itself did not pursue recalcitrant states with proper vigor. Only the Permanent Court of International Justice at The Hague tried valiantly, in two cases brought before it, to preserve decency and public order. All this was to no avail. In 1934 the world was stunned by the declaration of Col. Józef Beck (Polish minister of foreign affairs) renouncing minority obligations. The whole structure toppled along with the League of Nations. World War II put an abrupt end to the experiment.

Treatment of Jews by Countries

The Jews had been most instrumental in the promulgation of minority rights. They set out full of hope for a new deal. They were the ones to be most disappointed. Unlike other minorities they did not constitute a threat to the state by irredentist or restoration dreams. Except for three cases, they did not resort to petitioning Geneva on their grievances, as did other minorities; they feared antagonizing their governments. Only Estonia excelled in granting its minorities, including the Jews, complete autonomy. A chair of Jewish studies was established there at the University of Dorpat (*Tartu).

LATVIA

Although Latvia by a law of 1921 narrowed the grant of rights, including minority rights, to those who could prove residence over a period of 20 years, it provided liberal allowances for minority schools until 1934. The Education Law of 1919 provided for compulsory education in the language of the family. Central and local authorities were to establish such schools and to bear the necessary expense. Such a class was to be established if at least 30 pupils were enrolled. The minority section of the ministry of education had a Jewish division, its head nominated by the Jews, subject to the approval of the Council of Ministers. The Jewish educational system thrived. This autonomy, however, was limited to schools; Latvia never enacted laws regarding cultural, religious, and welfare organizations of minorities. In 1934, with the abolition of the democratic regime, school autonomy was virtually nullified by a new law which provided that paid officials of the state administer minorities school systems, that a child be instructed in his family's language provided he could express his thoughts in that language, and that state and local subventions to minority education not exceed their ratio in the population.

LITHUANIA

In Lithuania, too, there was at first a great surge of hope when the constitution in 1922 granted to minorities autonomy and the right to levy taxes. Autonomous Jewish communities, already recognized by law in 1920, were allowed to administer their own cultural, welfare, social, and educational affairs. These communities were united into a national council with a minister of state for Jewish affairs who could levy taxes for Jewish needs and exercised some authority in school affairs. The schools were under the ministry of education. The national and municipal authorities were charged with subventing the Jewish schools. They were entitled to employ Yiddish in government offices. All this exuberant activity in national self-determination came to a halt after only two years. In 1924 both the Jewish national council and the ministry of Jewish affairs were abolished. The following year the local communal organizations were disbanded. Only a modicum of school autonomy remained.

POLAND AND OTHER COUNTRIES

In Poland antisemitism was rampant, especially in the economic sphere. Almost all Polish parties obstinately opposed the granting of equal minority treatment for Jews. The government did not open public schools in Hebrew or Yiddish. The school system established by the Jews themselves was subsidized very grudgingly and in diminishing manner. Jewish religious communities were permitted to deal with cultural and social matters and to organize a council of all congregations. Such a council, however, never convened. Most odious was the limitation of the numbers of Jewish students at state universities by a *numerus clausus. Despite all these restrictions and an endemic poverty, the Jews of Poland succeeded in maintaining a vibrant cultural life and a thriving network of schools in both Yiddish and Hebrew. In Romania the government disclaimed antisemitic tendencies, yet tolerated the most virulent attacks by Jew-baiting parties. The Romanian language was forced upon Jewish children in schools; the religious sensibilities of Jewish students were violated. In the higher schools of learning a tacit numerus clausus prevailed. Yugoslavia respected the rights of its Jewish minority. Apart from Nazi Germany, Hungary was the only state which introduced a numerus clausus for Jews not only in practice but by official legislation.

In Turkey the right not to appear in court or to transact legal business on their holidays was vouchsafed the Jews. The autonomy enjoyed by Jews for many centuries was gradually narrowed by the new nationalist regime. Turkish was made the language of instruction in schools. Schools could be directed only by Turkish nationals. In 1926 Turkey renounced its minority obligations. The office of the *ḥakham bashi, the chief rabbi, was abolished and with it the unified organization of the Jewish communities. Iraq granted to religious congregations the right to form schools in the language of their members. Jewish and Armenian minorities were granted certain autonomous rights.

IN SOVIET RUSSIA

Due to unsettled conditions in Russia during the period of the Peace Conference no arrangements were made there for minorities protection. The country itself, however, experienced inordinate agitation for minority rights during the revolutions of 1917. Again the Jews were most active. Hundreds of meetings and conferences were held as if to celebrate the new-found freedom. On April 3, 1917, Alexander Kerensky, head of the Provisional Government, published a decree removing all restrictions based on "religion, sect, or nationality." All Jewish parties, middle-class or proletarian, gradually united on the question of autonomy. At the end of July 1917 a preliminary conference agreed upon a platform for a Russian Jewish congress to be convened soon. It proposed an elaboration of "the fundamentals of Jewish self-government in Russia; the determination of legal guarantees for the Jewish national minority," as well as the communal organization of Russian Jewry, and the civil and national rights of the Jews in Poland, Palestine, and Romania. The congress never took place due to the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks. On Nov. 15, 1917, the new Soviet government issued the Declaration of the Rights of Peoples which proclaimed the principle of national self-determination, even to the point of secession. In the Ukraine the Jews were the leading spirits in a flurry of legislative plans designed to establish national-personal autonomy as a fundamental law. On Jan. 9, 1918, the Ukrainian parliament enacted into law a detailed set of articles prepared by the Jewish secretariat. It all came to naught, however, in the political turmoil that ensued with the occupation of the Ukraine by the Germans. It fell to Soviet Russia to launch an experiment in autonomy for minorities on a vast scale. The Soviet government departed from the personal principle of minority rights, namely, that they would apply to all members of a particular nationality throughout the country, and proclaimed, instead, the rights of territorial nationalities. A soviet or a region with a national majority could enjoy cultural autonomy. Since the Jews were scattered all over the country in the large cities, this privilege did not apply to them. Only in hamlets and villages or certain regions where they constituted a majority did they enjoy linguistic, judicial, and educational self-rule. Jews had 67 courts of their own where the official language was Yiddish. In the late 1930s they had five autonomous regions in the Ukraine and the Crimea and 224 local Jewish soviets. In 1931, 160,000 pupils attended Yiddish schools. The high point of this policy was reached in 1927 when *Birobidzhan, a territory in eastern Siberia, was proclaimed a Jewish autonomous region inviting Jewish settlers. None of these efforts, however, were directed at the perpetuation of Jewish identity. On the contrary, the stated purpose of the Soviet government and of the *yevsektsiya (the Jewish sections of the ruling Communist Party) was to eradicate Judaism in favor of atheism and Communism. The Yiddish courts aimed at weaning the Jews away from their accustomed rabbinic courts. The schools proscribed all religious and traditional Jewish content. They declined rapidly before World War II and were not reopened after the war. In the last years of the Stalin era all vestiges of Jewish national life were cruelly obliterated.

In the Western world the demand for minority rights was seldom heard. There the Jews were satisfied with civil rights and the freedom to foster their own religion and culture.

After World War II

In the *United Nations, which after World War II succeeded the League of Nations, no minority rights provisions survived. Instead, emphasis was put on human rights, concerning all men, including members of the majority nation. In 1966 an International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was drawn up, which in its 27th paragraph stipulates that "in those States in which ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language." This provision is binding on member-states of the UN which sign and ratify the Covenant.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

I. Elbogen, A Century of Jewish Life (1960), 502ff., 507ff., 532ff.; O. Janowsky, The Jews and Minority Rights 1918–1933 (1933); J. Robinson et al., Were the Minorities Treaties a Failure? (1943). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: O. Janowsky, Nationalities and National Minorities (1945); E.Viefhaus, Die Minderheitenfrage und die Entstehung der Minderheitensschutzverträte (1960); J. Stone, International Guaranties of Minority Rights (1932); S. Netzer, Ma'avakYehudei Polin al Zekhuyoteihem ha-Ezraḥiyot ve-ha-Le'ummiyot (1980), 146–67; N. Feinberg, La Question des minorités à la conférence de la paix de 1919–1920 et L'action Juive enfaveur de la protection internationale des minorités; F Brzezinski, Prawa mniejszosci, komentarz do traktatu 28.6.1919 pomiedzy Polska a glownemi mocarstwami (1920).

[Isaac Levitats]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.