May Laws

views updated


MAY LAWS , a series of "temporary laws" applying to Jews confirmed by Czar Alexander iii in May 1882 and repealed in March 1917 by the revolutionary provisional government. The pogroms which broke out in southern Russia in 1881 brought the Jewish problem into prominence. Reports by higher government officials placed the blame on the Jews and pointed to the failure of the relatively liberal policy of Alexander ii. On the basis of these reports, the minister of the interior Ignatiev wrote to Czar Alexander iii:

The principal, indeed exclusive cause of this [anti-Jewish] movement is the economic situation; over the last 20 years the Jews have gradually gained control of commerce and industry; they have also acquired, mainly by purchase or lease, much land, and by their unity they have generally made every possible effort to exploit the general population, especially the impoverished classes. They have thus fomented a wave of protest, which has taken the unfortunate form of violence. Now that the government has firmly suppressed the riots and lawlessness in order to protect the Jews, justice demands that it immediately impose severe regulations which will alter the unfair relations between the general inhabitants and the Jews and protect the former from the harmful activity of the latter.

Accordingly, on Aug. 22 (Sept. 3), 1881, the czar ordered the formation of special committees in the districts inhabited by Jews. Composed of representatives of the various classes and communities and presided over by the governor of the province, the committees were to determine "which kinds of Jewish economic activity had a harmful effect on the lives of the general inhabitants." This directive predetermined the attitude adopted by the committees. During their deliberations of September-October 1881 accusations against the Jews were made by the representatives of the peasants and townspeople, while the Jewish representatives endeavored to defend themselves. Their conclusions were passed on to a special committee formed to draft legislation. While the latter was in session during the winter of 1882, an anti-Jewish campaign was fomented by the press (with the support even of the Russian revolutionary movement Narodnaya Volya) and there were renewed outbreaks of violence in towns such as Warsaw and Balta. With the consent of the government, Jewish leaders assembled twice in St. Petersburg (September 1881 and April 1882) to discuss the government proposals, the most far-reaching of which suggested a planned mass emigration of Russian Jewry or the settlement of many Jews on the plains of Central Asia. Against these extreme measures some intercessionary moves were made behind the scenes, and outraged liberal public opinion in Western Europe also had some influence.

As a result, the "temporary regulations" of May 3 (15), 1882 stated: (1) Jews are forbidden to settle outside the towns and townlets; (2) deeds of sale and lease of real estate in the name of Jews outside the towns and townlets are canceled; and (3) Jews are prohibited from trading on Sundays and Christian holidays. The "temporary laws" satisfied the demands of the Russian rural merchant class that sought to be rid of its Jewish rivals in the villages of the Ukraine and Belorussia. In effect they were a contraction of the *Pale of Settlement, since Jews were confined to towns and townlets only. These laws were binding in the 15 "Russian" provinces of the Pale of Settlement (but not in the provinces of the "Kingdom of Poland"). Until 1904 they also applied to those Jews who had been granted the right of residence throughout the empire (with the exception of university graduates). The police were charged with the implementation of these laws, which became a source of constant police extortion and harassment of Jews still living in the villages. Over the years, the May Laws were interpreted with increasing severity. Thus in 1887 the Jews living in villages prior to 1882 were forbidden to move from one village to another.

Examining the legislation concerning the Jews between 1883 and 1888, the Pahlen Commission condemned the "temporary laws" and advocated that they be abolished, but its recommendations were rejected by the government. At the beginning of the 20th century, criticism of the "temporary laws" was voiced by the generally anti-Jewish Russian ministers of the interior Sipyaghin and *Plehve. It was decided on May 10, 1903, to authorize Jewish residence in 101 villages, which in the meantime had developed and in practice became townlets. On the outbreak of World War i, there were 300 villages of this kind. Echoes of the May Laws are found in the Jewish literature of Russia (cf. Shalom Aleichem, Tevye der Milkhiger; Ḥ.N. Bialik, Ha-Ḥaẓoẓerah she-Nitbayyeshah; S. Ben-Zion, Ḥayyim shel Parnasah, etc.).


Gessen, in: Pravo (1908) no. 30, 1632; Dubnow, Hist Russ, 2 (1916), 309–12; Elbogen, Century, 210–20; Dinur, in: He-Avar, 10 (1963), 5–60.

[Yehuda Slutsky]