Diaspora : Eastern Europe
Between the 7th and 10th centuries there flourished in Eastern Europe a sovereign Turkic national group, known as the Khazars. In c.740CE the leaders of the Khazar kingdom professed Judaism. Their correspondence with the outside world of Rabbinite and Karaite Judaism was recently discovered in old synagogue archives. In Eastern Europe, throughout the entire medieval period, mass expulsions were preceded by persecutions, and attempts at conversion to Christianity. In 1290 approximately 16 000 Jews were expelled from England; Jews were only allowed to return there only in the 17th century. In 1306 the Jews were expelled from France. As a result of the migration from the suffering of Western and Central Europe, the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe began to grow quickly. The local rulers were not averse to the Jews coming, as there was a great shortage of settlers, and flourishing communities soon developed all over Eastern Europe. The migrants entered most spheres of economic activity, usually by way of money lending; there were Jewish traders and artisans and, where it was permitted, Jewish farmers. The non Jewish upper classes made use of the international connections of the migrants, particularly in finance for trade and industry.
In the Jewish community education was in the centre of all activities, Hundreds of yeshivot (academies for higher rabbinic studies) flourished, producing thousands of outstanding scholars. A large proportion of the major works currently studied in rabbinic literature were produced in Eastern Europe between the 16th and 19th centuries.
The communities enjoyed a high degree of autonomy and by the mid 16th century reached the zenith of internal organisation with the establishment of the Council of the Lands. This was a governing body for Jews of Poland and Lithuania, which was made up of delegates from all the important Jewish communities. The Council usually met twice a year during the major trade fairs. It raised taxes, imposed sanctions, ruled in disputes between communities and between individuals, and generally supervised communal life throughout the area.
In the 17th century the Jews were caught between the rival forces of the Polish government and the Cossacks. The latter, under Bogdan Chmielnicki, perpetrated pogroms against the Jews (1648 - 49) that were unprecedented in their viciousness and barbarity. Thousands were tortured and slaughtered with butchers' knives in their synagogues. Whole communities were devastated. Scores of thousands of Jews died during this terror and the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe were in despair.
Next Step: Diaspora: Arabia
Index to Footsteps through Jewish History