The history of the Jewish people during the American, French, and Russian Revolutions

By Gideon 

The history of the Jewish people during the American Revolution:

It is estimated that during the war of independence there were about 2,000 Jews out of a total population of about 2,000,000 Americans.  Although small in numbers (about 0.1% of the total population), Jews played an important role during the America war of independence. Most American Jews at the time were Sephardic Jews. They were unsympathetic to the British; many of them were merchants and were dependent on free flow of goods. The British in attempt to regulate commerce in their favor banned American merchants from engaging in trade beyond the crest of the Appalachian Mountains.  Many American Jews, like most American settlers, were against trade and commerce restrictions and actively participated in the revolution.

In Georgia, the first patriot to be killed was a Jew named Francis Salvador. In Charleston, South Carolina, almost every male Jew fought for the American army. Michael and Bernard Gratz of Philadelphia signed pledges to cease trading with the British and supplied gunpowder and firearms to George Washington’s army, and with Solomon Bush, they underwrote the soldier’s rations at Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania. Issaca Moses and Samuel Myers were blocked runners; they loaded their vessels with cannon to overturn British ships as they smuggled goods from Amsterdam. Dr. Phillip Moses Russel was Washington’s surgeon general at Valley Forge. In Savannah, Abigail Minis, and her nine children stocked Washington’s troops with homegrown agricultural products until the British became suspicious. She relocated to Charleston and resumed her revolutionary support.

Haym Salomon was born in 1740 to a family of Portuguese Jews, who were driven out of the country by anti-Semitic laws enacted by the Spanish monarchy. His parents settled in Lissa, Poland. When mob violence against Jews threatened Lissa, he fled to Holland. Haym Salmon arrived in New York in 1772. He became a successful merchant and financier, and a supporter of the American Revolution. Haym Salomon was arrested and imprisoned by the British and was sentenced to death. In 1778 he escaped to Philadelphia. Salomon opened a brokerage office and made loans to help finance the new government. He played a significant role in the revolution as broker to the Office of Finance. He extended interest-free private loans to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and others, and obtained French loans to the American government. During the 1770s, his loans kept American soldiers clothed, fed, and armed. Because he died deeply in debt, it is thought that Haym Salmon contributed most of his own assets to the revolution.

Aaron Lopez was born in Portugal in 1731 under the name of Duarte. He was a Converso (converted), and was raised to practice Judaism in secret, while maintaining Catholic identity outside of his house. In order to freely practice Judaism, he and his family left Portugal in 1767 and relocated to America. They settled first in Newport, Rhode Island, and then in Leicester, Massachusetts. He assumed the name of Aaron, and with the help of his brother Moses he started a business. He became a successful merchant. During the American Revolution he became a key supplier of the American forces. He played a major role in the Colonies’ ability to continue to fight against the British army. Despite pressure by the British navy, his ships delivered urgently needed supplies to the Revolutionary Army. He was described by Ezra Styles, Christian pastor and president of Yale, as “a merchant of first eminence; for honor and extent of commerce probably surpassed by no merchant in America.” In 1782, while on the way to Newport with his family, Aaron Lopez accidentally drowned in Scott’s pond in Smithfield, leaving behind his wife Sarah, and fifteen children.

Gershon Mendes Seixas, a son of a Portuguese merchant, who emigrated from Lisbon in 1730, was born in New York City in 1746. He was the hazan of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in New York, Congregation Shearith Israel. He supported the American Revolution and left New York City in 1776 with his congregation when the British approached the city. They first left to Stamford, Connecticut, carrying Torah scrolls and other religious items, and later in 1780, they moved to join a large congregation of Jewish war refugees in Philadelphia where Seixas helped found a new synagogue, Mikveh Israel. Seixas returned to New York in 1784, and was appointed to serve as trustee of Columbia College. He identified himself to non-Jews as the minister to the Jewish congregation in NY City.  He called for Jewish participation in the life of the state and appealed for support of the American Revolution and against the British-Indian raids. He led the community to save the Jewish cemetery in Chatham Square from obliteration. Seixas communicated with the Jews in Europe and across America. He consulted with the Beth Din (Court of Judgment) of the London synagogue on religious problems, and supported fund raisers to build synagogues in other American cities. Gershon Seixas died in 1816.

Mordechai Sheftall – was the head of the local revolutionary committee in Savannah, Georgia, responsible for provisioning soldiers to the American army. Him and his son were captured by the British and were sent to prison. After being recaptured during their sea escape, they were deported to Antigua. They returned to Philadelphia in 1780.

David Salisbury Franks was a lieutenant colonel with George Washington, then an aide-de-camp to Benedict Arnold. After Arnold was convicted for treason, Frank was investigated and was found innocent. He returned to George Washington’s command with a promotion.

The history of the Jewish people during the French Revolution:

In the last two decades before the French revolution, the French Jewish community was divided into two distinct groups; there were about 3,500 Sephardic Jews who arrived in France after 1,500 CE as conversos and settled in southwestern France, and about 30,000 Ashkenazi Jews, who lived in eastern France. While the Sephardic Jews were able to integrate into the general French society to a point where they had their own merchant guild and lived anywhere within the authority of the parlement of Bordeaux, the Ashkenazi Jews lived in closed communities and were un-French in their demeanor. They were considered foreign. They spoke Yiddish and were totally obedient to the traditional Jewish way of life. Due to limitation imposed on them by the governments most Jews in eastern France were limited to few trades, some of their activities were against the French royal laws. They lived from petty trade, cattle trading, and petty money laundering that put them in direct conflict with the poor French peasant population.

In the 1770s and 1780s Jews were caught in the Enlightenment attack on biblical religion as the inventors of “biblical fanaticism” and as the object of the hatred of the Inquisition. Some of the great figures of the Enlightenment, with Voltaire in the lead, argued that the Jews had an ineradicably different nature, which few, if any, could escape.

In the era of the Revolution the Jews did not receive their equality automatically. The Declaration of the Rights of Man which was voted into law by the National Assembly on Aug. 27, 1789, was interpreted as not including the Jews in the new equality. On Jan. 28, 1790, the “Portuguese,” “Spanish,” and “Avignonese” Jews were given their equality. The main argument, made by Talleyrand, was that these Jews were culturally and socially already not alien. The issue of the Ashkenazim remained unresolved. On Sept. 27, 1791, a complete emancipation was finally passed, on the ground that the Jews had to be given equality in order to complete the Revolution, for it was impossible to have a society in which all men of whatever condition were given equal rights and status, except a relative handful of Jews. The French Revolution brought legal equality to the Jews who dwelt in territories which were directly annexed by France. In addition to its operation in the papal possessions, Avignon and Comtat Venaissin, which were reunited with France in September 1791, just a few days before the final decree of emancipation for all of French Jewry, this legislation was applied to such border territories as Nice, which was conquered in 1792. This was the first time in history, that Jews had been given such equality. With the establishment of Jewish civil rights, and in order to facilitate Jewish integration into the larger French society, Napoléon Bonaparte convened an Assembly of Jewish Notables on July 26, 1806.  Its purpose was to ascertain the compatibility of Jewish law and French civil law. Once Napoleon was satisfied, in 1808, he assembled a group of rabbis and laymen to codify Jewish civil rights; this Consistoire Central des Juifs de France is still the governing body for France’s Jewish community. Even after the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s, French Jewry remained convinced that their place as equals in society would ultimately keep them safe from antisemitism that existed in other European countries. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

The history of the Jewish people during the Russian Revolution:

In 1897 General Jewish Labour Bund (The Bund), was formed. Many Jews joined the ranks of two principal revolutionary parties: Socialist-Revolutionary Party and Russian Social Democratic Labour Party—both Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. A notable number of Bolshevik party members were ethnically Jewish, especially in the leadership of the party, and the percentage of Jewish party members among the rival Mensheviks was even higher. Both the founders and leaders of Menshevik faction, Julius Martov and Pavel Axelrod were Jewish. Because some of the leading Bolsheviks were ethnic Jews, and Bolshevism supports a policy of promoting international proletarian revolution—most notably in the case of Leon Trotsky—many enemies of Bolshevism, as well as contemporary antisemites, draw a picture of Communism as a political slur at Jews and accuse Jews of pursuing Bolshevism to benefit Jewish interests, reflected in the terms “Jewish Bolshevism” or “Judeo-Bolshevism”. Soon after seizing power, the Bolsheviks established the Yevsektsiya, the Jewish section of the Communist party in order to destroy the rival Bund and Zionist parties, suppress Judaism and replace traditional Jewish culture with “proletarian culture”.

“Between 1917 and 1921, as revolution convulsed Russia, Jewish intellectuals and writers across the crumbling empire threw themselves into the pursuit of a ‘Jewish renaissance.’ At the heart of their program lay a radically new vision of Jewish culture predicated not on religion but on art and secular individuality, national in scope yet cosmopolitan in content, framed by a fierce devotion to Hebrew or Yiddish yet obsessed with importing and participating in the shared culture of Europe and the world. These cultural warriors sought to recast themselves and other Jews not only as a modern nation but as a nation of moderns.” – Harvard University Press

“The 1905 Revolution in Russia ushered in an unprecedented (though brief) period of social and political freedom in the Russian Empire. This environment made possible the emergence of mass Jewish politics and the flourishing of a new, modern Jewish culture expressed in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian. Unfortunately, 1905 also unleashed popular anti-Semitism in the shape of pogroms on a scale previously unknown. Russian Jewry, by far the largest Jewish community in the world at that time, faced fateful decisions. Should the Jews strive to uphold Jewish national uniqueness either in the context of the Russian Empire or by emigrating to Palestine/the Land of Israel, or should they identify with and merge into the general revolutionary or liberal movements in their country of birth? What direction should Jewish culture and social organizations take within the context of democratization and modernization? In what language or languages should this culture be expressed? How should Jews abroad react to the revolutionary crisis and to the dilemmas of their coreligionists?” – University of Pennsylvania Press

Leon Trotsky was born on 7 November 1879 in Yanovka, Ukraine, then part of Russia. His father was a prosperous Jewish farmer. Trotsky became involved in underground activities as a teenager. He was soon arrested, jailed and exiled to Siberia where he joined the Social Democratic Party. Eventually, he escaped Siberia and spent the majority of the next 15 years abroad, including a spell in London. In 1903, the Social Democrats split. While Lenin assumed leadership of the ‘Bolshevik’ (majority) faction, Trotsky became a member of the ‘Menshevik’ (minority) faction and developed his theory of ‘permanent revolution’. After the outbreak of revolution in Petrograd in February 1917, he made his way back to Russia. Despite previous disagreements with Lenin, Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks and played a decisive role in the communist take-over of power in the same year. His first post in the new government was as foreign commissar, where he found himself negotiating peace terms with Germany. He was then made war commissar and in this capacity, built up the Red Army which prevailed against the White Russian forces in the civil war. Thus Trotsky played a crucial role in keeping the Bolshevik regime alive. He saw himself as Lenin’s heir-apparent, but his intellectual arrogance made him few friends, and his Jewish heritage may also have worked against him. When Lenin fell ill and died, Trotsky was easily outmaneuvered by Stalin. In 1927, he was thrown out of the party. Internal and then foreign exile followed, but Trotsky continued to write and to criticize Stalin. Trotsky settled in Mexico in 1936. On 20 August 1940, an assassin called Ramon Mercader, acting on Stalin’s orders, stabbed Trotsky with an ice pick, fatally wounding him. He died the next day.

Gregory Zinoviev was born in Kirovohrad, Ukraine, to Jewish dairy farmers, who educated him at home. Between 1923 and 1935 the city was known as Zinovyevsk. He studied philosophy, literature and history. He became interested in politics, and joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1901. He was a member of its Bolshevik faction from the time of its creation in 1903. Between 1903 and the fall of the Russian Empire in February 1917, he was a leading Bolshevik and one of Lenin’s closest associates, working both within Russia and abroad as circumstances permitted. He was elected to the RSDLP’s Central Committee in 1907 and sided with Lenin in 1908 when the Bolshevik faction split into Lenin’s supporters and Alexander Bogdanov’s followers. Zinoviev remained Lenin’s constant aide-de-camp and representative in various socialist organizations until 1917. He became a non-voting member of the ruling Politburo when it was created after the VIII Congress on March 25, 1919. He also became the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Comintern when it was created in March 1919. In early 1921, when the Communist Party was split into numerous factions and disagreements were threatening to engulf the Party, Zinoviev supported Lenin’s faction. As a result, Zinoviev was made a full member of the Politburo after the Xth Party Congress on March 16, 1921, while members of other factions such as Nikolai Krestinsky were dropped from the Politburo and the Secretariat. Zinoviev was one of the most powerful figures in the Soviet leadership during Lenin’s final illness in 1922-1923. Zinoviev was in opposition to Stalin throughout 1926 and 1927, resulting in his expulsion from the Central Committee in October 1927. Zinoviev and Trotsky were expelled from the Communist Party on November 12. After the murder of Sergei Kirov on December 1, 1934, which served as one of the triggers for the Great Purge of the Soviet Communist Party, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and their closest associates were once again expelled from the party and arrested in December 1934. They were tried in January 1935 and were forced to admit “moral complicity” in Kirov’s assassination. Zinoviev was sentenced to 10 years in prison and his supporters to various prison terms.

In August 1936, after months of careful preparations and rehearsals in secret police prisons, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and 14 others, mostly Old Bolsheviks, were put on trial again. This time, the charges included forming a terrorist organization that supposedly killed Kirov and tried to kill Stalin and other leaders of the Soviet government. This Trial of the Sixteen (or the trial of the “Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Center”) was the first Moscow Show Trial and set the stage for subsequent show trials where Old Bolsheviks confessed to increasingly elaborate and monstrous crimes, including espionage, poisoning, sabotage, and so on. Zinoviev and the other defendants were found guilty on August 24, 1936. On the morning of August 25, Zinoviev and Kamenev were executed by shooting.

Moisei Uritsky was born in the city of Cherkasy, Kiev Governorate, to a Jewish family. His father, a merchant, died when Moisei was little and his mother raised her son by herself. He attended the Bila Tserkva Gymnasium, supporting himself through teaching and became an active social democrat. Moisei studied law at the University of Kiev. During his studies he joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and organized an underground network for importing and distributing political literature. In 1897 he was arrested and exiled for running an illegal mimeograph press. Becoming involved in the revolutionary movement, he participated in the revolutionary Jewish Bund. In 1903, he became a Menshevik. His activities in Petersburg during the 1905 revolution earned him a second term of exile. Along with Alexander Parvus he was active in dispatching revolutionary agents to infiltrate the Tsarist security apparatus. In 1914 he emigrated to France and contributed to the Party newspaper Our Word. Back in Russia in 1917 Uritsky became a member of the Mezhraiontsy group. A few months before the October Revolution of 1917, he joined the Bolsheviks and was elected to their Central Committee on July 1917. Uritsky played a leading part in the Bolsheviks’ armed take-over in October and later was made head of the Petrograd Cheka. In this position Uritsky coordinated the pursuit and prosecution of members of the nobility, military officers and ranking Russian Orthodox Church clerics who opposed the Bolsheviks. Because Uritsky was against the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, he resigned his post in 1918. On May 25, 1918, with the Revolt of the Czechoslovak Legion, the Russian Civil War began and Uritsky joined the Communist Secret Police (Cheka) and was appointed Commissar for Internal Affairs in the Northern Region. He was assassinated by Leonid Kannegisser, a young military cadet, on 17th August, 1918. Lunacharsky commented: “They killed him. They struck us a truly well-aimed blow. They picked out one of the most gifted and powerful of their enemies, one of the most gifted and powerful champions of the working class.”

Lev Kamenev was born in Moscow, Russia, on 18th July, 1883. The son of a Jewish engine-driver on the Moscow-Kursk Railway. Both his parents had been active in the radical student movement in the 1870s and had known the people involved in the assassination of Alexander II. Kamenev became involved in radical politics while still at the Tiflis Gymnasium and this appeared on his school reports and initially stopped him from entering university. After an appeal to the Minister of Education, Kamenev was allowed to study law at Moscow University. Kamenev worked as a propagandist among railway workers in Russia before moving to Paris in 1902. He met Vladimir Lenin and together they moved to Geneva in Switzerland. Kamenev soon emerged as one of the leaders of the Social Democratic Party in exile. In December, 1918, Lenin sent Kamenev to London to explain the policies of the new Soviet government. After one week he was deported by the British government. He moved on the Finland where he was arrested and imprisoned. Kamenev was held until January, 1918, when he was released in exchange for Finns imprisoned in Russia. On his return to Russia he was elected Chairman of the Moscow Soviet and became a member of the party’s five-man ruling Politburo. With the decline of Trotsky, Joseph Stalin felt strong enough to stop sharing power with Kamenev and Zinoviev. When Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev attacked his policies, Joseph Stalin argued they were creating disunity in the party and managed to have them expelled from the Central Committee. Under pressure from the Central Committee, Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev agreed to sign statements promising not to create conflict in the movement by making speeches attacking official policies. In 1935 Kamenev was arrested and charged with being involved in the assassination of Sergy Kirov. Found guilty he was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. The following year he was charged with forming a terrorist organization to kill Joseph Stalin and other leaders of the government. Lev Kamenev was found guilty and executed in Moscow on 25th August, 1936.

Grigori Sokolnikov was to a railway doctor on 15 August 1888. He moved to Moscow as a teenager and joined the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1905. He served time in prison and studied economics whilst at the Sorbonne. He returned to Russia in April 1917 along with Vladimir Lenin in the ‘sealed train’, and on arriving in Russia became part of the editorial board of the Bolshevik’s central party organ. After the October Revolution, he held various government positions. He was a member of the delegation for peace negotiations with Germany (he replaced Leon Trotsky as chairman, and signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty in 1918), he became commissar of the Eighth army, using this position to order mass shootings during the Russian Civil War He was appointed People’s Commissar of Finance following the introduction of the New Economic Policy and became a candidate member of the Politburo of the Communist Party in May 1924. He was removed from his position in the Sovnarkom (Council of People’s Commissars) and demoted from the Politburo after calling for Joseph Stalin’s removal as General Secretary of the Communist Party at the Fourteenth Congress of the Bolsheviks in December 1925. He was the Soviet ambassador to England from 1929-32. During the Great Purge (1936–38), in 1937 Sokolnikov was arrested and tried he was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment. Reportedly, he was killed in a prison by other convicts on May 21, 1939. A post-Stalin investigation during the Khrushchev Thaw revealed that the murder was orchestrated by the NKVD. In 1988, during perestroika, he was rehabilitated along with many other victims of the Great Purge.


The Museum of the American Revolution

National Park Service

Jewish Virtual Library

Yad Vashem