Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History. Lecture 17: Nation without a state: The Balkan Jews

Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Twenty-FIve Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). List of lectures. – Humanities Commons (

Lecture 17: Nation without a state: The Balkan Jews


Victory for the Allied military in 1918 meant victory as well for Western European and Anglo-American models for society. The post-war successor states of Central and Eastern Europe adopted parliamentary government, capitalism, and the nation-state in the expectation that prosperity and stability would result. In fact, all of these concepts experienced problems when translated from Western Europe to Eastern Europe. Lecture 18 will deal with shortfalls in Balkan socio-economic progress, and how those failures contributed to the collapse of representative governments in the 1920s and 1930s. The present lecture will examine the problem of the nation-state in the Balkan context of the interwar years.

Ethnicity, nationalist rivalry and their expression in politics continued to characterize Balkan history. Despite Woodrow Wilson’s hopes, the idea of “national self-determination” was unable to create post-1918 Balkan borders that served the needs of all ethnic groups. Members of ethnic minorities were denied autonomy: examples include Magyars placed under foreign rule or Croats who wanted federalism within the new Yugoslavia. Some groups struggled simply to gain recognition of their ethnic identities: we can point to the Slavic-speaking Macedonians and the Bosnian Muslims.

Other groups were recognized as separate populations but were denied autonomy by the same Balkan countries that had fought to achieve self-rule for themselves. Examples include the Vlachs, the Gypsies (or Roma) and the Jews. In an age of nation-states, these were nations without states, and all suffered because their cultures and societies lacked the protections made possible by political self-rule.

Why was there no Balkan Jewish state?

If 1918 saw nationalism triumph over the multi-national model, why was there no Jewish national state in the Balkans? At the turn of the century there were more Balkan Jews (some two million) than either Slovenes and Albanians (each with perhaps one and a quarter million people) — nevertheless, Slovene and Albanian states later came into being. The answer is three-fold.

First, the Jews were late in coming to Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and arrived everywhere as foreigners entering existing societies with strong claims on various territories. Simply stated, the land was taken.

Second, the Jews were late in coming to the concept of nationalism. Most of the modern Balkan states derive in part from “historic” nations that were independent in the classical or medieval past. By the time the Balkan Jews turned to nationalism, the land again had been claimed by other groups citing such historical precedents. Other “non-historic” peoples have suffered from this same handicap, including the Bosnians and the Macedonians.

Third, there was no Balkan Jewish state because Balkan Jewish nationalism aimed at a state outside the Balkans and achieved it. Balkan Jewish nationalism was part of the story of Zionism and the founding of the state of Israel, and never aimed at creating a Balkan nation-state.

Origin of the Balkan Jews

Why did the Balkan Jews come to the area under such disadvantageous circumstances? A small number of Jews lived in the Balkans since antiquity, but most arrived much later and came by way of Western Europe. During the Middle Ages, the European Jewish community became divided, physically and into two different cultural traditions: the Spanish (or Sephardic) Jews and the German (or Ashkenazic) Jews.

The Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s after Ferdinand and Isabella defeated the Muslim Moors and established Spain as a militantly Catholic country, intolerant of religious minorities. The Ottoman Muslims regarded the Jews with favor as “people of the book,” part of the monotheistic tradition that led eventually to Islam. Ottoman rule offered a degree of religious freedom at this time while it was lacking in Christian Europe, so many of the expelled Sephardic Jews migrated to the Ottoman Empire, especially to Constantinople and other port cities like Salonika and Dubrovnik. There was a separate Jewish millet in the Ottoman system, through which Jews enjoyed some measure of self-government. Some Jews became influential advisors of the sultans. When the Turks completed their conquest of the Balkans in the 1500s, Sephardic Jews followed them into the interior, settling in the larger towns. Jews eventually became the majority in Salonika (in today’s northern Greece). The Greek Jewish community survived there until World War II, speaking Ladino, a Spanish dialect.

The Ashkenazi Jews also came to Eastern Europe because of persecution. Many Jews who entered the Balkans from the north and northwest were the descendants of refugees expelled from England, France and the German states during the 1200s and 1300s. They moved east into Poland and Lithuania (which combined to form a federation in the early modern period, and a place with greater religious tolerance). Between 1772 and 1795 Poland-Lithuania was partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria, and many Polish Jews found themselves under less tolerant Russian rulers. Under the tsars, Jews were permitted to live only in certain provinces (the Pale of Settlement) and suffered legal and personal harassment.

A small number of Ashkenazi Jews had lived in the Balkans since the 1400s, and their reports of good conditions led others to follow. Beginning in the late 1700s and continuing in the 1800s, many Ashkenazi moved south into Austria, Hungary and the Romanian principalities. The Enlightenment ideals and toleration decrees of Joseph II made the Habsburg Empire an attractive place to live. Romania was of course still an Ottoman vassal state, and Jews there enjoyed some benefits from the millet system.

Balkan Jewish life before World War I

Traditional Jewish Balkan life was defined by religion, by family ties and by local communities. In this regard, it was not very different from the Orthodox communities of the area, but Jews experienced very different treatment from their neighbors in different parts of the region.


The lands that became Romania had the largest Jewish population in the Balkans. Jews were seen by Romanians as an alien element that could not be assimilated, and this prejudice was exploited by ethnic nationalist leaders.

Romania’s Jewish population entered the Principalities in the 1800s, moving south out of the Russian Empire: for that reason the northern province of Moldavia was the center of Jewish life. In 1803 there were only 15,000 Jews in Moldavia, but by 1859 there were 118,000; and in 1899 there were 197,000. Fewer Jews lived in Wallachia: 4,000 in 1831; in 1859 the figure was 9,000; and in 1899, the total reached 61,000. Another 75,000 Romanian Jews emigrated in the period 1881-1914, mostly to the United States.

When Romanian self-rule replaced Turkish and Phanariot Greek rule in the nineteenth century, the legacy of foreign exploitation remained, so that residents belonging to other ethnicities were not welcome. In the Romanian Constitution of 1866, naturalized citizenship was restricted to foreigners who were Christians. When Romania became independent in 1878, the Great Powers forced the state to revise this disability, but the divan (assembly) imposed stiff requirements: to be naturalized, applicants had to wait ten years, and then a special act of parliament was required for each individual. As a result, by 1899 only 4,000 of Romania’s 250,000 Jews had become citizens.

As non-citizens, Jews could hold no public office, could not vote and could not own land. As a result, Jews were forced to pursue social and economic lives that further distinguished them from the mass of Romanians. This fact added socio-economic tensions to the obvious religious and linguistic differences.

Unable to own farms, most Jews lived in Romania’s cities: 40 percent of urban dwellers were Jewish in 1899. Those who did live in the countryside worked as estate managers for landlords or as merchants: those merchants also functioned as money lenders in the absence of banks or other sources of credit. Both of these careers led to friction between Romanian peasants and their Jewish neighbors. During the peasant revolt of 1907, rural rioters made a special point of attacking Jews because they were seen as symbols of economic repression. Although Jews in Romania had little political or economic power, they suffered from prejudice based on both political and economic myths.


A few Jews had lived in Hungary since medieval times. The population began to rise during the 1700s, and Hungary eventually had the second largest Jewish population among the Balkan countries.

The reconquest of Hungary from Turkey in 1711 opened the country to immigrants of all kinds. After the Habsburg annexation of Galicia from Poland in 1772, many formerly Polish Jews became residents of the Austrian Empire, and this made it easier to move to Hungary. There were only 12,000 Jews in Hungary in 1720 but 83,000 in 1787, making up a full 1 percent of the population. 60 percent of these Jews lived in rural villages, often working as estate managers or merchants. In the 1800s, more Jews arrived: by 1850 some 4 percent of the population was Jewish, and at the turn of the century the proportion exceeded 8 percent, amounting to over 800,000 people.

Various legal, social and economic pressures concentrated Hungary’s Jews in larger towns and especially in Budapest. In 1890, about a quarter of the Hungarian capital was Jewish. Jews made up 60 percent of the city’s merchants, 51 percent of its lawyers and 63 percent of its medical doctors. At the same time, only 4 percent of municipal and government employees were Jews.

Despite some prejudice, Jews tended to assimilate into Magyar society. Many welcomed Magyarization, in part as protective coloring to ward off anti-Semitism, and also to avoid accusations of being unpatriotic. Many Hungarian Jews were active in the Magyar nationalist movement: there were Jews among Kossuth’s aides in 1848. Because even poor immigrants often had commercial skills, Jews were able to become owners, managers or employees in Hungary’s expanding worlds of commerce, finance and industry. Jews were active in trade unions, the theatre, newspapers and publishing.

In Eastern Europe, resentment of Jews has often increased when they become prominent in national life. The success enjoyed by some Jews ironically increased anti-Semitism in Hungary, fueled by a myth that most Jews were wealthy. Because most Jews lived in urban areas, successful Jews were highly visible members of their communities, and this partially explains the mistaken belief. In fact, most Jews worked in low-paying jobs as salesmen, clerks or industrial hands.

There is a similar myth that most Jews were professionals, like doctors and lawyers. Because Jews were socially (and sometimes legally) barred from careers in the civil service, the military or the Catholic-run school system, some Jews did become professionals. In 1910, 55 percent of Hungary’s merchants, 42 percent of the journalists, 45 percent of the lawyers and 49 percent of the physicians were Jews. However, this says more about the sociology of the medical profession than about the social status of Hungary’s Jewish population at large. Such figures can mislead. It is true that 2,300 out of the country’s 4,800 doctors were Jewish in 1900; but only 2,300 out of 800,000 Jews were doctors. Census figures also show large numbers of Jewish businessmen, but those figures don’t distinguish between wealthy businessmen who owned big factories and poor businessmen who owned village stores.

The Yugoslav Lands

The districts that became Yugoslavia had a much smaller Jewish population than either Hungary or Romania, slightly less than 70,000 people in the early 1900s. There  had been Sephardic communities in the South Slav areas since the early 1500s. Ashkenazi Jews arrived in Croatia in the 1800s, at the same time as they moved to Hungary. Croatia’s Jews resembled their Hungarian counterparts and were more assimilated than the Serbian Jews. In Serbia, the population was descended from medieval communities who were joined by Sephardic migrants during the Ottoman regime.


Bulgaria had an even smaller Jewish population. Jews lived there since medieval times and were not treated badly: one of the tsars of the Second Bulgarian Empire in the 1300s married a Jewish woman. When Sephardic Jews came to the Balkans, the newcomers absorbed the older Bulgarian communities. Jews were not active among Bulgarian nationalists in the 1800s because of their relatively favorable situation under Ottoman rule: there was fear that their position would worsen in a state that was Bulgarian in ethnicity and Orthodox in faith.

When Bulgaria gained autonomy, the Jewish community retained a special status with substantial self-administration under a chief rabbi. In the census of 1881 (which omitted the population of Eastern Rumelia), 14,000 Jews are listed. The 1893 census shows some 28,000 Spanish-speaking (Sephardic) Jews out of 3.5 million people. The number of Jews rose at the same rate as the overall population, remaining just under 1 percent. In 1910, there were 40,000 Jews, out of a population of 4.4 million. Most lived in cities, especially Sofia.


As in Bulgaria, Jews lived in the Greek lands since medieval times. After their expulsion from Spain in 1492, a Sephardic community came to Salonika and this city had the most important concentration of Greek Jews. Under the Ottomans, they made up a majority of the city’s population. Unlike most parts of the Balkans, Salonika’s Jews were not only traders but filled all parts of the economic structure from laborers to officials, bankers and industrialists. The Greek Jews were not active in the Greek national revival, and the intense ethnic basis of the Greek state led to later problems for them.

The Jewish response to nationalism

Balkan Jews were not deaf to the appeal of nineteenth century liberalism and nationalism. The Jewish national revival reached its goal with the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, but the Zionist movement developed slowly at first. Balkan Jews were important participants in that development. Much of Zionism was primarily a product of the wider European Jewish community, but it is important to note its Balkan elements and also to place Balkan Zionism in the context of Balkan nationalism.

Balkan Jews were subject to the same Western influences that shaped new thinking in Greece, Serbia and other Balkan countries. As in other national revivals, Balkan Jews encountering the idea of nationalism went through three stages:

  1. a transition from identifying only with a local community, to awareness of membership in a broader national community;
  2. a transition from a pre-modern sense of ethnic identity (typically based on religion) to a modern secular identity based on Enlightenment ideas, a national language and a secular literature; and
  3. a commitment to self-rule by the national community itself, in other words, political independence.

National community

The earliest phase of Zionism was spiritual: long before imagining a Jewish political state, religious leaders saw settlement in Eretz Israel (the land of Israel, or Palestine) as a focal point for a spiritual revival of the Jewish nation.

Two Balkan rabbis were influential in this thinking: Judah Bibas  (1780-1852) and Judah Alkalai (1798-1878). Bibas was educated in Italy. In 1832 he became rabbi of Corfu, where he initiated educational reforms. In the Napoleonic era, Corfu had been ruled by France and then by Britain; it had been a place where Western ideas reached Greece, and it is not surprising that new ideas reached the Balkan Jewish world from the same source. Widely travelled, Bibas could see the Jews as a nation in a way that village-bound Jews could not.

In 1839, Bibas met Rabbi Alkalai of Zemun, a Serbian town in Vojvodina across the Danube from Belgrade. Like Corfu, Zemun lay on the frontier between the Balkans and the Western world and was a logical place from which new ideas could reach the people of the Balkans, whether Serbs or Jews. In his writings, Alkalai reinterpreted the religious concept of “teshuvah” (repentance) from its root “shivah” (return), and argued for a physical return to Eretz Israel by individual Jews. He saw a Jewish presence in Palestine as primarily spiritual, but discussed practical matters such as how to pay for settlements and the value of self-sustaining farms. By 1840, then, the notion of a Jewish return to the Holy Land was available for the Balkan Jews to consider.

Growth of secularism

Secular elements in the Jewish community had to grow stronger before practical steps could take place. At this time, there was a split between the religious Jews of Eastern Europe, who rejected secular expressions of their ethnicity, and progressive Jews in places like Vienna and Germany, who expected an end to anti-Semitism through a combination of Enlightenment toleration by Gentiles and Jewish assimilation. A younger generation of Russian Jews now reconciled the two positions and laid the foundation for subsequent actions by ordinary Balkan Jews.

Moses Lilienblum (1843-1910) combined his religious studies with secular learning. He believed that agricultural skills, craftsmanship and economic self-help would be necessary to end the marginalization of Jews and their communities.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) was convinced that a living Hebrew language was essential to building a Jewish nation. He moved to Jerusalem, learned the language and wrote the first modern Hebrew dictionary, laying the foundation for modern spoken and written Hebrew. Given the importance of language as a factor in modern national identity, his work was crucial.

Like Ben-Yehuda, Peretz Smolenskim (1840-85) believed that a revived Hebrew literature, not assimilation, was the key to Jewish survival. Such a literature could retain the spiritual values that defined Jewry. Smolenskim wrote novels and published magazines to promote his ideas.

Self-rule and Eretz Israel

Two political trends inspired many of these same thinkers to move from cultural to practical measures.

One was political nationalism in southern Europe. After the Italian unification and the Balkan national revolts of 1876-78, Ben-Yehuda concluded that the Jews too should build a nation on their ancestral lands in Palestine.  His intent still was to create a “spiritual” focal point, but in 1879 he speculated on political aspects of the project in the pages of Smolenskim’s magazine, Ha-Shahar.

The second trend was the rise in anti-Semitic violence. In 1881, terrible pogroms in Russia followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, and the new Russian government imposed ever harsher anti-Semitic laws. Similar persecution was common in Romania.

After the events of 1881, Lilienblum concluded that legal equality could not guarantee social equality. He argued for a concentration of Jewish population to create a homeland. Such a place could not be merely spiritual, but had to sustain itself through agriculture and industry. To end the alienation of Jews from their surroundings, the homeland had to be in Eretz Israel, that is, in Palestine.

Leon (or Lev) Pinsker (1821-91) was another former advocate of assimilation who lost faith in legalistic antidotes to anti-Semitism. In 1882, Pinsker published Auto-emancipation, a pamphlet calling for creating a Jewish nation like any other. Pinsker’s writings strongly influenced the “Hovevei Zion” (Lovers of Zion) and “Hibbat Zion” (Love of Zion) movements, which animated large numbers of Balkan Jews in the 1880s, especially in Romania.

Both groups were loosely organized, grass-roots, practical movements that recruited settlers to make the trip to Eretz Israel. By the end of 1881, there were 30 Hibbat Zion societies in Romania (and many more in Russia), which sent settlers to Palestine beginning in 1882 and lasting through the 1880s (although far more Balkan Jews emigrated to the United States). In 1882, there were 480 rural Jewish settlers in Palestine (not counting the long-standing local Orthodox Jewish communities). By 1890 that number reached almost 3,000, and passed 5,000 by 1900. Hibbat Zion organized Romanian Jews in a public effort that transcended their local communities: in other words, they acted as an ethnic national community.

Without such steps, there could have been no “political Zionism,” the movement toward a state that began with the pubication of The Jewish State in 1896 by Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), a Viennese Jew. That effort finally created the Israeli state after World War II. Meanwhile, most Balkan Jews remained in their homes.

The Balkan Jews after World War I


After World War I, Romania’s Jews continued to experience prejudice. Foreign pressure forced Romania to grant its Jewish residents full citizenship and civil rights when the Constitution was rewritten in 1923. The Great Powers thereafter exhibited lessening concern for them, while ethnic Romanians resented outside intervention on behalf of an element already seen as foreign.

When Bessarabia and Bukovina were transferred to Romania from Russia, additional Jews entered the population. These former Russian subjects were accused unjustly of Bolshevik sympathies. In 1930, Romania had about 800,000 Jewish citizens. There was still little assimilation: in a country where 70 percent of the overall population was rural, 70 percent of Jews lived in cities. Anti-Semitism was a major feature of Romanian fascism. When the Second World War engulfed the Balkans in 1941, it was a disaster for the Jews in Romania (see Lecture 19).


In Hungary, life grew worse for the Jews after the defeat of 1918. In the smaller post-war Hungary, there were about 400,000 Jews, who made up 6 percent of the total population. Before the war, assimilated Jews were important political partners for Magyar politicians who needed their votes to retain a bare majority in the total population. But post-war Hungary had almost no minorities except the Jews.

Jewish socialists were prominent in the Bela Kun regime of 1919, and there was a backlash of anti-Semitism during the White Terror after Kun’s fall. In 1920, new anti-Semitic laws limited the number of places in the universities that could be taken by Jewish students. As a result, almost two-thirds of enrolled Jewish students had to leave school. Hungary had its own fascist organizations in the interwar period and their ideology included anti-Semitism. However, it was the Second World War and the Holocaust that did real damage to Hungarian Jews.


Post-war Yugoslavia encompassed both Sephardic communities in the south and Ashkenazi in the north. The 1931 census counted 26,000 Sephardic, 39,000 Ashkenazi and 3,000 Orthodox Jews (a total of 68,000). Most Yugoslav Jews lived in cities and made a living in business and commerce. Some Croatian Jews were prominent lawyers, doctors and bankers.

There was some anti-Semitism in areas near the Austrian border but Jews had always been on good terms with the Serbian state and this continued under the interwar Yugoslav kingdom. The 1929 “Law on the Religious Community of Jews” guaranteed Jewish communities separate development and state subsidies, at a time when other minorities were regarded with suspicion. In 1938 there were about 71,000 Jews out of 15 million Yugoslavs. As Nazi influence in the Balkans increased in 1940, the state passed quota laws, limiting the number of Jews in higher education. In October 1940, Jews lost their co-equal status under the law. However, physical threats did not occur until after the Nazi invasion of 1941.


In 1934 there were 48,000 Jews among 6 million Bulgarians. 95 percent of Bulgarian Jews lived in urban areas and half of the total lived in Sofia, the capital and largest city. Jews were not fully integrated into national life but they were successful in business. On the other hand, Jews dominated no one area of the economy and there was little resentment of Jews. By and large, Bulgaria’s Jews lived separate lives but without prejudice. Local Zionist groups were active and created a good alternative educational system, which was paid for mostly by the Jewish community.

When anti-Semitism occured in Bulgaria, it did so in imitation of “advanced” Western societies. Until the 1930s this had little impact, but the influence of Nazi Germany introduced a real pressure. There was a slow growth of anti-Semitic groups in the 1930s but it was not until the war that serious threats arose.


When Salonika was annexed to Greece in 1912, the Jewish community began to decline. Cut off from the Macedonian interior, the city saw its commerce eclipsed by Athens. Much of the city was destroyed by fire in 1917 and the Greek authorities deliberately stalled much rebuilding of Jewish establishments. The climate of Greek national chauvinism was a problem in the interwar years. Resentment of Jewish prosperity led to boycotts of stores and several pogroms: a Jewish district of the city was burned in 1931. The Metaxas dictatorship curbed this kind of unrest by suppressing all popular expressions, but could not end resentment. When war came in 1939 there were 75,000 Greek Jews. 50,000 of them lived in Salonika, where they made up a major part of the city. As with the other Balkan Jews, the war brought more trouble than any past time.


Although the worst was still ahead for the Balkan Jews (see Lecture 19), their experience in the interwar period showed that nationalism, even Wilson’s brand of “national self-determination”, could not satisfy the contradictory needs of all the Balkan peoples at the same time. The Jews faced some of the worst conditions, but many ethnic minorities suffered under the nation-state model, with its assumption that each state would encompass a single national group. In the nineteenth century, political events showed that multi-national systems of governing could not control friction between ethnic groups. In the twentieth century, political nationalism in turn proved itself unable to solve inter-ethnic problems or bring stability to the region.


This lecture is a portion of a larger set of texts, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism).

This page created on 7 March 1997; last modified 17 January 2023.

Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards

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