Skip main navigation

Between Western and Eastern Europe

Between Western and Eastern Europe
It appears that the dominant movements of the early moderng period in Western Europe, developed new ways of thinking of themselves, which in turn, led to new perceptions of the Jews. At times, these perceptions were extremely negative and hostile. We’ve already mentioned that these ideas were created in a world without a large Jewish population. It seems that those who developed negative and hostile attitudes towards the Jews in the West, were either completely or almost completely unaware of the large Jewish population in Eastern Europe, and were unfamiliar with the unique characteristics of the region as a whole.
This raises the question of what was happening in the eastern parts of Europe, the area where the vast majority of European Jews were living at this time. During the early 16th to 18th centuries, the Jews of Eastern Europe were mainly concentrated in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This was a feudal and largely agricultural state ruled by a king and by the members of the nobility, known as the Szlachta. The vast majority of the population were serfs residing in rural areas. The Jews who migrated to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were a major urban element, filling an important economic role assigned to them by the ruling classes. In exchange for their services, they were granted protection and autonomy by their benefactors.
This led to a sense of security among the Jewish community and at times enabled it to prosper. However, their unique economic function as middlemen between the ruling groups and the rest of the population often placed the Jews in a precarious position. When exploring the anti-Jewish attitudes that developed in Eastern Europe, it is important to note that no major new ideas or ideologies were generated in this region. Rather, the perceptions about the Jews that were created in Western Europe were imported to this region, serving as a basis for the further development of those ideas in the less developed regions of Europe.
Thus, for example, the anti-Jewish notions that stemmed out of the Reformation as well as those based on various schools of the Enlightenment penetrated Eastern Europe. All of this and much more was imported in the early Modern age to Eastern Europe where it met not theoretical but real Jews. The Jews there were not some obscure marginal minority but a very important segment of the general population. And not only were the Jews numerous and an important segment of the general population, but they also played a very important complementary role as leaseholders and agents of the ruling class of the Magnates and, of course, also as an urban and monetary element in rural society.
So in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, we have this paradoxical situation. On the one hand, we have totally unconnected anti-Jewish theories and ideologies, totally unconnected to the East European realities. But, on the other hand, we have, so to say, grassroots antisemitic feelings, anti-Jewish feelings, especially experienced among the burghers and the serfs. The burghers who were in decline during this age in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth saw the Jews as a major threat, especially in little towns, private little towns owned by the Polish Szlachta - the Polish nobility - in which Jews sometimes constituted even a majority - a situation that one can’t even imagine happening in Western Europe.
On the other hand, the Jews as leaseholders and tavern-keepers had a great deal of power over the serfs, which provoked deep antagonism towards the Jews and deep hatred towards these Jewish leaseholders, especially in the eastern parts of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth where most of the population was Orthodox contrary to the nobles, the Polish Szlachta, which was mostly Catholic, Uniate, and Protestant. And then these Magnates also brought with them the Jews. So it also called some religious antagonism in these territories. All of this eventually caused an outburst of very very violent pogroms against the Jews as part of the Bohdan Khmelnytsky uprising. The Khmelnytsky uprising was a series of Cossack rebellions which took place in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1648 to 1657.
The first rebellion occurred in 1648 and 1649. Under the command of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, groups of Cossacks, allied with the Crimean Tatars and the local peasantry, fought against the armies and paramilitary forces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The insurgency was accompanied by violence against the civilian population, particularly against the Roman Catholic clergy and the Jews. As leaseholders for the nobility the Jews were viewed by the rebels as their immediate oppressors and were therefore especially targeted. It is difficult to determine the exact number of Jewish casualties in the major outbreak of violence against them, which took place during the first rebellion of 1648 and 1649.
However, it is estimated by researchers today that thousands were killed while thousands fled, and possibly several thousand were captured and sold as slaves in the Ottoman Empire. The events of the uprising caused a deep trauma in the Jewish collective memory of the region, one which they would carry for centuries to come. One of the major lessons made clear by the uprising was that Jews were caught between opposing national and social forces, and that their feeling of security could prove to be temporary and false as a result of rising tensions between various local elements.

Dr. Judith Kalik

The perceptions of Jews and Judaism that emerged during this time period in Western Europe evolved in a world devoid of a major Jewish population.

How were the Jews treated and perceived in the area in which they were mainly concentrated at the time – Eastern Europe?

For additional visual materials please see “downloads” below.


  • Hundert, Gershon David, Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).‏

  • Kalik, Judith, “Attitudes towards the Jews and Catholic identity in eighteenth-century Poland,” in Maria Craciun, Ovidiu Ghitta and Graeme Murdock, eds., Confessional Identity in East-Central Europe, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 181 – 193.

  • Kalik, Judith, Scepter of Judah: The Jewish Autonomy in the Eighteenth-century Crown Poland (Leiden: Brill, 2009).

  • Rosman, Murray Jay, The Lords’ Jews: Magnate-Jewish Relations in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press, 1990).

  • Teller, Adam, Money, Power, and Influence in Eighteenth-Century Lithuania : the Jews on the Radziwill Estates (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2016).

This article is from the free online

Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education