Behind the Headlines ‘zhid’ As an Opprobrium: Does It Point to a Revival of Official Soviet Anti-sem
Menu JTA Search

Behind the Headlines ‘zhid’ As an Opprobrium: Does It Point to a Revival of Official Soviet Anti-sem

Download PDF for this date

Derogatory references to Jews in Czarist Russia were expressed in the terms Zhid and Zhidovsky. For more than two centuries, these terms were interlinked with Russian official anti-Semitic policies. While anti-Semitism was never extinguished in Russia, it was declared a crime by the Communist regime, and often those who practiced anti-Jewish actions, especially in official ranks, were mildly prosecuted.

But the term Zhid had not been heard for some time. It is referred to in histories dealing with Jews under the Czars, and it is defined in the outstanding work on the subject, “The History of the Jews in Russia and Poland” by the great Jewish historian, Simon Dubnov, who was murdered by the Nazis in 1941 at the age of 81, in Riga.

There is no doubt that Jews were called Zhids clandestinely during the entire era of Communist rule, but, it had not been heard so publicly, so arrogantly, until now because anti-Semitism is officially outlawed in Russia. Does the current experience during the Moscow students’ sports events point to a revival of official Russian anti-Semitism?

Originally Zhid was the Slavic term for Jew, transliterated from the Latin, Judaeus. It became an opprobrium and Jews smarted under it in Russia for hundreds of years. In the Duma (Russian Parliament) of horror in 1907–the third Duma that was branded the Black Duma–the overwhelming majority of the members were reactionaries and anti-Semites, and they carried to extremes the abuses leveled at Jews. There were only two Jewish members of that Duma and they were subjected to untold humiliations. Describing that period and the resort to insults at Jews who were called Zhids, Simon Dubnov recorded this in his monumental work.


He wrote: “The hirelings of Nicholas II danced like a horde of savages over the dead body of the emancipation movement, singing hymns in praise of slavery and despotism. Creatures of the street, the reactionary deputies drenched the tribune of the Imperial Duma with mud and filth, and, when dealing with Jews, they resorted to methods similar to those which were in vogue among their accomplices upon the streets of the devastated cities. The term Zhid and the adjective Zhidovsky, in addition to other scurrilous epithets, became the most favored terms of their vocabulary.”

The tragic experiences, dated back by Dubnov to the rule of Catherine II (1772-1796). is described as having thoroughly established the anti-Semitic legislative rules. Yet, there was a “reform.” To quote Dubnov: “The historian cannot pass over in silence the solitary ‘reform’ of this period. In the legislative enactments of the last decade of Catherine’s reign the formerly current contemptuous appellation ‘Zhid’ gave way to the name ‘Hebrew’ (Yevrey). The Russian government found it impossible to go beyond this verbal reform.”

Interestingly enough, Zhid and Zhidovsky are not insulting terms in Polish, where they stand for the term Jew and its adjective. But it is generally known that in polite society it was not used too often in Poland.

A protest against what had happened in Moscow last week had an interesting sideline: the American Jewish Congress made the sports pages with its condemnation. Now adherents to fair play ask whether the Russian actions will be overlooked when the Olympics are staged four years hence. Generally–and that includes our experiences in the United States–there is little ground for fear from anti-Semitism as long as it is not sponsored officially by the government of the land in question. Is the Zhid revival an indication that Russia is making the hatred of all Jews in the USSR official?

Another aside is worth noting. In the reports about the outrageous incidents in Moscow, the newspaper correspondents translated it as “kike.” It could be translated as “sheeny.” But even this insulting term is now seldom found in American dictionaries, and where it is included it is defined as offensive. Oh tempora ! Oh mores !

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund