The presence of Jews in Belarus can be traced back to the 14th century, when what was then called Belorussia was a region of Poland-Lithuania, and Grand Price Vytautas of Lithuania allowed Jews into the region. In addition, some Jewish merchants traveling between Poland and Russia, settled in Belorussia. Jewish settlement there was interrupted briefly at the end of the 15th century when the Jews living in Bellorussia were expelled, but they were allowed back into the region in 1503.
With the establishment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 16th century, Belorussia became a part of this federation. As a result, the majority of Jews in Belorussia were members of the Lithuanian Jewish communal representative body during the period. Jewish life in Belorussia was somewhat harsh, as many Christian citizens of the region tried to dissuade Jews from settling in the region. Measures that prohibited Jews from certain jobs and from building synagogues were implemented in different areas of the region, and in some cases, Jewish communities in Belorussia were physically attacked. Nevertheless, the Jewish population in the region continued to grow.
With the establishment of yeshivas in Brest and Grodno in the 16th century and one in Minsk in the late 17th century, the region became influential in the field of Jewish learning. It was not, however, until the partitions of Poland in 1795, as the result of which Belorussia became part of the Russian Empire, that Belorussian Jews began to take part in broader Russian society. Under Russian rule, Jews were able to find better jobs than those afforded to them in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
However, Belarusian, Russian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian Jews were later forced to live in the Pale of Settlement, as Tsarina Catherine the Great wanted to limit the influence of Jewish mercantilism and appease non-Jewish merchants in the region. In the Pale of Settlement, poverty and destitution were rampant, though Jewish intellectual life continued to prosper. The mid-1800s saw the Haskalah enter Belorussian Jewish life and greatly influence the community. Hasidism also became influential among Jews in the region.
The Belorussian Jewish population continued to increase throughout the 19thcentury, and by 1897, the Jewish population in the region was so large that many Belarusian cities, including Minsk, were inhabited by a majority of Jews. However, the overall abysmal economic conditions of Jews in Belorussia during this period could not be ignored, and many Jews in the region began emigrating at the century’s end. Many of those who remained became Zionists, while others joined the socialist Bund movement, which strived for social equality for Jews.
Cooperation between these organizations saw the creation of small Jewish armies to combat pogroms and defend Jewish communities in the region against violence – this was particularly the case during the Russian Revolution of 1905. During World War I, Beoarussian Jews experienced violence conducted by the Russian and Polish armies. Having been expelled from western Belorussia due to it being in a combat zone, Belorussian Jews found themselves on the border between Poland and Russia and accused of spying for both countries. The Polish army attacked Jewish communities closer to the Polish side of the border, while the Russian army massacred those under their control.
Following the 1917 Revolution, more Jews joined radical political parties. Belorussian Jews cautiously supported the new Bolshevik regime, believing that it was a better alternative than a potentially more reactionary government. The Bund slowly began to espouse support for the Bolsheviks and other Jewish organizations in Belorussia began to follow suit. In 1921, the Treaty of Riga divided Belorussia between Poland and the Soviet Union and Jewish life in the country became somewhat stable. Many Jews in the region worked in trade or white-collar occupations in the city, and Yiddish was recognized as an official language.
However, the Soviet leadership heightened its campaign against religion and conducted a mass closure of synagogues in Belorussia in 1929. This saw a general decline in Jewish religious and cultural life in Belorussia, and by 1938, Yiddish had lost its status as an officially recognized language. Moreover, the annexation of western Belorussia by the Soviet Union in 1939 exacerbated such developments, as Jewish religious institutions in the area were immediately shut down and Jews living there were expected to assimilate into broader “Soviet” society.
After World War II, Belorussia remained under Soviet control, and with Communist rule, antisemitism continued to be prevalent in the region. Various anti-religious (and particularly anti-Jewish) campaigns shut down the remaining Jewish institutions in Belorussia and many Jews were arrested. The postwar years saw a gradual decline in the Belorussian Jewish population as a number of Jews emigrated to Israel and the United States throughout the successive decades.
During Perestroika, there was a revival of Jewish life in Belorussia as a number of Jewish cultural institutions were established in cities throughout region. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the establishment of the independent Republic of Belarus furthered this trend and saw the formation of a Jewish communal representative organization, the Union of Belorussian Jewish Organizations and Communities.
Despite independence from the Soviet Union and the formation of a democratic government in Belarus, there are still concerns about the Belarusian Jewish community’s status in the country. Antisemitism continues to be somewhat widespread, if not latent, in the country, and the Belarusian government has taken a generally indifferent position on such incidents.
A law detailing officially recognized religions was passed in 2002, and though it included Judaism, there is a general sense of unease about the law, which some fear may lead to more discrimination. Despite such concerns, Belarusian Judaism continues to exist and operate in a manner not afforded in past years and under past regimes.