Catherine II had considerably improved the condition of the Jews within the “Pale of Settlement”—i.e., those regions of Russia in which Jews were allowed to settle. In 1800 this Pale included all Russian territory formerly belonging to Poland, and most of southern Russia, including Kiev, Chernigov, Ekaterinoslav, and the Crimea. Outside this Pale no Jew could qualify for permanent domicile. Within it the Jews, numbering some 900,000 in 1804,23 were to enjoy all civil rights, including eligibility to office, with one exception: Jews desiring enrollment in the mercantile or business class in the cities were to pay a tax double that imposed upon other businessmen, who claimed that unhindered Jewish competition would ruin them;24 so the merchants of Moscow (1790) had lodged a complaint against Jews who sold “foreign goods by lowering the correct prices, and thereby inflicting very serious damage upon the local trade.”25 Meanwhile their competition was resented by rural tavern keepers, and every effort was made by the government to keep them out of villages and confine them to the towns. In 1795 Catherine ordered that Jews should be registered (and acquire civil rights) only in towns.
In November, 1802, Alexander appointed a “Committee for the Amelioration of the Jews” to study their problems and submit recommendations. The committee invited the Kahals—the administrative councils through which the Jewish communities governed and taxed themselves—to send deputies to St. Petersburg to consult with the government about Jewish needs. The committee submitted its recommendation to these deputies. These, after much discussion, asked for a delay of six months, which would enable them to obtain more specific authority and instructions from their Kahals. The committee, instead, sent its recommendations directly to the Kahals. These objected to the committee’s proposals to exclude Jews from the ownership of land and the sale of liquor, and asked that these measures be postponed for twenty years to allow time for difficult economic adjustments. The committee refused, and on December 9, 1804, the Russian government, with the sanction of Czar Alexander, issued the “Jewish Constitution” of 1804.
It was both a bill of rights and an edict of urban confinement. The rights were substantial. Jewish children were assured free access to all public schools, Gymnasia, and universities in the Russian Empire. The Jews might establish their own schools, but one of three languages—Russian, Polish, or German—must be taught there and be used in legal documents. Each community might elect its rabbis and Kahal; but the rabbi must never issue excommunications, and the Kahal was to be responsible for collecting all taxes levied by the state. Jews were invited to engage in agriculture by buying unoccupied land in specified regions of the Pale, or by settling on crown lands, where, for the first few years, they would be exempt from state taxes.
However, by January 1, 1808, “no one among the Jews in any village or hamlet shall be permitted to hold any leases on land, to keep taverns, saloons, or inns, … or to sell wine in the villages, or ever to live in them under any pretext whatever.”26 This meant the displacement of sixty thousand Jewish families from their village homes. Hundreds of petitions poured into St. Petersburg, asking for postponement of this mass evacuation, and many Christians joined in the appeal. Count Kochubey pointed out to Alexander that Napoleon was planning to convene in Paris, in February, 1807, a Sanhedrin of rabbis from all Western Europe to formulate measures for the full enfranchisement of the Jews. Alexander ordered the debated program to be postponed. His meetings with Napoleon at Tilsit (1807) and Erfurt (1808) may have revived his ambition to impress the West as a fully enlightened despot. In 1809 he informed his government that the evacuation plan was impracticable because “the Jews, on account of their destitute condition, have no means which would enable them, after leaving their present abodes, to settle and found a home in new surroundings, while the Government is equally unable to place them all in new domiciles.”27 When invasion of Russia by the French became imminent Alexander complimented himself on having kept his Jewish citizens fond of him, and loyal to the state.