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Since the Talmudic period, Jewish tradition and law have regarded the denunciation of Jews to non-Jewish rulers, even for deplorable or sinful behavior, as a grave offense, to be condemned and combated. This attitude is already evident in one of the 18 benedictions in the daily Amidah prayer. Informers, referred to in Hebrew and Yiddish as moserim (or moysrim in Ashkenazic pronunciation) or malshinim, were considered not only traitors to their people, but a danger to other Jews’ lives and property. Denouncers were excommunicated, disqualified from giving testimony or swearing an oath, barred from participation in public prayer services, and even denied religious burial. Some informers were defined as rodfim (pursuers), a category of persons who according to Jewish law could be executed even before committing the offense. In some places, particularly pre-Expulsion Spain and Poland, government authorities permitted Jewish courts to imprison informers and even condemn them to death. In modern Eastern Europe, informing was used as a weapon in ideological and religious struggles. Hasidim, Misnagdim, and maskilim, mainly in tsarist Russia and Galicia, slandered one another, ostensibly revealing “secrets,” “crimes,” or other illegal acts that their opponents were trying to conceal.

Opponents of Hasidism had no scruples about accusing tsadikim of illegal behavior and causing their imprisonment or deportation. In a particularly well-known case, Shneur Zalman of Liady was accused of conspiring against the Russian government, establishing a new religion, and smuggling funds out of Russia. As a result, he was twice interrogated and imprisoned, in 1798 and 1800. Hasidim, however, used the same techniques—not only against Misnagdim (as in the years 1798 to 1801, in the dispute over the leadership of the Vilna community after the death of the Gaon of Vilna), but also against rival Hasidic groups. Thus in 1835, opponents of Natan Sternhartz of Nemirov accused him of running an illegal printing press in his Bratslav home; the press was closed, and Steinhartz was evicted from his home and imprisoned. In 1869, Ḥayim Halberstam of Sandz, in the course of his struggle against Sadagora Hasidim, urged his followers to use state courts to expel Sadagora slaughterers, scribes, and teachers from their communities.

Traditionalists considered Jewish maskilim who cooperated with the government as virtual informers; the maskilim, however, saw their efforts as an exercise of their civil and ethical duties, and an innocent expression of their loyalty to the enlightened regimes of their host countries. This was surely the view of the maskil Yosef Perl, who sent the Austrian government many memoranda about the allegedly criminal behavior of such Hasidic leaders as Yisra’el of Ruzhin and Tsevi Hirsh of Zhidachov, along with advice about dealing with these “offenders.” Similarly, many other maskilim (such as Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon) encouraged authorities to close down Hasidic printing presses, appoint a censor to supervise the contents of books, and prevent the publication of Hasidic and kabbalistic works.

Many denunciations came from informers who were converts to Christianity—such as Iakov Aleksandrovich Brafman of Minsk, whose book Kniga kagala (Book of the Kahal), published in Russian in 1869 and 1875, purported to reveal, among other things, the existence of a secret institution of Jewish communities in the form of a person called the rodef ne‘elam (hidden pursuer), who supposedly aimed to use all possible means to torment whoever disobeyed the instructions of community authorities.

The informer phenomenon was especially prevalent in Russia under Tsar Nicholas I (1825–1855). Informers focused on attempts by communities or individuals to avoid payment of taxes or military service, to open unlicensed businesses or printing presses, to defy censorship, or to smuggle goods without paying customs duties. Almost every township had its own informer who made a living by informing against his coreligionists. The secret police encouraged and paid them well; many informers tried to blackmail their communities by demanding payment for their silence.

Not infrequently, when it was clear that informers could endanger the lives of communities or individuals, community leaders permitted nonjudicial execution of the offenders. One of the most famous cases, in 1836 in Podolia, was known as the Ushits case. Two well-known informers were violently killed on the instructions of local community leaders, who acted on rabbinical authority. After the informers’ bodies were discovered, some 50 Jews were arrested and interrogated. Among them were Mikhl Averbukh of Dinovitz and Yisra’el of Ruzhin, who were accused of giving the murders halakhic sanction. In 1840, the imprisoned Jews were convicted; most of them were flogged, their property was confiscated, and they were banished to Siberia. Only Yisra’el of Ruzhin was acquitted and released.

Maskilim, along with nationalist and Zionist activists, were also victims of informing and were consequently imprisoned or banished. In 1879, for example, the poet Yehudah Leib Gordon was accused—probably by fanatical Hasidim—of conspiring with revolutionaries. He was arrested and banished from Saint Petersburg, but was allowed to return several months later.

Some informers were not just treacherous, avaricious, or corrupt persons, but idealists who believed that they were fulfilling an ethical duty, helping to root out corruption among community leaders. Others acted in a spirit of revenge for injustices committed against themselves (such as the forced conscription of children of poor families into the Russian army). One such person was Ya‘akov Ḥayim of Shklov—hero of the novel Kevurat ḥamor (A Donkey’s Burial; based on a true story) by Perets Smolenskin—who was drowned for informing on community leaders to the authorities.

The complexity of the problem of informers pales in comparison with the ethical dilemmas that arose during the Holocaust. German authorities established networks of informers in the ghettos—individuals who were rewarded for the information they provided and hoped thereby to save their own lives. The historian Emanuel Ringelblum reported in his diary rumors of some 400 paid informers active in the Warsaw ghetto alone. Members of the Judenräte (Jewish Councils) were often viewed as informers and collaborators with the Nazis, though they were by no means all of the same cloth, and contemporary Holocaust research has identified a variety of patterns of cooperation by the Jewish councils. Prominent individuals also came under suspicion. Thus, Alfred Nossig, a Zionist author, reported on events in the Warsaw ghetto to Nazi occupation authorities, even recommending convenient ways to deport Jews; he was executed for treason by the Jewish underground in 1943.

Suggested Reading

David Assaf, The Regal Way: The Life and Times of Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin (Stanford, 2002), pp. 105–115; Simha Assaf (Simḥah Asaf), Ha-‘Onashin aḥare ḥatimat ha-Talmud (Jerusalem, 1922), pp. 19–20; Saul M. Ginsburg, Ketavim historiyim (Tel Aviv, 1944), esp. pp. 152–178; Saul M. Ginsburg, The Drama of Slavuta (Lanham, Md., 1991); Raphael Mahler, Hasidism and the Jewish Enlightenment: Their Confrontation in Galicia and Poland in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia, 1985), pp. 121–148.



Translated from Hebrew by David Louvish