Dais at the first conference of GEZERD, Moscow, 1926. (Seated, first from right) Khaye Malke Lifshits (Ester Frumkin). (YIVO)

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Society for the Settlement of Jewish Toilers on the Land

(Vsesoiuznoe Obshchestvo po Zemel’nomu Ustroistvu Trudiashchikhsia Evreev v SSSR [All-Union Association for the Agricultural Settlement of Jewish Workers in the USSR], best known by its abbreviation OZET; Yid., GEZERD). Established in January 1925 in Moscow, OZET was headed by Iurii Larin (1882–1932) and his deputy Abram Bragin (1893–?). According to OZET’s charter, membership was open to individuals over 18 provided they had no criminal record as well as to groups with the exception of religious associations and political parties (e.g., He-Ḥaluts, Po‘ale Tsiyon). Initially, OZET’s main assignments were to publicize inside and outside the USSR the plans of Komitet po Zemel’nomu Ustroistvu Evreev (the State Committee for Settling Jews on the Land; KOMZET) to foster Jewish agriculture, and to collect funds for implementing those plans.

In the hands of the person who buys a ticket are thousands of opportunities to win in the 2nd OZET Lottery!" Russian poster. Artwork by Mikhail Dlugatch. Printed in Moscow, 1930s. Among the prizes offered are an apartment in any part of the USSR "valued at 10,000 rubles"; two trips to the United States of America; two train trips on the Russian Railroad to Western Europe worth 2000 rubles; 30 trips to Crimea, Ukraine, or Caucasus; 50 bicycles; 30 sewing machines; and 160 watches. (Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ludwig Jesselson, 1998.626. Collection of Yeshiva University Museum, New York)

From its inception OZET proclaimed itself a nonpolitical, nonparty body. Like other so-called public organizations, however, OZET was headed by figures close to Soviet ruling circles. For example, in May 1925, the Evsektsiia (the Jewish section of the Communist Party), with the support of the Party Central Committee, opposed including active Zionists in OZET’s administration and called for limiting OZET’s acceptance of lishentsy (disenfranchized citizens), although the charter did not ban their membership.

OZET aided only new agricultural settlements, not Jewish colonies or farms already in existence. It arranged the transfer of settlers to their new locations, built homes for them, and provided them with livestock and equipment. OZET staff also carried out some functions not officially included in the charter: they helped Jewish farmers obtain credits from banks and wrote appeals regarding the frequent land conflicts with peasants and local officials, passing these on to high-level state authorities.

In November 1926 the first OZET congress took place in Moscow, with 269 delegates and 14 delegations from abroad. Mikhail Kalinin, chairman of the Vsesoiuznyi Tsentral’nyi Ispolnitel’nyi Komitet (Central Executive Committee; VTsIK) gave a speech critical of assimilation, in which he mentioned the possible establishment of a Jewish autonomous territory. The speech was followed by a contentious discussion of ethnically Jewish agricultural settlements.

The proponents of Jewish colonization, mainly nonparty people headed by Bragin, believed that contiguous Jewish agricultural settlement should be established as a basis for a future Jewish republic, where the majority of Soviet Jews would concentrate. Opposing them were Evsektsiia officials who considered the idea of a Jewish republic untimely, viewing Jewish involvement in agriculture not as a Jewish national goal but as an integral part of building socialism in the USSR. At the congress Semen Dimanshtein was elected chairman of OZET’s central council, which enhanced the Evsektsiia’s influence on OZET. In 1927 OZET began publishing its journal, Tribuna evreiskoi sovetskoi obshchestvennosti (Tribune of the Soviet Jewish Community); the word Jewish was dropped in 1929, after which it was called simply Tribuna. The organization published books and brochures in Russian, Yiddish, Ukrainian, and other languages, organized five fund-raising lotteries, and sponsored art exhibitions propagandizing its program.

Only in the Soviet Union Do Jews Have the Right to Work the Land." Yiddish poster. Artwork by Y. Slanit (?). Printed by the Society for the Settlement of Jewish Toilers on the Land (OZET), Moscow, 1928. This graphic poster has panels captioned in rhyme, depicting the economic shortcomings of Jewish life before the Soviet Union, the sufferings of Jews in pogroms, the Soviet authorities deciding to "give the Jews land" to improve their situation (central oval), Jews being settled on farming colonies and calling upon all luft-mentshn (lit., air-people, those without a fixed occupation, jacks-of-all-trades) to work the land "in the free air." (Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ludwig Jesselson, 1998.617. Collection of Yeshiva University Museum, New York)

In February 1928 the central bodies of OZET declared that they would take responsibility for the financial and practical aspects of settling Jews in Birobidzhan while reducing support for Jewish agriculture in other parts of the country. In Birobidzhan OZET helped build roads and contributed to the improvement of sanitary conditions, medical care, and cultural life.

In 1929 mass purges began to affect local branches of OZET. The former rational, apolitical (economic) rather than class approach to the selection of potential Jewish farmers for resettlement and the avoidance of antireligious and anti-Zionist propaganda were declared erroneous. Increasing OZET membership became a goal in itself, resulting in the establishment of OZET cells at factories and institutions and the creation of an organization called Friends of OZET. In November 1927, OZET had 95,000 members and in December 1930, some 300,000. This increase was largely due to the enrollment of non-Jews, which diluted the organization’s Jewish character or, in the language of the time, made it more “international.” By late 1930 non-Jews accounted for approximately 45 percent of OZET membership. During the first Five-Year Plan (1928–1932), OZET also undertook to retrain Jews for industry. Its courses enabled a considerable number of Jews to find employment in the cities.

In the mid-1930s the association’s priority was the enrollment and training of settlers for Birobidzhan; from October 1934 the practical aspects of resettlement there were dealt with by KOMZET. At this time, the leadership of local OZETs was drawn mainly from party and trade union bodies.

In the mid-1930s, the view was expressed that OZET had already fulfilled its goals and that the further development of Birobidzhan was the business of the state and not that of a public organization. However, the Soviet leadership made it clear that any decision to disband OZET was the prerogative of the party. During the Great Terror of the second half of the 1930s, many OZET activists were arrested. In January 1938 the Central Committee of the Communist Party adopted a resolution to close Tribuna and, in February, OZET chairman Dimanshtein was arrested. He was replaced by Sergei Chutskaev (1876–1946), who from 1935 had been acting chairman of KOMZET. OZET was liquidated by a resolution of the Council of People’s Commissars in May 1938.

Suggested Reading

Ya‘akov Levavi, “Ḥevrah le-sidur ḥakla’i shel yehudim ‘amelim bi-Verit ha-Mo‘atsot,” He-‘Avar 16 (1969): 118–130; Itskhak Oren (Nadel’) and Naftali Prat, eds., “OZET,” in Kratkaia evreiskaia entsiklopediia, vol. 6, cols. 139–142 (Jerusalem, 1992); Pervyi vsesoiuznyi s”ezd OZET v Moskve 15–20 noiabria 1926 g.: Stenograficheskii otchet (Moscow, 1927); Arkadii Zeltser, “OZET and the Soviet Self-Criticism Campaign of 1937,” Jews in Eastern Europe 3 [40] (1999): 57–100.



Translated from Russian by Yisrael Cohen