Nationalism, Jewish identity and the call of Zion

An excerpt from Antony Polonsky's 'The Jews in Poland and Russia'

In recent years there has been considerable debate on the nature of nationalism. Nationalist ideologues have stressed the timeless and primordial character of national identity. In fact, it is clear that nationalism is, above all, a product of the political changes of the nineteenth century—the waning of supranational ideologies and the growing importance of popular sovereignty. What has marked the debate about the character of nationalism has been, rather, a difference of emphasis. On the one hand there are those, like Benedict Anderson, who see nationalism as a wholly new phenomenon and the nation as an ‘imagined community’ which emerged in response to the development of modern methods of communication and new political conditions. This position is disputed by people like Anthony Smith who accept the modern character of nationalism as a political movement, but emphasize the extent to which the national idea in different areas was built on an older core of ethnic self-consciousness—what he calls the ‘ethnie’.

In the case of the Jews, it is clear that, within the traditional Jewish identity, there were many elements, above all the call for the return to Zion and the constant emphasis on Jewish life in Erets Yisra’el, which provided nationalist ideologues with a firm foundation on which to build a modern national identity. Indeed, one of the reasons why the national idea proved rather more successful than its socialist rivals among the Jews of eastern Europe was because it harmonized so well with the traditional Jewish view of the world.

In the emergence of the Jewish national movement, one can distinguish three different components, which were often combined. There were those who became nationalists because of the persistence of antisemitism and what they perceived as the impossibility of Jewish integration. Then there were those who became nationalists because they believed integration was being bought at too high a price. Assimilation would lead to the disappearance of the Jewish people or, at best, to the loss of all that was authentically Jewish. Finally, there were those who attempted to fuse nationalism with another ideology, either with socialism or with some form of Jewish religious identity.

Among those who became Zionists because of their belief in the incurable Judaeophobia of the Christian world were the former integrationist and veteran of the Crimean War Leon Pinsker (1821–91) and the repentant maskil Moses Leib Lilienblum (1843–1910). Pinsker, a doctor in Odessa, had in the 1860s been one of the editors of the integrationist weekly Sion. In his pamphlet Autoemancipation (published in 1882) he argued that emancipation in Russian conditions was a chimera. Judaeophobia was too deeply ingrained. It resulted neither from the economic or social position of the Jews nor from the religious prejudices of Christianity. The Jews were incomprehensible to the larger society: were they a religious, a national, or a social group? They were seen as a ghost, an unnatural survival, and they aroused the panic which ghosts provoke. The answer was to ‘normalize’ the situation of the Jews, and through self-emancipation make them like the other nations which were coming to political maturity in nineteenth-century Europe. The Jewish ‘ghost’ should be transformed into a real being by establishing the Jewish people on a territory of their own, whether in Palestine or in America. In order to achieve this goal a general Jewish Congress should be called and entrusted with the preparation of a plan to achieve this.

Lilienblum had been a major figure in the earlier Hebrew revival and had advocated radical religious reform. From the autumn of 1881 he began in a series of articles to call for Jewish colonization in Palestine. The Jews were everywhere alien, because total assimilation was not possible. They were tenants, tolerated by the landlord as long as they were convenient. But at the first conflict between them the landlord will evict the tenant. In the Middle Ages this was justified on religious grounds; now national and economic factors were cited. Jewish suffering could only be ended if the Jews could find a country where they themselves could be the landlord. Such a country was Palestine, the ancient Jewish fatherland. ‘We must undertake the colonization of Palestine on so comprehensive a scale that in the course of one century the Jews will be able to leave inhospitable Europe almost entirely and settle in the land of our forefathers to which we are legally entitled.’

Other people who fell into this category, believing integration to be impossible, were the founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, and his fellow-journalist Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880–1940), born in Odessa. Herzl, who worked for the liberal Neue Freie Zeitung in Vienna, became convinced in the 1890s that assimilation was a mirage. Jabotinsky distinguished between the ‘antisemitism of people’ and the ‘antisemitism of things’. The former was the result of prejudice and could be minimized; the latter was the consequence of the inevitable economic conflict caused by the competition between Jewish middlemen and the rising middle class of nations like the Poles and Ukrainians and could not be avoided. He rejected liberalism as an illusion:

It is a wise philosopher who said, ‘Man is a wolf to man’ . . . Stupid is the person who believes in his neighbour, good and loving as that neighbour may be; stupid is the person who relies on justice. Justice exists only for those whose fists and stubbornness make it possible for them to realize it.

Among those who saw assimilation and the loss of the Jewish national substance as the principal dangers facing the Jewish people was Asher Ginsburg (1856–1927), who wrote under the pen-name Ahad Ha’am (One of the People). (For more on Ahad Ha’am, see Chapter 7.) Ginsburg, educated at a yeshiva and subsequently at a Jewish high school, was the most brilliant Hebrew essayist of his generation. He was convinced that before large-scale colonization of Palestine could prove successful, the Jewish people would have to be transformed and permeated by the national idea. He saw this idea in elevated terms: ‘We must propagate the national idea and convert it into a lofty moral ideal.’ This was his goal in establishing an elitist semi-masonic organization, the Benei Moshe, in 1890s. He believed that Palestine could never accommodate all of the Jewish people and opposed the ‘negation of the diaspora’ of Herzl, Nordau, and similar thinkers. The goal should be to establish a national centre on the historic soil from which the Jewish people had sprung, which would radiate its influence over the whole of the diaspora. Only in such a centre could the Hebrew language revive and Jewish culture develop freely and naturally. It was these ideas which he propagated tirelessly in his essays.

Similar views were held by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (pseudonym of Eliezer Yitshak Perelman, 1858–1922), the architect of the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language who in his youth had been close to the Russian Populists (Narodniki), and by the younger German Zionist Martin Buber (1878–1965).

Finally, there were those who combined Zionism with socialism or religion. Of the Zionist Socialists, the most important were Nahman Syrkin (1868–1924), Ber Borochov (1881–1927), and Aharon David Gordon (1865–1922). Syrkin had joined Hovevei Zion (the Lovers of Zion) but had also been close to the Russian revolutionary movement. After a brief imprisonment for revolutionary activity he moved to Germany and attended the first and subsequent Zionist conferences, where he attacked the dominance of ‘bourgeois and clerical elements’. At the same time he denounced Jewish socialists for whom ‘socialism meant first of all the abandonment of Jewishness just as the liberalism of the Jewish bourgeoisie led to assimilation’. He thus called for Jewish communal settlement in Palestine and the creation of a Jewish society there in which workers would predominate. He set up a number of small Zionist–socialist groups in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and wrote pamphlets for distribution in the tsarist empire. He briefly returned to Russia between 1905 and 1907, settling subsequently in the United States, where he became the leading figure in Po’alei Zion (the Workers of Zion).

Ber Borochov was the main ideologue of the Po’alei Zion movement. He argued that the world was divided vertically into classes and horizontally into nations. The class struggle takes place in these horizontal groupings. If an entire nation is subjugated by another, the dominant group attempts to impose its values on those it has conquered. The conquered nation is therefore oppressed by the bourgeoisie of the victorious group and culturally subjugated. National liberation has to precede the class struggle in the nation. The specific problem of the Jews resulted from both national oppression and their unhealthy class structure. The Jewish people was like an inverted pyramid, with a narrow base and too large a summit. It needed to be transformed by making the majority workers and peasants. This could only be accomplished in Palestine, where socialism could be built on the basis of the toiling Jewish masses. In the diaspora one should seek cultural autonomy, as was advocated by the ideologists of Austro-Marxism, the supranational socialist movement in the Habsburg empire, which had a considerable influence on Borochov and his followers.

Aharon David Gordon was influenced by Russian Populism and Slavophile romanticism, and settled in Palestine in 1903. In his view the Jews were unhealthy because they had lost their connection with the land. For them to become a nation again, they needed to transform themselves into farmers in the ancient homeland. In his words:

We have as yet no national assets because our people have not paid the price for them. A people can acquire land only by its own effort, by realizing the potentialities of its body and soul, by unfolding and revealing its inner self. This is a two-sided transaction, but the people comes first—the people comes before the land. But a parasitical people is not a living people. Our people can be brought to life only if each one of us recreates himself through labour and a life close to nature.

Among those who sought to combine Zionism with religion were Isaac Jacob Reines (1839–1915) and Ze’ev Jawitz (1847–1924). Reines, who was born in Karolin, in Belarus, studied at the yeshiva in Volozhin before holding the post of rabbi in Šaukėnai (Shavkany), Švenčionys (Święciany), and Lida. He attempted  while in Lida to found a modern yeshiva where secular subjects would be studied. His first attempt in 1891 was frustrated by Orthodox opposition, but after 1905 he succeeded in creating a thriving institution. He was one of the first supporters of Hovevei Zion and was immediately attracted to Herzl’s political Zionism, participating in the first Zionist conferences. In 1902 he convened a meeting of a group of rabbis and traditional laymen who founded a religious–Zionist movement to which they gave the name Mizrahi (from merkaz ruhani, spiritual centre; the name also alluded to the fact that Jews were returning to the East (Mizrah)). Another of those involved in its foundation was the writer Ze’ev Jawitz, who was born in Kolno, in the western part of the Kingdom of Poland, and was a contributor to Perets Smolenskin’s monthly journal Hashahar. He set out his views in an article, ‘Migdal hame’ah’ (Tower of the Century, published in 1887), in which he united his support for a romantic version of the return to Zion with German-style religious orthodoxy.

The emergence of Jewish nationalism was a phenomenon which took place on a wider stage than the tsarist empire. Indeed, one of its strengths was that it brought together Jews from the areas of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth who still retained strong links with their Jewish heritage with more acculturated Jews from central Europe. The latter were concerned both with the disruptive effect which the crisis of Russian Jewry would have on the position of the more integrated Jews of central and western Europe and with the unnecessary and humiliating compromises that had been made in pursuit of the goal of integration into their societies. The evolution of the Zionist movement owed much to the interaction between these two groups, and its development was encouraged by the movement to central Europe of east European Zionists, among them ideologists like Smolenskin, who established himself in Vienna, and the later generation of Russian Jewish university students who were compelled to study in the West because of restrictions in the tsarist empire.

There now began to emerge in the tsarist empire Zionist groups, such as Ahavat Zion (The Love of Zion), Kibbutz Nidhei Yisrael (The Ingathering of the Wanderers of Israel), and, most important, Hovevei Zion, the brainchild of Pinsker and Lilienblum. The organization held its initial meeting in November 1884 in Katowice, in German Silesia, just across the border from the Kingdom of Poland, in order to evade the surveillance of the tsarist police. By 1885 it had nearly 14,000 members and began to encourage agricultural colonization in Palestine. It was granted legal status in the tsarist empire in 1890 as the Society for the Support of Jewish Farmers and Artisans in Syria and Palestine. It never became a mass movement and was unsuccessful in its goal of obtaining the support of the Russian Jewish financial elite. However, it did create a new sort of Jewish settlement in Palestine. As a result of the waves of immigration which became known as the ‘first aliyah’, some fifteen agricultural colonies were estab-lished and 20,000 new settlers brought to Palestine, who differed strikingly in their nationalist ideology from the existing Jewish inhabitants, the ‘old Yishuv’. Some progress was also made in the creation of a Hebrew and national school system in Palestine and in reviving the Hebrew language.

Needless to say, these achievements, significant though they were to be for the later development of the Yishuv, could not significantly alleviate the growing crisis of Russian Jewry. A second wave of Zionist activity was sparked off by the development of political Zionism and the holding of the first International Zionist Congress in Basel in August 1897 organized by Theodor Herzl. Herzl’s call for a Jewish state, expressed in the pamphlet Der Judenstaat, which was published in 1896, echoed many of Pinsker’s ideas in its call for the concentration of the Jews in a separated territory, whether in Palestine or in Argentina. What was new about Herzl was his charisma as a repentant supporter of integration and a well-known columnist for the Viennese Neue Freie Presse, the strongest protagonist of the integrationist cause in the Habsburg monarchy. In addition, like Pinsker, Herzl had a clear, if oversimplified, political vision. The establishment of the Jewish homeland was to be achieved by the creation of Jewish representative bodies. These would enter into negotiations with governments who would cede to the Jews an appropriate territory under an international protectorate in which the Jewish masses could be resettled. The financial costs of this operation would be borne jointly by the governments concerned and by the international Jewish financial elite.

This bold plan, with its assertion that all that was necessary was the exercise of political will—‘If you only will it, then it is no dream’, in Herzl’s phrase— electrified the flagging Hovevei Zion movement in the tsarist empire. Representatives of both Western and Eastern Jewry assembled at the first Zionist Congress. Already the conflict between the two aspects of the movement—that which sought a haven for the threatened Jewish masses and that which was above all concerned with the creation of an authentic Jewish national culture—was clear. Of the four articles of the programme adopted at this conference, three dealt with the political and financial aspects of the attempt to settle the Jewish masses in Palestine and only one called for the ‘strengthening of Jewish national feeling and self-respect’.

Generally speaking, the principal supporters of political Zionism were to be found in German-speaking central Europe, while the stronghold of cultural Zionism was located in the tsarist empire, as was evident in subsequent annual conferences, in Basel in 1898 and 1899, in London in 1900, and again in Basel in 1901. Great efforts were made on both the political and the cultural planes. On the political front, a Jewish Colonial Trust and a Jewish National Fund were created, and diplomatic negotiations were undertaken with the Turkish and other governments in order to obtain a ‘charter’ which would make possible the Jewish colonization of Palestine. On the cultural front, strong efforts were undertaken to promote Hebrew, to create a Jewish school system based on national principles, and to ‘conquer the communities’ for Zionism. When the Russian Zionists met at their conference in Minsk in 1902, they paid particular attention to cultural issues, establishing two educational committees, one Orthodox, the other progressive, which were to foster national principles in their respective school systems. Ahad Ha’am was also invited to submit a report on the ‘spiritual regeneration of Judaism’, and a resolution was adopted which called for the intensification of Zionist cultural activity. The rapid growth of Zionism in the tsarist empire after the first Zionist Conference can be gauged by the fact that, by the year of the Minsk conference, nearly 70,000 shekel payers (members) had been organized into almost 500 societies. Religious Zionism also began to expand, and by its second conference in Lida in March 1903 Mizrahi had over 200 branches in the tsarist empire and had also established groups in central and western Europe.

On the larger political scene less was achieved. Herzl’s negotiations with the Turkish sultan, the German emperor, and a number of other European governments in order to obtain a Zionist charter making possible the Jewish colonization of Palestine all proved abortive. The Jewish Colonial Trust proved unable to achieve its objective of raising $10 million for its purposes, a sum which was in any event much less than would have been needed. The attempt to accelerate Jewish settlement in Palestine was also unsuccessful. Indeed, as Dubnow has pointed out, ‘the strength of the movement lay, not in the political aims of the organization, which were mostly beyond reach, but in the very fact that tens of thousands of Jews were organized with a national end in view’.


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