Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Zionism and Jewish emancipation within Europe

  • Cultural Field
    Cultural Current
    Historical background and context
    Cultural Community
    Roosen, André

    Jewish political consciousness-raining in Eastern Europe was spurred on by the anti-Semitism and the pogroms that were unleashed after the murder of Alexander II in 1881. In Katowice (then under Prussian rule, and outside Tsarist reach) a Jewish federation was formed in 1884 called Hovevei Zion (“Lovers of Zion”). They chose for their headquarters the city of Odessa, with Leon Pinsker (1821–1891) as president. Pinsker had published a brochure in 1882 advocating self-government and the establishment of an autonomous territorial state (Autoemancipation! Mahnruf an seine Stammesgenossen von einem russischen Juden, 1882). It was left open whether such a self-governing territory should be located in Palestine or in the United States – at the time a mass exodus towards the US was gathering steam which between 1880 and 1930 would total 1,750,000 Russian-Jewish migrants. Almost all of them were Yiddish speakers from the so-called Pale of Settlement, the western provinces and borderlands of the Russian Empire which had been allotted as the only place where Jews could freely take up residence.

    Establishing a new territorial autonomy outside the Russian Empire, already a concern for Moses Hess, was most influentially propounded by Theodor Herzl, born in Budapest but living in Vienna and working as a journalist in Paris, in his Der Judenstaat: Versuch einer modernen Lösing der Judenfrage (1896). Herzl organized the First Zionist Congress in 1897; the second one, in 1898, established a financial institution in London, the Jewish Colonial Trust, to finance Zionist activities, as well as the Anglo-Palestine Bank, later renamed Bank Leumi. The territorial focus here was on settlement in Palestine, and with additional support from sponsors like Rothschild, a first wave of migrants moved to that area from 1882 on. Even so, other options were envisaged. In the US, a Jewish “city of refuge”, named Ararat, had been tentatively established near the Niagara Falls in 1825; Herzl himself had considered the possibility of Argentina, where the philanthropist Maurice von Hirsch had financed Jewish settlements; Cyprus, the Sinai peninsula, Suriname, Tasmania and Madagascar were occasionally discussed, as well as various British colonies. Uganda was briefly seen as a serious option, and defended by Herzl on the Third Zionist Congress in 1903. When, following Herzl’s death, the 1905 congress definitively opted for Palestine, Israel Zangwill left the movement in protest and founded a rival Jewish Territorialist Organisation.

    The first wave of settlement in Palestine elicited debate and conflicting viewpoints from various quarters. On the right, there was Revisionist Zionism, headed by the Russian activist Ze’ev (born Vladimir) Jabotinsky (1880–1940) and inspired by Max Nordau’s Nietzschean ideas on Muskeljudentum (“muscular Jewry”); it favoured armed self-defence against anti-Semitism and, later, a militant appropriation of Palestinian land for the establishment of a Jewish state. More on the left, and led initially by Herzl’s successor Chaim Weizmann (Motal 1874 – Rehovot 1949), an approach took hold that eschewed the backing of imperial powers and relied instead on labour collectives such as kibbutzes and cooperative societies. This approach dominated the second wave of migration to Palestine (1904-14), during which the Palestine Land Development Company and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem were established. Within Russia, many leftist Jewish activists disapproved of Zionism altogether as a capitalist-backed bourgeois movement; this was the position of the Bund (Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter-bund in Lite, Poyln un Rusland, founded in 1917), which also preferred Yiddish to revived Hebrew as the language of Jewish identity. Others developed a socialist “workers’ Zionism”: Nachman Syrkin (Mogilev 1868 – New York 1924), Ber Boročov (Zolotonosha 1881 – Kiev 1917), founder of the Poale Zion (“Workers of Zion”) and Aharon David Gordon (Zhytomyr region 1856 – kibbutz Degania 1922), Tolstoyan and driving force behind the kibbutz movement with his organization Hapoel Hatzair (“The Young Worker”). This attitude was strongly represented in the second migration wave, which was triggered by the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 and the anti-Semitic unrest following the failed revolution of 1905. Of the total Jewish population of Palestine, numbering 85,000 in 1914, 25,000 had immigrated from Russia after 1904. Among them was David Ben-Gurion (born Grün, Plońsk 1886 – Ramat Gan 1973), who founded a social-democratic breakaway party from Boročev’s Poale Zion in 1919. By this time the Jewish community in Palestine had opted firmly for Hebrew, not Yiddish, as their common language, and in 1909 had founded an armed defence organization, Hashomer (“The Watchman”).

    Within Europe, Russian-Jewish activists established a territorialist movement, aimed at safeguarding a Jewish identity without necessarily settling in a Palestinian homeland, and preferring the use of Yiddish over Hebrew. Those who, like Simon Dubnow, were repelled by Bolshevism, relocated their activities to the West (Berlin and Vilnius), founding the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (YIVO) in Vilnius in 1925 as an alternative to Leopold Zunz’s more Western Wissenschaft des Judentums movement. Within Russia, the Yiddishist critic and thinker Chaim Žitlovskij (nr Vitebsk 1865 – Calgary 1943) had founded the Socialist Jewish Workers’ Party in 1906. Žitlovskij’s culture-political programme dovetailed class and ethnicity, in the style of Austro-Marxism; this approach was repressed after the rise of Stalin, who (while occasionally and capriciously evincing sympathy for the cultural diversity of the Soviet Union) felt that Judaism, religion-based as it largely was, was fundamentally reactionary. A Jewish Commissariat was established in 1917, which opposed Zionism (even its socialist variant) and the revival of Hebrew; but Jewish organizations were successively dismantled after 1925, and Russia’s Jews were forcibly dissuaded from their traditional trades to become “productive” labourers.

    Calls for a separate homeland were still made, however. In the 1920s, Jewish settlements on the Crimea were planned and set in motion; by 1939, the Crimea and the adjacent areas of Southern Ukraine had circa 85,000 Jewish inhabitants. This led to considerable frictions with the area‘s Turkic-Islamic (“Tatar”) inhabitants, who had in recent decades been sensitized to their own ethnicity by the likes of Ismail Gasprinskij. An alternative was sought, and found in the extreme east of Siberia, between the Bira and Dižan tributaries of the Amur river on the border with China. The town of Birobidžan was founded in 1932 and became the capital of a separate province designated as a Jewish homeland. Of the area’s 100,000 inhabitants, 18,000 were Jewish by 1939.

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    In memoriam Arthur Mitzman, 1931–2021.

    Word Count: 4

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    Frankel, Jonathan; Prophecy and politics. Socialism, nationalism and the Russian Jews 1862-1917 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984).

    Kagedan, Allan Laine; Soviet Zion: The quest for a Russian Jewish homeland (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994).

    Kuchenbecker, Antje; “Ein «Rotes Palästina» im Fernen Osten der Sowjetunion - die Verbannung einer Idee. Die Auseinandersetzungen um ein autonomes jüdisches Siedlungsgebiet in der frühen UdSSR”, Archiv für Sozialgeschichte, 37 (1997), 255-287.

    Pinkus, Benjamin; The Jews of the Soviet Union: The history of a national minority (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988).

    Polonsky, Antony; The Jews in Poland and Russia (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009).

    Rovner, Adam; In the shadow of Zion: Promised lands before Israel (New York: New York UP, 2014).

    Schmidt, Axel; Birobidžan: Von der Idee einer jüdischen Heimstätte im Fernen Osten der Sowjetunion (München: Grin, 2011).

    Slezkine, Yuri; The Jewish century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2004).

    Sternhell, Ze’ev; Aux origines d’Israël. Entre nationalisme et socialisme (Paris: Fayard, 1996).

    Weinberg, Robert; Stalin’s forgotten Zion. Birobidzhan and the making of a Soviet Jewish homeland (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998).

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    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Roosen, André, 2022. "Zionism and Jewish emancipation within Europe", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 23-03-2022, consulted 02-03-2024.