Paper for the UC/Utrecht Symposium on Jewish Politics and Political Behavior

12 October 2008

David N. Myers (UCLA)

This paper grows out of my ongoing interest in Jewish political discourse, and particularly the way in which Jewish collectivity has been imagined and discursively constructed. This interest, I should note at the outset, blends the historical and contemporary. In particular, I am intrigued by the once-vibrant ideological and theoretical debate of the early twentieth century that revolved around the idea of a Jewish nation. I am struck as well by the comparative state of poverty in thinking about Jewish collectivity today, which may well reflect the actual weak state of Jewish groupness—a function, at least in part, of the Jews’ very success in attaining social stability, economic affluence, and even political power in their diverse countries of residence.

Today’s paper, which is part of a larger book project on the past and future of the idea of a Jewish nation, will soon return to the question of what accounts for the thinness of contemporary discussions of Jewish collectivity. But our main task in the body of the paper will be to begin excavating a history of Jewish nationalism that has been somewhat forgotten, neglected, and at times, marginalized. I argue that there is in fact a common thread linking the theoretical poverty today and the partial narrative of Jewish nationalism that has been received: namely, the rise to dominance of one variant of Jewish nationalist ideology, what I call Statist Zionism.

Before exploring this link between Jewish political discourse and historical self-representation, a more preliminary, but important, task remains: to think through a key but oft-misunderstood term, “nation.” The group that is at the center of our attention here has have been called many things: Hebrews, the Chosen People, the children of Israel, the people of Israel, Klal Yisrael, members of the Mosaic faith, and of course, that recurrent epithet, Jews. Periodically, and with particularly intensity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Jews were called a nation. But what do we mean when we say “nation”? What is a nation?

The formulation of this question readily calls to mind the famous lecture of the French philologist Ernest Renan, “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?”—What is a nation—delivered at the Sorbonne on 11 March 1882. The renowned scholar, author of dozens of books on Semitic philology, Christianity, and the life of Jesus, refers to this lecture as “my profession of faith in all that touches things human.”[1] It was on this occasion that Renan declared that “(a) nation is a soul, a spiritual principle”—rather than an entity rooted in “race, language, material interest, religious affinities, geography, and military necessity.” Although he casts doubt at the outset about whether the Jews constitute a nation, Renan’s criteria, positive and negative, would seem applicable to a group that lacked the conventional nineteenth-century attributes of a nation: land and language. It is no surprise then that the somewhat later Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, who described the Jews as a “spiritual nation,” drew on Renan in formulating his theory of nationalism. It is also interesting to discover, in this vein, that Jewish contemporaries of Renan’s were working with similar conceptual tools in conceiving of Jewish collectivity.

We shall return to that subject later, but I do want to recall the ongoing relevance of the most quoted line from Renan’s 1882 lecture: a nation’s existence, he wrote, is, “un plébiscite de tous les jours,” a daily plebiscite manifesting “the consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life.” Here Renan anticipates that important strain of recent scholarly discourse on nationalism that has been called “constructivist.”[2] Over the past two decades or so, prominent scholars such as Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm, and Benedict Anderson have pointed to the invented, imagined, or constructed quality of nationalism in the modern era. These “modernists,” according to Anthony D. Smith’s taxonomy, stand in contrast to the “primordialists” and “perennialists,” who believe in the ancient roots and enduring essence of a particular national group. The “modernists” counter by asserting the recent invention of nationalism, an insight that has inspired a generation of fruitful new research focused on the ways in which historical narratives, collective memories, and symbols of the national past were forged under the weight of massive political, economic, and social change. The net effect of this research has been salutary, leading to a richly textured understanding of the formation of nationalist movements. And yet, the constructivist stance can be a bit rigid and overstated if, for example, it ignores, as Smith notes, “the pre-existing cultures and ethnic ties of the nations that emerged in the modern epoch.”[3] The challenge then in comprehending the phenomenon of nationalism is to acknowledge these “pre-existing ties” without denying the new historical, cultural, and political innovations that give form to modern nationalist movements—or the willful act of declaring membership in a nation. (It is this later point that emerges most clearly from Renan’s memorable quote). Finding the proper balance is particularly germane in the case of the Jews where the presence of a long-standing sense of shared descent and destiny, stretching across time and space, is undeniable, just as is the effect of modern and modernizing agents of change in imagining anew the bounds of the Jewish collective.[4]

One of the curious and little remarked features of this imagining process is the foray into self-denomination—into naming the collective. European Jews in the mid-nineteenth century, embedded in societies affirming their own sense of national integrity, labored to find the best way to name themselves. They described themselves as a confession of faith, a religious community, a community of fate (Schicksalsgemeinschaft), a tribe (Stamm). Later, toward the end of the century, they began to designate themselves more assertively as a nation. Throughout the early twentieth century, this language of Jewish nationhood was widespread among Jewish intellectuals, writers, and scholars, especially in Europe, though one of the characteristic features of this discursive moment was the considerable divergence over the ways in which the term was understood. Over the course of the latter half of the twentieth century, this mode of Jewish political discourse—marked by the ubiquitous use of the language of “nation,” alongside an obsessive need to name the collective--began to dissipate. Since that time, and up to the present, there has been relatively little meditation about the nature of Jewish collectivity, especially when compared to the golden age of ideological contestation that extended from 1897 to 1939.

Why is this so? I would like to suggest briefly two interrelated reasons. First, the guiding modern ethos of personal autonomy that emboldens the “sovereign self” (in the well-known phrase of Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen), discourages fixed affiliation to and identification with a group. Mobility, diversity, and hybridity rather than commitment to a single group are the hallmark of this individual. To be sure, this is not a uniquely Jewish trend, but rather part of a much wider current. The recent Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey paints an interesting picture, showing that 44% of Americans have chosen a religious affiliation other than the one in which they were raised; 37% have a partner of a different religion.

Jews are a small but noticeable strand in that larger fabric, which The Economist summarizes in an article on the Pew study as a case of “brand disloyalty.”[5] To be sure, the oft-remarked drift and alienation of young Jews are important factors in the impoverishment of thinking about Jewish collectivity, but I believe that there is a second, and perhaps even more important, factor at work. It has to do with the fact that one form of Jewish nationalist thought emerged triumphant over the others, owing both to its own strengths and historical circumstance. I have in mind Zionism—and even more particularly, a brand of Zionism that we might call “Statism.” Rooted in the world-view of Theodor Herzl and finding fulfillment in David Ben-Gurion’s notion of mamlakhtiyut, Statism maintains that the creation of a Jewish state is not merely a means to an end (for example, physical security, economic stability, or cultural growth), but an end in and of itself—that the State is the repository and fulfillment of the collective identity of Jews. This confusion, as I see it, of means and ends has transformed Statism into a sacred article of faith for many Jews, those in the State of Israel and, significantly, those outside of it. Indeed, for the latter, Statism, as expressed in political and financial support, has become their Jewish raison d’être. What, we might ask, is wrong with this?

Apart from the often uncritical and fetishistic veneration that Statism can induce, it also leads easily to the claim that fulfillment as a Jew is only possible by dwelling within Israel’s borders. This idea, of course, resonates with a deeply-rooted Zionist principle, shelilat ha-galut, the desired “negation of the Exile.” Lest one assume that this principle is a relic of the past, we need only recall the speech by Israeli author, A. B. Yehoshua, at the American Jewish Committee’s centennial conference in May 2006. There Yehoshua reprised a familiar theme of his by making a pair of interrelated claims: first, “Jewish-Israeli identity,” as he calls is, “is immeasurably fuller and broader and more meaningful than the Jewishness of an American Jew.” This is so because, second, in Israel Jews “are governed by Jews,” “pay taxes to Jews,” “are judged by Jews,” “are called up to serve in the army,” etc.[6] In other words, Jewish identity reaches its pinnacle of realization through the instruments and symbols of political sovereignty.

It is undeniably the case that a fair number of Jews in the world, including those in the Diaspora, embrace these instruments and symbols as constitutive of their Jewishness.[7] But it appears that a growing number of Jews feel increasingly detached from this kind of Statist identity. A 2007 study by Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman reveals that with the passing of generations, Jewish attitudes toward Israel are changing, “as warmth gives way to indifference, and indifference may even give way to downright alienation.”[8] While Statism is surely not the only reason why this is so, I would suggest that as the dominant mode of Israel-related identification for Jews in Israel and beyond, it isn’t working so well either. Why might this be so? Statism, I believe, fails to provide an embracing rubric for collective identification because it is absolute and exclusive in its demands, yet, at the same time, culturally thin. According to Statist logic, only in the State of Israel does a Jew receive—and deserve—full membership in the Jewish national body (leaving aside here the question of the status of non-Jews in Israel). Diaspora Jews—well over half of the world Jewish population of 13 million--are perforce required to accept a weak, second-order form of membership in the Jewish collective, less as active participants than as passive observers. Moreover, so much of this second-class membership hinges on support for the policies of a particular government rather than on the fostering of deep and enduring ties to a culture, language, land, or people.

Statism strikes me from this perspective as both brittle and high stakes, standing to alienate and lose many with a shift in political winds. The balance of this paper will seek to demonstrate that, historically, there were alternatives to Statism that offered up rather different understandings of the Jewish collective. One of the consequences of Statism’s triumph, and surely not an unintended one, was to marginalize or ignore these alternatives, both in political rhetoric and in historical narration. This is not to deny that the rise of a Zionist-inspired historiographical establishment in Israel was a seminal development in the annals of modern Jewish scholarship; it surely was. Rather, it is to note that this establishment, marshaling the considerable resources of a national movement and then a state (with a vested interest in shaping a new national narrative), placed a premium on study of the history of Zionism, the Yishuv, and the State of Israel over other subjects in Jewish history. As a result, we have many histories of Zionism and the State of Israel (Sokolow, Böhm, Laqueur, Halpern, Hertzberg, Vital, and Shimoni, to name only a few examples), but almost no histories or source collections of the broader phenomenon of early twentieth-century Jewish nationalism. Similarly, historical researchers have lavished attention on Herzl, Jabotinsky, Weizmann, and Ben-Gurion, but very little on important Jewish nationalists such as Simon Dubnow, Vladimir Medem, or Simon Rawidowicz. (I must add parenthetically that this situation is beginning to be rectified by an excellent group of younger scholars including Gechtman, Guesnet, Karlip, Kuznitz, Pianko, Rabinovitch, Trachtenberg, and Veidlinger.)

Nonetheless, epochal events leave a deep imprint both on the terrain of historical action and on the narrative maps that chart that terrain. In fact, they can induce what Michael André Bernstein has called “backshadowing,” the tendency to “endow the past with the coherence of an inevitable and linear unfolding.”[9] As an antidote, Bernstein proposes, in borrowing from Gary Saul Morson, a strategy of “sideshadowing” that entails “a gesturing to the side, to a present dense with multiple, and mutually exclusive, possibilities for what is to come.”

The creation of the State of Israel was, by almost every measure, an event of epochal significance. True to form, it set in place its own powerful lens of “backshadowing” that has opened new vistas onto the past, but also closed off others. I propose that we begin to engage in the work of sideshadowing, first and foremost, in order to broaden our angle onto the past—for example, to recall that the triumph of a statist form of Jewish nationalism was not always a foregone conclusion, that indeed among the intense ideological competitors were various forms of a non-statist Jewish nationalism. This point may have another, secondary benefit—to simulate debate about the contours of Jewish collectivity today. For some, such a consideration may appear to be a luxury or even inappropriate in serious-minded academic circles. I would argue, on the contrary, that in our fast-moving globalized world in which we hear recurrent reports of the death of the state, renewed reflection on the condition of the Jewish nation may well be instructive and illuminating.



At long last, we join the main task of this paper: excavating the idea of the Jewish nation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I don’t claim to be presenting here the definitive treatment of that idea, but rather a version of the story that cuts against the narrative that has emerged as dominant under the sponsorship of Statist Zionism. So rather than begin in 1897 with the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland and then look forward to the inevitable creation (predicted by Theodor Herzl) of a Jewish state and again backward to the established “precursors of Zionism” (Alkalay, Kalischer, Hess, etc.) as they are known in Zionist historiography, I propose a somewhat less linear recounting that consists of the following chapters: first, a mid- to late-nineteenth-century phase in which Jews began to debate what to call themselves as a collective; second, a period that I’ll call the “golden age of Jewish nationalism,” commencing indeed in 1897, but highlighting less the historical inevitability of Statism and more the common commitment of Jewish nationalist movements to culture; and third, a phase in which rights of Jews as a national minority became a focus of international attention.

Our story begins with a familiar episode often seen as the opening of the curtain of the drama of modern Jewish history. In the midst of a debate in the French National Assembly on 21 December 1789 over the rights of non-Catholics in the new regime, a young deputy, Count Clermont Tonnerre, delivered a line that has earned him a sliver of immortality: “Il faut tout refuser aux Juifs comme nation et tout accorder aux Juifs comme individus” (We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to the Jews as individuals). A few years later, Clermont Tonnerre was defenestrated for his royalist views, but in 1789 he was attempting to hasten the emancipation of the Jews into a new enlightened society. Yes, he said in the vein of Christian Wilhelm Dohm, the Jews may engage in usurious practices, but that “is the effect of our own laws.”[10] What was necessary, the young French nobleman seemed to propose, was a new social contract to guide Jews through the emancipatory process: they could receive rights of citizenship in exchange for shedding vestiges of their strong corporate identity.

A little more than a decade and a half later, the Jewish notables assembled by Napoleon in Paris in 1806 affirmed the terms of this contract when responding to the question of whether “Jews born in France, and treated by the law as French citizens, considered France their country?” “The love of the country,” they declared, “is in the heart of Jews a sentiment so natural, so powerful, and so consonant to their religious opinions, that a French Jew considers himself in England, as among strangers, although he may be among Jews; and the case is the same with English Jews in France.”[11]

This dissolution of a strong fraternal bond among Jews in favor of a new state-based national identity was affirmed by the Sanhedrin that Napoleon convened in Paris in 1807. Beyond France, it emerged as an organizing principle of the first major gathering of Reform rabbis in Germany in 1844. When asked to endorse the Paris Sanhedrin’s position on national loyalty, the rabbis agreed, adopting a committee’s recommendation that the “Jew considers members of the people with whom he lives his brethren.” The only debate was whether the term “brethren” should be understood to mean exclusively fellow Germans or mankind at large; it was never meant to refer to fellow Jews beyond the bounds of the German states.

In the prevalent language of the day, Jews had become a Religionsgemeinschaft, a religious community, as distinct from a Volksgemeinschaft, a national community. The disavowal of a national bond of Jewish affiliation would seem to be confirmed by the founding of the main representative organization of German Jewry in1893 as the Central Organization for German Citizens of the Jewish Faith, a name that spells out the explicit bifurcation of national and religious identities. Indeed, we might reasonably assume that this denationalized tendency held sway among Central European Jews throughout the century until the arrival of early Zionists such as Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau.

In fact, we notice a jag in the current. Decades before Herzl, a number of prominent German-Jewish scholars engaged in a new and instructive discussion over Jewish self-denomination—what to call themselves. Writing in 1869, the Vienna-based scholar and rabbi Adolf Jellinek sought to navigate between the common polarities of Religion and Nation, of a thin religious faith and a broad, territorially grounded nation. He introduced into the Jewish lexicon a mediating term, Stamm, that resists facile translation, but connotes a tribe or, more appropriately for our purposes, an ethnic group. As Till van Rahden notes in a superb article, Jellinek favored this term because it accurately captured the position of Jews in the multinational Habsburg (and then succeeding Austro-Hungarian) Empire. Jews, Jellinek observed, were “particularistic enough, stable enough, subjective enough not to be absorbed by other people,” but also “sufficiently universalistic, enthusiastic, progressive and objective not to persist in insolent and rigid isolation.”[12] Though not advocating an outright national identity for the Jews, Jellinek was seeking to escape the definitional straits—the seeming evisceration of Jewish ethnic bonds—that issued from the Paris Sanhedrin.

We should recall that this period, especially the 1870s and 1880s in Central Europe, was rife with debates about the Jews’ national, social, religious, and racial otherness. It was in this period, we recall, that the neologism “anti-Semitism” was born. It was also in this period that the German historian, Heinrich Treitschke, excoriated his Jewish contemporary, Heinrich Graetz, for his highly partisan account of Jews and non-Jews in Germany—in the midst of which Treitschke burst out with the memorable pronouncement that “the Jews are our misfortune.” Graetz, in fact, was attempting to assert that Jews were different from the Germans among whom they dwelt, and even invoked that regnant (if multivalent) standard of the day, race, as a key connective tissue among Jews. A barrage of ferocious responses came flying at both Graetz and Treitschke in what has come to be known as the Berlin Antisemitismusstreit of 1879-1881.

One of the most interesting entries in this controversy was the lecture delivered in early December 1879 by the German-Jewish philosopher and psychologist, Moritz Lazarus. Lazarus’ theme was “Was heißt National?”—which we might translate as “What is a Nation?” Three key points in this lecture merit our attention. First, sensitive to claims that Jews were alien to the German national body, Lazarus emphasized to his audience of Jews that “we are Germans, and as Germans we must speak.”[13] The Jews, on his view, did not constitute a nation in and of themselves. However, second, he did see fit to accentuate the distinct intellectual and cultural properties of the Jews, invoking the term “tribe” (or Stamm) to convey this difference. Van Rahden argues that this term was “a central concept in German debates about national unity and diversity between the mid-nineteenth century and the late 1920s.”[14] In fact, for Lazarus and others, the term “tribe” hinged on a particular conception of the nation—as an open-ended, pluralistic entity comfortable with the presence of multiple tribes or ethnic groups--a conception, we must note, quite at odds with the more fixed understanding of a racially based nation favored by self-described anti-Semites Dühring and Marr or even by the Jewish historian, Graetz. Lazarus’ competing model resisted the equation of the nation not only with a single race, but with a single language, religion, or even state. This leads to our third point. According to Lazarus, and here I quote: “The concept of the nation is not only defined by objective markers, but also requires a subjective perception. My nation is that which I regard as my nation, that which I name my nation, that with which I forge an unbroken bond.”[15]

So now we can gain a clearer sense of Lazarus’ mission. Not only did he want to add “tribal” texture to the regnant view of Jewish groupness via the term Stamm. He also sought to move in what seems to be an opposite direction by destabilizing the very idea of the nation as a fixed, objective, territorially determined entity. His response to the question “what is a nation” was that it was “that which I name,” a manifestly subjective, volitional, and fluid mode of group identification. [16]

If such a concept reminds us of Ernest Renan and his 1881 Sorbonne lecture, “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?,” it is no coincidence. Lazarus proudly relates in his memoirs that in January 1880 he sent to Renan, via a nephew in Paris, his own lecture, “Was heißt National?”[17] Whether or not it exerted a direct and substantial influence on Renan, as Lazarus leads us to believe, is not the point here. It is rather that a key idea in it (and in Jellinek’s earlier book)—that is, of a volitional nationalism, a fluid national identity shaped by a daily plebiscite, a nationalism not necessarily defined by sovereignty, boundary, or language--was crossing borders and gaining traction in Europe in the 1870s and 1880s.[18]

We have here a glimpse of a counter-narrative to the oft-told story of the rise of nationalism in nineteenth-century Europe—that is, of a political ideology yoked to the engine of a strong political state or a single pure race. I’d like to follow that story-line a bit further in pursuit of our alternate history of Jewish nationalism. The goal is not to replace the familiar “precursors of Zionism” trope (favored by historians of Zionism from Sokolow and Dinur to Katz and Avineri) with Jellinek or Lazarus; nor is it to cast the latter two as great nationalist theorists avant la lettre. Rather, it is to engage in a bit of “sideshadowing” by recalling that the hard, statist conception of nationalism was hardly a foregone conclusion in late-nineteenth-century Europe. What we might call softer varieties--a spiritual nation à la Renan and Dubnow or a cultural nation, as we will have occasion to discuss presently--abounded.



As we turn to the next chapter in our story, we can see this point clearly. 1897 was a pivotal year in the history of Jewish nationalism. As we know, it was the year in which Theodor Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel—and as such, saw the birth of Statist Zionism. But we must remember that what was born at Basel was not a single Zionism, but a variety of Zionisms, ideological siblings that engaged in a protracted and often fierce struggle with one another. To take one notable example, Ahad Ha-am, the Hebrew essayist and cultural activist, professed that at Basel he felt like a mourner at a wedding feast. While others celebrated Herzl’s charisma and daring in calling for a Jewish state, Ahad Ha-am remained convinced that Zionists must in fact attend to the rehabilitation not of Jews, but of a desiccated Jewish culture. Even more than Herzl, who entertained other venues for his state, Ahad Ha-am believed that Eretz Yisra’el, the land of Israel, was essential to the rejuvenation of that culture. A state, he averred, might result from the efforts of Zionists--a Jewish state, he insisted it should be, not a state of the Jews. But that was not the first order of business. Rather, it was “national cultural work.” We hear of this objective throughout Ahad Ha’am’s writings, as well as in the program of a group of prominent Zionists including Chaim Weizmann, Martin Buber, and Leo Motzkin, who regarded themselves as followers of Ahad Ha-am. Organized as the Democratic Fraction, they declared in 1902 the primacy of “national cultural work,” among whose key components were “expanding the knowledge of the Hebrew language and Jewish History…the comprehension of which directly brings about an increase in national values.”[19]

This focus on culture rather than sovereignty, on the nation rather than the state, was an important feature of Jewish nationalist discourse in this consequential fin-de-siècle era. And the Jews were not alone. This was the age of “small-nation” nationalism in which alternatives to sovereignty such as national cultural autonomy and the rights of national minorities were the order of the day. The incubator for this discourse was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, home to various cultural, linguistic, and national communities—or as Adolf Jellinek preferred, various tribes (Stämme). Out of this world emerged theorists such as Otto Bauer and Karl Renner, who attempted to disentangle the idea of the nation from that of the state—largely in order to save nationalism, one observer noted, from its own worst tendencies.[20] In his 1899 manifesto, Staat und Nation (State and Nation), Renner clarified that while the “state is a sovereign territorial entity,” the nation “is a cultural community.”[21] He further asserted that in an age dominated by what he called the “territorial principle,” nations—discrete communities of individuals with distinct patterns of “thought and feeling”—struggled to survive. As a remedy, Renner proposed drawing from the medieval past to revive the “personality principle,” according to which each national community possesses its own personality based on distinctive social norms and cultural values. He recalled the juridical principle “Quo jure vivis?” (Under which law do you live?) that had once allowed different groups to adjudicate their own affairs within a larger imperial polity. Applying this principle to the present, Renner advocated a form of national cultural autonomy that was not bound by geographic borders, but which assured that members of the nation could preserve their own language, educate their children in their own schools, and even administer their own affairs in autonomous pockets. This vision, we should note, was related, but not identical to, the principle of national minority rights that assured protection to geographically concentrated groups of people—as was declared at the Brünn Congress of Austrian Social Democrats in 1899.

It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that these models would be of keen interest to Jews in Europe in search of a political idiom to define and defend their status as a national group. Roni Gechtman and Rick Kuhn have both shown how the Bund, the Jewish socialist movement founded in 1897, attempted in the early years of the 20th century to connect Renner’s personality principle to its own distinctive brand of socialism. In 1901 the organization’s convention declared that “it is premature under the present conditions to put forth the demand for national autonomy for the Jews;” four years later, the party convention affirmed the principle of “national cultural autonomy,” which entailed removing “all functions connected with cultural matters” from the state and transferring them “to the Jewish nation.”[22]

What is striking here is the preeminence of culture, seen by advocates of national cultural autonomy as the essence of the nation. On this view, it was not the state or territory or even race (in its biological sense) that made a nation, but, in the first instance, culture. Of course, we cannot forget the powerful class dimension in the Bund’s agenda, which added a deterministic quality to its view of Jewish nationalism. But it is the nexus between nation and culture that linked the Bund, in its 1905 platform, to the Folkspartay founded by Simon Dubnow in St. Petersburg a year later. Although the two parties disagreed over the question of socialism, they both agitated for the right of Jews to preside over their own cultural affairs, in their own language, Yiddish. In fact, it was that latter point that prompted the convening of an assembly of intellectuals and writers in Czernowitz a few years later in 1908—one hundred years ago (and now being marked with several centennial conferences). Amidst a typically discordant group of Jews, the conference demanded equal rights for Yiddish, but could not agree on declaring Yiddish “the national language of the Jewish people.” Instead, it opted for the formulation “a national language,” in recognition of the potent claims that Hebrew too deserved recognition as such.[23]

For the cultural nationalists of whom we’ve just spoken, language —or more particularly, the right to live one’s life in a Jewish language--was a key fundament of their collective existence. Indeed, language, as Herder and Fichte had earlier expressed, was the gateway to the nation’s soul. And as we know, language was seen throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century as a defining feature of a nation (along with territory). The Jewish cultural nationalists, non-Zionists and Zionists alike, held on to language as a key to the nation’s cultural survival, though, as we have seen, not all insisted on territory. They differed over whether Hebrew or Yiddish was the national language, but not always in predictable ways. Just as there were those at Czernowitz who refused to acknowledge that Yiddish trumped Hebrew as the national language, so too there were Zionists, especially of the socialist Po`ale Tsiyon party, who favored Yiddish as the language of the Jewish proletariat that would be the vanguard of a classless Jewish nation. Of course, there were more than a few Zionists beyond Eastern Europe who knew barely a word of either Hebrew or Yiddish, Herzl among them.

But to return to our larger point, in the midst of the early twentieth-century ideological debates between socialists and bourgeois, Diasporists and Zionists, there was a widely shared belief that the connective tissue of the Jewish collective was culture, of which language was a vital part. New schools, clubs, newspaper, and funds were created to promote kultura or tarbut, Jewish national culture in Yiddish and Hebrew idioms. This “cultural moment” featured an impressive literary output: newspapers and journals, new source collections of classical and folk literature, new works of history, and fledgling efforts in belles lettres, all animated by the impulse to give shape and support to the resurgent cultural nation.[24] Along with this organizational activity came the demand for official recognition and protection of Jewish culture in the Diaspora, and not only from obvious quarters such as the Bundists and autonomists. Zionists too felt compelled to affirm the “national” nature of Diaspora Jews, particularly in the wake of the Kishinev pogroms and the 1905 revolution. Thus, the third conference of Russian Zionists in December 1906 generated the well-known Helsingfors program, which called for “recognition of the Jewish nationality…with autonomous rights in all areas of national life” in the Diaspora, including and especially the right to use both Hebrew and Yiddish at will.

I hardly mean to suggest that all Zionists shared in this commitment. Not all favored an emphasis on culture or supported national rights in the Diaspora. Moreover, many of the first waves of aliyah or immigration to Palestine demanded an exclusive focus on Hebrew and Erets Yisra’el. Nor, for that matter, do I mean to suggest that a majority of Europe’s nine million Jews in the early twentieth century supported Jewish nationalism of any variety. In 1907, there were 164,333 individuals donors of the obligatory shekel required of membership in the world Zionist organization; meanwhile, the Bund was estimated to have 40,000 members at the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917. [25]

What I do mean to suggest is that there was a consequential debate among a growing and influential group of European Jews regarding the essence, preferred form, and desired venue of the Jewish nation in the first two decades of the twentieth century. It was not only Zionists, Autonomists, and Bundists, but also Territorialists of Israel Zangwill’s ilk and even the Agude, the Orthodox Agudat Yisrael, which arose formally in 1912 as a pan-national traditionalist alternative to secular nationalism. In retrospect, and particularly in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the State of Israel, the diversity and intensity of this debate are often forgotten, yielding to a flatter, more linear narrative that leads directly from the First Zionist Congress in 1897 to Israel’s founding in 1948 and places the drive to found a Jewish state as the primary, if not sole, plot line. In the name of sideshadowing, it is important to recall that this debate featured a concentrated emphasis on culture as the heart of the nation, as well as on the idea of non-territorial autonomy. Indeed, these were the key points of discussion for a wide swath of leading Jewish intellectuals including Ahad Ha-am, Ber Borochov, Nathan Birnbaum, Simon Dubnow, John Mill (the Bundist), Israel Zangwill, and Chaim Zhitlowski—to name but a few of whose who inhabited this crowded marketplace of ideas.

Discerning students of European Jewish history will say, and rightfully so, that this is all well known. They might also argue that Jewish cultural nationalism was but a fleeting moment in the early twentieth century, soon to be beaten back by an array of forces, not the least of which were the territorialist logic and organizational strength of Zionism. Indeed, it is true that the idea of national cultural autonomy lost steam for the Jews in the early part of the 1910s. But the First World War pushed to the fore new concerns for both the physical and cultural survival of East European Jews, who were massively displaced during that conflict. Accordingly, the immediate aftermath of the War led to emboldened demands for national autonomy by Jews in various provinces of the decomposing Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, from Bukovina to Vienna.[26] The pinnacle of these efforts was the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 whose main task, we know, was not to address the status of European Jews, but rather to resolve differences, assess responsibility, and reorder the European map in the wake of the Great War. And yet, the Conference, as Janowsky, Robinson, and Fink all have shown, was also the occasion on which the idea of national cultural autonomy and its companion, national minority rights, received their most extensive hearing from the international community.

True to their ancient ways, the Jewish delegates to Paris in1919 were divided on various issues and often squabbled. Some advocated a strong affirmation of the Jews’ “national” rights, while others favored a less offending call for “civil and religious liberty.”[27] Their disagreements were replicated by the state powers at the conference, which struggled to balance competing political and moral claims. The treaty that was signed in June 1919 to establish the new Polish state is instructive in this regard, bearing, as it does, the unmistakable traces of compromise. Thus, the treaty’s seventh article declared that all Poles “shall enjoy the same civil and political rights” regardless of “race, language, or religion.” Noticeably, and intentionally, absent were the terms “nation” or “national.” Nonetheless, the next article spoke of the right of minorities in Poland to control “charitable, religious and social institutions, schools and other educational establishment” in their own language. In places where they constituted a considerable proportion of the population, they should receive a share of public funds for such institutions. And in the particular case of the Jews, article 11 prohibited the state from compelling them to violate the Sabbath.[28]

From Paris in 1789 to Paris in 1919, a long road was traveled. Whereas the earlier date witnessed the constriction of group rights to the Jews, the latter offered up, at least in theory, an international mandate for what comes quite close to national minority rights for Jews. The fact that the minorities clauses were widely disregarded by the new states—and that the Jews had no standing at the League of Nations—has prompted many to declare the entire “Versailles system,” named for the legendary site where the treaties were signed, a failure. In fact, what the peace conference represented was a clash between two distinct values and visions of nationalism in the early twentieth century: sovereignty, as was accorded the post-imperial states, versus non-statist national rights, as was theoretically accorded the Jews. It is interesting to note that Zionists were among the most fervent advocates of such national rights for Jews at the Paris Peace Conference. In fact, their support for the principle of Jewish national minority rights in the Diaspora survived well past Paris. Dimity Shumsky has recalled in a recent paper that leading Zionist figures such as David Ben-Gurion and Vladimir Jabotinsky were in favor of the idea of Jewish national rights in the Diaspora up through the 1930s and even into the 1940s.[29] Of course, alongside them, Bundists and autonomists continued to advocate with considerable ferocity for Jewish national rights in the Diaspora up to the destruction of European Jewry.

This, of course, raises the question: When did Statism emerge ascendant, as I’ve suggested it did, both as a form of Jewish political identification and as a guiding historiographical narrative? Alas, this query cannot be answered in full here (though it is the subject of an ongoing book project). Suffice it to say that by the early 1940s—in the midst of the genocidal Nazi assault and, surely, by the time of the Extraordinary Zionist Conference at the Biltmore Hotel in 1942—Statism had largely secured a position of dominance over its ideological rivals. And that dominance remains in place today, long after memory of those rivals has evaporated.

Our goal in this paper has not been to tell the story of Statism’s rise, but rather to excavate a certain lineage of the idea of the Jewish nation quite different from the conventional statist lineage. We began with the animated reflections of a few German-Jewish thinkers in the second third of the nineteenth century, noting their prescient assertion of the subjective and constructed nature of national identity. We then shifted our focus to the fledgling belief of a small number of turn-of-the-century nationalists in a Jewish cultural nation, an idea later embraced by hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Jews in the aftermath of the First World War. For them, the combination of concerted ideological agitation and persistent external threat made clear both the need and rationale for a Jewish nation—a nation of common past, destiny, and culture, if not always territory. Recalling this idea of a Jewish nation focuses our attention on an often forgotten, but significant moment of Jewish political expression and attempt at self-denomination. It also serves as the necessary historical backdrop against which to assess the ascendance of Statism as the pre-eminent framework for understanding Jewish collectivity in the post-Holocaust world. It may have the added benefit of expanding our conceptual lexicon when thinking about the relationship between states, on one hand, and diaspora and transnational groups, on the other, in today’s globalized world.


[1] Quoted in “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?” Texte integral de E. Renan, Philippe Forest, ed., (Paris: Pierre Bordas et fils, 1991), 28.

[2] Ibid, 41. See also the translation in Geoff Eley and Ronald Grigor Suny (New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996), 53.

[3] Anthony D. Smith, Myths and Memories of the Nation, reprint 2002 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 9.

[4] This is exactly what Smith, John Armstrong and others have been counseling and practicing in their scholarship. See, for example, John A. Armstrong, Nations before Nationalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982).

[5] “Brand Disloyalty,” The Economist 28 February 2008 at

[6] See Yehoshua’s remarks, “The Meaning of Homeland,” in The A. B. Yehoshua Controversy: An Israel-Diaspora Dialogue on Jewishness, Israeliness, and Identity at

[7] No more powerful a symbol of this form of Statism exists than the Israel army. And thus we hear from one prominent Statist, the scholar Michael Oren: “I put on those red paratrooper boots the first time and was overwhelmed by the reali­zation that I was a member of the first Jewish fighting force in 2,000 years, a Jew from New Jersey lucky enough to live at a time when I could serve a sovereign Jewish state.”

[8] Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, “Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel,”

[9] Michael André Bernstein, “Victims-in-Waiting: Backshadowing and the Representation of European Jewry,” New Literary History 29:4 (1998), 625.

[10] See his “Speech on Religious Minorities and Questionable Professions” from 23 December 1789 at

[11] See Paul R. Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 130. For a fuller version of the responses, see Diogene Tama, Transactions of the Paris Sanhedrin (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College, 1956).

[12] See Till Van Rahden, “’Germans of the Jewish Stamm:’” Visions of Community between Nationalism and Particularism, 1850 to 1933,” in Neil Gregor, Nils Roemer et Mark Roseman, eds. German History from the Margins ( Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 2006), 31.

[13] Moritz Lazarus, Was heißt National? (Berlin: Dümmler, 1880), 5.

[14] Van Rahden, “’Germans of the Jewish Stamm,’” 28, 29.

[15] Lazarus, Was heißt National?, 17.

[16] Within the universe of German thinkers meditating upon the idea of the nation, Lazarus belonged to that tradition focused on the notion of a Willensnation (a nation by virtue of will). See Siegfried Weichlein, “’Qu’est-ce qu’une Nation?’: Stationen der deutschen statistischen Debatte um Nation and Nationalität in der Reichsgründungszeit,” in Wolther von Kieseritzky and Klaus-Peter Sick, eds., Demokratie in Deutschland: Chancen und Gefährdungen im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Munich, C. H. Beck, 1999), 71-90. Jewish question is prominent in this discourse.

[17] Lazarus, Moritz Lazarus’ Lebenserinnerungen, Nahida Lazarus and Alfred Leicht, eds. (Berlin: George Reimer, 1906), 261.

[18] A central prod, Weichlin correctly notes, was the Jewish Question; the Jews, after all, were the most persistent and irritating minority within European society. Weichlein, 83-84.

[19] Leo Motzkin, “The Democratic Fraction” (1902), excerpted in Jonathan Kaplan, ed. The Zionist Movement: Selected Organizational and Political Documents (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University, 1983), 8.

[20] See the reflections of Robert A. Kann, “Karl Renner (December 14, 1870-DCecember 31, 1950), The Journal of Modern History 23:3 (Sept. 1951), 244.

[21] Karl Renner, “State and Nation,” in Ephraim Nimni, ed., National Cultural Autonomy and its Critics (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), 24-25.

[22] PMF, 420-421. See also Roni Gechtman, “Conceptualizing National-Cultural Autonomy: From the Austro-Marxists to the Jewish Labor Bund,” Simon Dubnow Institute Yearbook 4 (2005), 17-49, and Rick Kuhn, “The Jewish Social Democratic Party of Galicia and the Bund,” in Jack Jacobs, ed. Jewish Politics in Eastern Europe: the Bund at 100 (London/New York: Palgrave/New York University Press, 2001), 133-154

[23] Mendes-Flohr and Reinharz, The Jew in the Modern World, 424-425.

[24] This moment stands between Phase A and B in Miroslav Hroch’s schema of nationalist development. See his Social Preconditions of National Revival in Europe: A Comparative Analysis of the Social Composition of Patriotic Groups among the Smaller European Nations translated by Ben Fowkes (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

[25] The figures of “shekel” subscribers to the Zionist Organization are as follows: 164,333 in 1913; 217, 231 in 1913; 855,590 in 1921; over one million in 1939; and 2,159,840 in 1946. EJ, “Zionism.” For the Bund, see Mendes-Flohr and Reinharz, 422.

[26] Oscar I. Janowsky, The Jews and Minority Rights (1898-1919) (New York: Columbia University Press), 273-74.

[27] Ibid., 270.

[28] See Jacob Robinson et al., Were the Minorities Treaties a Failure? (New York: Institute of Jewish Affairs, 1943), passim.

[29] Dimitry Shumsky, “Mi-`ever le-ribonut: Tsiyonut otonomistit ben mizrah Eropa le-Erets Yisra’el,” unpublished lecture.