Two Takes On Diaspora Nationalism

Writing in 2014, it is easy to view Jewish nationalism as exclusively associated with Zionism. But in the first four decades of the 20th century there were several non-territorial or autonomist Jewish national movements with significant popular support. Two new books by American Jewish historians document much of their history.

Joshua Karlip’s The Tragedy of a Generation traces the diaspora nationalist movement’s history from approximately 1905 until the Holocaust through the personal lives and ideology of three prominent figures: Elias Tcherikower, a former Menshevik activist who became a leader of Yiddish historiography; Yisroel Efroikin, who led the Jewish Socialist Workers’ Party during the 1905 Russian revolution and later the non-socialist Folkspartey (the people’s party) following the 1917 revolution; and Zelig Hirsh Kalmanovitch, a famous Yiddishist scholar and leader of the Yiddish Scientific Institute.  

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They criticised Zionism as utopian and middle class and the Marxist Jewish Labor Bund as inadequately nationalist, though their followers lacked a single political party or movement.

These three figures were in turn influenced by the two original theoreticians of Diaspora nationalism: the historian Simon Dubnov and the socialist Chaim Zhitlovsky. Dubnov’s influential Jewish Folkspartey advocated Jewish national autonomy within a multi-ethnic Russian state, while claiming to represent a united Jewish people (klal yisroel). In practice, it consisted of only a small group of intellectuals. 

In contrast, the much larger Bund demanded cultural autonomy for the Jewish proletariat, but rejected the concept of a unified Jewish nation. Zhitlovsky’s smaller Jewish Socialist Workers’ Party  sat between the two,campaigning for revolutionary socialism whilst also demanding Jewish national autonomy. Over time their attempt to synthesise socialism with Jewish nationalism developed into a more nuanced approach.

Karlip asserts that Diaspora nationalists rejected religious tradition while drawing inspiration from its nationalist stand against assimilation. 

Diaspora nationalism reached its peak in Eastern Europe between 1905 and 1930, Karlip argues, as reflected in the popular growth of modern secular Yiddish culture. Yet this growth stalled when Eastern European states refused to extend formal national rights to Jews despite earlier promises to do so. 

Ukrainian pogroms of 1918-20, the Evsektsiia’s coercive introduction of an anti-nationalist Yiddishist cultural and educational program in the Soviet Union, the rise of Nazi Germany, growing anti-Semitism and the turn by most Eastern European Jews toward national languages rather thanYiddish for educating their children further halted this rise.

In contrast, Simon Rabinovitch’s edited text Jews & Diaspora Nationalism presents the views of key late 19th and early-mid 20th century Jewish nationalists, liberals and socialists such as Dubnov, Zhitlovsky, the famous Yiddish writer Peretz and the Bundist leader Medem on how to preserve Jewish national life in the various centres of the Diaspora.

The editor’s introductory essay concurs with Karlip’s argument that secular nationalist movements such as Zionism and diaspora nationalism represented a continuation rather than a rejection of Jewish religious texts and traditions. Zionism, not Jewish nationalism, thrived in Western Europe, Rabinovitch argues. There, Jews were more integrated, so Zionism’s emphasis on developing a Jewish national state elsewhere was perceived as less threatening than localist demands for Jewish national autonomy.

It is easy to view these ideas as moribund given the virtual disappearance of Yiddish as an everyday language, and the movement’s failure to achieve any of its key political aims. But as Karlip notes in his conclusion, the question of how to preserve Jewish identity as a national minority within majority cultures continues to loom large. And the key multicultural values of ethnic and cultural diversity, which influence most Western countries today and seem to underpin Jewish well-being, appear to bear much resemblance to the long-lost ideas of the Diaspora nationalists.

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University in Australia, and the author most recently of Jews and the Left: The Rise and Fall of a Political Alliance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)

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