“Eliminate the diaspora or the diaspora will eliminate you!” (Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Poland, 1937)
Jews were not always viewed as a “nation.” Modern Jewish nationhood only reemerged with the Enlightenment and Jewish reaction to the failure of the promise of emancipation. Emancipation, a logical extension of Liberté , etc, promised political equality and social acceptance and, had the Jews been accorded the political and social benefits received by the other “nations” then, as Herzl wrote,
“We might perhaps be able to merge ourselves entirely into surrounding races, if these were to leave us in peace for a period of two generations. But they will not leave us in peace… We are one people--our enemies have made us one without our consent.”
This insight by Herzl is key to understanding the persistence of Christendom’s “Jewish Problem,” and Zionism as response by the Jewish people. Had Christianity since the fourth century willed it, had the fourth century Church been more secure, allowed Jews and Christians to interact; had the Church not punished Christian Judaizing there would not have been the Jewish Problem because minorities tend to merge into the surrounding majority. Hitler wrote that had the Jews not existed, he would have had to invent them. And likely, as Christianity needed Satan so also it needed “the Jews” to establish boundaries and maintain identity cohesion.
For the Jewish people Christian boundary maintenance meant centuries of demonization, persecution, mini-Holocausts and, in the twentieth century, the nearly successful final solution to the Jewish Problem. In the twenty-first century the world pays homage to the victims without absorbing the lesson, that the Holocaust was neither “exceptional,” nor “mysterious” but merely the most recent effort at “solving” Christendom’s eternal Jewish Problem. And we have yet to face the final, Final Solution.
According to Herzl, and as himself a previously “assimilated” Jew, two generations of peace would have solved that which Christendom described as its “Jewish problem,” the continuing existence of Jews in their post-messianic world. Had we been left in peace over the centuries would there have been a Jewish People to “emancipate” in the 19th century,” to “exterminate” in the 20th?
Instead, with the promise of “acceptance” through emancipation shattered by pogrom in Russia, antisemitic riots in Germany and France, hope turned to despair. And, for 19th century Zionists awareness grew that Christendom’s religion-based creation of the Jewish Problem was too deeply embedded in the in the West’s history and culture to vanish simply because “secularism” replaced “religion” as authority over the inheritor states of twenty centuries of Judeophobia.
Jewish responses to emancipation and continuing discrimination predated Zionism by decades. Two very different such efforts are represented by Moses Mendelssohn, descended from a line of orthodox rabbis, and Karl Marx, son of a Lutheran convert and also descended from a line orthodox rabbis. Mendelssohn’s Haskalah was an effort to ensure Jewish survival by “modernizing” Jewish practice, while Marx would “solve” the Jewish Problem by eliminating all social distinctions, whether of class, nationality or religion. A third figure from this period, friend and collaborator of Marx, was Moses Hess who, perhaps more accurately than Marx or Mendelssohn, viewed the Jewish Problem more as endemic to Christendom. Hess originally collaborated with Marx in developing the theory of dialectical materialism but, objecting to the portrayal of Jews in Marx’s On the Jewish Question, ended the relationship.
On the Jewish Question appeared in 1843. Written in response to an opponent of Jewish emancipation, its tone and focus shifted during its composition. Rather than a defense of the Jews it emerged as Marx’s first effort to develop the theory of dialectical materialism. Marx characterization of “the Jew” drew on the mediaeval Christian stereotype of “the Jew” as usurer. Although not necessarily intended antisemitic in the hands of lesser minds Marx’s “economic” Jew inspired brought with it the range of sinister stereotypes, the Jew as Other. Through Marx antisemitism became a political ploy for both left and right, before and after the Holocaust. And with the birth of a state of the Jews antisemitism extended also to Israel and that movement whose creation a state of the Jews was, Zionism.
As were Pinsker and Herzl, Moses Hess also was a disappointed “assimilated” Jew. Following his break with Marx he abandoned Communism for socialism and later became an advocate for a Jewish return to Palestine. Through work on the soil he hoped to create a socialist proletarian state where all Jews would live as equals. His thought would later inspire Labor Zionism, the movement most credited with creating the pre-statehood Yishuv.
“As long as the Jew endeavors to deny his nationality, while at the same time he is unable to deny his own individual existence, as long as he is unwilling to acknowledge that he belongs to that unfortunate and persecuted people, his false position must daily become more intolerable. Wherefore the illusion? The European nations have always considered the existence of the Jews in their midst as an anomaly. We shall always remain strangers among the nations.” (The Revival of Israel: Rome and Jerusalem, the Last Nationalist Question, Fifth Letter, 1862)
The first sparks of what would become a Zionist movement capable of turning Hess’ idealistic dream into a material reality came out of Russia-Poland in the late nineteenth century. In 1882 Leon Pinsker, an assimilated Russian physician wrote Autoemancipation, a prescient work that anticipated the risk the Jewish People would only experience in the twentieth century. That work, appearing fifty years before Germany voted National Socialism into power, may even today represent the most accurate diagnosis of the condition of Jews in Christendom, the Jewish problem and its cure.
The Preface to Autoemancipation is an impassioned Zionist challenge: Take responsibility for the fact that antisemitism is a permanent feature of Christendom; accept that a tiny Jewish minority can never change Christian attitudes, that the only effective response to “the terror of bloody atrocities” that expresses the Jewish Problem is Jewish self-emancipation through the creation of a Jewish national homeland.
“After the terror of the bloody atrocities [the pogroms] a moment of calm… the Western Jews have again learned to suffer the cry, "hep! hep!" [by German student anti-Jewish rioters]… Shut your eyes and hide your head like an ostrich -- there is to be no lasting peace unless … you apply a remedy more thoroughgoing than those palliatives to which our hapless people have been turning for 2000 years… But the greatest impediment in the path of the Jews to an independent national existence is that [we] do not feel its need… deny its authenticity.” (all emphases added)
Pinsker was not a Marxist but a Zionist and his solution to the Jewish Problem lay not in a larger social revolution but an internal revolution in Jewish understanding: the removal of the Jews from the threat of the Diaspora:
“This change cannot be brought about by the civil emancipation of the Jews in this or that state, but only by… the foundation of … our inalienable home, our country.”
Pinsker was a physician and he diagnosed Judeophobia a,
“psychic aberration… [an incurable] disease transmitted for two thousand years… Prejudice or instinctive ill-will is not moved by rational argument [so much for the wish-fulfilling dream of Jewish leadership since the 19th century of educating Christendom away from persecution!], however forceful and clear.”
For several decades after the appearance of Autoemancipation young and idealistic Jews, inspired by Pinsker and prodded by pogrom, made their way to Palestine as individuals and in groups. Among the first were the Hoveivei Zion, the Lovers of Zion, who founded Rishon l’Zion, one of the first Jewish towns. But enthusiasm alone was not enough to sustain immigration and another decade would pass before another, more charismatic and politically-savvy leader would appear.
Theodore Herzl, another assimilated Jew, was a Viennese playwright and journalist. In 1894 his newspaper sent him to Paris to cover the treason trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus.
“Herzl witnessed mobs shouting “Death to the Jews” in France, the home of the French Revolution, and resolved that there was only one solution: the mass immigration of Jews to a land that they could call their own.”
Apparently unaware of Pinsker or Autoemancipation, Herzl came to the same conclusion regarding the risk to Jewish survival in the West. Antisemitism, he concluded,
“was a stable and immutable factor in human [well, “Western”] society, which assimilation did not solve.”
Zionism, the National Liberation Movement of the Jewish People, was a response to nineteenth century antisemitism, disappointment over the failure of “emancipation” to eliminate the Jewish Problem. As serious the danger of pogrom, as insightful as was Pinsker, in particular, in his description of the historical threat, the Jewish Problem, nobody could have foreseen that fifty years after the first Zionist Congress in Basle six million Jews would be victim to a modern and mechanized murder campaign, the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem. was, in fact, addressing nineteen centuries of persecution, cold not foresee the enormity of threat which precedent would a half-century in the future For most Jews a solution to the Jewish Problem on the scale of a Holocaust was beyond imagining. But some among the younger generation were already sensing the coming, if indefinable, disaster. Among them, Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
Following Hitler’s electoral victory Jabotinsky crisscrossed Poland and Eastern Europe warning of the impending danger. While few took the warning seriously, who beyond visionaries could imagine something so unprecedented, Jabotinsky knew, read the signs clearly. On Tisha B’ Av of 1937, a traditional day of mourning on the Jewish calendar and two years before Germany invaded Poland Jabotinsky demanded the Jewish people remove themselves from the Diaspora, or perish:
“It is already three years that I am calling upon you, Polish Jewry… warn you incessantly that a catastrophe is coming closer… [you] do not see the volcano which will soon begin to spit all-consuming lava… In the name of G-d! Let anyone of you save himself, as long as there is time, and there is very little… whoever of you will escape from the catastrophe, he of she will live to see the… the rise of a Jewish state.
“Eliminate the Diaspora or the Diaspora will eliminate you!”
Seventy years after Auschwitz Jabotinsky’s warning is still not understood, Pinsker’s solution still not heeded.