Zionism , from antisemitism to Holocaust

“Eliminate the diaspora or the diaspora will eliminate you!”
(Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Poland, 1937)
Had antisemitism remained social and political very likely most Jews, conditioned by centuries of religion-inspired discrimination, would have patiently waited for the most recent storm to pass. But following 1500 years of persecution and the dawn of political-religious reform, having tasted the promise of emancipation and acceptance represented by the Enlightenment, for some at least hope turned quickly to despair. Awareness grew that Christendom’s religion-based Jewish Problem was too deeply embedded in the in the West’s history and culture to vanish because secularism replaced religion-based society.
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, the son of a Lutheran convert himself the son of a rabbinical family. Mendelssohn would ensure Jewish survival by “modernizing” religious practice while Marx’s was far more radical: Jewish identity along with Judaism would fall away, as would distinctions for all based on class, religion and nationality in proletarian revolution (pardon the obvious oversimplification). He wrote On the Jewish Question in 1843 in part in opposition to an opponent of Jewish emancipation. But the work was also a first attempt at his theory of dialectical materialism, and in it he identified the Jews symbolically with money, the West’s universally recognized stereotype. This symbolic representation of the Jews would provide a rationale for already existing antisemitism, provided a political ploy for both the left and the right, before and after the Holocaust and, when a state of the Jews appeared, included Israel and the movement whose creation it was, Zionism.
The first sparks of what would become a Zionist movement 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 to Jewry in the twentieth century. That work, written fifty years before Germany voted the National Socialists into power, may even today represent the most accurate diagnosis of the condition of Jews in Christendom; of the West’s Jewish problem and its cure
Leon Pinsker (Wikipedia)
Pinsker’s preface is an impassioned Zionist challenge: Take responsibility for the fact that antisemitism is a permanent feature of the Western Diaspora; accept that the obvious Jewish response to “the terror of bloody atrocities” is self-emancipation, 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 anti-Jewish rioters, typically students, in Germany]… 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,” Pinsker continues, “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 (see Jabotinsky, below).”
Pinsker was not a Marxist but a Zionist and his solution to the Jewish problem lay not in a larger social revolution but in the removal of the Jews from that danger: “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 the physician 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 educating society 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 in Palestine. But enthusiasm alone was not enough to inspire immigration sufficient to create in a state, and another decade would pass before another, more charismatic and politically-savvy leader would appear.
Theodor Herzl in Basel, 1897 (Wikipedia)
Theodore Herzl, another assimilated Jew, was a Viennese playwright and journalist. In 1894 he was sent 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.”
Recall that the events described above took place before the First World War, before National Socialism was voted into power in Germany and half a century before the West embarked on its final solution to it’s Jewish problem. For the Jews, at least, the Holocaust was still unimaginable. But some among the younger generation were already sensing the coming, if indefinable, disaster. Among them was Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
Following Hitler’s electoral victory Jabotinsky crisscrossed Poland and Eastern Europe warning of the impending Final Solution. While few took the warning seriously, who beyond visionaries could imagine the unimanageable and unprecedented fate awaiting the Jews, Jabotinsky knew. On Tisha B’ Av of 1937, a traditional day of mourning on the Jewish calendar a leader accepting defeat Jabotinsky exhorted the Jewish people to expunge themselves of 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!”
Recent writings in this Series:

4. Political antisemitism in Austria-Germany, 1919-1932