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The ‘Jewish Bismarck’


Some years ago, in a series of lectures on nationalism, delivered, appropriately enough, in Belfast, Eric Hobsbawm imagined an evocative “intergalactic historian,” an extraterrestrial visitor who arrives on planet Earth after a thermonuclear war has destroyed all life. Since the technology of advanced weaponry had enabled the belligerents to destroy people rather than property, our visitor is able to consult libraries and archives for the cause of the catastrophe. We can imagine him reading and sightseeing in Herder’s library in Weimar or in Garibaldi’s on the island of Caprea, off Corsica, where the Italian national hero spent the last years of his life in a little house facing France and not Italy, because, as a guide once told me, he could not bear what his compatriots had done with Italy after his retirement. At the end of his tour, Hobsbawm writes, the intergalactic visitor must conclude that “nationalism” had been the gravedigger of our planet.1

Perhaps our historian would also have passed through Jerusalem, the capital of a country that is almost permanently at war for reasons of its own national interests or those of its neighbors and, according to a recent report on the BBC, may possess as many as two hundred atomic and even a few thermonuclear bombs. I imagine him walking down Balfour Street, named after the British statesman who promised that the British government viewed with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, with the understanding that nothing would be done to prejudice the rights of the Arabs already living there. Balfour is a quiet, leafy street that cuts through a pleasant residential Jerusalem neighborhood. To his left, our historian would note the official residence of the Israeli prime minister, a bleak, forbidding stone block, more like a bunker or beflagged fortress, watchtowers on each corner, searchlights, and grim-looking guards whispering into cell phones.

In sharp contrast to this sobering sight, he would see directly opposite a true marvel of Bauhaus architecture—the lovely, delicate, wonderfully proportioned façade of the Schocken Library. The building was designed in 1935 by Erich Mendelsohn, a refugee from Nazi Germany best known internationally as the architect of the Einstein Tower in Potsdam, a landmark of modern architecture. In designing the Schocken Library Mendelsohn drew his inspiration from the open landscape surrounding the city, a vista of bare mountaintops and the soft contours of solitary Arab villages still perched on the hills in 1935, fitting perfectly into the landscape and so pleasing to the eye, if only from a distance. Mendelsohn also designed all the details within the building, elegant steel banisters and door handles, bookshelves in blond lemon wood, tables, chairs, umbrella racks, and Bauhaus-inspired washrooms and mezuzahs. The library, with its delicate, pristine lines, walls chiseled in rosy Jerusalem stone, and elliptical glass-enclosed staircases and windows, is perhaps the most memorable modern building in the city.

The library was commissioned in 1934 by another German refugee, the fifty-eight-year-old Salman Schocken. In establishing it, he wanted to promote a mixture of European and Jewish culture as the basis for the longed-for national state. He asked his re- searchers to go through long-ignored medieval sources of poetry, legend, and myth in search of a Jewish Nibelungenlied. Shocken was a largely self-educated, self-made department-store tycoon, bibliophile, philanthropist, and publisher. A genius of mass merchandising, Schocken had donated much of his immense fortune to a secular vision of Jews living in their own national country. He was a portly man of small stature; his strikingly powerful, bald head sat squarely upon a thick neck. His trilingual publishing houses in Berlin, Jerusalem, and New York specialized in Hebrew letters and Judaica, though their most precious copyright was the collected works of Kafka. Schocken’s contribution to secular Jewish nationalism and to Israeli cultural identity was immense. It is difficult to imagine the recent flowering of modern Hebrew letters without his philanthropic efforts during the first half of the twentieth century.

In the description of his son Gustav (later publisher-editor of Ha’aretz), Salman Schocken was a curious hybrid of a ruthless tyrant at home and a caring father, a hard-nosed businessman and wild-eyed romantic, a Prussian disciplinarian and a sensitive lover of poetry. He was happily assimilated to German culture, and in some ways perhaps more “German” than many other Germans. Yet he was a proud secular Jew. Politically, he was a liberal almost to the point of pacifism. “Millennia of ink, not Blut und Boden, had forged Jews into a nation,” Schocken declared. He was sympathetic to the efforts of the Brit Shalom movement of Martin Buber and others to arrive at a fair compromise between Jewish and Palestinian nationalism, yet never became politically active himself.

Anthony David has written a superb biography of Schocken and his prominent part in the invention of secular Jewish nationalism. He writes with verve and psychological insight. He can be critical and sardonic about Schocken but he shows a sympathetic understanding of his often towering contradictions. Schocken, he writes, was a “cosmopolitan Jew at a time when history had forced Jews to take up a national banner and join the new Jewish state.”

Schocken was acutely aware of the role of language in the construction of modern nationalism. He himself had some difficulty speaking Hebrew but read it fluently. Long before there were Israeli prime ministers, he built the library on Balfour Street to house his vast collection of classic Hebrew and German texts, bound volumes and original manuscripts of many periods, works by leading modern writers as well as precious first editions, priceless Hebrew incunabula (of one hundred extant examples, he was able to acquire forty for his collection), and three thousand twelfth-century text fragments from a Cairo genizah—the storeroom attached to a Cairo synagogue. The library also contained major works by Goethe and Maimonides, Schiller and Sabbatai Sevi, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Meister Eckhardt and Spinoza, Freud, Heine and Karl Kraus, Feuchtwanger, Wolfskehl, the rabbi of Bratzlav, and other legendary Hasidic rabbis resurrected from oblivion by the “well-practiced bathos and sentimentality” of Martin Buber, who had been on Schocken’s payroll for years. Some were books that had formed Schocken’s own views, notably Goethe’s Faust II (Thomas Mann was said to rank Schocken “chief among Goethe connoisseurs”), Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, and Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation. He had a marvelous collection of original manuscripts: Goethe’s Faust, Karl Kraus’s notes for The Last Days of Humanity, and Heine’s Last Testament, which he always carried with him on his many travels.

Heine, who detested all organized religion and requested no mass or kaddish at his funeral, was Schocken’s special favorite. In Schocken’s private office, upstairs in the library, Heine’s death mask sat on his desk. The walls were hung with Chagalls, Toulouse-Lautrecs, and engravings by Dürer and Rembrandt. His choice of a leading European avant-garde architect was not accidental. Anthony David describes how the Schocken department store chain, one of the largest in Europe with an annual turnover of over 110 million marks and more than six thousand employees, was a pioneer not only of modern marketing but also of modern design in fashion and household goods, from coffee pots to bedroom furniture. Shortly before Hitler’s rise to power, Mendelsohn had designed Schocken’s newest, largest stores in Stuttgart and Chemnitz; the latter was regarded as “Germany’s finest example of modernist architecture.”

Schocken had succeeded in moving these treasures in the nick of time from his former Berlin home to Jerusalem. In his own way, he was trying to preserve, or at least commemorate in the Jewish homeland, the aborted “symbiosis” of Germans and Jews. The library was, as he often put it, his “autobiography.” But there was much more to it. Schocken was the son of a poor, uneducated small shopkeeper in Margonin, a wretched village in the most remote eastern province of Prussia, close to the Russian border. He had grown up in a time and place where, after the rise of modern anti-Semitism, Jewish nationalism was born by analogy with the traditional nationalism of the Poles and the new-fangled nationalism of the Czechs. All were heavily affected by German Romanticism.

Schocken was a lifelong, if idiosyncratic, Zionist; but Zionist nostalgia for “authenticity,” for a long-past biblical Judaism, left him untouched. He was not “returning” to an “authentic” Judaism. He yearned to be a man of the future, leaving age-old beliefs and customs far behind. For him, hermetic, isolated cultures were as pointless as tariffs against superior English textiles. Shakespeare, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky were among his favorite writers. He was also an ardent reader of Herder and of Fichte’s Reden an die deutsche Nation, whose case for German nationalism he transferred to the Jewish situation. He spent his last thirty years—and a small fortune—in sponsoring what he believed was the sine qua non of any successful national movement: a national literature based on a command of language and a bedrock of legend and myth. As he put it, in the eighteenth century Germans, too, had lacked an established national identity and as a consequence had been politically impotent. But they “got books” as compensation. Bismarck, he felt, had only to shake the trees the poets had planted.

Schocken wanted to plant such trees for the politically impotent Jews. Ideally, as David writes, “German literati were to turn themselves into producers of national myths and epics for a newborn Hebrew language.” Quite apart from politics, Schocken was a genuine, even passionate, bookworm. Modern Hebrew, he felt, was a recent intellectual concoction, like modern Greek, and still too shallow culturally. His main task was to give it a stock-pile of myth and epic. Book dealers throughout Europe knew his interests. He was able to buy previously unknown important works by the medieval Spanish-Hebrew poets Ibn Ezra and Yehuda Halevi as well as the only complete extant divan, collected papers, of the eleventh-century scholar Ibn Gabirol.

He looked for scholars who would ferret a national myth out of these still barely explored treasures. Jewish scholars and Hebrew writers, including the future Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon, the Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, and intermittently many others, were on his payroll for years. Agnon was his major acquisition; he spoke of him as “my writer.” Agnon would become a great epic writer, Schocken predicted, and others would freely borrow from his art. He did everything to support him, materially and otherwise. He tried to widen his horizons by sending him books and reviews and, on his visits to Germany, taking him to the theater, museums, and the opera. He made him read Shakespeare, Kafka, Goethe and Heine, Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann. He also tried to free him from religious piety, but in this he failed.

For his part, the grateful Agnon described his hectoring patron as “an expert on Germany and its wisdom,” but he cunningly smuggled not modern Hebrew but the language of the Mishna and Talmud into his prose. Schocken, whose Zionism resembled Hannah Arendt’s, scolded him sternly whenever Agnon lent his name to hard-line ultranationalistic causes. In this, too, he failed. He supplied “his writer” with a life stipend as well as with paper, canned goods, suits, underwear, and furniture from his stores.

  1. 1

    See E.J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 1.

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