This enormous and awesomely priced book is a portrait of that phase of modern Jewish life in which its major secular creeds—nationalism, socialism, and numerous mixtures of the two—were first articulated. Jonathan Frankel, professor of history at the Hebrew University, belongs to a generation of young Jewish scholars who, in reaction against the ideological contentiousness of earlier writers, try to abide by the disciplines of modern historiography. The consequent gains in balance and precision are large; so too are the losses in vivacity and feeling. Frankel has written a very distinguished work of scholarship but not quite the great book it could and should have been.
His major concern is with the role of the Russian-Jewish intelligentsia “as a new leadership stratum within the Jewish people.” To bring out the full historical novelty in the rise of this intelligentsia, Frankel would have to have broadened his narrative scope in order to portray the astonishing changes that occurred in Eastern European Jewish life. The very idea of an intelligentsia is secular. It signifies, in the Jewish context, the breakup of an organic religious community that was separated, or separated itself, from the course of Western history. But if skimpy with genesis, Frankel is keen in description:
One political subculture came into being [during the 1880s] in Vilna, Minsk, Belostok, the East End of London, and the Lower East Side of New York. Its lingua franca was Yiddish; its economic base, the clothing industry and the sweat shop; its politics, the running dispute and constant interaction between socialist internationalism and Jewish nationalism; its organizational expression, the Yiddish press, the public meeting, the trade union, the ideologically committed party….
For the Jewish intelligentsia of this period, the difficulties of working within the new Jewish political milieu were “to a great extent qualitatively different from those facing the Russian intelligentsia.” The more the secular Jewish ideologues and parties tried to establish their “Jewishness” as a culture apart from, if also still dependent on, traditional religious beliefs and symbols, the clearer it became that this “Jewishness” kept growing increasingly vague and slippery. There was a brief, richly creative period of perhaps four or five decades in which secular Jewishness, bounded by language and literature, managed to work out its own sense of identity; but even in Eastern Europe and, of course, most visibly in the United States, it came to subsist on nostalgia and to define itself through a series of exclusions. The Jewish intelligentsia could never find a point of balance or rest between its traditions and its politics—or, for that matter, between its newly willed nationalism and its newly discovered universalist yearnings.
Frankel starts his narrative with two crucial ancestors, Moses Hess, the nineteenth-century German thinker, and Aron Liberman, an obscure radical activist from Eastern Europe. Oscillating between an internationalism and a nationalism that were equally without firm grounding, Hess largely anticipated the experience of later generations of Jewish intellectuals. While eager to join with such contemporaries as Marx in the political struggles of Germany, he simply could not shake off—at least, not for long—his consciousness of his origins. “Mask yourself a thousand times over, change your name, your religion, and character, travel throughout the world incognito…and still every insult to the Jewish name will strike at you.”
It is precisely the instability of Hess’s career that makes him so interesting today. In his youth he wrote about Jews with a nastiness (the God of Israel, he said, is “Moloch-Jehova”) that surpasses anything to be found in the young Marx. He then threw himself into the polemics of the nascent European radicalism. In somewhat later writings he anticipated the outlook of labor Zionism by proposing for the Jews a national rather than religious future. Some of Hess’s friends felt that he kept willing his Jewishness, one of them, Arnold Ruge, writing him wickedly: “You are a Christian who would like to pass as a Jew.” In the end, unlike most other Jewish-born radicals of his day, Hess made his broken, tormented Jewishness into the central question of his life.
Liberman came out of Vilna, announcing in the 1870s that he was, exotic bird, a “Hebrew socialist.” The phrase suggested a transition from Haskala, or Hebrew enlightenment, to a vague but fervent socialism. Without roots in any mass movement, Liberman developed a compensatory notion that the yeshiva students would provide the vanguard of the Jewish working class—an odd anticipation of Lenin’s notion that the vanguard of the Russian working class would come from the uprooted intelligentsia. “Down with careers! Down with the worship of money and power!” cried Liberman to no one in particular. Lonely and impoverished, he drifted to the United States, where he ended his life by committing suicide in Syracuse, New York. All of which may seem sheer waste; yet in Liberman’s outcry against “money and power” there was a very important note, since he sensed how susceptible many young Jews were to the claims of idealism, and in his hope for a “yeshiva vanguard” there was a genuine insight into the dynamics of Jewish politics, since he anticipated the process by which Talmudists, turning their backs on God, could reach out to the masses with a secularized religious fervor.
About these precursors of Jewish radicalism one of Hess’s friends, Berthold Auerbach, said almost the last word: “You world reformers are really strange saints, you take the stages of development of your personality and your momentary thought processes very easily for the development of…the real world.” This is surely to the point, yet one wants to add that the “momentary thought processes” of these “strange saints” also anticipate and perhaps even shape the development of the real world.
What happened then, toward the close of the nineteenth century, was a revolution in Jewish consciousness. Scathing criticism became the norm of inner discourse, a kind of communal passion—criticism from Yiddish writers like Mendele Mokher Seforim, national theorists like Lev Pinsker, “cultural Zionists” like Ahad Ha’am, radical Yiddishists like Chaim Zhitlovsky. The tone was set by a leading Hebrew poet, Yehuda Leb Gordon, who in response to his own question, “You ask what we are?” answered, “We are not a nation, nor a congregation; we are a herd.”
The major impulse of the Eastern European Jewish community, observes Frankel, was now toward a limited self-sufficiency, an “autonomous” cultural and institutional life apart from both synagogue and gentile state. Political parties and trade unions appeared; new social attitudes, combative and thisworldly, followed (sometimes preceded). In their struggle for domination within the secular Jewish world, the proto-Zionist nationalists and the cosmopolitan socialists directed their main blows at one another; but from the vantage of a century later it seems clear that their similarities matter more than their differences. Both wanted to create a new Jewish personality, a new Jewish attitude. Jews were no longer to be content with waiting for redemption, they were to storm onto the stage of history.
The Jewish masses, wrote a contemporary radical, who had so often been charged with grubby materialism now displayed “by their very nature that they are always and everywhere [!] prone to a very high level of pure idealism.” It was a moment of moral excitement. The atmosphere, writes Frankel, was marked by “an upsurge of emotionalism, the instinctive attempt… to interpret the crisis [of Jews still gripped by tsarism] as the prelude to the messianic coming.” And if the messiah was no longer to be waited for, then he must be driven, or willed, into existence.
Chaim Weizmann, in a memorandum to Theodor Herzl, wrote in 1903 about the Jewish youth of Russia:
Almost all students belong to the revolutionary camp…. It is a fearful spectacle, and one that obviously escapes west European Zionists, to observe the major part of our youth—and no one would describe them as the worst part—offering themselves for sacrifice as though seized by a fever.
Inner spiritual conflicts between traditional loyalties and the desire to break into European culture becomes a leitmotif of all Jewish expression, especially of Yiddish literature. Here is an extract from the diary of Chaim Khisin, a student in Moscow who will soon make aliya to Palestine:
I have begun to be driven by a sharp, merciless question: “Who are you?”… “Of course, I am a Russian,” I reply and feel that it is not true. On what do I base that answer? Only on my own sympathies and dreams. But fool, don’t you see that to your ardent love, they [the Russians] respond with insulting and cold contempt?… No, first of all and unwillingly, I am a Jew…. [But] my Judaism does not give me any satisfaction. What, apart from memories, does it give me?
It is exactly one hundred years since Chaim Khisin asked this question, and there are serious people who still ask it.
Each of the two major secular movements was keen to expose the weaknesses of the other. The early Jewish socialists, intellectually underdeveloped and still reeling from their break with the culture of their fathers, could assert themselves only through excess. Complete assimilation, a sneering contempt for origins, service as leftist point-men against signs of that “national sentiment” among Jews which they were prepared to celebrate when it was expressed by any other oppressed minority: this became their distinctive style. The Yiddish dramatist S.A. Ansky noted that the Jewish worker (he could have added, intellectual)
…has to break the fetters of religious tradition, has to fight in a sphere where religion is the only form and expression of nationalism, has to hear the abuse—“Goy! Convert! Traitor!”… Thus he carries with him…a deep hostility to those foundations which in his mind are intimately linked to nationalism.
When the Russian social democracy split into Menshevik and Bolshevik wings, the “cosmopolitan” self-denial of the Jewish radicals found a home in both. Here is a Yiddish poet, Avrom Lesin, describing two Menshevik representatives, Leontev and Martynov, at a 1903 conference of the Bund, or Jewish socialist party. Both of these men spoke for
…the “goyim”—and both were Jews and both wore beards…. To me it was comical to see how these two purely Jewish physiognomies with their two pure Russian names (not their real ones) attracted everyone’s attention…. They were the pillar on which the congress stood.
In turn, the socialists scored heavily in their attacks on the early Zionists. The Jewish masses were struggling desperately for a better life in Poland and Russia, while the Zionists stood aside, dreaming of utopia in a Palestine they had never seen. The Jewish community was creating a rich culture of its own in Yiddish while the Zionists dogmatically, as if holding a key to the historical future, prescribed Hebrew as the Jewish language. One of the early socialists wrote an attack on the Zionists that still, alas, has its cogency:
What is to be done with the Arabs [if Jews settle in Palestine]?… The Arabs have exactly the same historical right and it will be unfortunate for you if—taking your stand under the protection of international plunderers [the Western powers]…you make the peaceful Arabs defend their right. They will answer tears with blood….
Even before the turn of the century, the more sensitive and least dogmatic of the secular Jewish thinkers were trying to find a point of mediation between radicalism and nationalism, between the claims of the oppressed and popular feelings. The Bund tried to consider the actual situation of the Jewish working class in Eastern Europe: its deep attachment to Yiddish as a language and culture, its sense of belonging to a distinctive “people” (if not quite a nation), its wish to become part of Europe while remaining in the circle of Jewishness. For their part, the socialist Zionists tried to bring their vision down into the here-and-now, recognizing the urgency of immediate struggles by Jewish workers, shifting to Yiddish as at least a tactical necessity, and projecting a Palestine of the future as the only place where the Jewish masses could establish a socialist commonwealth.
By the 1905 Russian Revolution it seemed that the Bund had won decisively within the Jewish secular world: “At a time when the crucial issue was…the mobilization of tens of thousands out on the street,” writes Frankel, “the settlement of a few hundred more in Palestine was bound to appear irrelevant.” Yes, but the Zionists stubbornly clung to their main and, as it turned out, irrefutable argument: as long as the Bund, or any other Jewish secular movement, had to function within the hostile gentile world, it did not matter how much support it gained among Jews, it was still doomed to helplessness.
I put all this summarily, which means losing that richness of detail which Frankel summons when showing the hesitations, changes, and confusions afflicting both the Bund and the socialist Zionists. Precisely to the extent that these movements formed the more creative segments of Jewish politics, they were beset by difficulties that dogmatists to their left and right didn’t even need to consider. One of these dogmatists, also a clever man, was Vladimir Jabotinsky, the ideological godfather of Zionist Revisionism, who noted that in so far as the Jewish socialist groups paid increasing attention to specifically Jewish needs and sentiments they had to “violate the Social Democratic program with heretical points…, and the greater the extent of heresy in a given party the more it feels a kind of spiritual depression….”
Because both the Bund and the socialist Zionists tried at least to confront the complexities of Jewish life, they could reflect, as Frankel nicely puts it, “the spiritual struggle of the Jewish socialist as an individual—torn (like Hess and Liberman) between loyalty to the Jewish people and loyalty to an all-embracing cause….” Frankel offers valuable chapters on three central figures: Chaim Zhitlovsky, who proposed to create under Yiddish auspices a syncretism of socialism and nationalism, religion and rationalism; Nachman Syrkin, who was practical enough to ground socialist Zionism on Jewish “impracticality” (“what elsewhere is a utopia, among the Jews is a necessity”); and Ber Borochov, a Marxist Zionist who wanted the settlement in Palestine to become the seedbed for a new Jewish working class.
Except perhaps for Syrkin, none of the leading Jewish intellectuals of this period strikes one as first-rate. Zhitlovsky was a pedant and Borochov an ideologue; the Bund never developed a theorist comparable to the theorists of European or Russian socialism. Syrkin, at once playful and irascible, cared more for the texture of Jewish life than for the coherence of his theories: he is a father of the kibbutz, a utopian who avoided both apocalypse and system. The strength of the Jewish secular movements, however, lay not in their spokesmen but in the fervor they elicited among the Jewish masses. Once that was gone, little remained of their animating ideas.
What strikes one in retrospect is that, despite the liveliness of its improvisations, the secular Jewish intelligentsia was marked by an ultimate powerlessness. Its messianic spasms would flare up and then periodically subside into listlessness. Everything in this phase of Jewish thought and activity seems rather weightless, insubstantial, dreamed-up; everything begins brilliantly but seldom reaches fulfillment. It is a culture without completion. The hope of the secular intelligentsia to become menshen “like all others” declines into the pathos of recognizing that they are still luftmenshen. This recognition is at the heart of the Zionist criticism of Jewish secular socialism, and even those of us who rejected it in the past must acknowledge its portion of truth.
Prophecy and Politics is so informative and thoughtful that one wishes it had been done with greater skill. The book ought to have had the flair and scope of, say, Franco Venturi’s study of Russian populism, Roots of Revolution. The difference is that Venturi’s book is written while Frankel’s is compiled. Many historians suspect “writing”; they think of it as a frivolous decoration threatening the integrity of their material. But they are wrong. To write well doesn’t mean to indulge in “fine sentences”; it means to work one’s subject to its imaginative limits, to draw from it the deepest sense of human behavior that it allows. And this, alas, Professor Frankel has not quite done, so that one thinks of his achievement as a “work” rather than as a book.
It seems improbable that we shall ever again see the mix of historical circumstances that enabled secular Jewish problems to emerge seventy or eighty years ago. Jewish life in America, and elsewhere too, has settled into routine, comfort, and self-approval. The rootless intellectual has been replaced by the cautious organizational man; the parties by institutions. Jewish liberalism has been weakened and Jewish radicalism is at least as marginal as it was a century ago. The dream of making Jewish life “normal,” shared by almost all the secular Jewish thinkers of a century ago, has in some sense been realized; but no one can suppose that many of them would be happy with the results.
Still, it may be a little too soon to declare the phase of Jewish secular politics entirely over, since anyone glancing at modern Jewish history must notice that it is marked by recurrent outbreaks of questioning, striving, and self-transformation. Our restlessness always makes possible new surprises. Some decades ago Hans Herzl, son of the Zionist leader, converted to Christianity; last year, I’m told, a great-grandson of Leon Trotsky entered an Israeli yeshiva. An unpredictable people.
July 15, 1982