Israeli flag flying near the Dead Sea.

The quintessential question of how to reconcile communal identity with a society based on universal equality and individual rights, is still the primary tension underlying Jewish communal politics, indeed is at the heart of much international and intranational conflict today. Credit: CreativeCommons / Micah Walter.

In the context of modern, secular nation-states in which citizenship is based on human equality and individual rights, what happens to collective cultural, religious, and ethnic history and identity?

Contemporary global “answers” to this question are far from satisfying. They include global capitalism (in which consumer identity replaces ethnic identity); militarized state nationalism (in which citizenship is synonymous with association with a certain army; national identity (which theoretically trumps or replaces ethnic identity); and global white supremacy (the development and dominance of a valorized white “ethnic” identity that is ahistorical and defined primarily in terms of control of global power and resources).

These “answers” rest uneasily on the underground rumblings of the very same question: in a world in which privilege, opportunity, and resources are accorded to the few who are able to escape labels of “otherness” (racial, ethnic, gendered, sexual, ability, age, class) to become the “universal human being who is deserving of rights” (as that is defined in terms of Western white supremacy) what, indeed, happens to communal ethnic, religious, and cultural history and identity?

Jews in Eastern Europe were grappling actively with this very same question over the course of the century that preceeded the Second World War. A closer look at the Jewish political debates of that era can perhaps shed light upon our current conundrum.

The Jews of Eastern Europe were active participants in the turn-of-the-century trends of modernization, industrialization, and secularization. For example, the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment) was an attempt on the part of certain Jewish intellectuals to move the European Jewish community into a modern consciousness – with a heavy assimilationist bent (similar in some ways to the German Reform movement). Zionism was another distinctly modern phenomenon (a Jewish nationalism that somewhat paralleled other European nationalisms that developed around the same time).

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Jewish Eastern Europe of 1850-1939 was crawling with modern (or modernizing) political, intellectual, and cultural movements, all of which grappled in one way or another with the quintessential question of ethnic identity in the context of the modern secular nation-state.

Generally speaking, nationalisms have tried to address this question by wrestling communal identity into the form of modern citizenship. However, citizenship is organized hierarchically on both micro- and macro-levels. Not all citizenships are created equal, so while Russian citizenship (for example) is just as officially recognized as a form of modern identity as American citizenship, it does not grant access to the same level of global privilege and opportunity. As such, it is impossible to escape the feeling, as odious as it may seem to both sides, that American identity is somehow “better” – which (in addition to heavy pressure from the marketing of American culture at the hands of global capitalism) erodes other national identities, leading to rejection of local histories and imitation of American culture in an attempt to gain access to global power (or, alternatively, radicalized opposition to all things American or Western). Thus the current global system of a world of nations has the tendency to put a “standardizing” pressure on all national identities – and individual nationalisms do not offer a sufficient bastion against that erosion.

Similarly, on the micro level, state nationalisms “standardize” from within: when citizenship is the vehicle for enshrining ethnic identity, it also has a tendency to erase internal ethnic diversity, or more accurately, to establish one form of ethnic identity as superior and others as excess baggage to be shed as quickly as possible. This too establishes a hierarchy in which the goal (usually with very real economic strings attached) is to strive to approximate a certain “ideal” of identity that does not reflect the reality of many, or even most, citizens, let alone those who, for one reason or another, do not even have access to state citizenship).

In short, state nationalism is at best an uneasy organizing principle for ethnic identity, and at worst yet another force promoting the concentration of power in the hands of a small group of people who fit one constellation of identity markers, and the “standardization” of everyone else toward that “ideal.”

In the Eastern Europe of the 1800s, one of the crucibles of modern state nationalism, Jews were in a unique position to foresee these perils. As a dispersed internal minority without real possibility of staking out physical territory to build an ethnic state on European soil (the later innovation of Birobidzhan notwithstanding), Jews were constantly caught in the crosshairs of other European nationalisms (most notably Polish, as Poles struggled against Russian and German domination and often scapegoated any Jews in the path of their fight for self-determination – not to mention the perils for the Jews of German nationalism in Western Europe). As the Jews of Eastern Europe endured the nationalist struggles taking place around them, they began to try to envision what a Jewish future could look like in a world increasingly carved up into states organized around regionally dominant ethnic identities, none of which particularly embraced the Jews.

Some of the proposed solutions to this crisis are well-known: Zionism – the establishment of a Jewish nation on the historical site of biblical events; assimilation (particularly in Western Europe) – the subscription to the idea that Judaism can be thought of as a religion rather than an ethnic identity, and Jewish religious identity can be subordinated to national citizenship (German, French, British identity); and emigration to countries in North and South America, where assimilation was also the goal. There were other suggestions as well, somewhat less remembered today: territorialism – the proposal to create a Jewish state in a location other than the Middle East; and various forms of socialism and communism, some of which attempted to subsume Jewish identity into a universal, secularized workers’ identity, and some of which attempted to combine class struggle with the struggle to solve the particular problems facing the Jewish community of Eastern Europe.

This latter project – the attempt to participate in the revolutionary struggles of the lands in which they resided, while simultaneously insisting on the continued relevance of, and specificity of, Jewish identity, is today the least remembered stream of Jewish political thought of that era, yet in many ways the most interesting. This project is known variously as Jewish autonomism, Diaspora nationalism, doikayt (“hereness”), and Yiddish nationalism: the attempt to assert self-determination for an internal stateless minority without aspirations to territorial statehood. In addition to the Jewish communist and socialist parties engaged in this project (the Jewish Labor Bund in particular), scattered efforts were made to build a movement (Folkism) specifically to pursue this goal.

The movement never grew very large, and was mostly eclipsed by other movements that sought to revolutionize life for the Jews of Eastern Europe rather than to grapple with the problems of life as it was. With the advent of the Holocaust, of course, the wholesale destruction of Jewish life in Eastern Europe put an end to the hopes of an integrated, self-determined life in Eastern Europe for Jews.

However, over the course of its short life, the Jewish autonomist / Diaspora nationalist movement accomplished several major tasks whose impact would reverberate throughout generations. While other movements sought to redefine Jewish identity by assimilating into modern European society or reviving its “pure” Biblical roots, Jewish autonomist movements looked squarely at Eastern-European Jewish life as it was and treated it as raw material for building an updated Jewish civilization.

One of the main approaches to this project was ethnography. Like other European nationalist movements of the era, the autonomists set out to gather folklore, demographic information, and other ethnographic data on the Jewish community of Eastern Europe. Thanks to these ethnographic expeditions, we have today at least some archival record of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, despite massive damage to and destruction of archival materials during the war (and much of what we do have was hidden and smuggled out at risk to life and limb by historians and archivists affiliated with the autonomist movements). In addition to producing precious records of life in the Pale of Settlement, this ethnographic work attempted an even grander purpose, with mixed success: to dignify Eastern European Jewish life, in defiance of centuries of external disdain and persecution, as well as internal self-consciousness and shame, which was worsening in response to the new, “civilized” anti-Semitism of the post-Enlightenment, humanist European elites.

One aspect of this attempt to focus on and dignify Eastern European Jewish life as it was, was a new consciousness of the Yiddish language. Yiddish had gotten a bad rap from every side: assimilationists saw it as an “outdated” barrier to full inclusion into a European society that required fluency in other European languages, such as German, Russian, and Polish; proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment agreed, and also called for the abandonment of Yiddish in favor of Hebrew, Judaism’s “classical” language, which was supposedly untarnished by the centuries of subaltern life in Europe; and anti-Semites (as well as many Jews) saw it as a “jargon,” a bastardized, illiterate language of the raggedy Jewish masses. But building on the populist sentiments that were sweeping the region, a small cadre of writers, scholars, and activists recognized that whatever its shortcomings, Yiddish was undeniably the vernacular of Eastern European Jewish life, and therefore – among other things – a necessary medium through which to organize any mass movement. In addition to its political uses, these activists saw Yiddish as a repository of the riches of Eastern European Jewish history and culture, and thus a basis for a newly conscious national and ethnic pride, to rival the national pride of the surrounding European peoples.

The shrine to the prophet Nebi Samwil.

Zionism - the establishment of a Jewish nation on the historical site of biblical events, along with assimilation and emigration, all became potential solutions for Eastern European Jews seeking a physical territoryat the turn of the century.Above, the burial site of the prophet Nebi Samwil in Jerusalem. Credit: CreativeCommons / Seth Frantzman.

These two streams – the ethnographic impulse and the valorization of the Yiddish language – flowed together into the development of institutions and infrastructure designed to curate Eastern European Jewish national identity – two institutions in particular: the YIVO Institute in Vilna (the Jewish Scientific Institute, an academic and sociological institute devoted to the study of Eastern European Jewish life for the purposes of documenting it and addressing its problems), and TSYSHO (a network of Yiddish-language-medium schools for children that promoted a positive, self-conscious Eastern-European Jewish identity).

These institutions, as well as the movements from which they sprang, attempted two things that no other Jewish political movement of the era (and very few in the decades since) even conceived. Firstly, to refuse the damning indictment from within and without of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, insisting that, despite the relentlessness of the economic and political circumstances, the lives and cultures of Eastern European Jews were worthy of as much respect as all other human lives and cultures (and indeed perhaps particularly admirable because of the persistence of idealistic, lively religious and folk culture in the face of devastating circumstances). And secondly, to separate national and ethnic pride from aspirations to militarized statehood (and arguably, in that sense, they kept faith with the Jewish religious value of savlanut: a pacifist orientation toward social redemption).

So what does any of this have to do with the Jewish community of today?

I believe that the aforementioned “quintessential question”, the question of how to reconcile communal identity with a society based on universal equality and individual rights, is still the primary tension underlying Jewish communal politics today (and indeed is at the heart of much international and intranational conflict in today’s world in general). And, while we may believe that we have made progress in the last century (and, in particular, that Jewish life has improved), the truth is that we still have not solved the problem that plagued Jewish activists a century ago – and indeed, that fact continues to fuel a simmering existential insecurity for Jews today, both in Israel and in the Diaspora. Namely, as an ethnic minority in the modern world, how do we balance ethnic solidarity (and defend ourselves against being swallowed up into the deracinating, history-erasing, community- and spirit-destroying, cooptative and corrupting mass of individualist consumer citizenship) with true democracy (a political system in which every human being has a voice and a right to a peaceful life and access to a fair share of resources, regardless of identity)? How can we maintain identity, history, and community without falling into chauvinism; how can we become citizens of a global cosmopolis without forgetting who we are?

We have a tendency to write our histories, to teach our children, to talk as if we have resolved this question. “Thank God Jewish life in Europe is over – let’s forget about that now that we’ve built something so much better” – the implicit subtext of our Hebrew school curricula, our political analysis, in many cases our religious ritual. However, the truth is that we have not solved the problem. We are still facing the task of figuring out how to maintain Jewish communal identity while simultaneously building a truly pluralistic, cosmopolitan world order. Despite our many efforts to integrate the two, we have managed only to pursue them as two parallel, but separate, goals. That is, in the Diaspora (and in the US in particular), we pursue participation in a diverse society (but by and large lose our communal identity); in Israel we pursue Jewish communal solidarity, but we do so through militarized nationalist statehood, which is externally vulnerable on the world stage to the whims of larger, more entrenched national powers, and internally hierarchical in ways that devastatingly compromise its stated goal of democracy.

A few words in defense of Jewish political creativity over the course of the past century: we were, first of all, working against incredible odds, with overwhelmingly compromised material and psychic resources. Besides, on some level, the problem the Jewish community is confronting and has eternally confronted is, perhaps, one of the insoluble problems of human nature: how shall we build a world in which the large don’t trample on the small, a world in which the many consider the needs of the few? It’s unfair to expect the Jewish community to have solved that problem in a few short decades, given that the overall human community has thus far failed to do so in all its millennia of existence.

And if this is truly an insoluble occupational hazard of being human, it makes sense to stop looking for solutions, to do our best to consolidate the power that we have and to work to shore up our defenses against the next wave of large-scale, calamitous anti-Semitism, whenever it may come – and come it will, because it always has before, and because that is exactly what we are resigning ourselves to.

On the other hand, resignation to the idea that redemption is impossible is not exactly a typical Jewish attitude, whether religious or secular. And, in my view, resignation is not inevitable. We have had a terrible century, it is undeniable. And it is natural to want to forget the events that led up to the century’s worst cataclysm, and to thank God that we are, for the most part, out of the lands that betrayed us in the worst possible way. However, part of our responsibility to the past – and our precious, too widely neglected opportunity – is to claim our yerusha, our inheritance, from our Eastern European forebears. The pogroms, World War I, the Holocaust, and the excesses of Stalinism came just in time to abort one of the most idealistic political projects in human history: the project of developing a modern populist democratic state that had internal space for ethnic minorities to develop autonomous, self-determined political infrastructure while simultaneously participating fully in the life of the state.

This is a model that died out with the dissolution of the Soviet Union (well after the Soviet government had already undermined the project by outlawing religion and betrayed the Soviet Jewish community by executing its leaders). It is not a perfect model, but it tried more seriously than any other model in existence in the West today to reconcile ethnic identity with modern statehood in a way that promotes democracy based on individual rights without demanding that ethnic identity be subordinated to national citizenship. It is a part of the Jewish political dialogue that has been for the most part forgotten, and one whose relevance to today is not always simple to discern. However, it is also the most truly messianic of the visions of political redemption that emerged in the Jewish community of Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century – a vision of Jewish pride and self-determination in a context of peaceful harmony with our non-Jewish friends and neighbors, brought about non-violently and without recourse to corrupt uses of power. A vision that offers communal thriving as a defense against the destructive bleaching processes of deracination and assimilation. A vision that offers a model for political organization that preserves Jewish security and space to flourish while also allowing for internal diversity and sustained intercourse with non-Jewish communities. In short – it is a vision that we desperately need today, both in Israel and in the Diaspora.

So when I talk about Diaspora nationalism for the twenty-first century, I’m not only talking about Diaspora, and I’m talking about something that can’t strictly be called nationalism. What I’m talking about is our obligation, and our opportunity, to remember – to remember that a mere century ago, our Eastern European great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers were asking the same question we are asking today: how can we be both fully Jewish and fully modern? And to remember that, among the many answers with which they experimented, one answer was incredibly brave and incredibly idealistic: By celebrating our heritage, by insisting on our right to maintain our identity without being targeted for harm – and by doing so nonviolently and without recourse to corrupt use of power.

Yes, the Holocaust was an unspeakable cataclysm, and it is unsurprising that it convinced many in our community to give up on this vision. But one way we can honor the memory of what was destroyed is by resolving to pick up the torch, to keep fighting for the vision that the Holocaust tried to wipe out. It wiped out lives, communities, history, records, and very nearly a language and culture – but it does not have to wipe out a dream – a dream of Jews thriving in a pluralistic world under conditions of true ethical peace – a dream that some of our ancestors had (and left copious written records about) and that we desperately need today. It is up to us to keep that dream alive – and as we fight to make it a reality, it is up to us to seek out, and to manifest, the wisdom of those who came before.

Ri J. Turner is a rabbinical student by day (at Hebrew College in Newton, MA) and a Yiddishist by night. They have written for the Jewish Daily Forward (both English and Yiddish), Zeek Magazine, JewSchool, Afn Shvel and other publications.


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