The Non-Zionist

By Yehudah Mirsky
Monday, November 8, 2010

The YIVO Institute in New York recently marked the 150th birthday of perhaps the most eminent among its founders: the historian and nationalist ideologue Simon Dubnow (1860-1941). Massively influential in its time, Dubnow's historical writing has been overshadowed by the work of later generations of scholars. In the meantime, the cause he championed—Diaspora Jewish nationalism—was throttled by the Holocaust.  Yet the man and his ideas may be ripe for rediscovery.

Born in 1860 in a shtetl in Belarus, the grandson of a distinguished rabbi, Dubnow along with many others made the passage from traditional society to secular enlightenment. Somehow, however, he accomplished the transition without the painful estrangements that radicalized so many of his contemporaries. Emerging as a secularist, he remained fundamentally a classic liberal in both his disposition and his politics, and never relinquished his affection for the traditional Judaism he left behind.

His studies took him to Vilna, Dinaburg, Mogilev, St. Petersburg, and finally, after his failure to gain entrance to a university, back to the shtetl, where he concluded that his vocation lay in working on behalf of his people. This he would do through writing the story of the Jewish nation: a story that, as he saw it, was at once particular and universal, and the knowledge of which was now every bit as central to Jewish survival as had once been his rabbinic grandfather's Torah.

In 1890, moving to the intellectual hothouse of Odessa, Dubnow joined a circle including the philosopher Ahad Ha-Am, the poet H. N. Bialik, and the writer Mendele Mokher-Seforim, all of whom sought to forge a species of Jewish nationalism that would respond both to the decline of traditional faith and to the increasingly apparent failures of Emancipation. Later he moved back to St. Petersburg; then, after the Bolshevik Revolution, to Berlin; and finally in 1933 to Riga, Latvia, now part of the Soviet Union and soon to be occupied by the Nazis.

Letters on Old and New Judaism, a series of essays first completed in 1906 and reworked repeatedly, articulated Dubnow's vision of secular ethical Jewish nationalism. Indebted to Ernest Renan's conception of nationhood as a "daily plebiscite" reflecting the free will of people who "have done great things together and wish to do more," Dubnow traced the development of national identity through three stages: tribal; territorial-political or autonomous; and, finally, cultural-historical or spiritual. The last stage, in his view, had come to full flower in Jewish peoplehood, whose beating heart was the life of the spirit even when that spirit was no longer properly theistic or conventionally religious.

What gave Dubnow's cultural-spiritual nationalism its heft, and kept it from dissolving into an empty aesthetic posture, was his sheer commitment to Jewish group existence, to the creation of institutions maintaining that existence, and to the moral imperatives demanded by identification with the collective. The same commitment shaped his historical research, which took form in his ten-volume World History of the Jewish People and countless other studies. For him, history would no longer focus on theology, metaphysics, and martyrdom but place these alongside social, economic, and more obviously political issues as part of the larger whole. (Thus, for instance, he famously depicted Hasidism as a populist folk rebellion—a hugely influential interpretation by now largely repudiated.) Throughout, his central theme was the story of an "organic" people establishing national centers, first in the ancient land of Israel, then in Babylonia, medieval Germany, and Spain, and finally in the Yiddish heartlands of Poland and Russia.

And perhaps the land of Israel once more? Not quite. Dubnow was not an anti-Zionist so much as a non-Zionist. Agreeing with Ahad Ha-Am that a cultural center in Palestine was a good idea, Dubnow nevertheless averred that it would be unsustainable absent a vibrant Diaspora. As time went on, he became increasingly supportive of Zionism's efforts at society and state-building; but he was deeply concerned that the Zionist project would advance no farther than the territorial-political stage and in the process would forfeit its conscience and soul.

Dubnow's own preferred middle way was national and cultural autonomy in the lands where Jews already resided. He was one of the founders in Russia of the Folkist party, a liberal-nationalist group that never made headway but influenced the (temporarily) more successful Bund. Through the efforts of his disciple Israel Friedlaender, his ideas also made their way to America and affected the work of Mordechai Kaplan, Judah Magnes, and the historian Salo Baron. The first generations of Israeli historians were likewise shaped by his nationalist conceptions, even as they shifted the geographical center to Zion.

Dubnow was murdered in a Nazi roundup in December 1941. What about his ideas? Were they murdered, too?

The horrible circumstances of Dubnow's death and that of millions of his fellow Jews put paid to his 19th-century belief in human progress and world conscience. Partly for the same reasons, the territorial-political aspect of Jewish nationalism, quintessentially embodied in the modern Zionist project, turned out to be not a dispensable stage in history but crucial for sheer Jewish survival, as well as a necessary basis for spiritual and cultural identity. As for Dubnow's entirely secularized conception of that identity, its prospects are dim in today's circumstances, so unlike those of his Eastern European milieu where Jewishness was an undeniable and indeed nearly inescapable fact of life. In an era of choices, Judaism must ground itself in something beyond a postulated innate will to survive if it is to endure and thrive.

Much, though, remains. The exuberant love of Jewish history itself, everywhere on vivid display in Dubnow's writings, carries its own powerfully infectious message. His profound attachment to the civilization of the Diaspora is a welcome corrective to the once-salient Zionist program of "negating the exile," which served to alienate generations of Israelis from the wellsprings of their past. And his insistence that no contradiction exists between the universal rights of individuals and their particular attachments and affiliations is a necessary truth still insufficiently grasped by universalists and particularists alike.

The YIVO Conference takes its place alongside other recent efforts to retrieve and reconsider Dubnow's legacy, some of which touch more directly on the issue of Israel-Diaspora relations today. This is a subject worth returning to.

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