The Cosmopolitans

By Yehudah Mirsky
Friday, November 26, 2010

How many flavors does Zionism come in? The usual answer is three. There is the political Zionism of Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), focused on establishing Jewish sovereignty. Then there is the cultural Zionism advocated by Ahad Ha'am (1856-1927), seeking to build a moral and spiritual center in the land of Israel irrespective of sovereignty. And then there is religious Zionism, adopting and modifying elements of each of the other two varieties while intent on maintaining traditional forms of life and mindful of the promise of divine Redemption.

Naturally, the reality is more complicated. And, in a period when Zionism is in serious need of defending and new thinking, some scholars have been complicating it further, by drawing attention to nearly forgotten thinkers and activists whose Zionism partook of larger, "cosmopolitan" efforts to reconceive the relationships among universal ethics, minority rights, and national belonging. 

A number of the figures in question came from or spent time in Central Europe, where the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the years preceding World War I and the chaos of the ensuing decades left a host of small states and national minorities scrambling to gain a footing. Many young Jewish intellectuals saw in cultural Zionism a way not only of retaining their attachment to the Jewish people but also of criticizing the tendency of states, liberal and illiberal alike, to efface the collective identities of minority groups.

Of particular interest is a circle of young Jewish intellectuals in Prague. It included the philosopher Samuel Hugo Bergmann, the historian Hans Kohn, the journalist and editor Robert Weltsch, and Kafka's confidant Max Brod. Some members of the group later became active in the Brit Shalom movement, which in pre-state Palestine unsuccessfully sought to promote a bi-national Jewish-Arab state.  In a new book, Between Prague and Jerusalem (Hebrew, Merkaz Shazar), Dmitry Shumsky links that effort, commonly portrayed as both noble-minded and hopelessly naïve, to their experience as hyphenated Central European Jews resisting attempts by monolithic nation-states to flatten their own complex culture. 

A second volume, Zohar Maor's A New Secret Doctrine (Hebrew, Merkaz Shazar), explores the Prague group's spiritual life. Like other Western European Jewish intellectuals, distanced from tradition and disappointed by Enlightenment, they turned eastward, and in particular to the mystical versions of Hasidism and Zionism articulated by their older contemporary Martin Buber. For Bergmann, the deepest thinker of the group, Zionism would constitute "our sanctification of the Name," synthesizing an embrace of the totality of lived experience with the holiness of ethics. Leaving for Zion in 1920, he became one of the founders of the Hebrew University and a major presence in Israeli intellectual life.

Another member of the Prague circle, Hans Kohn, features prominently in a third book, Zionism and the Roads Not Taken, by the American historian Noam Pianko.  Seeking overtly to disconnect what he takes to be contemporary Zionism's constricting linkage of Jewish peoplehood with political sovereignty, Pianko focuses on a trio of thinkers who, he says, confounded that simple equation.  In addition to Kohn, he adduces the figures of Simon Rawidowicz, a cultural Zionist and historian of Jewish thought, and Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism and a pivotal figure in 20th-century American Judaism.

For Pianko, the three figures stand, respectively, for cultural humanism (Kohn), global Hebraism (Rawidowicz), and national civilization (Kaplan)—each of these being an alternative to the simple identification of Jewish nationalism with statehood, and to the notion of Diaspora life as subservient simultaneously to Israel and the surrounding host culture.

Unfortunately, the analysis, though interesting in parts, fails to convince. Kohn, to begin with him, resigned from the Zionist movement and left Israel in the 1930s; in his subsequent decades in America, he distanced himself from Jewish life and concrete politics altogether, to the point where Buber, of all idealists, criticized his moral "doctrinairism."  Moreover, Pianko does not account for the fact that others of Kohn's milieu, like Bergmann, were able to make their peace with the state of Israel without surrendering their moral and spiritual commitments. 

Next, Simon Rawidowicz. A philosophically-minded student of Simon Dubnow whose life took him from Eastern Europe to Berlin to London and finally to Brandeis University, Rawidowicz, a formidable scholar whose writings have enjoyed a revival in recent years, saw the unity of the Jewish people in its dispersions as a visible correlative of the unity of humanity in its dispersions. He also envisioned a global Jewish culture, rooted in Hebrew and the Jewish classics, in which the new state of Israel and the Diaspora would, like the focal points of an ellipse, contain and roughly outline an orbit of ideas and belonging. Little of this complex vision is discernible in Pianko's schematic placement of him as an apostle of (a failed) global Hebraism.  

As for Kaplan, Pianko reads his monumental Judaism as a Civilization (1934) as an effort to articulate a new form of nationalism, critical of sovereignty and its possible perversions. Situating him in the intriguing context of early 20th-century political theorists like Horace Kallen, Alfred Zimmern, and Randolph Bourne, Pianko misses the burden of Kaplan's expansive use of "civilization," a term meant to evoke, faintly, the divine presence whose absence lay at the heart of Kaplan's endeavor to "reconstruct" Jewish life.

It was only much later that Kaplan began to talk of "peoplehood" and "the religion of ethical nationhood." In a book under the latter title (1970), he reaffirmed ethical Zionism in light both of the new state of Israel and of the Holocaust. The latter is an event all but unmentioned by Pianko, yet it was precisely the Holocaust that ended the decades-long argument within Zionism itself over the need for Jewish sovereignty. (The travails of Soviet Jewry during the cold war delivered the coup de grâce.)

Although Pianko aims to sever the supposedly tight linkage between peoplehood and statehood, one may question how tight that linkage is to begin with. The majority of American Jews, even as they lend broad political support to Israel, hardly seem to rely on it for their sense of Jewish identity. (Israel is understandably more central to the life of smaller Jewish communities outside the U.S., who also send proportionately greater numbers of visitors to the Jewish state.)  The American Hebraist movement, of which Rawidowicz was a part, never really got off the ground. American Jewish literature hardly deals with Israel at all. Although the much-touted Birthright program has indeed been trying to make an encounter with Israel central to the formation of American Jewish identity, that program is an innovation, and its long-term success has yet to be demonstrated.

In the end, the predicaments of Jewish existence in the Diaspora may have much less to do with the fact of Jewish sovereignty as such than with the sheer difficulty of maintaining strong collective commitments in the free societies of a globalizing age.  As for cosmopolitan Zionists, both those mentioned here and others like Israel's Jacob Talmon and Yael Tamir and Britain's Isaiah Berlin, they certainly deserve a place on the Zionist bookshelf. Cosmopolitan Zionism is no contradiction in terms, and has its undeniable attractions. But, like all Jewish ideologies, it must reckon concretely with something too often elided or lost in contemporary debates over Israel and Zionism—namely, the sheer cultural and physical survival of Jews. That, too, will not necessarily yield any obvious answers, but it grounds debate in both reality and morality.


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