Following is an excerpt from the book “A Short History of Zionism” I am currently writing. If you wish to support this endeavor, please contribute here. If you are unable to contribute but wish to show your support, please spread the word on social media, your own blog and anywhere else you see fit. Thank you.
A famous story, now debunked, tells of Chinese premiere Zhou Enlai, who was asked during US President Richard Nixon’s famous visit to China in 1972 what he thought about the French revolution. Zhou, the story has it, said that it was “too early to tell,” thus encapsulating the difference between Occidental and Oriental historical perspectives in four pithy words.
Zhou, it appears, was asked and answered about the much more recent 1968 student uprisings throughout the Western world, but the story has stuck; not least, because the French revolution really was an event of momentous, far-reaching implications, far beyond the question of who would rule over the French, some of which took many decades to unfold.
The uprising of the French bourgeoisie against their decrepit monarchy, and the subsequent Napoleonic wars, did more than shatter the walls and castles of the feudal way of life. They also served to bring down the walls, half forced from without and half self-erected, of the Jewish ghettos throughout western and central (and, to a lesser extent, eastern) Europe.
Although they were fighting for an autocratic ruler who would soon crown himself Emperor, the soldiers of Napoleon fought in the name of the democratic, humanist ideals of the revolution, and they brought that spirit to the lands they conquered throughout the continent of Europe. Even when they ultimately lost, as in Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia, they penetrated deep enough to ensure that the ideas they carried would infect the local populations to irrevocable effect.
This development was accelerated, like a fire by drought conditions, due to a process internal to Jewish communities known as the Haskalah, which took place in the from the mid 1700’s into the early 19th century. This word, literally meaning “education”, is more commonly translated in this context as “enlightenment”, as it sought to incorporate into Jewish life and Jewish thought the values of the European enlightenment movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. This movement, however, was limited at first to a small part of the Jewish population that had both the education and means to interact with the general public and study the European thinkers. Most of the Jewish population of Europe was slowly rebuilding from the massive death-count of the 1648-9 pogroms in Eastern Europe (and the coincident general vicissitudes of the Thirty-Year War in the center and west of the continent, which ended at the same time).
Ideas do take time to seep through the populace, more so in times predating our modern forms of mass communication. But within two generations of Napoleon’s fall, thanks to the new ideas of freedom, equality and the relation between the individual and the state, Jews were granted equal rights under the law in the vast majority of western and central Europe, in a process known as “Emancipation.” The walls of the ghetto could no longer stem the flood of new ideas into the Jewish community, or the flow of talented Jews rushing to take their place in the intellectual life of the continent, internalizing its latest ideas and applying them to their own circumstances.
The first new idea the newly liberated Jews had to internalize – or rather, process and find a way to counter – was that their very identity was passe’ and that Judaism had outlived its historical usefulness. Of course, this wasn’t really a new idea, as Christians had been proclaiming it ever since they began distinguishing themselves from Jews some 1800 years earlier, but since Hegel the claim had a philosophical veneer, and not just a religious one.
The first person to take up the challenge was a man named Rabbi Nachman Krochmal. He was born in 1785 in the town of Brody, in the region historically known as Galicia, then considered part of Poland and now in current-day Ukraine. Krochmal was born to a religious family and his early education consisted of religious studies and Jewish philosophers, such as Maimonides and Ibn Ezra. However, at a young age he met a group of “Enlightenment” types, and through them was exposed first to Jewish Enlightenment thinkers, such as Moshe Mendelssohn and Salomon Maimon. Then he learned German, so as to study the great thinkers of the age – Fichte, Schelling, Kant and Hegel – in the original. He soon became one of Polish Jewry’s leading lights and gathered a significant following. However, his great work, “Moreh Nevochei HaZeman” (Guide for the Perplexed of the Time) was only published posthumously in 1851 (Krochmal having died in 1840), by his student Yom Tov (Leopold) Zunz.
Like Maimonides before him, (and like Philo of Alexandria, who wrote around the time of Jesus), Krochmal attempted to reconcile Judaism with the leading philosophical currents of his day, hence the title of his book, which is very similar to the great Maimonides work “Guide to the Perplexed” and not at all by coincidence. Krochmal attempts to use the Hegelian method and toolbox, so to speak, while countering Hegel’s specific claim that the historic relevance of Judaism – and, by extension, of the Jewish people – has expired. He accomplishes the first part by accepting the model, ascribed to by Hegel and others, which holds that every civilization has three eras: that of growth and development, that of endeavor and great deeds, and that of degeneration and decay. However, he argues, the Jewish people are unique in that they have not one but at least three distinct such cycles (the first being from Abraham to the destruction of the first temple, the second coinciding roughly with the existence of the second temple, and the third from the writing of the Talmud to the devastating pogroms of 1648-9, with a fourth cycle about to begin). This uniqueness, Krochmal argues, is due to Jewish nationality being rooted in spirituality, in fact deriving directly from the “absolute spiritual” of Hegelian thought.
Whether or not one agrees with this somewhat self-congratulatory analysis, it was presented in a deft and nimble enough manner to enable Jewish intellectuals to embrace the core of European thought, while holding on to their own group identity, and it got the ball rolling.
Meanwhile, Jews throughout Europe were discovering several unpleasant truths regarding the supposed blessings of the emancipation. The first was that being allowed to mingle in general society, and compete with gentiles for jobs, significantly increased tensions and antisemitism. The second was that in return for being afforded legal equality under the law, Jews were tacitly being required to renounce any and all group identity beyond that of a religious community. Ironically, just as many Jews were shaking off the reins of religion, they discovered that they didn’t really want to do that – that there was something, beyond the commandments they were no longer keeping, that connected them to one-another.
But it wasn’t just how they saw themselves. A famous political science quip holds that a nation is a group of people with a common misconception as to their origins and a common dislike of their neighbors. By this measure, the Jews, emancipated or not, didn’t really fit in with the societies in which they lived. They didn’t share the much of the common culture (religion, holidays, etc.), had their own language, and also their own origin story. Plus, they felt much the same about Gentiles of “their” nation as the ones across the border. The Gentiles knew this and never really accepted the Jew as “one of them.”
Some, like the new Reform Judaism movement, which was founded in Berlin in the 1840’s (and even included the aforementioned Leopold Zunz), welcomed this line of thought, which viewed Judaism and Jewishness as nothing more than a religious identity (and a diluted one at that). They insisted that they were as German as any Junker, just “Germans of the faith of Moses”, but many others rejected both Reform Judaism itself and its disinterest in Jewish group-identity.
One of the most prominent standard-bearers of this rejection was a man named Heinrich Hirsch (Zvi) Graetz (1817-1891). He received a religious education at Wollstein Yeshiva, and taught himself languages and secular studies. At first his attempt to enter a general university was rejected by the authorities, but Graetz showed great tenacity, arranging a sort of apprenticeship for himself under one of the great rabbis of the day, and finally gained admittance to the University of Breslau (current day Wroclaw, Poland), where he studied philosophy, history, physics and oriental studies. In 1845 he completed his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Jena (now known as Friedrich Schiller University). His thesis, on “Judaism and Gnosis”, was written in Latin.
After acquiring said degree he began teaching at various Jewish schools, and busied himself with fierce attacks on Reform Judaism, as well as the composition of his magnum opus – The History of the Jews, in 11 volumes. The composition, which is riddled with inaccuracies, methodical deficiencies and downright sloppiness, was nonetheless heralded as a seminal work at the time (and served as the basic text on the subject for decades afterward), being the first ever attempt at authoring a national history of the Jewish people – or at least the first since Josephus, 1800 years prior. It set the foundation for looking at the Jewish people as a nation with a unified culture and an ongoing history, rather than just a religious group. This was in keeping with the new vogue in Europe following the French revolution, where nationality was becoming the foremost frame of reference for the individual and for groups.
These two, and particularly Graetz, were to set the stage for the appearance of the first truly Zionist text, written by a man who has the distinction of being heralded as the founding father of two great historical movements. We shall introduce him in Chapter 3.