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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2013
Number 78
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Mission in the Diaspora: Simon Dubnov’s Jewish Autonomism

An essay by Brian Horowitz

A fresh commitment to diaspora as a fully authentic Jewish path and not as a substitute for life in Israeli state has led to a search for the roots of diaspora nationalism and from there, to Simon Dubnov, the father of Jewish Autonomism. In fact, Dubnov has a great deal to give the Jewish people even now since his main goal was to explain, and then realize, the conditions in which the Jewish people could thrive economically, politically and culturally in the diaspora. Since more than one half of Jews live outside Israel, we might take a look at this playbook of how to thrive in diaspora.

For Dubnov the operative concept was the Jewish people which he maintained composed the Jewish nation. In fact, he attributed little importance to religion in the evaluation of who a Jew was and far more to culture. Religion had played a role in earlier times, but other factors, such as economic relations, food and home, sport and leisure, had also helped give form to individual lives. Moreover, for Dubnov, in modern times, religion had lost its theological significance and become merely a system of symbols and rituals that had nostalgic value.

In its most basic form, Jewish Autonomism refers to the idea that Jews in the diaspora have the right to separate cultural, educational and political institutions that promote Jewish interests. In a multi-national state, Jews would acquire, in addition to individual rights, collective rights and would receive government money for Jewish activities. As Dubnov envisioned it, Jewish autonomy would work best in a liberal democracy in which Jews would have all the protections of the individual citizen, including the right to a trial by jury, religious tolerance and freedom of speech and assembly, and have their own Jewish institutions, such as schools, cultural centers and political administration. Just as society as a whole, the Jewish institutions would be run democratically as well. Although the combination seems implausible, Dubnov imagined joining the privileges of an inclusive democracy with the rights of national separatism.

Autonomism emerges from the view that Jews throughout the world feel a belonging to a unified people. Dubnov explains, “No one can prevent me from publicly expressing my religion, educating my children in the Jewish national spirit and supporting such an atmosphere in my elementary school. They cannot prevent me from sharing a solidarity of interests with my coreligionists in this country and in other countries, organizing community institutions by legal methods and participating in public institutions and organizations devoted to the projection and defense of the interests of the Jewish people worldwide.” (1)

Simon Dubnov was born in Mstislav, Belarus in 1860. Since his father was busy in the timber trade and constantly away from home, he was educated by his grandfather, a Talmudic scholar. A promising Talmud hochem, in his teens, Dubnov was infected by the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment first through secular books in Hebrew and then in Russian, French, and English. Of particular importance to his intellectual evolution was the English philosopher, John Stuart Mill, who articulated ideas of liberty, self-control and the progressive values of equality, law, and justice. These ideas, mixed in with Russian radicalism, inspired the youth to break from the past.

His all-consuming goal became acquiring a university education. But Dubnov was unable to find a Russian high school that would accept him since he was already too old for matriculation. Making a virtue of necessity, he organized his “own private university,” reading intensely and widely in the humanities. A vivid depiction of Dubnov’s biography can be found in his memoirs, The Book of Life (three vols. 1933-1940), which is truly one of the masterpieces of Russian-Jewish intellectual life of the tsarist period (2).

By 1880, he lived illegally in St. Petersburg, writing articles for the Russian-Jewish newspaper, Voskhod, under the pseudonym Kritikus. Incidentally, Kritikus became one of the most well-respected thinkers in Russia. He single-handedly lent professional respect to Yiddish literature, “discovering” Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mocher Sforim. In time, Dubnov stopped writing reviews and devoted his energies to the study of East European Jewish history, a field that was in its infancy at the time. Within a decade, Dubnov wrote the main monographs for which he became famous, including The Jews of Russia and Poland (three vols., 1916-20) and later his ten-volume History of the Jews (1925-30).

Moving to Odessa, Dubnov befriended some of the most important Jewish intellectuals of the twentieth century, such as Ahad-Ha’am, Mendele Mocher Sforim and Nachman Hayim Bialik. At the time of the Revolution of 1905 in Russia, however, Dubnov lost confidence in radicalism, becoming convinced that ultimately only Jews care about Jews. Following the revolution, he organized and led a new political party, the Folkspartay, that embodied his ideas of Jewish autonomy.

The Bolshevik Revolution and life in starving Petersburg hit the historian and his family hard. Finally winning permission to leave the Soviet Union in 1922, he traveled to Berlin and then accepted a position in Latvia at the University of Daupils. Watching the growing Nazi threat with apprehension, Dubnov did not accept offers to come to New York or Palestine, claiming that he could not abandon the Jewish people of Eastern Europe in their time of need. He lost his life to the Nazis in 1940 in Riga when he was shot after having been forced to leave his home and march with the other Jews of the city.

As a historian, Dubnov concluded that Autonomism coincided perfectly with the people’s existence as a wandering nation. In his Essays on Old and New Judaism (1898-1905), Dubnov described various kinds of nations, judging them according to their complexity. For example, he claimed that “uncivilized” tribes were on a lower level than modern nations since the members of the former were bound only by language and geography, whereas the latter were united by religion and culture. However, the Jews composed the highest kind of nation because, although bereft of land and even at times of a common language, they were united by spiritual elements. Each member felt an enduring connection to one another through culture and an indelible sense of peoplehood.

According to Dubnov, this spiritual bond was visible in their history, in the creation of mobile centers. In one era Jews made a home in Palestine, but in another, the center of Jewish life moved to Babylonia. Later it moved again to Spain, then Poland, the United States and Israel. According to Dubnov, the center was strongest and most productive when more of the elements of autonomy were satisfied.

If a community makes demands for collective rights, the question of who is a Jew has to be faced directly. In his answer, Dubnov sought for an inclusiveness that surpassed religious identification. Essentially, he accepted any person who was born Jewish or made a declaration of belonging to the Jewish people. He excluded only those who publicly renounced their identification. Nonetheless, if one were a member of the community one was obligated to pay special taxes, voluntary contributions would not suffice. His thinking on membership was certainly influenced by the fact that allocation of money depended on numbers, but also, and more importantly, by his general attitude toward Jewish identity. Dubnov viewed Jews as a nation with its own languages, culture, and religion. To him it mattered little if one was religious, since a lack of religious practice did not annul one’s membership in the community. In fact, Dubnov stood in favor of a separation of church and state. Thus, although he favored government funding of cultural and educational matters, religion was something private. In a liberal state, the laws had to be applied to every citizen regardless of ethnicity or religion.

As one can see right away, the model for Jewish Autonomism was hardly the United States with its emphasis on a triumphant cosmopolitanism and the reduction of separations between nationalities. The Austrian-Hungarian Empire with its parliament consisting of national political parties and (at least in principle) tolerance of religious and ethnic difference was one model. Of course, that empire has its flaws since in addition to various Jewish political parties, anti-Semitic parties also appeared, and the principle of equality before the law was recognized in the breach rather than in practice.

Another model was The Council of the Four Lands in 16th and 17th century Poland in which Jews were given self-rule. Agreeing to create a parliament of sorts to centralize decisions throughout the country, Jews formed legislative and judicial councils that met at the annual fair in Lublin. More to the point, Dubnov liked the way that in late-medieval Poland, Jews were considered a corporate body separate from the other members of society who were organized by class nobility, merchants, peasantry and clergy. However, Dubnov was quick to note that a modern state could not permit anti-Jewish persecution or discrimination, and he also condemned the class warfare that afflicted Jewish communities at the time. Modern Jewish communities would eliminate the possibility of corruption by unelected leaders through the implementation of democratic methods. Incidentally, Dubnov was an early supporter of women’s rights and he envisioned women’s suffrage in all his plans.

I think one can agree that Autonomism is something very different from Zionism or even Territorialism. The scope is smaller and the aims more narrow. In contrast to those two projects, Dubnov did not seek to make Jews a majority people, but rather hoped to fine-tune Jewish minority life in the diaspora. Aware that the tide of history moves inexorably toward total assimilation, he believed that only an interminable struggle could ensure Jewish survival. In addition, he understood that even in advanced democracies, minority groups are often held hostage to the majority will. Thus, Dubnov’s concepts put him in the forefront of thinking about minority rights in Eastern Europe with such thinkers as Otto Bauer, Toms Masaryk and Noah Prylucki.

There are clearly a number of arresting paradoxes about Dubnov’s Autonomism. Remarkably, anti-Semites have long vocalized fears toward the Jews with the accusation that the latter constituted a “state within a state.” In truth, it cannot be seen how national separatism would lead to a reduction in anti-Jewish feeling; on the contrary, such demands would likely increase it. Similarly, it is hard to imagine a state turning to cultural separatism in order to ensure the inclusion of all minorities. Separatism, as far as one can conclude from historical evidence, benefits majorities, leaving minorities excluded.

Although it gives a utopian impression, Autonomism clearly facilitates a struggle with assimilation. I do not think that anyone would disagree that it is hard to preserve Jewish culture and education in a society like the United States that valorizes above all inclusion and individuality. By setting as a principle that minority nationalities need institutionalized protections and funding, Autonomism places a priority on national culture and creativity and demands respect for difference. It promotes democracy and rights for the flourishing of multiplicity and diversity.

But is it realistic? In a world in which cultural homogenization is killing languages, species, and cultures at increasing speed, Autonomism does not look bad at all. Whether it could help save diaspora Jewish culture and whether Jews could implement it in our time are questions that we will probably confront more and more in the face of an undefeatable and uncontrollable assimilation.


  1. S. Dubnov, Nationalism and History: Essays on Old and New Judaism, ed. K. Pinson (New York: Athenum, 1970), (1st edition 1958), 134.
  2. There is still no English-translation of Kniga zhizni, although the University of Wisconsin Press is slated to publish one in the coming year.

Brian Horowitz is the Sizeler Family Chair Professor at Tulane University and a contributing editor.

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