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VCU Menorah Review Winter 2004
Number 60
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

The Road to Jewish Nationalism

Zionism and the Fin De Siecle: Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism from Nordau to Jabotinsky by Michael Stanislawski
Berkeley: University of California Press

A Review Essay by Brian Horowitz

This latest work is an attempt by the renowned historian of Russian Jewry, Michael Stanislawski, to review our understanding of the origins of Zionism. Indeed, we discover a paradox. How is it that many of Zionism’s most revered leaders were actually deeply cosmopolitan intellectuals who knew no Hebrew and rather little about the Jewish tradition? Scholars have mostly explained this paradox by dividing the lives of such figures as Theodore Herzl, Max Nordau and Vladimir Jabotinsky into two parts, before their transformation from “assimilationists” to Jewish nationalists. But, as Stanislawski noticed, such a divide is unconvincing since all three of these individuals continued to abide by a cosmopolitan, Western-European cultural orientation, even applying their cosmopolitan views to the sphere of Zionist practice and theory. As an answer, Stanislawski offers the notion of the European fin de siecle, that period between the 19th and 20th centuries, which brought powerful new ideas of the role of culture, the purpose of the individual and nation. Through this new lens, we are better able to understand the psychological conflicts, intellectual confrontations and particular Jewish tendencies that brought about the highly unlikely result: such deeply cosmopolitan and artistically acute individuals as Herzl, Nordau and Jabotinsky who became unbending Zionists.

In the case of Herzl, Stanislawski discovered that even while Zionism’s leader was heading in the direction of Jewish nationalism, he was still employing the vocabulary of Viennese salon anti-Semitism. A short story, “Der Sohn,” written in 1890, some five years before he became a Zionist, is part of the mystery of Herzl because if events such as the Dreyfus case had turned differently, Herzl might have ended up a convert to Christianity. Similarly, using newly discovered letters between Nordau and a Russian aristocrat Novikova, Stanislawski determines that Nordau, too, was at first not particularly angry at Novikova’s anti-Semitism, willing to forgive the grand dame as a price for an erotic liaison. It was only several years later, after his passion had cooled around 1900, that he took personal offence at her anti-Jewish remarks and apparently used this ideological conflict as a means of breaking off their relations. With Zhabotinsky, Stanislawski finds that there doesn’t seem to be any distinct moment of transformation since, while he was writing his most uncompromising Zionist propaganda, he was penning the fine decadent novels and stories such as Piatero, Samson and “Edmee.”

The cosmopolitan and decadent source for the anti-cosmopolitan and anti-decadent ideology of Zionism has more than personal importance since Western-European orientations tinted these leaders’ conceptions of Zionism. It is well-known, for example, that Herzl wanted Palestine to benefit from the latest technological advancements and to share in the cultural plentitude of Western Europe. Similarly, it is easy to see Nordau’s advocacy of the muscular Jew as an antidote to the disease of European culture — the feeble, emasculated decadent intellectual. We also recall that Jabotinsky advocated the use of Western script to write in Hebrew as a means not only of helping new immigrants adjust but as a way to retain closer links with Europe.

The explanation for this paradoxical mixture of cosmopolitan and nationist thinking lies in the fin de siecle, we are told. In the longest part of the book, the chapters on Jabotinsky, we discover a number of models for his thinking but only some of them originate in the fin de siecle. For example, early in his career, as a journalist in Italy, Jabotinsky was enamored by the Italian radical, Felice Cavallotti, and the Italian patriotic writer, D’Annunzio. Later his economic utopian thinking was influenced by positivism, especially the Austrian Popper Lynkeus, a protege of Marx. Incidentally, economic positivism and, especially, nationalism were actually highly untypical of the fin de siecle, at least in its Russian form, which was foremost a cultural movement. Moreover, it strikes this critic as very strange that the major figures of the Russian fin de siecle are never mentioned. Where are Vladimir Solov’ev, Dmitrii Merezhkovsky, Vasilii Rozanov or Andrey Bely? Alexander Blok is mentioned only in passing.

But Stanislawski is up to something important here since we see a similar evolution toward nationalism in Russian intellectual history. Several important thinkers of the period, such as Petr Struve, Alexander Blok, Nicholai Berdiaev and Sergei Bulgakov, while starting their careers untainted by nationalist thought, did ultimately arrive at a more narrow pro-Russian position. But the Russians tended to embrace nationalism after 1905 because they had to overcome several obstacles. Self-respecting intellectuals of the time objected to the government’s state-sponsored nationalism, connected as it was with anti-Semitism, and, in addition, a concern with the treatment of the non-Russian nationalities was typical of the Russian intelligentsia.

As much as the cosmopolitan fin de siecle played a significant role, other sources also influenced the road to Jewish nationalism. For instance, at the end of the 19th century, we see the emergence of national politics, especially the politics of anti- Semitism. Certainly, the Zionist Congresses mimicked the international Congresses of Anti-Semites. Similarly, contact with the thought of such proto-Zionists as Leon Pinsker, Ahad Ha’am and Menashe Usishkin, while it did not provide the original inspiration, did influence the development of the thinking of those Zionists studied here. Professor Stanislawski raises broad and very vital questions about the meaning of late 19th-century Western culture in its relation to cosmopolitanism, nationalism and individualism. Moreover, he provides a particularly useful operation by rejoining the two parts of the lives and work of the early Zionists. Thanks to Professor Stanislawski, we now know a good deal more about the European sources for the thought and behavior of Herzl, Nordau and Jabotinsky. Although Stanislawski’s idea of seeking European sources for political Zionism in the fin de siecle will undoubtedly receive further development and correction, the original perception is absolutely valid, important and potentially extremely productive.

Brian Horowitz is Associate Professor, Director of the Program in Jewish Studies, Sizeler Family Chairholder in Judiac Studies at Tulane University, and a contributing editor.

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