Commentary Magazine


Jewish & Other Nationalisms

In his famous Auto-Emancipation, published in 1882, Leo Pinsker urged his fellow Jews to make a great moral and practical effort and thereby re-embody the long disembodied ghost of their nationality. They were to create, not necessarily in Palestine, but somewhere, a permanent, autonomous, physical home. This effort, he felt, was not only a necessary condition of Jewish dignity and survival: it was also favored by the particular historical circumstances of the 19th century in Europe. “The general history of the present day,” he wrote, “seems destined to become our ally. In a few decades we have seen rising into new life nations which, at an earlier time, would not have dared to dream of a resurrection. The dawn is already breaking through the darkness of traditional statecraft. The governments already incline their ears—where it cannot be avoided—to the clamor of the awakening self-consciousness of nationalities.” In this essay I would like to consider and comment upon these remarks of Pinsker: to say something on the general subject of Jewish and other European nationalism.

For Jewish history is perhaps too often studied in isolation. The Jews of the Emancipation have then tended to leave it behind, using their gifts to illustrate not their own history but the history of the Europe which has received them. On the other hand the Jews of the Pale, driven back upon their private observances, have tended to narrow it within the Pale, representing it not as part of European history but as a long, thin line stretching back, self-contained, to the distant, Biblical past: a line charged inwardly with religious orthodoxy, and outwardly only brought into contact with Europe by periodic and painful persecution. And yet, I believe, Jewish history, for all its obvious differences, is a part of European history: a small part, a cramped part, and yet still a part—indeed unintelligible except as a part of it. In the Middle Ages perhaps that was not so: perhaps then it was part of Islamic history. From now on it may not be so: after the holocaust of the 1930′s it may, if Mr. Ben Gurion has his way, become part of Asiatic history. But for the intervening centuries the Jews have been a European nation—a nation without territory of course, and that makes a great difference—but still a European nation, responding to the same general forces which have moved the other European nations. One of these forces has been that great ideological impulse which burst the old framework of Europe in the 19th century: nationalism.

I think this is worth saying, for two reasons, one Jewish, one Gentile. For on the Jewish side there are writers who see Zionism, this modern movement which aimed at creating a Jewish society in Palestine and ended by creating a Jewish state, not as a new movement of the 19th century but merely as the logical culmination of what they suppose to be the constant, central message of Judaism ever since the destruction of the Temple; and on the Gentile side we have writers who, when dealing with our European nationalism of the 19th century, totally ignore what seems to me an exciting form or variant of it, springing from the same conditions: the Jewish form.

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Of course I do not mean to deny that Zionism differed from European nationalism, nor that it looked back, as all nationalism does, to its own distinctive antecedents. How could anyone deny that? A people which, from its earliest records, has designated itself a chosen people, and which, in all its history, in spite of every temptation, has never abandoned the traditions incorporating that belief, cannot be excused of nationalism before the 19th century. But I do not think we should take this argument too seriously. Those who protest, sometimes protest too much. It is well known that the furious denunciations of fornication and drunkenness by the 17th-century Scottish kirk did not represent the general dislike of the people for these faults, but rather their incorrigible liking; and if the old Hebrew prophets and the medieval rabbis thundered about the distinctness of the Jews, that may well indicate a maddening preference, among their inattentive disciples, for assimilation. Moreover, the other nations of Europe also had their fits of nationalism before the 19th century. The God we happen to share is a whimsical divinity who chooses now one people, now another. In Luther’s time he chose Germany, a century later England. Shakespeare was not exempt from this fashion of speaking. Milton believed in God’s Englishmen. And if Jewish outbursts are more often audible, we should remember that the Jews were more often subject to the normal cause of such emotions.

For nationalism has its normal causes. It is the expression of wounded nationality: the cry of men who have suffered great national defeat, or whose nationality is denied, or who live insecurely on exposed national frontiers, surrounded, and in danger of being swamped, by foreigners. Any nation may find itself in this posture. In England, happily exempt from great national defeat and surrounded by the insulating sea, we have only seldom known it, in times of great danger; but we have it in Ulster, which Home Rule has made the exposed land-frontier of Anglo-Saxonry. “To hell with the Pope!” is a nationalist, not a religious slogan. French nationalism was most acute after the great defeat of 1870, and of course it was expressed most violently on the amputated frontier, by the Lorrainer, Paul Déroulède. Perhaps it is no accident that General de Gaulle too is a Lorrainer. Similarly in Germany, it is on the raw edges that we find chronic nationalism, among the Sudeten-landers and the Austro-Germans, insecure among Czechs and South Slavs, or the Baltic Germans, insecure among the North Slavs. And if the Germans, being more closely surrounded by foreigners, are more liable to “normal” nationalism than the English, we should expect the Jews to be more liable still: the Jews who, in Palestine, were surrounded by Egyptians and Arabs, Syrians and Philistines, and whose every ghetto, after the Dispersion, was an exposed, unfortified citadel among jealous, watchful enemies.

For this reason we should not be surprised if we find expressions of Jewish nationalism throughout Jewish history. Nevertheless, we should not, I think, deduce too much from this normal response to abnormal circumstances. We should not suppose, as some of the more rigid traditionalists seem to do, that the Jews of the Dispersion, for nearly two thousand years, were constantly prepared for a return to the Holy Land, or that the Zionist solution was the end to which all creation, in those two thousand years, had been groaning and travailing. No doubt, at regular intervals, the idea of their old home recurred, with nostalgic force, to the scattered Jews of Europe. No doubt, as their historians (or some of them) remind us, they often spoke of it. But men often speak of heroic courses which they do not, in the end, take, and the fact remains that this course, in all those years, was not much taken. The Jews might suffer terrible persecutions and pogroms in Russia or Poland; but somehow when they left, with the Holy Land on their lips, their feet carried them resolutely in the other direction, to Germany or England or America. Even when—like the expelled Sephardim of Spain—they went to the hospitable, tolerant Turkish empire—that land of promise as it seemed in the 16th century—it is odd how few of them went to Palestine, which was after all an easily accessible and under-populated part of that empire. There was a trickle, but not a stream. To most of them Constantinople, with its opportunities of government finance, or Salonika, with its opportunities of army-provisioning, seemed more tempting than what Gibbon was to call the “mournful and solitary silence” of Arab Palestine.

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And then, in the 19th century, the century of European nationalism, came this great change in Jewish history too: a change which Gentile historians, as it seems to me, have been slow to recognize as part of their own history. We Gentiles all know that the 19th century was the century of nationalist revolt. We all know how, in the intellectual world, the enlightened internationalism of the 18th century was challenged; how, in the political world, the great multi-national political structures, which had seemed stable for centuries—first the Hapsburg, then the Ottoman empires—were threatened, convulsed, and finally broken up by the explosive new nationalism of Germany, Italy, Hungary, and finally the Slav peoples. But we often fail to see, I think, how the movement of Jewish nationalism, which has ended in our day with the building of a Jewish national state, sprang out of the same circumstances and the same pressures: in short, how it was part of our history. In the old Cambridge Modern History, the Cambridge Modern History of Lord Acton, that most cosmopolitan, least obvious of historians, we can read all about the former movements; but we find not a word about the latter. Even in the new, post-1948 Cambridge Modern History, whose lightly turned pages sigh beneath their burden of not always memorable facts, we find very little.

I would like to redress this balance: to introduce the possibly otiose reminder that Jewish history is part of European history and should be studied as such, even though, in recent times, by a brilliant operation of inspired colonization and successful war, the Jews have occupied and gained political control of a small part of Asia, an Ulster in the great Ireland of Arabia. Romantic idealists may look back and discover the origins of this adventure in the dreams of medieval mystics, the vaticinations of Polish rabbis. Now that the ground is gained, that myth may safely be incorporated in the title deed. And indeed, not without some reason. But we should not forget that the particular appeal of Palestine, rather than any other basis for the national home, was only gradually effective; and its effect was perhaps as powerful among Biblically educated Gentiles as among Jews. Certainly it did good service as part of the external diplomacy of the movement. The first founders were not, I think, very strict believers in the old, narrow tradition. Nor perhaps were their great epigoni. Their roots may have been in the orthodoxy of the Pale, but their ideals were those of contemporary Europe. Herzl, like so many of the European nationalists, found his inspiration in the European cosmopolis of Vienna.

Yes, Vienna. Vienna was, in a sense, the metropolis and the motor of all 19th-century European nationalism. It was Vienna, the Vienna of Metternich, which roused the indignation and united the forces of German nationalism. It was the same Vienna, the Vienna of Francis Joseph, which vainly resisted the forces of Italian nationalism. It was the same Vienna which was compelled ultimately to yield to the pressure of the Hungarian nationalists and convert itself into the “dual monarchy” of Austria-Hungary. Germany, Italy, Hungary—these were the “historic nations,” as they somewhat invidiously called themselves, the nations which had not been conquered or atomized but only quietly absorbed, as historic units, first as partners, only gradually as subjects, into the Hapsburg empire. They had their memories of continuous history, their consciousness of national literature. It was not, or it was only partly, because they were “oppressed” that they took to nationalism: for they were not more oppressed than they had been, and in the past they had not thought of it as “oppression.” It was only in the new circumstances, under the influence of the new ideas, that they found themselves conscious of their nationality and resentful of its suppression: that men regarded it as an intolerable humiliation to find that they belonged not to a politically self-contained “nation” but to a mere “geographical expression.” For the nationalism of the 19th century was not episodic, not the mere result of temporary circumstances, like the periodic outbursts of the past. It was a new general idea, powerful, even irresistible, as new ideas can be; and it rendered all old politics useless, old remedies unavailing. By 1870 it had triumphed in its first and greatest campaigns. Garibaldi and Cavour in Italy, the Liberals of 1848 and Bismarck in Germany, Kossuth and Deak in Hungary had prevailed. Magenta, Solferino, Königgrätz, the Hungarian Compromise—these great events of the decade from 1859 to 1869 mark the victories of the first nationalism, the nationalism of the “historic nations”; and these victories were all won against the same enemy, Vienna.

Jewish nationalism, I hasten to add, did not spring directly from this first movement. Why should it? It was not the cosmopolitan Hapsburg empire which oppressed the Jews of Central Europe. Far from it. The Hapsburgs, those professional, necessary enemies of all national exclusiveness, had been the patrons and protectors of their Jewish subjects, as of other minorities. But nationalism is an explosive force, of evil potentiality, as we in this century have come to realize; and we have down-graded the word accordingly. To our ancestors it was a noble word for a noble emotion. In Victorian England, Mazzini, Garibaldi, and Kossuth were popular heroes; the German Liberals of 1848 were extolled; even Bismarck was admired, not for controlling the German nationalists (that is why we praise him now) but for realizing some at least of their aims. Today we are less sure about this. We have seen Mussolini and Hitler; and we realize that there is something to be said for the old, static cosmopolitanism which these romantic, rebellious prophets of the “historic nations” were the first to break. The lesser nations of the Hapsburg empire, as they were nearer to the facts, realized them sooner. For having triumphed, having asserted their national unity against the super-national authorities above them, the “historic nations,” or some of them, turned, to complete it, against the non-historic nations, the conquered, atomized “sub-nations” beneath them—the Slavs and the Jews; and those sub-nations, looking to their defenses, found two alternative courses open to them, of which, it seemed, they must take one or perish.

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The first course was reaction: a return to cosmopolitanism, internationalism. At first, Czechs and Jews, feeling the new pressure of the German nationalists, and Croats and Slovenes, left to the mercy of new Hungarian power, looked back with regret to the old protective structure of the Hapsburg empire. Already in 1848—9, that great year of revolution by the “historic” nations, they had shown it. Then it was the Croat general Joseph Jellacic who had supported the dynasty against the Hungarian rebellion, the Czech Pala?ky František who, at the Pan-Slav Congress, had declared that if the Austrian empire did not exist it would be necessary to invent it. And indeed, for a time, these nations, or some of them, did succeed in keeping the empire going as a protective envelope for themselves. For half a century after 1870, if the Hungarians, enjoying their new power, oppressed the South Slavs, the government of Austria—this is the burden of the early chapters of Mein Kampf—prevented its German subjects from exercising their rights and oppressing the Czechs and Jews. In the stock phrases of the German nationalists, it enslaved the noble Germans to a mongrel parliament dominated by inferior races.

Return to cosmopolitanism—that was the first line of defense of the non-historic nations against the new, crude nationalism of the historic nations. But suppose that first alternative would not work. Suppose the old machinery of cosmopolitanism had been rotted and frayed, its spirit undermined, so that it could no longer maintain itself against the new spirit and the new pressure of the “historic” nations. Could the “sub-nations” by themselves maintain it? Of course not. And if not, what must they do? When new ideas are ruling the world, it is always easier for the weak, their victims, to clutch at them, hoping to appropriate and transform them, than to resist them. So, in the end, the “sub-nations” would copy the “historic” nations, would declare that they too were historic nations, and to prove it would discover their ancient history, find the continuity of their ancient traditions, re-create their half-forgotten languages, remember their old literature and, with the aid of ingenious statistics, retrace on the map the generous but not always strictly accurate frontiers of the past. So, after the primary nationalism of the “historic” nations, and in defense against it, came the secondary nationalism of the non-historic nations. The Czechs, after two centuries of unreluctant Germanization, remembered their Slavonic, Bohemian past, and the Battle of the White Mountain was reversed on mountains of paper. The South Slavs rediscovered their old history and historic literature: we think of Vuk Karadjic Stefanovic compiling the first dictionary of the language and collecting the heroic ballads of the Middle Ages, those ballads which commemorated the days of Serbian independence, before the fatal field of Kosovo. The Bulgarians remembered, as they still do, the old Bulgarian empire with its sweeping frontiers. And the Jews remembered Zion.

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For it is to this secondary nationalism, the nationalism of the non-historic nations, that Jewish nationalism, seen as a European movement, belongs. When the “historic” nations—Italy, Germany, Hungary—asserted their nationality, the Jews did not stir; or if they did, it was not as Jews, members of a Jewish nation, but as Germans or Italians, like Karl Marx or Daniele Manin. Indeed, why should they stir? In Europe their protection lay in cosmopolitanism, and their first, most obvious cry was that of Palacky. the Old Order, with its tolerance, its balance of nationalities, must be preserved. Only when the Old Order was clearly foundering did the second alternative finds its adherents. And so the Jews, like the Czechs and the South Slavs, turned to nationalism as their means of salvation. Their leaders might be Europeans of the Enlightenment, but the conditions of nationalism required that they go back to the narrower traditions preserved for them—or had it been against them?—by the rabbis of the Pale. They looked out from Europe, behind the history of Europe, beyond the frontiers of Europe, to a remote past in another continent: a past linked with the present only by a thin, persistent thread running from synagogue to synagogue through nearly twenty centuries of persecution.

Of course, being men of the Enlightenment, they both strengthened and varied that link. They were not content, like the old believers, with distant memories or merely religious traditions. If they revived the Hebrew language, it was not merely to study the Scriptures or the Law. If they remembered their history, it was not merely their ancient, sacred history. It was a Jew of the Emancipation, Heinrich Graetz, who wrote the first continuous history of the Jewish nation, carrying it through the destruction of the Second Temple, over the intervening centuries, to his own time. It was another Jew of the Emanicipation, Moses Hess, who first urged escape from Europe to Jerusalem, and he urged it explicitly as a nationalist, secular movement, in imitation of the nationalist, secular Italian Risorgimento. In all this the prophets and forerunners of Zionism showed that they were Europeans. It was the character of 19th-century Europe to secularize the movements which hitherto had been clothed in religious form. If Zionism was the age-old hankering of the Jews for the Holy Land, it was that hankering secularized: a return to Israel without waiting for the Messiah, or led by a secular messiah—one, moreover, who was half-assimilated into Europe.

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For of course all the great nationalist leaders have been only half-national themselves. Their followers may be—generally are—true nationals: authentic, autochthonous, monoglot aborigines of the tribe, bigoted fundamentalists of the faith. But the leaders, it is well known, tend to be marginal in their nationality, perhaps inspired by secret doubts of their nationality. The leader of the Irish nationalists in the last century was wholly English, in this, half-Cuban. Napoleon was not French nor Stalin Russian. Hitler was an Austrian, not a German; his high-priest Rosenberg was born a Russian subject. And today, I understand, the prophetess of Scottish nationalism is a lady with a good English name living in Manchester. We should not be surprised to find that Jewish nationalism, if its faithful masses came out of the Russian Pale, was headed by half-assimilated men whom strict Jews might regard as little better than Gentiles and whose life was led in the Western, cosmopolitan cities of Paris and Vienna.

Paris, Vienna, Russia—all these contributed to the finished form of Zionism. It was Russia, in its aggressive pan-Slav mood after 1870, which, by its pogroms, supplied the body of the first emigrations, the social form of the first settlements. It was Paris, in the defeated, introverted mood of the 1890′s, which, by the Dreyfus case, aroused the zeal of the first prophets and the conscience of the West. But it was in Vienna, still in Vienna, that the pressures met. It was against Vienna, the conservative, complacent Vienna of Metternich, that the Italians, the Germans, the Hungarians had protested their nationality; it was in Vienna, the defeated, depressed Vienna after 1870, that the Jews, together with the Czechs, the South Slavs, and the Austro-Germans, saw the need for theirs. In 1895 the leader of the anti-Semitic German nationalists, Karl Lueger, was elected burgomaster of the city, and the Jews, as Herzl wrote, expected “a new Saint Bartholomew’s night.” For two years the imperial government refused to confirm the election. Then it gave way, and for ten years Lueger dominated the politics of the city. It was in Lueger’s Vienna that Theodor Herzl, having lost faith in the old ideal of emancipation, started on the course of thinking that led him, ultimately, to the idea of a Judenstaat in Palestine. A few years later, it was in Vienna that Thomas Masaryk, a Slovak member of its “mongrel” parliament, gradually despairing of the old ideal of Palacky, decided to found a new independent state for the Czechs and Slovaks. And it was from the same Vienna that Adolf Hitler, the professed admirer of Lueger, drew his grim inspiration and dreamed of a sinister new German nationalism which would be fatal alike to Czechs and Jews. Herzl, Masaryk, Hitler were all men of action. The aims of all were achieved. Their movements, however different their form, all sprang from European history, and from the same great crucible of European history, the source of cosmopolitanism and nationalism alike, Vienna.

Of course, once the three movements were launched, their courses diverged. How widely they diverged, and how formidably they clashed, we know. Our lives have been spent against the noise of their clashing. And now only one of them survives. Nazism has gone: after a decade of hideous violence it has foundered among the ruins it created, and German nationalism, if it is to achieve reunification of Germany, must begin again at the beginning. Hitler undid not only his own work but that of Bismarck as well. Czechoslovakia too, as an independent state, is gone: the name of Masaryk is no longer officially honored there; his work is undone. Only Israel, that smallest, most difficult growth, survives. It has already lasted longer, since its foundation, than Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich. Of all the secondary nationalisms of Europe, it is, so far, the most successful. Unlike the Balkan successor-states, it has preserved its political independence. Unlike the Irish Free State, it has succeeded in giving life to its ancient language, and has thereby created a new national scholarship. It has also succeeded in presenting to the world a new idea. Just as the English Puritans, establishing in the reign of Charles I a perilous bridgehead in another continent, carried there a new social ideal which they had worked out in the face of intolerable pressure at home, and which was to become a gospel for other states, so the Jewish Pilgrim Fathers have carried to Asia a new form of social democracy, forged by the pressures of Central Europe, and able, in the deadlock of the cold war, to appeal to the uncommitted nations of the world. For all these reasons, this last, least typical of European nationalisms may in the end, if its work survives, prove the most significant of all.

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And yet, let us not forget how much Israel owes to circumstances beyond the control of its founders. The collapse of Czarist Russia, the victory of the Western Powers in 1918, were as essential to Weizmann as to Masaryk, or as the victory of Napoleon III over Austria had been to Cavour. Who could have predicted this? And who could have predicted the terrible destruction of the European Jews by Hitler: a dreadful episode which has given Israel not only a population but also a mystique, and which broke down the opposition of the anti-Zionists in world Jewry? If Herzl could not have predicted these things, which so transformed his movement, how can we predict the next stage? Above all there are two things which we cannot predict. The generation of the founding fathers is passing: the next generation in Israel will be detached from the Europe which bred them, separated from the European history in which the first was a part. Elsewhere—we do not have to look far to see it—great exertions have created small independent states in one generation, which, through that detachment, have sunk into parochialism in the next. And if the primary nationalism of the Germans and Hungarians provoked the secondary nationalism of the Slavs and the Jews, is that necessarily the end of the process? Nationalism seems now dead in Europe, but it has been carried to Asia and Africa; and Israel, which to some may seem the return of an ancient people to its long-suspended rights, to others seems—and I believe it to be—the last product of European nationalism: a product which, since it is a national settlement, not a colonial exploitation, is the more solid and therefore the more formidable. How can we predict the course of the tertiary nationalism which in its turn it has sharpened: the nationalism of the Arabs?

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