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The Jewish Question and the Zionist Movement

By Udi Adiv (in Return No. 5, December 1990, London)


It is the common premise of both Zionist and anti-Zionist writers that the Zionist movement was established as a response to European anti-Semitism at the end of the 19th century. Jacob Katz, a leading Israeli historian, first emphasized the subjective idealistic factors of Zionism but later confessed that 'without the anti-Semitic movement in the West and the pogroms in Czarist Russia it is impossible to imagine the establishment of political Zionism' (1)

Maxime Rodinson [the known French Orientalist - E.D.] too maintains that Zionism itself was motivated by anti-Semitism. Thus, on the basic question of the starting point of Zionism, the conclusion of the Zionist historian is almost identical with the premise of the anti-Zionist Marxist [Rodinson]. It is, indeed, impossible to deny that all the important landmarks in the history of Zionism coincided with an upsurge of anti-Semitism. The trail-blazing Auto-Emancipation of Leo Pinsker and the establishment of the Lovers of Zion (Hovevei Zion) movement in 1881 - the precursors of political Zionism - were a direct response to the wave of pogroms and anti-Semitic decrees that followed the assassination of Czar Alexander II. Herzl, an assimilated Austrian Jewish journalist, wrote 'Der Judenstaat' after having covered the Dreyfuss trial in Paris.

Between the two world wars, 'each stage of Jewish immigration to Palestine - the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Aliyot - has corresponded to an intensification of anti-Semitism', mainly, at that time, in Poland and Germany (2).

The extermination of European Jewry by the Nazis during World War II was perceived as irrefutable proof of the Zionist argument. As a result, at the end of the war, the Zionist movement claimed to be the sole representative of the six million Jews who had died and of the hundred thousand survivors, on whose behalf it demanded the establishment of a Jewish state.

The question thus arose: What was the Jewish Question at the end of the 19th Century? How was Zionism a response to it? Whose problem has Zionism actually tried to solve?

The Jewish Question or the Question of the Jews?

A cursory reading of the Zionist arguments reveal that they all speak about the Jewish Question at the time with the definite article. For them it was an existential problem: of all Jews wherever they were, regardless of their country and class. Both the impoverished artisan family of the shtetl townlets in semi-feudal Russian and the Rothschilds, the famous Parisian bankers, as Jews, faced the same problem and shared, consciously or unconsciously, the same destiny. For them [the Zionists] it was not the problem of the Jews, rather the problem was the Jews.

Consequently, they argued, there was only one solution, namely, the Zionist solution. For an existential problem had to have an existential solution. According to the Zionist diagnosis, the Jewish problem is basically the anomalous existence of the Jews among what Herzl called the 'civilized nations'. The Jewish people, the Zionists claimed, had preserved their religious habits and their traditional ways of life and could not adjust themselves to the modern world. According to their definition of the problem, the Jews still lived as a religious minority without territory of their own, dispersed in the world. It was this anomalous existence, they explained, which inevitably stimulated the anti-Semitic reaction.

Pinsker maintained that the essence of the problem lies in the fact that in the midst of the nations they form a distinctive element which can not be readily adjusted. Hence the problem is to find means of so adjusting the relations of this exclusive element to the whole body of nations that there shall never be any further basis for the Jewish question [Auto-Emancipation] (3)

Herzl explains in Der Judenstaat that the Jewish question is a misplaced piece of medievalism which the civilized nations do not even yet seem able to shake off. The Jewish question persists wherever Jews live. Our appearance there gives rise to persecution. This is the case and it will inevitably be so everywhere (4)

Gershon Shocken - the owner of a liberal Israeli daily and son of a well known German Jewish family, wrote a lengthy article 'A New Look on Zionism' (Ha'aretz 10. Sept. 1980) in which he summarised the Jewish problem as it had been defined by the fathers of Zionist ideology. It is the failure of the Jews in the diaspora to achieve a safe life as equals among equals. They (the Zionists) claimed that this problem would worsen until the physical existence of the Jews would be in danger. Their solution was the concentration of the Jews in one country in which they could achieve political independence like all the normal nations.

Ber Borochov, the theoretician of Poalei-Zion (Workers of Zion) party gave a Marxist interpretation to this anomaly of the Jewish situation. The Jewish problem, he explained, is basically "the national problem of the declining Jewish petty bourgeoisie, with no territory and no market of its own, is powerless against this menace". On the other hand, he recognized, "anti-Semitism is closely tied with the social unrest of the lowest elements of the working class". This popular anti-Semitism prevented the impoverished Jews from going through the normal process of proletarisation, and as a result the Jewish people became Luftmenschen who lived as parasites out of the process of production. "The Jewish problem migrates with the Jews", precisely because of these reasons. Therefore, Borochov sums up, "Jewish immigration is tending to divert itself to a country where petty Jewish capital and labour may be utilised in such a form of production as will serve as a transition from an urban to an agricultural economy and from the production of consumers' goods to more basic forms of industry" (Our Platform) (5)

The anti-Zionist writers, although rejecting the Zionist diagnosis and prognosis still speak about the Jewish Question with the same definite article. While the Zionists emphasized the imminent problem of Jewish existence, the anti-Zionists pointed to external conditions which were changing Jewish existence at the time.

For the Orthodox Jews the problem was the process of emancipation which undermined the traditional Jewish way of life. Salo Baron spoke of the combined forces of materialism, individualism, rationalism and secularism which threatened the very foundation of Jewish life (6).

Assimilated Jews saw the main threat in anti-Semitism, but they believed that sooner or later the democratic and progressive forces would overcome the anti-Semitic reaction and would open the way for a complete emancipation of the Jews.

Many socialists offered Marxist interpretations of the Jewish Question. Marx's On the Jewish Question is a brilliant materialist analysis of the Jewish problem, as basically a problem of capitalism (7).

In his long introduction to Abram Leon's 'The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation', Maxime Rodinson speaks, by definition, on the Jewish problem. He likes Leon, argues that the problem of the East European Jews at the time differed from the problem of the Western Jews (8).

In contrast, Lenin and the Bolsheviks made clear that they were speaking only about the oppression and exploitation of the Jewish workers 'here' and 'now' in Czarist Russia.

Isaac Deutscher, fifty years after Lenin, spoke very concretely about two different kinds of Jewish problem at the time. For him, one problem was an existential problem that arose with the decay of Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. According to him, what kept the Jews inside their decaying townlets and ghettos was a combined process of rapid growth of capitalism which undermined the old socio-economic basis of Jews, and a semi-feudal, autocratic and anti-Semitic regime which closed the doors of emancipation to them.

The other problem was the tremendous setback of the progressive movement of emancipation in the West towards the end of the 19th century, and the growth of a new kind of nationalist and racist anti-Semitism 'which finally reached the macabre proportion of the Nazi era" (9). But Deutscher elsewhere refers to Zionism as a Jewish national response to the Jewish question. Just as the developed capitalism of the West differed from the semi-feudal and incipient capitalism in Eastern and Central Europe, so there were two different kinds of Jewish problems. Or, to put it dialectically, two different stages in the history of the Jews. Consequently there were two different kinds of solutions needed: that of the Eastern Jews, whose primary concern was to sustain their communities and their cultural identity in the face of the Russian and Polish nationalist oppression, and quite the opposite problem of the Western Jews, who, in order to achieve their emancipation, tried to rid themselves of their last vestiges of Judaism and to integrate themselves into what Hegel and the young Hegelians called the 'civil society'.

It is my suggestion that there were two contradictory responses to two different kinds of anti-Semitism: The Eastern Jews resisted anti-Semitism by defending their Jewish existence, while the latter, the western bourgeois assimilated Jews resisted anti-Semitism as part of the German and French democratic movements. It can be concluded that Zionism could not possibly be a solution to the Jewish Question, precisely because the two Jewish problems in Europe required two different solutions.

Response of the Eastern Jews

In the second half of the 19th Century, the winds of the Enlightenment reached Russia. For the Jews it was also a beginning of Emancipation. A cultural movement of Jewish renaissance outside the Shtetl, primarily in Odessa, had emerged during the 1860's and 1870's, as Moses Mendelson had tried to do one hundred years earlier in Germany. The Haskalah or Enlightenment movement aimed to rationalise and revive traditional Jewish ways of life, mainly on the cultural level. At the same time, a small minority of Jewish professionals and members of the bourgeoisie became assimilated in the new Russian civil society.

The wave of pogroms and new anti-Semitic decress that followed the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 again closed the door on emancipation for the Jews. The Jewish masses caught between an anti-Semitic regime and socio-economic decay found refuge in large scale emigration, mainly to the United States. Despite the political oppression of the Czarist regime, capitalism developed rapidly during the nineties in Russia and aggravated the economic situation of the Jews. The masses of Jews, alongside the Russian artisans, became proletarianized and Luftmenschen in the new labour market.

Thus, the beginning of the 1890's marks the emergence of a Jewish working class. The Bund (Jewish workers party) was the first organisation of the Jewish workers at the time. In ideological terms, the Bund was a synthesis of the ideas of the Jewish Englightenment and of socialist movement. Like the Jewish writes of the time, the Bundists preached cultural autonomy as a response to anti-Semitism. But as workers, they say themselves as part of the Russian Social-Democrat Party and called for solidarity and common struggle with the Russian and Polish fellow workers. The Bund constituted a dominant current in Jewish society in Russia until the 1917 revolution, and in Poland until World War II. Other Jews belonging to the intelligenzia and to the proletariat class joined the Social Democrat Party and struggled for socialist revoluation as the solution to social and national problems.

But the majority of the Eastern Jews remained in the townlets and ghettoes trying, in vain, to close their doors to the winds of emancipation on the one hand and to the Czarist anti-Semitism on the other.

Thus, there were a number of Jewish responses to the Jewish problem in the East: The Enlightenment movement of the intelligenzia; emigration to the Western world; Jewish socialism of the Workers' Bund; and reattachment to the old Jewish shtetl and ghetto community; Zionism.


In the West, after a century of emancipation and assimilation, no Jewish communities remained secluded from bourgeois society, and as consequence there was no collective Jewish response to anti-Semitism. The 'Central Association of German Citizens of Mosaic Religion', underlined in its program that "the German Jews will have an honourable place in the wider framework of the German nation". Mark Bloch, the famous French historian, said: "All my life I saw myself first of all and in the most simple way as French".

The Zionist movement did indeed suggest a solution to the Jewish problem at the time, but the question then became whose solution? The solution of Eastern Jews or the assimilationist solution of the Western Jews? In other words, was it the Jewish national response of the masses of ghetto dwellers in Russia and Poland or was it the movement of the assimilated Jews of the West? How did the Zionist movement view anti-Semitism: through the eyes of the Eastern Jews who still identified themselves as Jews, or through the assimilationist eyes of the Western Jews? In a word, was it a Jewish national revival or a new version of assimilationism? It could not be both.

Zionist historiography evades this dilemma precisely because it posits the premise that Zionism was the nationalist solution to the Jewish Question. It recognizes that the Jewish Question was not the same for the Eastern and the Western Jews, but explain this by saying that in the eyes of the anti-Semites both were Jews and, as such, required one national solution as a refuge from the anti-Semitic oppression.

According to the Zionist declarations, Zionism was indeed the return of the Western assimilated Jews to Judaism and through Zionism some kind of reunification between Western and Eastern Jews took place after a century of separation. But further examination of Zionist policies and actions reveal that it was a false reunification. In reality part of the German, French and British Jewish bourgeois assimilationists became Zionists, mainly to mobilize the Jewish masses of the East for its settler colonial project [in Palestine]. Their conception of Zionism was as a rhetorically Jewish version of German nationalism. In the words of Hans Kohn, German nationalism was "an overcompensation for political backwardness by a claim to 'spiritual' superiority based on the legend of pre-modern tradition' (10)

Boaz Evron underlined the fact that in Zionism there is a strong motive of hatred towards the Eastern-European type of Jews and sometimes it is difficult to differentiate between Zionist descriptions of this type and the anti-Semites' descriptions. An archetypal example of this is the utopian novel of Herzl Altneuland in which the Jewish motherland is drawn from the point of view of a Prussian Junker.

It is therefore in the examination of the specific question of this class of bourgeois assimilationist, non-Jewish Jews that one should look for the origin of Zionism and its relationship to anti-Semitism.


(1) Jacob Katz, Jewish Nationalism, HaSifriya ha-Tsionit, Jerusalem, 1979 (Hebrew)

(2) Nathan Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah, Ink Links, London, 1979

(3) A. Hertzberg, The Zionist Idea, Atheneum, New York, 1981

(4) Ibid

(5) Ibid

(6) Salo Baron, Early Approaches to Jewish Emancipation, Diogenes, Vol. XXIX, 1960

(7) Karl Marx, Early Writings, Edited by T B Bottomore, London, 1963

(8) Maxime Rodinson, Cult Ghetto and State, Zed Books, London, 1981 and Abram Leon, The Jewish Question, A Marxist Interpretation, Pathfinder, New York, 1970.

(9) Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew, Merlin Press, London, 1963

(10) Hans Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism, Collier Books, New York, 1944

(11) Boaz Evron, The National Account, Dvir Publishing House, Tel Aviv, 1988 (Hebrew)



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