1897: The Year of Jewish Revolutions?

Derek Jonathan Penslar. Jewish Quarterly Review. Volume 108, Issue 4. Fall 2018.

1897 marked the beginning of twin Jewish revolutions, one national and one social, that started out separately but took on aspects of each other as they drew closer together over time. The one was embodied in the Zionist Organization, which held its first congress in Basel in August of that year. The other was promoted by the General Jewish Labor Bund in Russia and Poland, which was founded in Vilna in October.

Neither revolution appeared out of the blue, unfolding rather over a long arc of time. Across the nineteenth century, Jews had figured in radical politics throughout Europe, particularly in Russia from the late 1870s. Jewish nationalism assumed many forms, some of them oriented toward Palestine, such as the Hovevei Tsion (Lovers of Zion) societies, which sprang up throughout Eastern Europe and Romania after 1882, and which were organized into an international federation in 1884. Just as Jewish radicalism and nationalism preceded 1897, so did they continue to develop outside the framework of the Bund and the Zionist Organization.

Why, then, should we look to 1897 as a turning point in the history of both Jewish nationalism and radicalism? In that year, both the Zionist Organization and the Bund formalized and pushed forward previously inchoate revolutionary political projects, and within a few years they would become the most dynamic Jewish political institutions in Eastern Europe, with global influence. Their ideologies were mutually influential: Zionism quickly attracted socialists, and over time the Bund cautiously embraced the goal of Jewish autonomism in a postrevolutionary Russian federation. Many of the competing forms of fin de siècle Jewish political life such as territorialism and middle-class, nonsocialist diaspora nationalism responded to, and in turn influenced, Zionism and Bundism.

The word “revolution” is multivalent, and its meaning and consequences for Zionism and Bundism are not identical. The word is commonly associated with upheaval and the attempted supplanting of one regime (be it political, social, or epistemic) by another. The revolutionary project of the Bund is obvious enough, as it sought to overthrow the Tsarist regime and construct a social democratic Russian federation. The extent to which that project succeeded, however, is debatable. The Tsarist regime fell, but the Bund did not bring about the revolutions of 1905 or 1917. During the early years of the Soviet Union, Jews enjoyed the fruits of emancipation, but in time they fell victim to oppression and persecution. The Bund’s legacy was, therefore, ambiguous. Jews in North America still continue to identify more with the left than the right, but “left” almost always means liberalism, not radicalism, which is the province of small but vocal congeries of Jewish intellectuals, often cloistered in colleges and universities.

Zionist achievements have been more concrete than those of the Bund. A Jewish state was established in 1948. That state has recently marked its seventieth anniversary, and it has deeply affected Jewish consciousness across the globe. In most accounts of the history of Zionism, and in Jewish popular memory, the 1897 congress and its convener, Theodor Herzl, are accorded pioneering roles in the Zionist project. Herzl himself contributed to that perception, writing in his diary shortly after the conference’s conclusion, “In Basel I founded the Jewish state.” Did he?

The congress was indeed a momentous event, but its participants were divided about its goals and cautious in formulating them. Its platform, thenceforth known as the Basel Program, aspired to the “creation of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine to be secured by public law.” This program represented a compromise between those who wanted a clear declaration of aspirations for statehood and those who feared that such boldness would endanger the status of the movement in Tsarist Russia and of those Jews living under Ottoman rule in Palestine. In the debate that preceded the adoption of the platform, some delegates demanded assurance that this “home” would be intended only for those Jews who did not wish to remain in their current lands of residence. Orthodox rabbis demanded that the movement limit itself to the improvement of the Jews’ political status and not engage in religious affairs.

Even if the delegates had been more uniformly audacious, even if they had publicly spoken the words in Herzl’s famous diary entry following the conclusion of the congress, how revolutionary would their action have been? The answer to that question depends on whether the founding of a state, in and of itself, can be a revolutionary act. A comparison between the establishment of Israel and of the United States almost two centuries apart can be helpful on this point. As the historian David Armitage has observed in his pithy monograph on the American Declaration of Independence, the creation of the United States was a conservative act in that its founders aspired to join, not to alter, the system of sovereign states. It is something of a misnomer to call the Anglo-American conflict of 1776–81 a revolutionary war, given that it resulted in the establishment of a country that left most pre-war social disabilities, especially slavery, intact. The Anglo-American war was fought for American independence, but it cannot be compared with the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars that followed, as they not only redrew the map of Europe but also overthrew anciens régimes throughout the continent.

Israel’s creation had profound geopolitical effects throughout the Middle East, but it did not export revolution. Nor did Israel, even during the zenith of Labor Zionist hegemony from the 1930s through 1960s, undergo a socialist revolution of the sort carried out by the Bolsheviks, the Chinese Communists, or their imitators and epigones throughout the world. Herzl himself had flirted with social democracy in the early 1890s but retreated from it, developing instead a blueprint for statist capitalism with an extensive social welfare network. By the conventions of modern history, Herzl’s program was not for revolution but rather for social engineering. It is no coincidence that the bulk of Herzl’s pamphlet The Jewish State is devoted to the technical aspects of the mass movement of Jews from Europe to Palestine rather than to Zionism’s fundamental tenets or to the depredations of anti-Semitism.

Early Zionism was nonetheless revolutionary. Ever since Lev Pinsker published his pamphlet Auto-Emancipation in 1882, Zionists have spoken of their movement as empowering Jews, making them masters of their fate, and overthrowing millennia of passivity. Refusing to be crushed by persecution or to surrender their identities through assimilation, Zionists have presented themselves as rebels against a history of exile and as the authors of a revolution in the literal meaning of the word, a return to a point of origin—the ancient land of Israel. The 250-odd attendees at the opening session of the First Zionist Congress, held on the morning of August 29, 1897, in the Basel Municipal Casino, may not have used words like “revolution” or “rebellion” to describe what was happening, but they were overwhelmed by feelings of empowerment and solidarity, by a sense that the world as they knew it was about to undergo a sea-change, and that they would be its agents. Herzl, who augmented the gravity of the occasion by requiring that the attendees wear formal attire, was the object of a full quarter-hour of applause and foot stomping when he entered the hall. Some men grabbed and kissed his hand. The Russian Zionist journalist Mordechai Ben Ami wrote later, “It was as if the Messiah, the son of David, stood before us.”

It is not unusual for revolutions to depend on charismatic leaders, people who both inspire the masses and articulate their desires. As we have learned from David Bell’s important work on eighteenth-century France, even the most putatively secular of revolutions can have powerful religious elements. The portrayal of Herzl as a divinely appointed leader points to the presence of messianic and apocalyptic traits within Zionism from its very beginning. Gershom Scholem famously referred to the “apocalyptic thorn” of the Hebrew language, but the metaphor can be extended to many other aspects of the Zionist project, dating back to early depictions of Herzl as Moses, Solomon, and Aaron all rolled up into one, or descriptions of him in prophetic language as the clairvoyant “seer of the state” (ḥozeh ha-medinah).

The emotional (and, at times, messianic) fervor of the early Zionist movement coexisted with tactical and territorial flexibility. Despite the bold words Herzl wrote in his diary after the Basel Congress, he did not assume that Jews would exert sovereignty over their old-new homeland. As far as Herzl was concerned, the Jewish “state” could be a province or satrapy of the Ottoman Empire, or a protectorate of a European Great Power. No matter what form the Jewish polity took, its holy sites, Herzl assumed, would be internationalized, or extra commercium, as he put it. For Herzl, Zionism did not entail an assertion of Jewish political power so much as a judicious understanding of power’s limits. At the beginning of the Second Zionist Congress in 1898, Herzl declaimed: “If there is such a thing as a legitimate claim to any piece of the Earth’s surface then all the peoples who believe in the Bible must recognize the right of the Jews. And they can do so without envy or concern, for the Jews are not a political power and will never be one again.” At a debate in Berlin in 1898, Herzl said, “Well what is a state? A big colony. What is a colony? A small state.”

The political Zionism of 1897 had much in common with the cautious, moderate wing of anticolonial movements of the era (e.g. the Indian National Congress, the Home Rule movement in Ireland) as well as with the Jews’ own venerable traditions of intercession and vertical alliances with gentile rulers. For the Zionists, as for colonized peoples in Asia and Africa, over time this moderation would be replaced by militancy. The 1930 Indian Declaration of purna swaraj, or pure independence, had its Zionist counterpart in the 1942 Biltmore Program, which called for an independent Jewish commonwealth in the entirety of British Palestine. If Basel represented the conception of the Zionist revolution, Biltmore marked its birth.

Zionism’s political revolution ended in 1949, when the sovereign state of Israel was seated at the United Nations. This is why in 1952, barely three years after Israel’s formal incorporation into the community of nations, Vladimir Jabotinsky’s son Eri wrote, “We are now in what should be called the ‘post-Zionist’ period in Hebrew history.” The more closely one hewed to a Herzlian conception as a movement to secure for the Jews a home secured by public law, the more irrelevant the word “Zionism” became after the state was established. The fact that we continue to employ the word today, threescore and ten years after the state’s establishment, may point to limits to the First Zionist Congress’s political vision, or it may highlight no less profound insecurities about the state’s viability.

If Herzl were alive today, he would be bewildered by the psychological and emotional dependence of world Jewry on the state of Israel. Herzl believed that the presence of a Jewish state would eliminate anti-Semitism and heighten diaspora Jews’ sense of personal honor. Unlike his nemesis Asher Ginsberg (Ahad Haam), Herzl had little interest in a Hebrew culture generated within Erets Yisra’el and emanating throughout the globe. Rather, he thought that once anti-Semitism had disappeared, Jews in the diaspora would be free to assimilate. They would feel no need to make the Jewish state a marker of ethnic difference that was central to their identities, or to lobby their governments on its behalf.

Like massive gravitational waves, the Holocaust, Israel’s birth in war and immersion in constant conflict, and persisting anti-Semitism distorted Zionism into something radically different from what the men and women gathered at the 1897 Basel Congress understood it to be. Even the congress’s most ardent champions of Jewish statehood neither planned nor yearned for that state to become a regional superpower. Few enthusiasts of Jewish settlement imagined the displacement and expropriation of the Palestinians. Herzl foresaw a Jewish state that would be cosmopolitan and universalistic, not ethnocentric, in which religion would play no public role, and which would be beloved, not reviled, by the international community. The Basel Congress was a revolutionary act, but one whose consequences were as unforeseen as they were transformational.