Power of Authenticity: Individualism, Gender, and Politics in Early German Zionism

Manja Herrmann. Modern Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Ideas & Experience. Volume 39, Issue 1. February 2019.


Within the field of German-Jewish studies in general, and Zionist thinking in particular, the discourse of authenticity is of central importance. This article critically examines the functions and effects of the ideas of “the authentic Jew” and “the authentic Jewishness” or “Judaism” within early German Zionism. It will trace the skillful marking of “authentic” and “inauthentic” entities in German-Zionist thinking. Certain figures and a certain habitus are referred to as unambiguously “inauthentic”—usually summarized in the slogan “assimilation,”—and Zionism is constructed as the only authentic form of being.

By focusing on this concept in early German-Zionist discourse, this essay aims to reassess and modify conventional research which usually projects “authentic Judaism” or “Jewishness” solely onto Eastern Europe. Accordingly, most studies about Jewish nationalist authenticity deal with the East-West discourse or orientalism and stress the image of the “authentic Eastern Jew.” In his 1982 classic, Brothers and Strangers, Steven E. Aschheim wrote that in Western Zionism the eastern European Jew became “the embodiment of Jewish authenticity” and an “exemplar of the unfragmented self.” David A. Brenner explained in his innovative 1998 study, Marketing Identities, how the stereotypical representation of a “western Jewish enlightened identity” was opposed to an “eastern Jewish traditional identity” as a means to create an “ethnical pan-Judaism.” Michael Brenner also refers to the “Jew as oriental” and uses the rhetoric of the “authentic eastern European Jew.”

Interpretations of German-Jewish history in general, however, and German Zionism in particular, alternatively carry the connotation of inauthenticity, an attitude that we also come across in early Zionist discourse. This article will reevaluate these statements, and point out the existence of distinct German-Jewish nationalist and Zionist constructs of authenticity, which reveal a very individualist and transcultural understanding of an “authentic Jewish self.”

Presenting German-Zionist ideas of authenticity as individualist and transcultural does not mean, however, that within German-Zionist thought we are confronted with uniform notions. On the contrary, German-Zionist understandings of authenticity were highly gendered and in studying them we at times encounter the very harsh politics of authenticity. This reveals the social and political implications of a theoretical concept and how both relate to questions of power. Concepts are not juxtaposed to politics but are merely embedded in a complex interrelation between theoretical thinking and social and political realities.

Based on important societal impulses in the sixteenth century, the idea of living in an authentic condition and leading an authentic life became—as Lionel Trilling, Charles Taylor and other twentieth-century scholars have convincingly argued—one of the most central goals, and even a moral obligation in modern times. During the nineteenth century, this idea became strongly interlinked with nationalist movements and the assumption that the individual could only find self-fulfillment as an authentic human being when part of a nation. The concept of authenticity therefore remained central in the nineteenth century, especially in the German lands and later in the Kaiserreich. Accordingly, it is no surprise that in German-Zionist discourse, too, the notion of authenticity is omnipresent.

Determining one’s own authenticity in Germany was a particular challenge in the Zionist view due to the “German-Jewish experience.” Here, the social status of Jews was particularly important and always of concern in negotiations of authenticity. German Zionism emerged at a time when German antisemitism was intensifying. For its part, antisemitism sent out a clear message regarding exclusionary German nationalism, which envisioned the image of an original and authentic German nation and thus an exclusionary concept of authenticity. Hence, the present study also reveals some of the numerous effects of this antisemitic resentment on German Jews. The Zionist discourse of authenticity evolved amidst the tension between emancipation, recognition, self-assertion, antisemitism, and cultural self-fulfillment. And although not all Jews or Jewish groups shared these perspectives—not everyone considered themselves as marginalized—a specific tendency can be identified in Zionist discourse. “Zionism,” in this approach, denoted not only the political movement of a collective but also a matter of subjectivity, something that it inevitably was for Zionist thinkers.

The Authentic Versus the Inauthentic

In the late nineteenth century, the Jewish nationalist discourse of authenticity received an official framework. In early 1880s Vienna, Jewish nationalist or Zionist newspapers such as Selbst-Emancipation (edited by Nathan Birnbaum) started to appear and began to promote the construction of a distinct Zionist understanding of the process of assimilation. As ethnologist Regina Bendix put it: “The notion of authenticity implies the existence of its opposite, the fake […].” In the following years, Zionists constructed the process of assimilation and the assimilated Jew as the inauthentic per se, which put the fight against “assimilation” on the Zionist agenda. Zionist thinkers began to portray the history of the Jews from antiquity onwards as a gradual process of de-authentification of nationalist Judaism and the nationalist Jewish individual.

Hebrew author and early member of Hibbath Zion, Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927), made an important contribution to the discourse of authenticity within the Zionist historiography of the emancipation of Jews. He wrote in 1891 that emancipation had brought unto Jews an inner “slavery,” namely, a “spiritual slavery under the veil of outward freedom.” Emancipated Jews were, in Ahad Ha’am’s view, far from being completely free. He contrasted this characterization of the “inauthentic” with the “Jews without rights.” Jews who were legally disadvantaged because they were not emancipated were free and authentic because they remained independent and honest with themselves. Ahad Ha’am summarized this in his prominent dictum, which was to become a sort of Zionist “credo:”

Do I envy these fellow-Jews of mine their emancipation?—I answer, in all truth and sincerity: No! a thousand times No! The privileges are not worth the price! I may not be emancipated; but at least I have not sold my soul for emancipation; […] In a word, I am my own, and my opinions and feelings are my own. I have no reason to conceal or deny them, in order to deceive others or myself. And this spiritual freedom—scoff who will!—I would not exchange or barter for all the emancipation in the world.

Ahad Ha’am’s differentiation between external and internal attributes led to his assumption that emancipated Jews lived in external freedom but in inner slavery. In contrast, the unemancipated Jew, inasmuch as he lacked equal rights in society, found himself in external slavery but possessed, in fact, inner freedom. For Ahad Ha’am, it is the inner freedom that transforms Jews into authentic humans beings and Jews.

It was on the occasion of the first Zionist congress in Basle in 1897, which took place from August 29 to August 31, that the early Zionist thinker Max Nordau (1849-1923) gave this narrative the most notable expression in his now famous speech. He emphasized: “Emancipation has totally changed the nature of the Jew, and made him another being.” In his lecture, Nordau painted a picture of “the emancipated Jew” as finding himself in a desolate situation, and formulated one of the most accurate summaries of the Zionist presentation of Jewish de-authentification in modern times:

The emancipated Jew is insecure in his relations with his fellow-beings, timid with strangers, suspicious even toward the secret feeling of his friends. His best powers are exhausted in the suppression, or at least in the difficult concealment of his own real character. For he fears that this character might be recognized as Jewish, and he has never the satisfaction of showing himself as he is in all his thoughts and sentiments. He becomes an inner cripple [sic!], and externally unreal, and thereby always ridiculous and hateful to all higher feeling men, as is everything that is unreal.

Nordau’s analysis—in his unique articulation—is more than clear: the emancipated Jew has distanced himself from his authentic self and is punished with horrible consequences for the self. Regarding his dramatic and hyperbolic tone, one has to take into account the time and place in which this address was delivered: The presentation of the Jewish condition in the late nineteenth century as inauthentic could be used to help legitimate Zionism as a necessary alternative to this unfortunate state of being. In Nordau’s words:

Others hope for salvation from Zionism which is for them, not the fulfillment of a mystic promise of the Scripture, but the way to an existence wherein the Jew finds at last the simplest but most elementary conditions of life, […] namely, an assured social existence in a well-meaning community, the possibility of employing all his powers for the development of his real being instead of abusing them for the suppression and falsification of self.

In 1900, Nordau’s critical observation triggered a scandalous controversy. The debate revolved around the situation of the Jews in Romania and reflected the ambiguity of the Zionist agenda, which in turn affected the social and political consequences of the concept of authenticity. At the beginning of August 1900, Nordau received a letter from Bucharest from Dr C. R. Motru, a professor at a local university. In response to Jews finding themselves “on the eve of a change in regard to legislation concerning the Jewish nation,” the Noua Revista Romana, the most widely circulated magazine in Romania, asked for valuable contributions from various outstanding thinkers of Europe. Motru made a “warm call” for Nordau’s “sincere opinion” on the question of whether he would assent to Jewish emancipation in Romania. In line with his Zionist conviction, Nordau’s answer was “No.”

Nordau’s original reply was published, in addition to a three-part article series on this topic by the same author. In these texts, Nordau defended himself in the face of the reactions that his original response had triggered. Nordau added that this rejection was “at least for the moment” in “their interest, as well as in that of the Jews, my brethren.” It was true that “one had to distinguish sharply between civil and political rights,” and to deny the Jews civil rights was a “vileness.” But the political rights would be “a fatal gift” for the Jews living in Romania because the country was not ready “for this ultimate justice.” The Christian population of Romania would first need to regard political equality as “a necessity” and no longer regard the “Jewish neighbor as a stranger and intruder.” In short: “Wait with the emancipation […].” In the course of the debate, Nordau’s rejection of emancipation at the “wrong” time met with no understanding when being transferred to a political reality, even though a very similar ideal had been applauded at the First Zionist Congress.

The First Generation of German-Zionist Thinkers

In the following period, Zionist thinkers began to construct a hierarchic “spectrum.” On the lowest level of this scale they placed the assimilated or baptized Jew. At the highest end was placed the authentic, meaning the Zionist, Jew. In Zionist memoirs one can often find the formulation “from assimilation to Zionism,” which indicates a transformative movement towards constructed authenticity.

Cultural historian Scott Spector criticizes the assumption that states that such a spectrum is inherent in German-Jewish identity. In Spector’s view, this abstract scale stretches from one pole, “absolute Jewish identification,” to the other pole, the “perfect appropriation of German identity.” The self-identification as entirely “Jewish” was described by Franz Rosenzweig’s concept of “dissimilation,” and Spector refers to the perfect “German” identification correspondingly with “assimilation.” Instead of reproducing this “imaginary” spectrum in research, Spector argues for “introducing subjectivity,” because, as he shows, the theoretical ideal was in reality always interpreted individually and was therefore quite flexible and transcultural. In line with this, historian Dimitry Shumsky also argues that, “the ‘from assimilation to nationalism’ paradigm” had lost “much of its analytic and interpretational capacity” in the last decades.

In his work, historian Jacob Borut has also criticized the construction of a “single line [kav ʾechad]” drawn between Jewishness and Germanness throughout German-Jewish history. According to this notion, every movement in the direction of “Germanness” would now be equal to “assimilation” or “acculturation” and would thereby imply a certain “distance from the pole of Judaism.” In contrast to this idea of linearity, Borut proposed to speak of a “bi-culturation,” or a “partial bi-culturation” to describe the dynamics within the German-Jewish realm. In this context, the term “partial bi-culturation” refers to an identification with selected aspects of Jewish as well as German culture by the Jewish minority. One can push these arguments one step further. Not only was “German-Jewishness” always interpreted individually, but individual Jewishness was at the center of German-Zionist discourse.

One extraordinary example for this subjective interpretation was formulated by Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943), a Zionist thinker from the so-called first generation. As a student in Freiburg he was a member of the “Alemannia” fraternity, which strongly influenced his understanding of authenticity. When he moved to Berlin, his membership in the “Hevellia” fraternity confronted him with the “young aggressive nationalism” of the Association of German Students (Verein deutscher Studenten). Because of that, Oppenheimer felt that he “did not belong there.” He wrote in his memoirs how uncomfortable the situation became for him, as he was unable to be himself in an antisemitic surrounding:

But what I did not yet fully understand and only suspected back then, was, that I did not lead my life here. The approximately three years that I spent in this circle are, since I first attained a consciousness of my own self, the only ones in which, put harshly, I did not follow my own laws, and led a cliché life.

Oppenheimer’s account reveals the centrality of the moral dimension in the search for one’s own self. The awareness that he did not live his own life, but betrayed himself and consequently lived a lie, struck him, as he remarkably put it, as a “moral hangover.” This hangover, which was caused not merely by alcohol but by an overdose of self-denial, overcame him vehemently. Oppenheimer saw the main purposes of Zionism in the moral quest for the true self and in the reversal of Jewish self-abnegation. The following description illustrates his personal definition of assimilation and Jewish authenticity:

I have never, even in the circles of Zionism itself, made the slightest secret of the fact that I was completely “assimilated:” I would find in myself ninety-nine percent Kant and Goethe and only one percent of the Old Testament, and even that only through the mediation of Spinoza and the Luther Bible. I felt quite as German, but I have never been able to understand why my Jewish ethnic consciousness [jüdisches Stammesbewusstsein] should be incompatible with my German folk and cultural awareness, and I was therefore never an assimilationist [Assimilant].

Oppenheimer linked his own quest for authenticity to an exceptional individualism. His interpretation included the assumption that he, as he expressed himself very strikingly, was “assimilated,” although he was not an “assimilationist.” This individualism included, as in Oppenheimer’s case, an individual localization between Germanness and Jewishness, which led to the formulation of transcultural authenticities.

The Second Generation of Zionist Thinkers

The second generation of Zionist thinkers was particularly influenced by Martin Buber (1878-1965). Buber clearly linked his insights into contemporary Jewish existence to the discourse of authenticity and his thinking reflected the neo-romanticism and life philosophy prevalent at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was the time when Hoelderlin and Novalis were rediscovered and supplemented an epoch that was considered overly rational, with the romantic vocabulary of sensitivity, feeling, and experience. In his speeches and essays, Buber connected romantic aspects with the concept of blood, or, as David Biale put it, “the blood language of modern nationalism.” In his famous Zionist Speeches on Judaism, which he gave in Prague between 1909 and 1911, Buber delineated a deeply felt “conflicting nature,” or “ambivalence,” of Jewish existence. It is only through the realization that “blood is the formative” in life that Jews would become a “unity.” In Buber’s words, and representing the “volkish ideology” of the time, this meant:

In order to move from ambiguity to unity, a reflection on what our blood means in us is required, for in the bustle of the days we are only conscious of the environment. Let us take a closer look of the quietest hours: let us capture ourselves.

For an authentic Jewish self, the “natural” and “objective situation of the individual in his relation to the people must be given.” Only this could lead to “life in harmony and assured growth.” The less developed this harmony between individual and volk is, the more prone the individual becomes to falling “deeper into a conflict.” In other words, according to Buber, Jews would have to live according to the predestination of their own blood, otherwise they would lead an inauthentic life. However, Buber added that Jews could only become completely authentic in Palestine, since only there could they be completely true to themselves.

The second generation of Zionists, who had meanwhile grown up, had—in their own words—”radicalized” themselves. Kurt Blumenfeld (1884-1963), one of the most prominent representatives of the so-called “young” generation, intended to dissociate himself from the attitudes of the “old” generation, which he considered obsolete. The previous generation of Zionists—he is referring to Franz Oppenheimer—denied “fundamentally the possibility of any cultural conflict,” since in its imagination “Germanness and Jewishness […] lived side by side.” In contrast, Blumenfeld proclaimed the slogan of “post-assimilation.” In retrospect, he enunciated his point of view as follows:

The Zionist conception, which I represented, springs, by contrast, from the Jewish-German cultural conflict. We were Zionists because of the problem of the Jewish personality, which I often portrayed. We knew that although we had many ties with German history since at least seven generations, we still remained rootless. Our struggle within in the Zionist movement is about the enforcement of this realization.

The “rootlessness” of German Jews, was seen as the main reason for their inauthenticity. Accordingly, Blumenfeld argued for emigration to Palestine. “Post-assimilation,” however, also meant that “assimilation” was a decisive step on the way to Zionism:

I insisted it was through our absorption into the German world, which has shaped us spiritually, that we have recognized that we are rootless, and that even the greatest admiration of the intellectual achievements of another people cannot prevent us from saying that this world is not ours. In my view, we can only find the path to our own human freedom in connection with the soil of Erez Israel.

In other words, one’s own human freedom—or an authentic form of being—can be realized, in Blumenfeld’s view as in Buber’s, only if Jews are in their “own world,” in “Erez Israel.” This led to the famous Poznan declaration on the Delegations’ Day of the Zionist Association of 1912, which established that every Zionist would have to include in his life plan the emigration to Palestine. In the agenda of the Zionist Association for Germany, these ideals began to gain support. Before the 12th delegation day, a call was published in the Jüdische Rundschau in which the desired objectives were formulated. There it was said that the German Zionists “must become clear in their mind” that their Zionism, too, is “a selfish and not a philanthropic movement,” that they, too, are “driven by a strong feeling of freedom,” are “affiliated with this movement from inner necessity,” and that they consequently are Zionists because there is “no other way to live” for them.

It is important to add that Blumenfeld’s harsh breach with the older generation of Zionist thinkers contains some ambiguity. Blumenfeld, for example, considered Max Nordau’s speeches “rehearsed” and “vain”, and did not see in them any connection with his own Zionism. However, in his publication for the Prussian Yearbooks (Preußische Jahrbücher), he adopted the account of the history of Jewish emancipation and its negative consequences for the Jews, as advanced by Nordau at the First Congress. One of the frequently mentioned contradictions within the radicalization of the second generation is the fact that Blumenfeld himself only emigrated to Palestine in 1933 and spent several years in New York before he finally settled in Palestine in 1945.

Buber’s and Blumenfeld’s statements regarding the role of Palestine in the search for authenticity are rendered even more equivocal if one takes into account the transcultural nature of German-Zionist concepts of authenticity. The sources actually depict a different image from the one that was advocated in theory. Even though it was argued in the theoretical pamphlets that an authentic life would only be possible in Palestine, most German Zionists did not conceive of Palestine as their “authentic home.” Palestine was more than essential for the Zionist search for authenticity, but authenticity itself could be attained in Germany. Therefore, Oppenheimer’s attitude remained much more present than the next generation wanted to admit.

Authenticity and Gender

Although the Zionist concept of authenticity itself largely originated in a context of exclusion, problematic aspects of exclusion within it remained current. A feminist approach to the topic clearly demonstrates that the quest for authenticity was reserved exclusively for Jewish men, not women.

It has been observed in the scholarly literature on Zionism that the nation and nationalist theory are extremely gendered and produce a fixed role for women to be mothers and to help the men build the nation. As early as 1871, Hungarian rabbi Joseph Natonek (1813-92) formulated what is probably one of the earliest texts about the role of women in the Jewish nation. Natonek put “the israelite Woman to the highest level of worship,” because “she represents the virtues and the loyalty of the wife, as an image of the religious fidelity to God.” The historian George L. Mosse noted that the “existence of the woman” in nationalism was not “limited to the family,” but that the intended female roles were always conceived of as passive rather than as active. Natonek, in his publication, led his readers chronologically through the history of biblical women. He first paints an image of the active woman, when he notes, for example, that basically Sarah was “the true ruler and regent in the family,” and that such female regents exist in Jewish communities until this day. But in the same text he then qualifies this “matriarchy” by adding that Sarah regardless of her ruling was absolutely devoted to her husband and obeyed his will. It is clear, then, that the role of women was designed as an active one but required a voluntary subordination to men. Natonek completed his remarks in two sub-chapters headed respectively, “The name ʾisha and the characteristics of the israelite women” and “Our patriotic consequences. A word at the right time.” Therein he referred to the Bible commentator Yitzhak Arama (1420-92) and to his original analysis which concluded that the name ʾisha (woman) was derived from ʾesh (fire). This showed, in Natonek’s view, “the determination of the israelite wife to encourage the man to deeds and to inspire.” The biblical women would eventually always fulfill this role, and thus, this type of womanhood was also a desirable goal for the “Israelite of the present and the future.”

It has already been emphasized in previous scholarship that women in general were mistakenly regarded as responsible for the advanced and progressing assimilation, and the “decline of Judaism.” Zionist discourse was no exception in this regard. Thus, Berthold Feiwel (1875-1937) remarked that the Jewish woman was

vain and superficial, obsessive about cleaning, presumptuous, pressing, extravagant—but that is not enough: she is also a bad, despotic housewife, a bad wife and mother. She is the representative of the most morbid modernity, the bearer of the lax and sinful marriage, family, and social morality. She damages customs and good taste.

Here, Feiwel provided an impressive list of defamations. It concerns every area in which women were supposed to be active at the time, and denigrates Jewish women in derogatory tones, blaming them for failing to live up to their idealized roles of wives, and mothers. Additionally, women supposedly posed terrible dangers:

These women […] consciously or unconsciously work in the inner Jewish family and in the smaller or larger circles of their society on the dissolution of Judaism. […] It is dejudaization in the small that each of these women accomplishes. And yet it seems to us that from these women is emanating a far greater danger to nationalist Judaism than from the side of the male representatives of assimilation. […] These women not only rid themselves of the ideals of Judaism, and therefore general human [ideals], not only are they becoming more and more external, more untenable, more superficial, dejudaized, or, if you want, Jewish antisemitic—but they also destroy, apart from their own individuality, the personality of their husbands, their sons, [and] especially their daughters.

The “natural” qualities of women would lead to the following circumstance:

It is only natural that for women—women tend to think with the heart—the emotional is expressed before the rational. In the case of Jewish women, too, it is emotions that, first and foremost develop and strengthen their realization of national belonging: religion and family are the grounds on which their consciousness of nationality is built.

In the context of the discourse of authenticity, however, the ambivalence of the women’s situation becomes obvious: While on the one hand they were associated with “feeling,” “love,” and the “heart,” all entities that are clearly marked as “authentic,” on the other hand Jewish women were victim to gender-specific exclusion of national theory and practice.

Politics of Authenticity

Next to gender-specificity, various understandings of Zionist authenticity led to harsh confrontations. The politicization of the concept becomes particularly obvious through analysis of the debates in the era of early Congress Zionism from 1897 to around 1910. Since “authenticity” is not something naturally given, the controversies serve to indicate how authenticity was constructed, fought over, and politicized. Different, and sometimes conflicting, notions of authentic Jewishness and Zionism reveal a strong link between the concept of authenticity and questions of power.

Of the numerous controversies that characterized Zionist discourse, the controversy sparked by the 1902 novel Altneuland (Oldnewland) by Theodor Herzl is of particular relevance. Conventionally, it has mostly been read in the context of East-West discourse and is often used as an indicator of widespread orientalism and a disrespectful view of Eastern Europe. This reading is very important and is not diminished by the following analysis. Yet, the controversy can also be specifically read as an indicator of the politicization inherent in the concept of authenticity in Zionist discourse in general, and of the questioning of German-Jewish authenticity in particular.

The course of the Altneuland controversy is widely known. Ahad Ha’am wrote a review of the novel Altneuland, that was published in the magazine Ha-Shiloaḥ in December 1902 and did not receive much attention at first. In this review, Ahad Ha’am criticized fundamental aspects of the situation in the future Palestine as it was described by Herzl. The Jews had “created nothing new, added nothing from their own means,” since they only imitated and combined “what they found scattered and dispersed among the cultural peoples of Europe and America.” Ahad Ha’am summed it up as follows: “Europeans, European customs, European inventions. No ‘Jewish’ impression whatsoever.” And he adds:

Without a trace of original talents [kisharon mekori], only copying others, distancing oneself from the “national chauvinism” so far, that nothing remains from the national character of the people, of its language, literature, and spiritual qualities [netiot ruḥo]; shrinking and limiting, only to show the stranger that one is infinitely tolerant, tolerant to disgust [savlanim ʿad legoʿal nefesh] […].

Ahad Ha’am criticizes Herzl’s liberal nationalism, which the latter had emphasized in Altneuland, by condemning his increased distancing from national chauvinism and the encouragement of tolerance.

The magazine Ost und West planned to publish Ahad Haam’s critique of Altneuland in the March issue of 1903 in order to make it accessible to a non-Hebrew speaking audience. Before publication, the editorial staff decided to send Ahad Ha’am’s article to Theodor Herzl, because they envisioned countering Ahad Ha’am’s criticism with Herzl’s reply. This plan could not be realized for various reasons: Firstly, according to Leo Winz, the editor of Ost und West, Herzl kept everybody waiting, thus making it impossible for the article to appear in the March issue. Secondly, Herzl decided to forward the article that was confided to him to Max Nordau, along with an order to respond. Instructed by Herzl, Nordau wrote a harsh response and forwarded it to numerous Zionist periodicals, requesting them to print it. As a consequence, Nordau’s article appeared on March 13, 1903 both in Die Welt and the Jüdische Rundschau and other papers, even before Ahad Ha’am’s article was published in German anywhere.

To Ahad Ha’am’s charges of Europeanism and the absence of Jewishness in Altneuland, Nordau replied:

In fact, “Altneuland” is a piece of Europe in Asia. Dr. Herzl has shown exactly what we want, what we are working on. We want the reunited, liberated Jewish people to remain a Kulturvolk, in as far as they already are one, and to become a Kulturvolk, in those areas in which they are not one yet. We do not imitate anyone, we only use and develop our property. We have been working on European culture, more than on our part: it is ours to the same extent as the Germans’, the French’s, the English’s. We do not allow the construction of a contradiction between Jewish, our own Jewish, and European.

Next to women, the exclusionary mechanisms utilized in the construction of a Zionist authenticity especially affected German-speaking Zionists like Nordau. He had no particularly close affiliation with the Hebrew language, nor with Jewish tradition, and therefore found himself removed from the entities that were identified by other Zionist thinkers as authentically Jewish. Nordau, however, resolutely questioned the distinction between “Jewish” and “our Jewish,” which he also referred to as “European.” In other words, Altneuland is very Jewish, just differently Jewish.

The fact that supposedly “non-Jewish” Zionists like Nordau had now come to some degree of power within the Zionist world organization, despite their relatively small numbers, aroused criticism within the Zionist organization. The numerical representation of German Zionists at the Zionist Congress was relatively low. Nevertheless, the influence of German Zionists in the World Zionist Organization was much higher than their small number would suggest. In his article, “The Jews of Yesterday,” Leo Winz (1876-1952), editor of Ost und West, remarked that “two principles face each other.” Namely,

[o]n the one hand, the core, steadily routed, firmly established Jewishness, […] the Jewish Jewishness […]. On the other hand, the Jewishness of Yesterday, which received its revelation on the Congress, the Jewishness of 1897, the Jewishness of the grace of anti-semitism […].

The “Jewishness of yesterday” stood for “Western Jews,” including the German Jews. In contrast, Winz presented the “Jewish Judaism” which he identified with Eastern Europe, a region that “has never lost touch with the [Jewish] past.”

Another aspect of the discourse on authenticity stands out here: One glance at the combination of words “Jewish Jewishness” illustrates to what extent the discussion manifested itself in linguistic ways—”Jewish” had become synonymous with “authentic.” Here, the projection of “Jewish” Jewishness onto Eastern Europe linguistically strengthened the authenticity of “eastern Jewishness.” In his diaries, Gershom Scholem, too, used the term “Jewish” as a synonym for “authentic.” For example, he demands that Zionism should not “be German […], or French, or English or otherwise, but Jewish.”

Thus, the controversy was used as an opportunity to question the political structure of the Zionist organization. Leo Winz elaborated on this point in “The Jews of Yesterday:”

And we experience the strange phenomenon that this latter kind of Judaism […] becomes louder and wants to set the tone—pursuing and mocking everything that it does not understand, hating what it does not understand and that it therefore also cannot love. […] [These people] want to rule over us and dictate to us, how our ideal and our faith should be.

The connection of Jewish authenticity with political power becomes quite obvious in this source. One can read this controversy as the struggle of German Zionism and German Jews to be recognized as authentic Jews and Zionists. Additionally, this controversy is the first in which the ideals and policies of German or “Western” Zionism and its general authenticity were explicitly criticized. In a letter to Dr Friedemann in Wiesbaden on August 15, 1903, Winz took up this idea again. He assumes that “Nordau’s answer would have been different if Achad Ha’am would not have been the inferior Russian.” As publisher of the magazine Ost und West, Winz insisted that the reason that Herzl improperly forwarded the already translated but as of then unpublished article to Nordau was his “low valuation of the Eastern Jew.” Winz was convinced that “Dr. Herzl in the same case, would have answered a Western European editor of a large newspaper very politely.”

And here the question of principles comes in, protesting against the view that the Western Zionists face down the Easterners with a conduct of protector versus protegé, that the West is only the giver, the East the recipient, that the Zionists of the West are the high- and higher-standing in culture and opinion, who condescend to the Easterners.

“This,” he added, “has never been pronounced.” The steadily growing number of reactions clearly shows how much the controversy had distanced itself from Ahad Ha’am’s original criticism of Altneuland. Other, more urgent topics had now found a trigger in what followed Nordau’s counterblast. This gave their unspoken opinions a way out into the public sphere. Incidentally, following the statements mentioned above, Leo Winz was now unwelcome in Zionist circles, despite a letter of apology to Max Nordau.

Ahad Ha’am took the same line, when he explicitly projected authentic Jewishness and Zionism onto Eastern Europe. He located the authentic Jewish community in the “East” and saw a fundamental difference between the “Eastern” and the “Western” variants of Zionism. In the former, Jews are subordinated to the Jewish nation and, ultimately, to the redemption of mankind, whereas the latter operated detached from Jewish tradition:

The Eastern moral misery is, however, completely different from the Western. In the West it is a misery of Jews, in the East a misery of Jewishness; the former affects the individual, the latter—the nation [zo maḥʾiva lev ha-ʾadam, ve-zo—lev ha-ʾuma]; the Jews, who have been educated in the spirit of foreign peoples feel the former, the Jews, who have been raised in the womb of Jewishness feel the latter; the former is a consequence of anti-semitism, the existence of which is a condition of their own existence, the latter—a natural outcome of a true correlation with a thousand-year-old culture.

A further example from the repertoire of Ahad Ha’am’s writings that is worth mentioning illustrates, in particular, his “deauthentification” of Herzlian Zionism. The following remark is often ascribed to Ahad Ha’am, but in reality he was citing a German reform rabbi—one may scarcely believe it considering the critical stance towards Reform Judaism on the part of Zionist thinkers. More precisely, it is a quote from a speech by Rabbi Caesar Seligmann (1860-1959), that was printed in the Populär-wissenschaftlichen Monatsblättern. The famous exclamation was:

Why are we Jews? Strange question! Ask the fire, why it burns! […] It is not in our ability […]. But not the Jewish conviction, not the Jewish teaching, not the Jewish confession is the original reason, the first motivation, but the Jewish feeling, the instinctive, that you cannot define; call it what you want, call it community of blood, call it feeling of race, or national spirit, but preferably call it the Jewish heart [halev ha ʿivri].

Ahad Ha’am did not quote this idea without giving it a definitive framework. He thought that his worldview had many things in common with that of the German reform rabbi, since he had a “common field of work in the countries of exile.” Moreover, such Jews were “spiritually closer to him than those new Zionists who had begun with the end, whose whole nationalism depended on the founding of a Jewish state.”

The fact that the dispute between numerous Zionist thinkers reflects rather prejudicial classifications of “Eastern” and “Western” Europe is already well known. To ask for the function of these constructed ideas, however, takes the analysis one step further. It points to the polarization of “East” and “West” with regard to their tactical usage to gain power within the Zionist movement. It is important to emphasize that the division into “East” and “West” is to be regarded as a construct, which by no means bears a precise scrutiny, even with regard to the Altneuland controversy. Both Ahad Ha’am, and Theodor Herzl, in spite of their respective identification as representatives of “East” and “West,” received criticism or support from both Western and Eastern Europe, in Hebrew, Yiddish, and German.

As much as Ahad Ha’am tried to authenticate eastern Jewishness and Hibbath Zion, his radical statements on this theme must be read with caution. The Jewish situation in Eastern Europe was far from being as “nationalist” and “Jewish” as he tried to describe it. As in Western Europe, various groups, ideas, and ideologies shaped the image of Jews in Russia and Poland. As Israel Bartal has shown, Jewish nationalism and mass emigration were but two of the reactions to the pogroms of 1881-82. Even after the pogroms, social integration was a main target in Jewish endeavors. The Zionist opinions toward the “West” could not be more ambivalent—a fact that has been largely ignored in research. On the one hand, we find firmly critical stances, which question the achievements of modernity, like emancipation, “assimilation” (Max Nordau, Ahad Ha’am), or the ideal of Bildung (Theodor Herzl, Altneuland). On the other hand, the “West” was imagined as clearly superior to the “East,” a conviction that not only “Westerners” held.

The individual reactions caused by the controversy therefore display many different aspects: First, Herzl’s and Nordau’s reactions to Leo Winz’s proposed publication of Ahad Ha’am’s article together with Herzl’s reaction is to be regarded as a demonstration of power. Second, Nordau’s reckoning with Ahad Ha’am reveals the inherent orientalism in Zionist discourse. Third, the binary concept “East-West” is closely related to ideas of authenticity and to questions of power.


The German Zionist’s search for one’s own self that could only happen within a Jewish nation was a highly emotional quest, which led to the German-Zionist understanding of a subjective and individual authenticity. Based on the concept of authenticity and its counterpart, Zionist thinkers produced a clear division between authentic and inauthentic entities.

Both Zionist narratives of “the Inauthentic” and “the Authentic” were highly gendered. First, Jewish women were often blamed for the Jews’ alienation from Jewishness, or for encouraging the “assimilation” of their children. Second, in connection with the Zionist idea of “the Authentic,” an ambivalent situation for women becomes evident. On the one hand, women were associated with “feeling,” “love,” and the “heart,” which are all entities that are clearly marked as “authentic.” On the other hand, Jewish women were excluded from the search for an authentic self. This aspect particularly demonstrates the limits of individual authenticity as it was propagated by the Zionist thinkers. Put differently, women were assigned a fixed place in this male search for authenticity.

Next to gender specificity, the Zionist project, which started as an overall search for authenticity, was additionally hindered by the politics of authenticity. These politics can also be traced in later research, underlining the relevance of the topic in recent times. Zionist historian, David Vital, agreed with Ahad Ha’am as late as 1982, which indicates the continued existence of contested authenticities in Zionist historiography: “Acḥad Ha-‛Am had good cause […] to pounce on Herzl’s fantasy Altneuland […] and dismiss it on the grounds that there was nothing immediately recognizable as Jewish in it. Indeed there was not. If anything, it was Viennese.”

German Zionism, to which is conventionally assigned a very liberal outlook, appears in a new light when its gender-specificity and its struggles for power are taken into account. These contradictory links between liberal and anti-liberal views suggest that the universalistic liberal character of the German Zionists was far more multi-faceted than previous research has regularly concluded. To this day, the topic of Jewish authenticity remains a central question in academic works and continues to reveal important aspects of German-Jewish studies.