Jewish Identity in the Twentieth Century

    January 2011            
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Twentieth Century Jews: Forging Identity in the Land of Promise and in the Promised Land

By Professor Monty Noam Penkower


The past century, as no other, challenged the very existence of the Jewish people. Deservedly dubbed “the terrible twentieth,”1 these years witnessed antisemitic pogroms across Eastern Europe, the awesome devastation of World War I, and the singular tragedy since known as the Holocaust. Millions of Jews perished; entire communities were destroyed, reduced to fading memory and scant record.

Jewish identity confronted additional challenges. In the same span of time, countless youth who had jettisoned religious Orthodoxy embraced the banner of leftist revolution or that of entrepreneurial capitalism. While labels such as “the Jewish century” are questionable, Jews did contribute in significant measure to forging a secular world, one grown increasingly technological, rootless, and dismissive of tradition.2 The lure of assimilation, championing creativity and independence, proved devastating for the communal attachment of an ethnic minority no longer bound by mandatory covenant, but by individual choice. Apathy, intermarriage, even conversion became commonplace as the ancestral ties of more than four millennia fell prey to attenuation and abandonment.

Liberal Jewish voices hailed the new age, certain that a Judaism of rational ethics could serve mightily in the progressive movement of humankind toward freedom. That religion’s universal ethos as expressed in the one God, asserted the German philosopher Hermann Cohen, forecast the dissolution of many communities into a collective ideal. Together with the young Franz Rosenzweig, Cohen objected to Zionism’s undermining the distinctive spiritual nature of the Jewish people, which he thought required the Diaspora in order to labor for the world’s redemption. In like vein, Lucien Wolf, historian and secretary of the Anglo-Jewish establishment’s Joint Foreign Committee, concluded an article on Zionism for the classic 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica by pontificating that “artificial” Jewish nationalism would disappear under the influence of religious toleration and naturalization laws, and with the “passing away” of antisemitism. “If the Jewish people disappear with it,” he ended, “it will only be because either their religious mission in the world has been accomplished or they have proved themselves unworthy of it.”3

In separate fashion, some distinguished Gentiles lauded Judaism’s influence upon modernity triumphant. While expressing sympathy for the Hebrew renaissance and condemning Russian antisemitism in unequivocal terms, Maxim Gorki acknowledged the contribution of Jewish “heroic idealism.” Jews, declared this acclaimed author of social realism, “saved the world from submissiveness and self-satisfaction,” and would help establish “the Law of Socialism” in a re-made order to be governed by “the new principles of equality and justice.” For the American economist Thorstein Veblen, on the other hand, the current intellectual prominence of the Jew in Europe lay in the fact that “he is the most unattached, the most marginalized, and the most skeptical and unconventional of all scientists.” By curing the Jews of their homelessness, he averred in early 1919, Zionism would spell the end of the preeminence of this “disturber of the intellectual peace.”4

Other Jews, taking a particularistic stance, argued that in an amoral world, the reality of power transcended lofty appeals to spirituality, justice, and reason. Lethal Jew-hatred did not allow for much retreat into the assimilated Franz Kafka’s prose universe, where modern man makes a futile search for personal salvation. Youngsters in Russia and Palestine began to arm themselves, deeming the call of western co-religionists to radicalize humanity through the example of prophetic ethics an idle fancy. Political Zionism’s fundamental belief that the establishment of “a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law” (the Basle Program adopted at the first World Zionist Congress in 1897) was Jewry’s overriding need stirred the East European masses, then engaged in a daily struggle for physical survival. Alas, that conviction found corroboration in the crematoria. The American poet Karl Shapiro captured his people’s perennial plight when, writing in the post- World War II “Travelogue for Exiles,” he cried out: “Speak then and ask the forest and the loam./ What do you hear? What does the land command?/ The earth is taken: this is not your home.”5

Few non-Jews grasped the ineluctable truth as early and as sharply as George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), considered by many critics one of the greatest English novelists. Coming two years after her proto-Zionist fiction Daniel Deronda (1876), a lengthy essay entitled “The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!” warned that the canard and vilification regularly cast against Jewry begat violence and murder. (“Hep” had first served as the Medieval Crusaders’ cry “Hierosolyma est perdita,” or “Jerusalem is lost,” as they killed Jews in Germany and France before redeeming the Holy Land from Muslim control.) At the same time, noted Eliot, the exceptional intensity of this people’s steadfastness raised a welcome possibility: “the restoration of a Jewish State planted on the old ground as a centre of national feeling, a source of dignifying protection, a special channel for special energies, which may contribute some added form of national genius, and an added voice in the councils of the world.”6

No one, including the luminaries cited above, could have foreseen Nazi Germany’s methodical zeal to annihilate the Jews of Europe, nor that Christianity and the Enlightenment’s western heirs would stand by while death stalked innocent men, women, and children. The ghastly outcome, compounded by its immeasurable loss, converted Jews worldwide and increasing numbers of Gentiles to rally around Palestine as Jewry’s ultimate salvation. A “pariah people” (Max Weber’s phrase of World War I vintage) would no longer be the eternal outsider, the scourge of powerlessness and consequent victimization over the centuries ending on May 14, 1948, with Jews’ re-entry onto the stage of history. Henceforth, the State of Israel’s creation could provide them, as I have written elsewhere, “some solace and even joy in the wake of hitherto unimaginable horror.”7 The Jewish character of that commonwealth was open for resolution.

Over the last decade, I have explored how members of the ever beleaguered tribe grappled with their Jewish selves during the twentieth century. Since the viability of a people’s continuance shifted to the United States and the State of Israel after the seismic rupture wrought by the Holocaust, those two new centers of the Jewish experience have commanded the focus of my attention. The studies gathered here offer facets of a dramatic, often troubled, story; transformation and conflict abound. Five of the chapters have been published elsewhere, some undergoing revision and expanded treatment for this collection.

The century’s first pogrom, which broke out in the Bessarabian capital of Kishinev in 1903, became a turning point in Jewish history. Its savagery provoked young Jewish socialist Bundists and Zionists, the latter inspired by a Bialik poem which raged against the degrading “passivity” of Exile, to take up weapons against subsequent attack. Such pioneering Jewish defiance hardly checked the designs of a malevolent Russian autocracy just when the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the primary source of modern antisemitism, first made its appearance. Most significantly, when conflated with the economic crisis in the northwestern part of the restricted Pale of Settlement, the Kishinev pogrom and its successors triggered a wave of immigration which began in two major directions. More than one million Jews immigrated before World War I to the United States, whose Jewish community joined hands for the first time to provide financial and political support to their kinsmen in the vast Romanov Empire. Some 40,000 also made for Eretz Israel, where they would become the leaders of the Jewish “state-in-the-making” (chap. 1).

The Land of Promise across the Atlantic, with its unprecedented liberty and prosperity, exerted a corrosive influence on the integrity of Judaism. The Polish-born Abraham Selmanovitz, a stately sage of Torah and Talmud, ably linked his service in the hasidic fastness of Williamsburg with the rabbinical seminary of the emerging Yeshiva University in Washington Heights. Some of his progeny, however, joined the large majority of their Jewish contemporaries in departing the life of halakha (law) and prudence for personal achievement and happiness (chap. 2). Felix Frankfurter transferred the loyalties of his own Viennese-Jewish heritage to America; the Harvard Law School; patricians Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and particularly Franklin D. Roosevelt; and the U.S. Supreme Court. Standing aloof from Jewish affairs once a member of the highest bench in the land, Frankfurter’s anxiety about himself as a Jew crept into some of his most notable Court opinions; this ambivalence remained unresolved to the end (chap. 3).

A small minority, espousing the universal message of prophetic Judaism while insisting that Zionism placed the loyalty of Jews outside of Palestine into question, created the American Council for Judaism. Seared by the Holocaust, American Jewry rejected these fears and united behind the cause of Jewish national rebirth (chap. 4). His insecurities as a Jew led the New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger to oppose any “Jewish” manifestation other than religious; the world’s newspaper of record deliberately obscured coverage of the systematic slaughter of European Jewry during World War II, and pilloried Zionism until the latter received UN sanction. This admitted agnostic gradually withdrew from contact with Jewish organizations; his grandchildren represented all faiths (chap. 5).

The biblically covenanted Promised Land hugging the Mediterranean’s rim beckoned with the alternative of nationalism, yet this prospect engendered other controversies over identity. While acknowledged as the bard of his people’s risorgimento, Hayim Nahman Bialik exercised little influence on developments there. Criticized by a new literary generation and witness to escalating strife between political factions, whose secularized youngsters were estranged from the Judaism upon which he had been nurtured in Russia, Bialik retreated into poetic silence and died an embittered man (chap. 6). Orthodoxy fared no better, the Diaspora-based Agudas Israel organization eventually rejecting an historic overture from the religious-Zionist Mizrachi to join forces for the sake of traditional observance, education, and Eretz Israel activity. With anti-Zionist Aguda elders adhering to a quietist view in the face of mounting persecution and Mizrachi wishing to bring the Torah dynamically into the realm of practical politics, the impasse on the eve of World War II between the rivals represented a lost opportunity (chap. 7).

The murder of Haim Arlosoroff in 1933 exacerbated a separate, more violent struggle that had begun a few years earlier between Palestine’s Left and Right over the nature of the emerging Jewish commonwealth. Labor charged Revisionist-Zionists with killing the political head of the Zionist settlement; the Right, in turn, accused its adversaries of perpetrating a blood libel in order to weaken the militant organization. The unanimous decision by a British court of appeals to free the remaining Revisionist on trial did not convince the Left, then or in later years. A state commission concluded in 1985 that the accused were innocent and that the killers’ identity remained a mystery, but the assassination of laborite Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin one decade later by an opponent of the Oslo Accords sharpened the political divide (chap. 8). That divide also found expression in Palestinian Jewry’s response to the execution in 1938 of Shlomo Ben-Yosef, the first Jew to be hanged by the British authorities, who attacked an Arab bus in retaliation for incessant terrorism against Jews. Only after the ascent of Menahem Begin to power in 1977 did Ben-Yosef and subsequent gallows victims, all members of the Right’s pre-state military groups, enter Israel’s pantheon. Their collectivist orientation, foreign to much of the present generation of Israeli-Jewish youth searching for individual identity, fueled a passionate Zionist commitment and its realization (chap. 9).

The issue of authentic Jewish continuity remains, both in Israel and the Diaspora. The personal and collective meanings which its members will ascribe to their Jewish identity elude safe prediction. That dilemma cannot be avoided when life increasingly encourages multiple identities and diverse commitments. Articulate advocates for universalism and for particularity have made their case since the beginning of the modern era. The debate is not concluded. And the grit of history, particularly its malignant and unexpected knots, has to be taken into account.


1 Winston Churchill coined the phrase when speaking at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Mid-Century Convocation, on March 31, 1949. Upon becoming the Tory Prime Minister in 1951, he resorted to it as well.
2 Yuri Slezkine, The Jewish Century (Princeton, 2004).
3 Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism, S. Kaplan, trans. (New York, 1972), pp. 259-260; Franz Rosenzweig, Th e Star of Redemption, W.H. Hallo, trans. (New York, 1970); Lucien Wolf, “Zionism,” Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 28 (New York, 1911), pp. 986-989. For Martin Buber’s spirited rejoinder to Cohen’s assault on Zionism, see The Jew, Essays from Martin Buber’s Journal, Der Jude, 1916-1928, Arthur A. Cohen, ed. (University, Alabama, 1980), pp. 87-96.
4 Slezkine, The Jewish Century, p. 164; Thorstein Veblen, “Th e Intellectual Pre- Eminence of Jews in Modern Europe,” Political Science Quarterly 34:1 (March 1919), 33-42.
5 Karl Shapiro, “Travelogue for Exiles,” in Poems of a Jew (New York, 1958), p. 18. The italics for the last line are Shapiro’s.
6 George Eliot, “The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!,” in Impressions of Theophrastus Such, Miscellaneous Essays. Illustrated Cabinet Edition (New York, n.d.), pp. 184-213.
7 Max Weber, Ancient Judaism, H.H. Gerth and D. Martindale, trans. (Glencoe, 1952), p. 3; Monty Noam Penkower, The Holocaust and Israel Reborn: From Catastrophe to Sovereignty (Urbana, 1994), p. xii.

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from the January 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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