Zionist Extremism as Product of the Internal Dynamics of Judaism, Part 2: Hasidic Origins, and the Rise of Racial Zionism

Start with Part 1.

These trends can be seen by describing the numerically dominant Hasidic population in early nineteenth-century Galicia, then a province of the Austro-Hungarian empire; similar phenomena occurred throughout the Yiddish-speaking, religiously fundamentalist culture area of Eastern Europe, most of which came to be governed by the Russian empire.21 Beginning in the late eighteenth century, there were increasing restrictions on Jewish economic activity, such as edicts preventing Jews from operating taverns, engaging in trade, and leasing mills. There were restrictions on where Jews could live, and ghettos were established in order to remove Jews from competition with nonJews; taxes specific to Jews were imposed; there were government efforts to force Jewish assimilation, as by requiring the legal documents be in the German language. These laws, even though often little enforced, reflected the anti-Jewish animosity of wider society and undoubtedly increased Jewish insecurity. In any case, a large percentage of the Jewish population was impoverished and doubtless would have remained so even in the absence of anti-Jewish attitudes and legislation. Indeed, the emigration of well over three million Jews to Western Europe and the New World did little to ease the grinding poverty of a large majority of the Jewish population.

It was in this atmosphere that Hasidism rose to dominance in Eastern Europe. The Hasidim passionately rejected all the assimilatory pressures coming from the government. They so cherished the Yiddish language that well into the twentieth century the vast majority of Eastern European Jews could not speak the languages of the non-Jews living around them.22 They turned to the Kabbala (the writings of Jewish mystics), superstition, and anti-rationalism, believing in “magical remedies, amulets, exorcisms, demonic possession (dybbuks), ghosts, devils, and teasing, mischievous genies.”23 Corresponding to this intense ingroup feeling were attitudes that non-Jews were less than human. “As Mendel of Rymanów put it, ‘A Gentile does not have a heart, although he has an organ that resembles a heart.’ ”24 All nations exist only by virtue of the Jewish people: “Erez Yisreal [the land of Israel] is the essence of the world and all vitality stems from it.”25 Similar attitudes are common among contemporary Jewish fundamentalists and the settler movement in Israel.26

The Hasidim had an attitude of absolute faith in the person of the zaddic, their rebbe, who was a charismatic figure seen by his followers literally as the personification of God in the world. Attraction to charismatic leaders is a fundamental feature of Jewish social organization—apparent as much among religious fundamentalists as among Jewish political radicals or elite Jewish intellectuals.27 The following account of a scene at a synagogue in Galicia in 1903 describes the intense emotionality of the community and its total subordination to its leader:

There were no benches, and several thousand Jews were standing closely packed together, swaying in prayer like the corn in the wind. When the rabbi appeared the service began. Everybody tried to get as close to him as possible. The rabbi led the prayers in a thin, weeping voice. It seemed to arouse a sort of ecstasy in the listeners. They closed their eyes, violently swaying. The loud praying sounded like a gale. Anyone seeing these Jews in prayer would have concluded that they were the most religious people on earth.28

At the end of the service, those closest to the rabbi were intensely eager to eat any food touched by him, and the fish bones were preserved by his followers as relics. Another account notes that “devotees hoping to catch a spark from this holy fire run to receive him.”29 The power of the zaddic extends so far “that whatever God does, it is also within the capacity of the zaddic to do.”30

An important role for the zaddic is to produce wealth for the Jews, and by taking it from the non-Jews. According to Hasidic doctrine, the non-Jews have the preponderance of good things, but

It was the zaddic who was to reverse this situation. Indeed, R. Meir of Opatów never wearied of reiterating in his homilies that the zaddik must direct his prayer in a way that the abundance which he draws down from on high should not be squandered during its descent, and not “wander away,” that is, outside, to the Gentiles, but that it mainly reach the Jews, the holy people, with only a residue flowing to the Gentiles, who are “the other side” (Satan’s camp).31

The zaddics’ sermons were filled with pleas for vengeance and hatred toward the non-Jews, who were seen as the source of their problems.

These groups were highly authoritarian—another fundamental feature of Jewish social organization.32 Rabbis and other elite members of the community had extraordinary power over other Jews in traditional societies—literally the power of life and death. Jews who informed the authorities about the illegal activities of other Jews were liquidated on orders of secret rabbinical courts, with no opportunity to defend themselves. Jews accused of heretical religious views were beaten or murdered. Their books were burned or buried in cemeteries. When a heretic died, his body was beaten by a special burial committee, placed in a cart filled with dung, and deposited outside the Jewish cemetery. In places where the authorities were lax, there were often pitched battles between different Jewish sects, often over trivial religious points such as what kind of shoes a person should wear. In 1838 the governor of southwestern Russia issued a directive that the police keep tabs on synagogues because “Very often something happens that leaves dead Jews in its wake.”33 Synagogues had jails near the entrance, and prisoners were physically abused by the congregation as they filed in for services. …

[The triumph of Hasidism] meant the failure of the Jewish Enlightenment (the Haskalah) in Eastern Europe. The Haskalah movement advocated greater assimilation with non-Jewish society, as by using vernacular languages, studying secular subjects, and not adopting distinguishing forms of dress, although in other ways their commitment to Judaism remained powerful. These relatively assimilated Jews were the relatively thin upper crust of wealthy merchants and others who were free of the economic and social pressures that fueled Hasidism. They often cooperated with the authorities in attempts to force the Hasidim to assimilate out of fear that Hasidic behavior led to anti-Jewish attitudes.

As noted above, one source of the inward unity and psychological fanaticism of Jewish communities was the hostility of the surrounding non-Jewish population. Jews in the Russian Empire were hated by all the non-Jewish classes, who saw them as an exploitative class of petty traders, middlemen, innkeepers, store owners, estate agents, and money lenders.36 Jews “were viewed by the authorities and by much of the rest of population as a foreign, separate, exploitative, and distressingly prolific nation.”37 In 1881 these tensions boiled over into several anti-Jewish pogroms in a great many towns of southern and southwestern Russia. It was in this context that the first large-scale stirrings of Zionism emerged.38 From 1881–1884, dozens of Zionist groups formed in the Russian Empire and Romania.

Political radicalism emerged from the same intensely Jewish communities during this period and for much the same reasons.39 Political radicalism often coexisted with messianic forms of Zionism as well as intense commitment to Jewish nationalism and religious and cultural separatism, and many individuals held various and often rapidly changing combinations of these ideas.40

The two streams of political radicalism and Zionism, each stemming from the teeming fanaticism of threatened Jewish populations in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, continue to reverberate in the modern world. In both England and America the immigration of Eastern European Jews after 1880 had a transformative effect on the political attitudes of the Jewish community in the direction of radical politics and Zionism, often combined with religious orthodoxy.41 The immigrant Eastern European Jews demographically swamped the previously existing Jewish communities in both countries, and the older community reacted to this influx with considerable trepidation because of the possibility of increased anti-Semitism. Attempts were made by the established Jewish communities to misrepresent the prevalence of radical political ideas and Zionism among the immigrants.42

The Zionist and radical solutions for Jewish problems differed, of course, with the radicals blaming the Jewish situation on the economic structure of society and attempting to appeal to non-Jews in an effort to completely restructure social and economic relationships. (Despite attempting to appeal to non-Jews, the vast majority of Jewish radicals had a very strong Jewish communal identity and often worked in an entirely Jewish milieu.43)

Among Zionists, on the other hand, it was common from very early on to see the Jewish situation as resulting from irresolvable conflict between Jews and non-Jews. The early Zionist Moshe Leib Lilienblum emphasized that Jews were strangers who competed with local peoples: “A stranger can be received into a family, but only as a guest. A guest who bothers, or competes with or displaces an authentic member of the household is promptly and angrily reminded of his status by the others, acting out of a sense of self-protection.”44 Later, Theodor Herzl argued that a prime source of modern anti-Semitism was that Jews had come into direct economic competition with the non-Jewish middle classes. Anti-Semitism based on resource competition was rational: Herzl “insisted that one could not expect a majority to ‘let themselves be subjugated’ by formerly scorned outsiders whom they had just released from the ghetto…. I find the anti-Semites are fully within their rights.”45 In Germany, Zionists analyzed anti-Semitism during the Weimar period as “the inevitable and justifiable response of one people to attempts by another to make it share in the formation of its destiny. It was an instinctive response independent of reason and will, and hence common to all peoples, the Jews included.”46

As was often the case during the period, Zionists had a much clearer understanding of their fellow Jews and the origins of anti-Jewish attitudes. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, a prominent Zionist and leader of the American Jewish Congress whose membership derived from Eastern Europe immigrants and their descendants, accused Western European Jews of deception by pretending to be patriotic citizens while really being Jewish nationalists: “They wore the mask of the ruling nationality as of old in Spain—the mask of the ruling religion.”47 Wise had a well-developed sense of dual loyalty, stating on one occasion “I am not an American citizen of Jewish faith. I am a Jew. I am an American. I have been an American 63/64ths of my life, but I have been a Jew for 4000 years.”48 Zionists in Western countries were also at the ethnocentric end of the Jewish population. Zionism was seen as a way of combating the assimilatory pressures of Western societies: “Zionist ideologues and publicists argued that in the West assimilation was as much a threat to the survival of the Jewish people as persecution was in the East.”49 Zionism openly accepted a national/ethnic conceptualization of Judaism that was quite independent of religious faith. As Theodore Herzl stated, “We are a people—one people.”50 The Zionist Arthur Hertzberg stated that “the Jews in all ages were essentially a nation and … all other factors profoundly important to the life of this people, even religion, were mainly instrumental values.”51

There were a number of Zionist racial scientists in the period from 1890–1940, including Elias Auerbach, Aron Sandler, Felix Theilhaber, and Ignaz Zollschan. Zionist racial scientists were motivated by a perceived need to end Jewish intermarriage and preserve Jewish racial purity.52 Only by creating a Jewish homeland and leaving the assimilatory influences of the Diaspora could Jews preserve their unique racial heritage.

For example, Auerbach advocated Zionism because it would return Jews “back into the position they enjoyed before the nineteenth century— politically autonomous, culturally whole, and racially pure.”53 Zollschan, whose book on “the Jewish racial question” went through five editions and was well known to both Jewish and non-Jewish anthropologists,54 praised Houston Stewart Chamberlain and advocated Zionism as the only way to retain Jewish racial purity from the threat of mixed marriages and assimilation.55 Zollschan’s description of the phenotypic, and by implication genetic commonality of Jews around the world is striking. He notes that the same Jewish faces can be seen throughout the Jewish world among Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Oriental Jews. He also remarked on the same mix of body types, head shapes, skin, and hair and eye pigmentation in these widely separated groups.56

For many Zionists, Jewish racialism went beyond merely asserting and shoring up the ethnic basis of Judaism, to embrace the idea of racial superiority. Consistent with the anti-assimilationist thrust of Zionism, very few Zionists intermarried, and those who did, such as Martin Buber, found that their marriages were problematic within the wider Zionist community.57 In 1929 the Zionist leaders of the Berlin Jewish community condemned intermarriage as a threat to the “racial purity of stock” and asserted its belief that “consanguinity of the flesh and solidarity of the soul” were essential for developing a Jewish nation, as was the “will to establish a closed brotherhood over against all other communities on earth.”58

Assertions of Zionist racialism continued into the National Socialist period, where they dovetailed with National Socialist attitudes. Joachim Prinz, a German Jew who later became the head of the American Jewish Congress, celebrated Hitler’s ascent to power because it signaled the end of the Enlightenment values, which had resulted in assimilation and mixed marriage among Jews:

We want assimilation to be replaced by a new law: the declaration of belonging to the Jewish nation and the Jewish race. A state built upon the principle of the purity of nation and race can only be honoured and respected by a Jew who declares his belonging to his own kind…. For only he who honours his own breed and his own blood can have an attitude of honour towards the national will of other nations.59 The common ground of the racial Zionists and their non-Jewish counterparts included the exclusion of Jews from the German Volksgemeinschaft. 60

Indeed, shortly after Hitler came to power, the Zionist Federation of Germany submitted a memorandum to the German government outlining a solution to the Jewish question and containing the following remarkable statement.

The Federation declared that the Enlightenment view that Jews should be absorbed into the nation state discerned only the individual, the single human being freely suspended in space, without regarding the ties of blood and history or spiritual distinctiveness. Accordingly, the liberal state demanded of the Jews assimilation [via baptism and mixed marriage] into the non-Jewish environment…. Thus it happened that innumerable persons of Jewish origin had the chance to occupy important positions and to come forward as representatives of German culture and German life, without having their belonging to Jewry become visible. Thus arose a state of affairs which in political discussion today is termed “debasement of Germandom,” or “Jewification.”…Zionism has no illusions about the difficulty of the Jewish condition, which consists above all in an abnormal occupational pattern and in the fault of an intellectual and moral posture not rooted in one’s own tradition.61

Go to Part 3.

12 replies

Comments are closed.