Cultural and Socialist Zionism: Ahad Haam, Bialik, Syrkin, Gordon

Reading the greats of Zionism [from The Zionist Idea by Arthur Hertzberg]
Part 4: The Agnostic Rabbi -- Ahad Ha-Am 247



Part 6: The Zionism of Marxist and Utopian Socialists

NAHMAN SYRKIN 1867-1924 330
1. Jews and Gentiles 333
2. Emancipation and Anti-Semitism 336
3. Jews and Socialism 340
4. Zionism 345
5. The Socialist-Jewish State 349

AARON DAVID GORDON 1856-1922 368
OUR TASKS AHEAD (1920) 379
YOM KIPPUR (1921) 383

To define cultural Zionism we turn to the US Country Study on Israel:

The counterpoint to Herzl's political Zionism was provided by Asher Ginsberg, better known by his pen name Ahad HaAm (One of the People). Ahad HaAm, who was the son of a Hasidic rabbi, was typical of the Russian maskalim. In 1886, at the age of thirty, he moved to Odessa with the vague hope of modernizing Judaism. His views on Zionism were rooted in the changing nature of Jewish communal life in Eastern Europe. Ahad HaAm realized that a new meaning to Jewish life would have to be found for the younger generation of East European Jews who were revolting against traditional Jewish practice. Whereas Jews in the West could participate in and benefit from a secular culture, Jews in the East were oppressed. While Herzl focused on the plight of Jews alone, Ahad HaAm was also interested in the plight of Judaism, which could no longer be contained within the limits of traditional religion.

Ahad HaAm's solution was cultural Zionism: the establishment in Palestine of small settlements aimed at reviving the Jewish spirit and culture in the modern world. In the cultural Zionist vision, a small number of Jewish cadres well versed in Jewish culture and speaking Hebrew would settle in Palestine. Ahad HaAm believed that by settling in that ancient land, religious Jews would replace their metaphysical attachment to the Holy Land with a new Hebrew cultural renaissance. Palestine and the Hebrew language were important not because of their religious significance but because they had been an integral part of the Jewish people's history and cultural heritage.

Inherent in the cultural Zionism espoused by Ahad HaAm was a deep mistrust of the gentile world. Ahad HaAm rejected Herzl's notion that the nations of the world would encourage Jews to move and establish a Jewish state. He believed that only through Jewish self-reliance and careful preparation would the Zionist enterprise succeed. Although Ahad HaAm's concept of a vanguard cultural elite establishing a foothold in Palestine was quixotic, his idea of piecemeal settlement in Palestine and the establishment of a Zionist infrastructure became an integral part of the Zionist movement.

The ascendancy of Ahad HaAm's cultural Zionism and its emphasis on practical settlement in Eretz Yisrael climaxed at the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903. After an initial discussion of settlement in the Sinai Peninsula, which was opposed by Egypt, Herzl came to the congress apparently willing to consider, as a temporary shelter, a British proposal for an autonomous Jewish entity in East Africa. The Uganda Plan, as it was called, was vehemently rejected by East European Zionists who, as before, insisted on the ancient political identity with Palestine. Exhausted, Herzl died of pneumonia in 1904, and from that time on the mantle of Zionism was carried by the cultural Zionists led by Ahad HaAm and his close colleague, Chaim Weizmann. They took over the WZO, increased support for Hibbat Tziyyon, and sought Jewish settlement in Palestine as a prerequisite to international support for a Jewish state.

Hertzberg summarizes regarding the chief spokesman for cultural Zionism:

AHAD HA-AM was born as Asher Zvi Ginsberg in Skvira, in the Russian Ukraine on August 18, 1856. His family belonged to the very highest aristocracy of the Jewish ghetto, being particularly close to the Hasidic rebbe of Sadagura. His formal education was so strictly pious that his teacher was forbidden to instruct him even in the letters of the Russian alphabet, lest this might lead to heresy (he nonetheless taught himself to read Russian at the age of eight from the signs on the store fronts of his town). By the middle of his adolescence Asher Ginsberg was already a considerable and even somewhat celebrated scholar of the Talmud and its literature, as well as of the devotional literature of the Hasidic movement.

In 1868 his family moved to an estate which his wealthy father had leased. There, locked in his room (then and later he had no interest in nature) he began on the road toward "enlightenment" by studying the works of the great medieval Jewish philosophers, especially of Maimonides. By stages he went on to the "forbidden books" of the modern Hebrew "enlightenment," and eventually, at the age of twenty, to the wider horizons of literature and philosophy in Russian and German. Soon, like his contemporary, Lilienblum, Ahad Ha-Am discovered the works of D. I. Pisarev, one of the founders of Russian positivism, and definitely lost his religious faith.

The years between 1879 and 1886 were the most painful period of his life, marked by abortive attempts to go to Vienna, Berlin, Breslau, and Leipzig to study. Personal troubles, the severe illness of his wife (as was the custom of his class, a marriage had been arranged for him at the age of twenty), and his own self-doubts and lack of resolution kept forcing him to return home after a few weeks with, as he put it, "a pained heart." The family finally moved to Odessa in 1886, not by choice but under the constraint of a new tsarist ukase forbidding Jews to lease land. Though this was a grave economic blow, Ahad HaAm was nonetheless relieved to be gone from a place which was associated in his memory with inner torment.

His first article, "This Is Not the Way," was published in 1889 when he was thirty-three. Not regarding himself as a writer, he signed it as Ahad Ha-Am, i.e., "one of the people," the pen name by which he was to be known henceforth. He always refused to consider himself as a man of letters, even when increasing poverty of his family forced him to take a job in 1896 as the editor of a Hebrew monthly, Ha-Shiloah, in order to support his wife and, by then, three children. After six years of editing this literary journal, which he intended as a platform for the discussion of the contemporary problems of Judaism, he resigned his post, feeling bitter and depressed but relieved to be free of the hateful burdens of being a public servant. He became an official of a tea concern and traveled widely on its behalf throughout Russia for four years. He moved to London in 1907, when his firm opened a branch there, and remained there for fourteen years, until 1921, when he settled in Palestine.

Ahad Ha-Am's debut in Hebrew literature occurred in the era which followed after the pogroms of 1881, in the day of the Hibbat Zion movement. In his first essay and, within several years, in long pieces of analytical reportage that he wrote from the recently founded few colonies in Palestine, he appeared as a disturber of the peace. Comparing the high-flown verbiage of this early Zionism with its paltry and often ill-conceived practical achievements, Ahad Ha-Am was uncompromising in his insistence that work in Palestine needed to be done slowly and with great care. Above all, he suggested that the true meaning of Hibbat Zion was not to be found, as leaders like Lilienblum thought, in mass action but in the cultural revival and modernization of the Jewish people through the agency of a carefully chosen few. From the very beginning these views aroused a storm and his continued reiteration of them after the appearance of Herzl simply continued the controversy. The agnostic definitions that he was proposing for a new Jewish spiritual culture involved him in another continuing argument, a debate with the orthodox. On the other hand, the conservatism of his thought, in practical application, made him the target of many of the younger and more rebellious voices in modern Hebrew literature, who found him too traditionalist in temper, a hard taskmaster as an editor, and lacking in interest in art and belles-lettres for their own sake.

Socialist Zionism is the underpinning of the modern State of Israel. Also known as Labor Zionism, the movement governed the development of the fledgling State of Israel through its first 25 years.

See http://www.mideastweb.org/labor_zionism.htm

The World Zionist Organization speaks glowingly of Socialist Zionism:

Socialist Zionism rose out of a criticism of both existing Zionism and Jewish Socialism in the Early Zionist era.

Socialist Zionism is not simply a mechanical combination of two words: Zionism and Socialism. Nor is it a compromise between two conflicting principles. Anyone who believes that this is so has never grasped its ideology and spirit, nor its intrinsic integrity. Socialist Zionism made its appearance after Jewish Socialism was established. In other words there were not only socialists from among the Jewish people delegated to convert the masses to Socialism but there was also the Bund, the trade union of Jewish workers organised as a Jewish body from amongst the Jewish people. But the Bund learned its socialism from �the great teachers" and presented it wholemeal to the Jewish worker, without making use of its own intellectual force to analyse how this new kind of world (for reasons of brevity called: the social revolution) would actually operate within the sphere of Jewish life, nor did it have the power to evaluate the particular fate of the Jewish worker linked to the fate of his own people.

Socialist Zionism rose out of a criticism of both existing Zionism and Jewish Socialism. This movement arose because of the realization of a deep contradiction between the Jewish world and the theories of the leading movements: General Zionism (i.e. the Bourgeoisie) and general Socialism in its Jewish aspect (i.e. the Bund). Syrkin saw that General Zionism distinguished for its overblown grandiose style was smugly satisfied with a miserly philanthropy, actually supporting the forces of reaction, incapable of large scale settlement, and not even daring to take it into consideration. It was creating a deep chasm-between the Zionist idea, the idea of deliverance from the Exile and coping with the vital needs of the Jewish masses. Syrkin saw the Bund as some kind of organization for stuffing the Jewish worker with Marxist phrases, lacking a solid basic program for creating an independent culture that could lead to national liberation. It lacked an understanding of the fact that there was no true redemption for the Jewish worker if his people were not delivered from their Exile.

Socialist Zionism began as one of the revolutionary movements of that time. It cracked the whip of its criticism not only over the bourgeoisie and capitalist world, it revolted not only against the autocratic rule of the Tsar, the secret police and agent-provocateurs, it also struck against the accepted dogmas of the socialist world. It dared to think independently and weigh up its own responsibility - a most difficult undertaking. At a time when most of the socialist intellectuals among the Jewish people were satisfied with ready-made ideas, lapped up the Erfurt Programme of the German Social Democratic Party in 1891 and the illegal literature of the Russian Social Democrats, nor dared to question the doctrines of their teachers which they considered sacrosanct - Socialist Zionism probed the validity of the most hallowed doctrines.

Socialist Zionism, just as a scientist baulked by a tiny detail contradicting the whole accepted formula is impelled to re-examine the whole formula, is also impelled to scrutinize these wide generalizations in the light of the "tiny detail" - the harrowing Jewish problem - which was not considered nor resolved within the universal formula. The first generation of Socialist Zionists felt the suffering of the Jewish people. They realized that stock phrases were no complete answer to the question, and the universal panacea no remedy for the unique Jewish malady. From the outset they understood that the main problem was providing work for the Jewish masses, and with piercing insight maintained that the downfall of Russian Tsarism and the granting of "equal rights" and the abolition of the Pale of Settlement, the common aspiration of both the Jewish bourgeoisie and the socialists - would not save the people from their eternal wanderings nor the life of the 'luftmensch'. If there was no future for the Jewish worker in the Exile, there was no future for Socialism-in-Exile. Socialist Zionism sharply and furiously mocked at the paucity of spirit and the shallowness of Jewish Socialism, its cowardly thinking, the open enslavement within the revolution and the brash confidence of the ignorant mingling in Jewish life, as Syrkin described the Bund; or the theoretical "alrightist� type of the Jewish Labour Movement in America, and in its perpetual inner criticism, Socialist Zionism enlarged the scope of its analyses beyond the boundaries of the Jewish world.

At that period, on the threshold of the twentieth century, European Socialism conceived the existence of a placid, idyllic life, and its thinking - confident and optimistic - was established by venerable �disciples" who pursued the ways that had been set for them. The Jewish intellectual enthusiastically accepted everything put out by the apostles of Karl Kautsky and Georgi Plekhanov, in the same way as the provincial city blindly follows the dictates of fashion. Somewhere in Paris, the arbiter of fashion cuts, sews and controls the market. In intellectual life, too, many are bound to this "Paris Couturier" and those who do not follow the intellectual fashion are regarded as being "queer", like somebody from another planet. In those days Socialist Zionism undertook to work intensively. It was as if these �unruly� impudent pupils, Syrkin, Zytlovsky, Borochov, and their colleagues said to the dictators of Socialism: - �If you cannot grasp our problem, this is a sign that there are many other matters which have escaped you." With assimilation -"emancipation in the Exile" - as a point of departure, Socialist Zionist thinking was spurred on to a criticism of the values of actual Socialism. Opinions prevailing on the interpretation of nationalism and the nationalist movements, the agrarian question, the small farmer, cooperation, the migration of peoples, the settlement of lands, the poor grasp of what was exactly involved in the task of the pioneering avant-garde Socialist worker, the lack of orientation towards the obligations of personal commitment - all these issues, even then, engaged and perturbed Zionist Socialist thinking and forced it to charter its own course.

This was the movement in its early days, when it had the power to negotiate the stumbling blocks of life in Exile, and reach the harbour of redemption. Later it crashed on these very obstacles. Many of its standard-bearers and disciples could not muster sufficient strength to sustain them and complete what they had daringly and heroically commenced. They did not have the stamina to pursue their independent, revolutionary ideas, to uphold in actual life the change to values which they had evolved and in the struggle for which they had become united. They became exhausted finally and bowed to the �style of the Paris Couturier�, the controlling dictator and legislator. But this dictator, or dictatorship (depending on whether it is individual or collective) is also vulnerable. He, too, was more than once cast down from the sublime heights to the deep pit below, but this throne never stood vacant. It was always filled by someone else. That is the fate of a "Paris Couturier". As a ruler, he is an absolute despotic infallible sovereign. Who would dare to challenge him? Only a few stubborn people would renounce public acclaim, would turn away from the smoothly constructed highway into the unknown path, and they were the people who laid out the paths that we tread today.

It is doubtful whether our movement in the land of Israel would have acted as it did if not for the daring exploration of Socialist Zionism in its early days. A great spiritual heritage was accumulated in our movement from the time of Moses Hess to the present day. And if this heritage had been bequeathed to our younger generation then it would have saved countless victims.

Hertzberg summarizes the work of Socialist Zionist writer Nahum Syrkin as follows:

SOCIALISM AND NATIONALISM had been combined by the first great Zionist writer, Moses Hess, but his work was forgotten. That such a combination would be made again, when Herzlian Zionism appeared, was inevitable, for socialism was then, in the 1890's, the greatest single influence on the thought of young Jewish intellectuals. Bernard Lazare (for him, see part 8), one of Herzl's earliest associates in France, was immediately impelled to rewrite Hess, without knowing it, but he, too, founded no school of thought and is today almost unremembered. The more obvious soil for such ideas was the misery and ferment of Russian Jewry; Socialist-Zionism, which is to this day the dominant force within the state of Israel, arose in the context of Russian Jewish life, and one of its immediate ancestors is Nahman Syrkin.

He began life in a pious family in Mohilev. By temperament a rebel, he soon fought his way to secular education and entered the local high school. The young Syrkin was soon expelled for objecting to antiSemitic remarks by a teacher, and he finished school in Minsk, where he joined a group of Hibbat Zion and also was involved in the revolutionary underground. After being jailed briefly for these activities, which sealed a personal breach with his family, Syrkin emigrated to London, where supposedly he even acted on the Yiddish stage for a few months. By 1888 he was in Berlin, starving but nonetheless studying at the university and becoming ever more expert in all varieties of contemporary economic thought and socialist theory.

At that time the major schools of learning in both Germany and Switzerland were full of Russian Jewish students like himself, who had come to the more liberal west because they were barred, as Jews, from the Russian universities. Within the milieu of these student circles all the clashing "isms" of the day were hotly debated, and Syrkin was one of the most notable of a whole galaxy of celebrated controversialists. As he was to tell later in reminiscence, it took all the inner certainty and skill in argument he could muster to stand alone, at war with the entire intelligentsia within which he moved, when he first announced his Socialist-Zionism. Syrkin first published his thesis in a pamphlet in 1898, Die Judenfrage und der sozialistische Judenstaat, his debut in print, of which the most important passages are in the text below.

Syrkin had attended the First Zionist Congress the year before and he remained in the organization until 1905, when it was definite that the British offer of Uganda had come to naught. For four years he was a Territorialist (i.e., one who believed that a Jewish state should be founded on any available land, not necessarily in Palestine) and then he returned to Zionism as representative of the newly formed Poale Zion (Workers of Zion) party. Throughout this decade, both as Zionist and as Territorialist, Syrkin was actively writing propaganda and editing journals in Yiddish and Hebrew in support of his views. He moved to the United States in 1907 to continue his career as official of the Labor Zionist movement and as controversialist. Unfortunately his essays are scattered in many periodicals and, despite abortive attempts, they have not yet been adequately collected. Syrkin died in New York in 1924.

Syrkin's socialism was not Marxist but ethical and utopian; it was rooted, like Hess's, in love of humanity and the ideals of biblical prophecy. The newest note in Syrkin, present also in Lazare, was the assertion that Herzl's vision of a state would be realized only by the poor. Herzl's early hopes that the men of wealth within Jewry would be converted to his Jewish nationalism and take the lead in realizing its aims had been denied by Syrkin from the very beginning. He had even less faith that the existing order of western national states would help create a new state for the Jews. Society, both Jewish and general, was, in his view, dominated by the class interests of the bourgeoisie, which ran counter to Jewish nationalism, or even to the French, German, and other nationalisms which the wielders of power professed. Nor could Syrkin have unqualified faith in a socialist new order, because he forecast that even within it the position of the Jew would still be different, for he would still be prey to exclusion as the member of a minority. Hence, the only true bearers of Jewish nationalism were the masses; the only true socialism would have to include a Zionist solution of the Jewish problem.

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