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The rise and the fall of Jewish identities; Jews-As-Nationality: The Real Reason for Jewish Resistance to Assimilation

jan peczkis|Thursday, July 28, 2016

This work focuses on prominent Yiddishist thinkers, from about 1900 until after WWII, and their understanding of what it meant to be Jewish, how Jews should "modernize", and related topics. Owing to the breadth of the information presented, I focus on a few themes, and devote my emphasis to the impact of Yiddishist thinking on Polish-Jewish relations

Jews-As-Nationality: The Real Reason for Jewish Resistance to Assimilation By Jan Peczkis on October 31, 2014

Jewish counter-assimilation, and maintenance of Jewish particularism and separatism, are usually blamed on the persistence of anti-Semitism, the denial of equality and full acceptance to Jews, and to a strongly Christian-majoritarian atmosphere. According to this kind of thinking, assimilation can only proceed in a pluralistic, western-style secular state, with its unambiguous separation of church and state and its equality of all citizens.

Ironic to this line of reasoning (or exculpation), the Jewish separatists actually FEARED the very equality offered by western-style democracies--precisely because it would lead to assimilation! What the Jewish separatists wanted was special national rights for Jews. Thus, Karlip comments, (quote) Following their expressions of euphoria, Diaspora nationalists and Yiddishists began to articulate their vision of the future of a liberated Russian Jewry. Like all other Jewish nationalists, [Elias] Tcherikower warned that civic emancipation in the absence of national rights would lead to West European-style assimilation. He reminded his readers that Russian Jewry had won negative freedom--namely, the freedom from oppression--but had yet to win its positive freedom, which meant national rights and the creation of national institutions. (unquote). (p. 135).

To the Yiddishists, Jewish emancipation and assimilation were inherently unacceptable because they were gutting the very essence of being Jewish, (quote) In this article, he [Zelig Hirsh Kalmanovitch] argued that assimilation resulted from the historical process of modernity itself. In the Middle Ages, he argued, Jewish individuals had lived as members of the Jewish community. Capitalism, however, had granted these individuals the opportunity to seek their fortunes in non-Jewish society. (unquote). (p. 199). In addition, (quote) Emancipation had led to a selfish individualism that condemned all experiments at secular Jewish identity to failure. (unquote). (p. 178).

Other Yiddishists went further. They believed in a form of Jewish essentialism that made Jews unassimilable in the first place, (quote) More viscerally, [Yisroel] Efroikin argued that Jewish national distinctiveness rendered assimilation futile. At times, Efroikin's integral nationalist conception of Jewish identity drifted into a racialist conception of Jewish distinctiveness. Invoking the historian Cecil Roth, Efroikin described how Marranos in Spain and Portugal retained a separate identity even five hundred years after their conversions. (unquote). (p. 257).


The vast majority of the Jews living in the Pale, in tsarist Russia, were descendants of Jews that had been welcomed in pre-Partition Poland when other nations had persecuted them. Evidently, this Polish favor to the Jews had by now been all but forgotten. Karlip writes, (Quote) As this last shred of hope gave way to sober reality, Efroikin also mourned the breakup of Russia into independent successor states as spelling the death of a unified Russian Jewry. From the late eighteenth century until World War I, Lithuanian, Polish, and Ukrainian Jews had comprised a united Russian Jewry that experienced modernization together through such movements and processes as Haskalah, Zionism, and the rise of Yiddish culture. Now, however, Russian Jews would face the future as minorities in emerging nation-states...Although the successor states might guarantee personal emancipation and national autonomy, he argued, the small size of these fragmented Jewish communities would preclude autonomy's implementation. The peasant nationalities that would lead most of these successor states, moreover, would force the Jews from their traditional economic role in commerce and industry. Echoing the Yiddishist call for a synthesis between Jewish and European cultures, Efroikin feared that the low cultural level of these peasant nationalities would negatively affect the development of secular Yiddish culture. (unquote). (pp. 146-147).

In other words, Yiddishist-oriented Jews were against an undoing of the Partitions of Poland, and resurrection of the Polish state, because this would geographically divide the Jews and thus dilute their political power. A new Polish state could also cause the diminution or loss of centuries-old Jewish economic privileges. Finally, Slavic culture was unworthy of the Jews.


Although Karlip does not put it in these terms, he realizes the inordinate political power that Jews had acquired, owing to tsarist Russian policies, before 1912. He remarks, (quote) When the tsarist authorities promised municipal self-government to the cities of Congress Poland, the Kola joined forces with the tsarist regime in seeking to restrict Jewish representation in cities where Jews constituted a majority. Tension reached fever pitch when Poles and Jews fought over whom to send to the fourth Duma as a representative from Warsaw. Because Stolypin's limited franchise favored property owners, the majority of Warsaw voters for the fourth Duma were Jewish. (unquote). (p. 74). [This greatly hindered Polish national aspirations, which hinged upon representation in the Duma. Furthermore, it functionally and artificially made the Poles a minority in their own (Russian-occupied) capital city!]

Both the Poles' disenfranchisement and the inordinate political power of the Jews became even more objectionable to Poles because of the refusal of these Jews to even nominally support Poland's liberation as a free nation after more than a century of post-Partition foreign rule. Karlip quips, (quote) Complicating matters further was the fact that Diaspora nationalists, as opponents of territorial nationalism, envisioned the future of Poland as part of a reformed Russian state, not as an independent country of its own. This issue deeply divided Jewish socialist and liberal nationalists from their Polish counterparts. (unquote). (p. 75).

Author Karlip realizes that support for the Dmowski-led boycott of the Jews went far beyond Endek and Endek-sympathetic circles. It included many Polish liberals and progressives. (p. 74, 75).


In 1936, Polish cardinal August Hlond made a much-condemned statement about "Jews as freethinkers, vanguards of Bolshevism, and a threat to morals", etc. Although author Karlip does not mention Hlond, he makes it easy for the reader to see where Hlond was coming from.

Leading Yiddishist thinker Elias Tcherikower effectively corroborated Hlond, writing the following in 1939, in the context of an anti-assimilationist mindset (quote) "The tragedy of our generation does not consist of afflictions that have befallen our lot, but rather in that the generation has lost the old beliefs and has despaired of the new. Through and through individualistic, skeptical, and rationalistic, our generation is devoured by assimilation--right or left--and has lost its past strength." (unquote). (p. 13).

Furthermore, according to Tcherikower, the abandonment of religion by the Jewish masses had become so pervasive and so irreversible that there could be no return to Jewish religion as the foundation of Jewish self-identity. This was even in the face of the growing disillusionment with the Yiddish language and Jews-as-nationality as modern forms of Jewish self-identity. (p. 207).

After WWII, Efroikin adopted a friendlier attitude to religion, and came to believe that, (quote) The Jewish rejection of God had led not only to national disintegration but also to moral degradation. (unquote). (p. 311). Shades of Cardinal Hlond!

In fact, Efroikin went even further. Nowadays, the Nazi-collaborating conduct of the Judenrate and Jewish ghetto police are usually framed solely in terms of powerless, desperate Jews trying to save their own lives. In contrast, (quote) Efroikin contrasted what he deemed the immoral and opportunistic behavior of the acculturated Jews of the JUDENRATE and Jewish police with the much more exemplary behavior of those Jews who had remained loyal to the religious tradition. (unquote). (p. 311).


It is not easy to gauge to what extent the Yiddishist movement was steeped in Communism. This owes to an array of amorphous labels, euphemisms, and semantics ("socialism", "Marxism", "class struggle", etc.), with unclear substantive differences (if any) from Communist ideology and tactics.

Tcherikower had been a Menshevist (p. 2, 91), and the Menshevists are identified by Karlip as "orthodox Marxists". (p. 140). Chaim Zhitlovsky and Yisroel Efroikin were Seymists (p. 64), and the Seymists were defined by Karlip as a Jewish socialist party that was pursuing a "strident Marxism". (p. 31). Efroikin and Kalmanovitch practiced "revolutionary socialism" (p. 91), which, semantics aside, is little different from Communism.

During and after the Russian Revolution, the Yiddishists evaluated the Communist takeover largely in terms of its promotion of Jews as a nationality. For example, Tcherikower broke with Lenin, at the Second International in 1916, probably because the latter was hostile to Jewish nationalism. (p. 114). In time, Tcherikower came to hate the Soviet Union because it had denationalized Yiddish culture. (p. 215).

On the other hand, other Yiddishists maintained an undisguised pro-Communist mindset, as illustrated by the following quotes:

(quote)...the Yiddish literati, who professed allegiance to the Soviet regime as soon as it established its power in Kiev in 1919. (unquote). (p. 170). (quote)...the political parties that represented the Jewish working class drew closer and then merged with the Communists... (unquote). (p. 172). (quote) The socialist nationalist Russian Jewish intelligentsia, however, remained so invested in the events of 1917 that they refused to allow the messianic fervor to die even as reality often contradicted their dreams. (unquote). (p. 173). (quote) As we have seen, many members of the Bund and the Fareynikte initially remained optimistic that the Soviet regime would support their vision of the creation of a new proletariat, but still thoroughly national, Jewish identity. By joining the Evsektsiia, some of these intellectuals hoped to realize their dream of the transformation of the Jewish people into a secular, proletariat, Yiddish nation through the decrees of the Soviet state. (unquote). (p. 174).

Finally, during the latter stages of WWII, Efroikin effectively fell in love with the USSR. (p. 249, 263).


Jewish antagonism towards Jesus Christ is usually understood in terms of the Talmud and the attitudes of religious Jews. However, secular Yiddishist thinker Zelig Hirsh Kalmanovitch, writing in 1920, actively juxtaposed traditional Jewish motifs against Jesus Christ with his antagonism to certain political opponents. He wrote, (quote) "...those we were accustomed to see as virtually paragons of virtue now seem in my eyes as though they were bathed in the lake of Hell in which `that man' [Jesus of Nazareth] was condemned. [The smell] carries, it seems to me, for a mile." (unquote). (p. 170). (Brackets are Karlip's).


Fantasies of great Jewish power, at the international level, were made infamous by conspiracy theories, and such things as the PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION, the ideas of Henry Ford, and the ideology of the Nazis. Interestingly, some prominent Yiddishist Jews also entertained fantasies of great Jewish power at the international level. Thus, author Karlip describes what he calls the "grandiose scheme" (p. 147) of leading Yiddishist Yisroel Efroikin, (quote) The breakup of the Russian Empire, he argued, demanded the creation of an international Jewish World Association run by a KLAL YISROEL V'A'AD (Jewish People's Assembly). The American, Russian, Polish, and other Jewish congresses would elect representatives to this parliamentary body. This international assembly, funded from taxes on the international Jewish community, would help to regulate Jewish community emigration and to establish Jewish cultural institutions. Most importantly, however, the KLAL YISROEL V'A'AD would achieve legal recognition as the official representative of the Jewish nation and would lead the battle for the implementation of Jewish national rights throughout the world. (unquote). (p. 147).
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