Jewish Question: A Transformation From Apolitical To Political Action

Jewish Question: A Transformation From Apolitical To Political Action


Zionism, the improbable idea of a state for Jews in their biblical homeland has held world’s attention for a century and a half. Zionism has given birth to competing visions, conflicting dreams and has aroused strong criticism. Yet today, it’s very legitimacy is more in question than ever before. But, behind this political drama is the idea itself. Zionism as an idea was formulated by those who were dealing with an apolitical existential problem, which they called the Jewish Question.

By the 19th century, half of the world’s Jewish population, some five million Jews, were living within the legal confines of Russian Empire’s ‘Pale of Settlements’. It was an existence apart; neither completely accepting of nor accepted by the outside World. For centuries, Jewish identity and life were held fast by the religious law. But it was in the 19th century that enlightenment came to the Russian Pale shattering the Jewish way of life. For growing number of Jews, secular ideas replaced religious values and centuries of tradition began to collapse and with it the very idea of Jewish identity. In many countries of Europe, Jews had achieved equal rights and hopes of emancipation were high. If assimilated, Jews would finally get acceptance and a new better life in Russian society.

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But this hope of answering the Jewish question through assimilation was short-lived, at least in Eastern Europe. In 1881, first pogroms took place in Russian Pale and the hate that was under the surface manifested itself. Hundreds were killed, thousands of Jews lost their homes and as Hillel Halkin, writer and literary critic, described “pogroms produced a sudden realization in Jews that assimilation has failed and this is not a country for us.” But, responses to these pogroms varied greatly across the Jewish community; some two million Jews migrated towards western Europe and further west to the United States and Latin America, many took to the revolutionary path, finding answers in works of Marx and other scholars, and only a small minority dreamt of a Jewish homeland. So, it was in 1882 that first large group of Jews left Eastern Europe for territories that were soon to become mandated territories of British Palestine.

A tractate that made a tremendous impression on the Jews in Russia was ‘Auto emancipation’ written by Leon Pinsker. Pinsker came up with the theme of the shadowy character of Jews; the ghost-like character of Jews among the Gentiles. He drew upon the separate, quite distinctive existence of Jews in East European society. As Leon Pinsker described “Among the living nations of the earth, the Jews are, as a nation, long since dead. The world saw in this people the uncanny form of one of the dead walking among the living… they must become a nation.” The idea of Jews as a people had its roots in Bible and for centuries Jews had existed as one among many people in multinational Empires of Europe. Jews had been discriminated against, they were confined to ghettos and excluded from many key professions. Over the 18th and 19th century, a change had taken place and many Jews for the first were moving up the social ladder in these multiethnic Empires. But now these empires, especially in eastern Europe, were dying and new political boundaries were emerging along the lines of singular cultural identities. In this new world, they were not identified as Russian, Poles or Czechs but as Jews.

The start of this new post-Christian era was characterized by assimilation and socioeconomic mobility for Jews, particularly in Western Europe. In Austria and Germany, this assimilation has gone too far. In some cities, especially Berlin, Vienna and Munich, every 1 out of the 4 marriages involving a Jew was a mixed marriage. But in this new world, the Jewish question has changed its character and now it was a racial question. With the adoption of scientific racism, voices of antisemitism were making their way into the mainstream. In The Jewish Question as a Question of Races, Customs and Culture (1881), the Berlin philosopher and economist, Eugen Duhring lamented the ‘implanting of the character traits of the Jewish race’ and called for a prohibition on mixed marriages to preserve the purity of German blood. Works such as Theodor Fritsch’s Anti-Semitic Catechism (1897), Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899) started appearing.

These works had a strong effect on the western European Jewry, which until that time was not connected to the East European Jewish community and its quest for an urgent solution. This new disappointment and change in attitudes were recorded by Theodor Herzl, ‘many of us believed that things could not become worse but things have become worse. Like a flood tide, misery has swept Jewry… because they are Jews.’ From this point on, the debate shifted from the desirability of the Zionist project to finding real-world possibilities for the success of the Zionist project. A new generation led by Theodor Herzl, from the more assimilated Jewish community of western Europe, took the Zionist project into their hands and a sustained political action began to realize a dream which was essentially apolitical.

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Usman Sarwar Muhammad





Shehryar Ejaz

Shehryar Ejaz

Shehryar serves as the Editor In Chief of The Daily 360. He is currently pursuing his undergraduate from Lahore University of Management Sciences. Twitter: @sheryejaz

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