Simon Dubnow

Foundational Jewish historian and non-Zionist nationalist.

Jews today might struggle to understand a Judaism without either Israel or religious practice. But for the better part of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an array of diverse ideologies competed with Zionism and religion. Thinkers strove to create a non-Zionist, secular form of Judaism that eliminated God, Torah, and the Land of Israel as the exclusive bases of Jewish life.  One of the alternative foundations they proposed was History.  One of the most prominent of these thinkers was Simon Dubnow, a seminal Jewish historian and non-Zionist Jewish nationalist.

Rebellion Against Religion

Dubnow was born in 1860 in Belarus. Though he grew up in an observant family, Dubnow began reading literature associated with the Russian Jewish Enlightenment of the mid-19th century. These writings broadened his horizons and inspired him to rebel against religion. He set about teaching himself Russian and tried to acquire a secondary school diploma, which was needed to enter university.

Dubnow embraced a secular, cosmopolitan life. He moved in with his fiancée and rejected a religious wedding. He refused to attend synagogue on Yom Kippur, arguing that he could not pray to a deity he did not believe in, and barely managed to say kaddish at his father’s funeral.

But his allegiance to these values could not be sustained either. In his 20s, in the wake of the pogroms and anti-Jewish legislation of 1881-82, Dubnow lost faith in the doctrine of universal progress. In a climate of intensifying anti-Semitism, he found himself isolated, cut off from both Christian intellectuals and the traditionalist Jewish population.

This crisis catalyzed an ideological revolution. Dubnow became a Jewish nationalist. He came to believe that individuals’ connections to humanity must be mediated by their membership in a national group. As members of a nation, there was no need for Jews to accept the truth of religion. Instead, Dubnow held that the basis of Jewish identity was historical consciousness.

Nationalist Jewish Identity

In his many books, among them the History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, his 10-volume History of the Jews, and a History of Hasidism, Dubnow sought to construct a conception of history which could serve as the basis for a nationalist Jewish identity.

Dubnow was influenced by Heinrich Graetz, the pioneer of modern Jewish historiography. Graetz saw Jewish history as the story of an unfolding spiritual tradition, grounded in rationalism and universal human values. Accordingly, Graetz’s history emphasized the rational aspects of Jewish culture and neglected what he saw as superstitious, primitive or obscurantist, in particular Kabbalah, Hasidism, and the Yiddish-speaking world.  Dubnow initially agreed that the survival of the Jews should be explained in terms of their spiritual essence and that ethical behavior and spiritual achievement were the factors which bound Jews to their national existence and to their past.

Dubnow’s departure from the Graetzian view began with his renewed emphasis on the previously marginalized history of Eastern European Jewry. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Dubnow pioneered a new philosophy of history. His new sociological, as opposed to spiritual, approach held that the basic unit of Jewish history and that the most important manifestation of Jewish nationhood was the autonomous community. Jewish culture and religion, rather than representing the lifeblood of Jewish existence, were merely superstructural expressions of a more fundamental national and social reality.

Yet Dubnow’s sociological approach was not straightforwardly materialist.  Dubnow believed that history could not be summed up in economic terms, but had to be understood in terms of the impact of broader religious, political, and social factors. The historian’s job was to evaluate these factors, judging which served to strengthen communities and bind their members together, and which had the opposite effect, weakening communities and tearing them apart.

Migrating Centers

In line with this sociological view, Dubnow believed that the essence of Jewish history was a story of "migrating centers."  One after another, autonomous Jewish centers arose, thrived, and declined: the Land of Israel, Babylonia, medieval Germany, the Golden Age of Spain. The latest of these centers was the spiritually vibrant, Yiddish-speaking community of Poland and Russia.

Dubnow’s view of Jewish history can best be understood through a concrete example, his analysis of the origins of the Hasidic movement in 18th century Poland. Dubnow wrote that Hasidism emerged as the result of the intersection of two processes–socioeconomic changes in Polish Jewry and an inner spiritual dynamic, deep-rooted in Jewish tradition. How did the two coincide?  Increasing economic hardship led to the breakdown of communal autonomy and created a new spiritual thirst among the Polish Jewish masses. A widening gap between rich and poor created a sense of alienation from the elitist Talmudic tradition.

A spiritual solution emerged in the shape of Hasidism. Dubnow saw this as a new form of Kabbalah that represented a reaction to the trauma caused by the false messianism of Shabbtai Zvi. Despite the fact that Hasidism was individualist and resolutely anti-political, Dubnow judged the movement to have been a socially centripetal force which strengthened the Jewish center in Poland.

Ideology of Autonomism

Although his most important work was historiographical, Dubnow was also an important political and ideological innovator. He worked for the modernization of Jewish education, organized Jewish self-defense groups during the pogroms, and demanded the extension of democratic rights. In 1906 he founded the Folkspartei (Jewish People’s Party) and initiated the ideology of Autonomism.

Autonomism was based on Dubnow’s understanding of history. It held that there are three progressive stages of national evolution: the tribal, the territorial-political, and the cultural-historical-spiritual. The Jews, as the only people who had survived the loss of a homeland, were unique in having reached the most advanced stage of development. This near-miraculous survival was made possible by the existence of a continuous chain of self-governing Jewish communities. Unlike Zionism, which envisioned Jewish nationhood at some point in the future, or assimilationism, which relegated it to the distant past, Autonomism recognized the reality of Jewish nationhood in the present.

As a committed modernizer, Dubnow understood that the path of emancipation had been discredited by the emergence of racial anti-Semitism. The granting of citizenship to individual Jews had not led, as hoped, to integration into a truly cosmopolitan society, but rather to attempts at assimilation into a hostile nation state. Individualism stripped the Jews of their social defenses and had failed to successfully integrate Jews into the modern world.

Instead, Dubnow proposed a program of national-cultural autonomy for the Jews living within the multinational states of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. While relinquishing any claim to territorial sovereignty–the Jews were, after all, dispersed among the Christian population–the Autonomists asserted the Jewish community’s right to manage its own educational, cultural, and religious affairs and, most importantly, to speak their own national language–Yiddish.

Autonomism’s heyday came in the aftermath of World War I. The peace treaties of 1919 recognized the break up of the multinational empires and sanctioned the establishment of new, democratic states whose governments were legally bound to recognize the rights of minority peoples–including the Jews. Yet these hopes were quickly dashed by the growth of anti-Semitism and fascism in Eastern Europe, and ultimately by the Nazi takeover of Germany.

In 1933, Dubnow left Berlin–his home for the previous 11 years –and escaped to Riga, the capital of Latvia. In December, 1941, during a roundup of Latvian Jews, Dubnow was killed by a Gestapo officer. Dubnow’s murder symbolized both the fate of European Jewry and the death of Autonomism as a force in Jewish politics.

Yet even though Autonomism has ceased to exist as a political force, the issues it struggled with have not been resolved. Today’s Jewish world is dominated by two competing centers, the United States with its liberal vision of Jewish individualism and equal rights, and the territorial, nationalist state of Israel. Both have proven themselves flawed in their ability to generate an authentic national-spiritual culture and to guarantee meaningful Jewish continuity. The question of which model best serves the future of the Jews remains on the table, and Dubnow’s idiosyncratic vision of autonomous national life in the Diaspora might provide a starting point for imaginative new possibilities.

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