Rescuing the Memory of a Dynamic and Visionary Figure

Kalman Weiser on Jess Olson’s Nathan Birnbaum and Jewish Modernity

Jess Olson, Nathan Birnbaum and Jewish Modernity: Architect of Zionism, Yiddishism, and Orthodoxy, Stanford University Press, 2013, 408 pp., $65
Jess Olson, Nathan Birnbaum and Jewish Modernity: Architect of Zionism, Yiddishism, and Orthodoxy, Stanford University Press, 2013, 408 pp., $65

It is one of the ironies of history that the man who coined the term “Zionism” is scarcely and, for the most part, uncharitably remembered in the historiography of the Zionist movement. Nathan Birnbaum (1864-1937) lived much of his life in penury and died in relative obscurity. Yet he was, as Jess Olson’s erudite study persuasively argues, an innovative and prescient thinker who was taken seriously by men who are now canonical figures of modern Jewish political history.

During a peripatetic career spanning more than six decades, Birnbaum championed a spectrum of radically opposed movements – rival forms of secular Jewish nationalism as well as fervent Orthodoxy. His transformations exemplify European Jews’ major responses, both as a collective and as individuals, to the challenges posed to Jewish identity and security by the post-Enlightenment world of mass politicization, emancipation, capitalism, and the general erosion of tradition.

Relying largely on Birnbaum’s copious publications and the archival collection preserved by his descendants in Toronto, Olson expertly traces his remarkable trajectory across continents and intellectual movements, from a leading figure and theoretician of the Zionist movement in the late nineteenth century; to an architect of Yiddish-based, national cultural autonomy for eastern European Jewry prior to World War I; to the General Secretary of the fervently anti-secular, anti-Zionist Agudath Israel party; and, finally, to an Orthodox critic of all these movements in his final years. Why then is such a dynamic and frequently visionary figure, whose intellectual peregrinations anticipated the dominant ideational forces at play in the contemporary state of Israel, in need of rescue from the dustbin of history?

The reasons, Olson explains, have little to do with his ideological conflicts or personal frictions with Theodor Herzl, Israel’s founding father. Nor does blame lie with Birnbaum’s penchant for outgrowing movements whose leadership he had so quickly assumed thanks to his well-honed journalistic writing, speaking abilities, and personal charisma. Rather, the chief culprit was his turn to Orthodoxy as he approached the age of fifty. In recent decades, the phenomenon of becoming a ba’al-tshuva, a “returnee” to Orthodox Jewish observance, has become increasingly common – one of many choices available to the individual in a liberal, post-traditional society. In a time, however, when it was far more common for European Jews to abandon Orthodoxy either in support of cultural integration into gentile society or in pursuit of some distinctly Jewish form of political or cultural nationalism, Birnbaum was one of a small number of prominent intellectuals who seemed to be swimming against the tide of history. His ostentatious rejection of his prior secular convictions and donning of Hasidic garb struck many of his erstwhile admirers and opponents as nothing less than bizarre.

In choosing Birnbaum as his subject, Olson reflects some of the more recent trends in Jewish historiography both in North America, where a wave of recent scholarship examines non-Zionist models of nationalism in the Jewish diaspora, and in Israel, where Orthodoxy is being explored like nationalism and assimilation. Although historians have long ignored Orthodoxy as a dark force of the pre-modern era, it is now recognized as precisely one of “a string of quintessentially modern ideologies” fully active in the political arena. Instead of viewing each of Birnbaum’s intellectual transformations as distinct and transitory phases marked by the radical renunciation of former ideals, Olson detects an underlying continuity and coherence. Each phase was marked by the search for Jewish cultural authenticity as well as for a salvific role, whether construed in secular or religious terms, for the Jewish people in a larger human drama.

Born in mid-nineteenth century Vienna to migrants from Galicia, an impoverished province on the Austro-Hungarian empire’s eastern periphery, Birnbaum rejected from an early age the path of bourgeois integration and cultural assimilation that was the norm among the city’s sizeable Jewish population. Drawing inspiration from the biblical Maccabees’ revolt against Hellenization in ancient Israel, he decried assimilation as an unrealizable and tragic-comic pursuit. Such efforts were rendered counterproductive by the mounting presence of antisemitism in European society that saw in Jews’ “aping” of gentile ways confirmation of the worthlessness of Jewish culture and character. In the 1880s, the idea that the Jews constituted a nation rather than a purely religious community was rejected by liberals, including most westernized Jews, not only as a wildly mistaken notion but also as an offense to the Habsburg Monarchy, which had emancipated its Jews and treated them with benevolence in comparison with neighbouring Russia. Undeterred, Birnbaum campaigned in print and the press from his days as student to awaken national consciousness among Jews, to revive Hebrew as a vernacular, and to urge agricultural settlement in Ottoman Palestine as a means to effect Jewish cultural, economic, and physical regeneration.

For all his brash rejection of the Viennese Jewish establishment, Birnbaum nonetheless shared many of the assumptions and proclivities of those whom he so vigorously denounced, as Olson aptly points out. These included great disdain for Yiddish, then commonly viewed by German-speaking Jews as a hideous deformation of German and a sign of a lack of culture, and paternalistic attitudes toward its impoverished and often persecuted speakers.  He saw the so-called Ostjuden – the millions of Jews dwelling in the empire’s eastern provinces and the Russia empire – as needy candidates for western Jewish charity and political leadership, passive masses waiting to be awakened to nationalist consciousness. Birnbaum’s attitude toward eastern European Jewry and its vernacular began to change, however, as a result of his political activity in Galicia. There, to his surprise, he encountered a Jewry far more politically sophisticated than he had anticipated and in possession of a unique and all-encompassing culture for which he began to express admiration.

By the mid-1890s, when Herzl, a newcomer to the Jewish political scene, had seized the reigns of the Zionist movement virtually overnight, Birnbaum had already begun an intellectual migration. It would lead him away from a monolithic Zionist understanding that deemed two thousand years of diasporic living as physically, morally, and culturally deforming. In its place, he would adopt a conception that simultaneously championed Jewish national rights and culture, including language, in the diaspora and recognized the value of Jewish settlement in Palestine. This reappraisal culminated in Birnbaum’s campaign for a seat in the imperial parliament of Austria-Hungary in the 1907 elections as a Jewish national candidate in Galicia. He formed an unprecedented tactical alliance with Ukrainian nationalists and lost only because of the chicanery of a local Polish political establishment intent on maintaining its dominance in this ethnically diverse province. Having mastered Yiddish in his 40s, he convened the First (and only) Yiddish Language Conference in 1908 in the neighbouring province of Bukovina. The event resulted in the proclamation that Yiddish was a national language of the Jewish people. It otherwise failed to achieve any of the practical goals on its agenda (such as spelling reform), largely due to the obstructionist tactics of Jewish socialists disinclined to cooperate with bourgeois nationalists.

Disappointed in his attempts at mass political organization, Birnbaum increasingly moved from external agitation to internal contemplation. Around this time he underwent a spiritual awakening that culminated, by World War I, in his return to Orthodox practice and the utter rejection of what he condemned as rationalist materialism that denied the reality of a higher power. In one of the most fascinating sections in the book, Olson describes how Birnbaum was guided on this path by a disaffected young man, the scion of a prominent Hasidic family who tested the depth of Birnbaum’s religious commitment and coached him in the particularities of observance. He detected in Birnbaum a prophetic voice to lead the spiritual rejuvenation of religious circles that he judged both all too worldly and excessively insular. This relationship facilitated Birnbaum’s entry into the Orthodox political party Agudath Israel, the first truly international Orthodox political organization, which heralded Birnbaum’s religious “return” as evidence of the bankruptcy of Zionism and the secular worldview in general. But, in time, Birnbaum came to critique Orthodoxy as more concerned with ritual observance shielding itself from the contamination of the secular world than with taking practical steps to alleviate poverty among religious Jews and striving for the highest levels of holiness with the goal of hastening messianic redemption.

In his final years, Birnbaum made appearances as a lecturer in the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig’s intellectual Lehrhaus, to the chagrin of Orthodox leaders, and embraced a romantic vision not so different from that of his Zionist youth. The renewal of the Jewish people should be initiated by the settlement of a spiritual elite in Palestine that would engage chiefly in agriculture. The difference, of course, lay in his final emphasis on religion, not race or culture, as the source of Jewish uniqueness and as the sine qua non of Jewish collective existence.

His ultimate wish in the 1930s was for the creation of a religious Jewish state as a haven for Jewish life and values in a time of increasing spiritual and physical danger to the Jewish people. (For him, the soul-destroying Soviets and the specter of socialist revolution were the main threat, whereas the pagan Nazis with their crude antisemitic slogans and thuggery were much a repetition of centuries of primitive Jew-hatred. Sadly, much of his family, including one of his beloved sons, died at the hands of the latter.) But he would not allow the purity of his ideal to be compromised by pragmatic cooperation with secularists, as some religious Jews argued was necessary. Nor could he envision mass Jewish immigration to Mandate Palestine given the volatility and challenges of life there, among them Arab opposition – to which, he maintained, both Zionists and Agudath Israel had turned a blind eye.

Olson’s vivid portrait of Birnbaum introduces the reader to a man who not only proposed utopian solutions borne of deep pessimism but also laboured feverishly, to his material and physical detriment, to implement innovative and at times radical strategies to realize them. His constant intellectual evolution and manifold political and cultural commitments challenge any simplistic conception of the fixedness of ideology in the lives of historical figures. Finally, his life and work presage the intricate entwining of religion, nationalism, and politics not only in contemporary Israel, where the debate over the role of religion in the state and the place of non-Jews in a majority Jewish society continue to arouse passions, but also in an increasingly polarized Jewish diaspora as well.