Courtesy YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York
Back row, L-R: Baal -Makhshoves (Isadore Eliashiv), Elias Tcherikower, Nokhem Shtif, Zelig Kalmanovitch, Dovid Bergelson, and Volf Latski-BertoldiCourtesy YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York
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The Flight From Jewish Peoplehood

From the Soviet Yiddishists of the 1920s to the American Jewish Studies Departments of today, blaming Jews for antisemitism doesn’t end well

Joshua M. Karlip
June 17, 2021
Courtesy YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York
Back row, L-R: Baal -Makhshoves (Isadore Eliashiv), Elias Tcherikower, Nokhem Shtif, Zelig Kalmanovitch, Dovid Bergelson, and Volf Latski-BertoldiCourtesy YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York

During the interwar era, Zelig Hirsch Kalmanovitch (1885-1944)—Yiddishist, Diaspora Nationalist, public intellectual, philologist, and co-director of the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO) in Vilna—watched with consternation as one colleague after another moved to the Soviet Union to build its official proletarian Yiddish culture. Having briefly lived under Soviet rule during the Russian Civil War, he experienced firsthand how Jewish Communists suppressed all forms of Jewish culture that did not jibe with their internationalist vision. Concluding that the Soviets had “destroyed the Jewish soul more than all of the pogroms,” Kalmanovitch wrote to his fellow Yiddishist scholar Shmuel Niger that he abhorred “the whoredom of conscience” that compelled those who had once been paragons of Yiddish culture to praise the Soviet Communists and the ersatz Jewish culture they promoted.

With this disgust for Soviet Yiddishists and their fellow travelers, Kalmanovitch smuggled himself out of the Soviet Union to forge a Yiddish culture unfettered by governmental or political constraints. But, from the beginning, he feared that the long arm of Moscow would ultimately reach Yiddish culture everywhere, snuffing out its independent spirit and transforming it into a caricature of its former self. His despair only increased when prominent Yiddish writers and scholars returned to the Soviet Union in the 1920s in search of material support. He felt a particularly strong sense of personal betrayal when, in 1926, his friend and fellow Yiddishist Nokhem Shtif (1879-1933) left Berlin for Kiev to assume the chair for Jewish Culture at the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences. There, Shtif joined in the battle to expunge the Hebraic component from Yiddish, referring to its “military occupation” of an otherwise secular language.

Over the past several weeks, I have thought quite a bit about Kalmanovitch’s feelings of betrayal and foreboding as one Jewish Studies colleague after another has added his or her voice to the anti-Israel chorus present in academia today. Colleagues at secular universities report to me the enormous pressure exerted on them by their departments to sign anti-Israel proclamations. Many do so, fearing for their careers.

One major difference exists, however, between Shtif in the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences in 1929 and Jewish Studies professors on U.S. university campuses in 2021. Captive in a one-party state, Shtif had little choice but to translate its orthodoxies regarding the original sins of religion and nationalism into his Yiddish scholarship. In contrast, American Jewish scholars are free not to sign statements calling for the end of Israel. That many are signing these statements anyway reveals either their cowardice or, in many cases, their conviction in the rightness of their cause. History suggests that both motivations are likely to lead to the same dismal result.

Shtif’s push to purge Yiddish of its Hebraic roots served as the linguistic corollary of the Evsektsiia’s war against Judaism and Zionism, in which the Communist party’s “Jewish section” closed down thousands of synagogues, Jewish schools, cultural institutions, and Hebrew printing presses. By getting ahead of the Soviet government, the Evsektsiia hoped to deflect the regime’s hatred of Jewish collective identity onto the religiously observant and the Zionists. Yet it was inevitable that the same regime that had empowered the Evsektsiia and the Soviet Yiddishist elite to destroy Judaism and Zionism then turned on them. Shtif, in fact, was one of the few Yiddish writers and scholars who willingly settled in the Soviet Union to die a natural death. Almost all the others perished in the Stalinist purges of 1936-1937 and 1948-1953, accused by the Soviet government of the same national chauvinism that they had zealously pursued in other Jews.

A century ago, a combination of an aversion to Jewish peoplehood and the naïve belief that Jews possess the power to end antisemitism through a disavowal of the Jewish collective compelled some of the leading Yiddishists to sign a national suicide note in the Soviet Union. Nearly 100 years later, these same motivations have led many Jewish Studies scholars to attempt a similar move to channel progressive political passions in what they understand to be a salutary direction here in the United States: They blame Israel for the intensification of hatred against it while embarking on a radical de-Judaization of their own academic discipline. As an example of this trend, I recall how I invited a colleague to Yeshiva University several years ago to discuss his work regarding the origins of Jewish nationalism. When presenting a reigning academic approach that understands nationalism as a modern invention of intellectual elites and the press, he conceded half-heartedly that the Jews might have historically constituted a “group” with a prior history going back to antiquity—yet he still insisted that Jewish nationhood must be a recent and, by inference, illegitimate construction. So much for the Jewish component of Jewish history.

Recently, I participated in a conference panel that sought to evaluate the transformation of the discipline of Jewish history over the past 20 years. When another panelist noted the recent rise in historical studies of anti-Jewish violence, I offered the seemingly innocuous explanation that the past 20 years have seen a resurgence of violence directed against Jews in the forms of the Second Intifada in Israel and, more recently, of murders and physical assaults against Jews in the United States. A senior colleague in the audience took great offense at my observation, dismissing it as “exceedingly Jewishly oriented.” Antisemitic rhetoric in the United States, she lectured me, is not primarily directed against Jews but rather is a tool used by white nationalists to attack African Americans and other minorities. If I were serious about my fears of antisemitism, she concluded, I would openly ally myself with Black Lives Matter. My response that white nationalists hate both African Americans and Jews—and that antisemitic violence has come as often from the far left as from the far right—fell on deaf ears.

Is it surprising that the same colleague who attacked me as “exceedingly Jewishly oriented” argued for a de-parochialization of Jewish Studies that would dispense with the prerequisite of knowledge of Hebrew and other Jewish languages in an effort to attract non-Jews to the field? These two cases are examples of the twin paradigms discussed above: The reticence of one colleague to label the Jews as a “group,“ let alone as a “nation,“ demonstrates a discomfort with Jewish collective identity. My other colleague’s insistence that the Jews’ joining of the progressive left will solve antisemitism is an example of the belief that Jews can eliminate the hatred leveled against them by becoming model universalist citizens. The historical record tells us that both these approaches will prove toxic to the people who pursue them as well as to the historical Jewish collective that they target and disown.

Yet the pull of anti-collective ideas in Jewish academia has only grown more powerful, even as freshly minted collectivities are programmatically and militantly embraced—often by the same Jewish Studies scholars. When, five years ago, two prominent American Jewish historians wrote an opinion piece declaring Zionism and the State of Israel an unjust, colonial endeavor of oppression, another leading historian of the American Jewish experience, Jonathan Sarna, criticized these scholars for regurgitating simplistic propaganda against Israel. Luckily, concluded Sarna, these two Jewish Studies scholars were outliers.

Shockingly and depressingly, Sarna has been proven wrong. Five years later, more and more Jewish Studies professors have adopted these “outlier” views as their baseline narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel, to them, is a throwback “colonialist” state that must dismantle its systemic “Jewish supremacy” to achieve justice and equality for Palestinians, whose own national collectivity is not only somehow more legitimate within the frame of Jewish Studies, but also the proper focus of the political energies of Jewish Studies professors, and proof of the legitimacy of their own position within academia.

Yet the narrow self-interest of Jewish scholars making their way within a hostile academic landscape that has grown increasingly intolerant of any whiff of dissent from progressive shibboleths only partly explains the growing allergy of American Jewish scholars to Klal-Yisroel. Here, too, Kalmanovitch provides some useful insight. In April 1939, the journal Oyfn Sheydveg [At the Crossroads], edited by Elias Tcherikower and Yisroel Efroikin, appeared in Paris. In his prescient essay for this journal, titled “Under the Hammer of History,” Kalmanovitch conceived of all of European Jewry as poised between two hammer-blows of history: The first was that of capitalism and the French Revolution, which inaugurated Jewish emancipation. The second was the rise of Nazism that symbolized that process’s reversal.

A tragic contradiction had emerged between the good of the Jewish individual and the good of the collective, Kalmanovitch explained. Both the wealthy and proletariat ran away from Klal-Yisroel, viewing it as an impediment to their individual success. Moreover, they rejected the idea of a Jewish homeland because they feared that it would serve as a lightning rod for antisemitic conspiracies about world domination. The Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, functioned as the ideology behind these processes, which exhorted Jews to transform themselves into useful members of general society and abandon their adherence to any notion of a Jewish collective. In the famous words of the French champion of Jewish equality, Clermont-Tonnerre, as he addressed the French National Assembly on December 23, 1789, “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to the Jews as individuals.” Nor was this dynamic confined to France: One of the first major Reform congregations in Germany, the Hamburg Temple altered the prayer service by removing mention of Jewish chosenness, of prayers for a return to Zion, and other manifestations of Jewish nationhood.

Socialism persisted in the enlightenment demand for Jewish national dismemberment in exchange for social equality. Vladimir Lenin, one of the most influential leaders of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) and later the father of the Bolshevik Revolution, denied the existence of a Jewish nation altogether, defining the Jews as a “caste” held together by the experience of persecution. He therefore strongly opposed the existence of a separate Jewish workers’ party in the form of the Bund (the General Jewish Workers’ Alliance in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia). As much as the Bundists sought to prove their Marxist credentials by denying the existence of a Klal-Yisroel that transcended class lines and by opposing Zionism, the leaders of the RSDLP dismissed them as chauvinist nationalists. When Lenin rose to power a little more than a decade later, his now ruling party, the Bolsheviks, settled its old score by liquidating the Bund.

Although Lenin opposed antisemitic violence, it is notable that he programmatically denied to the Jews what he granted to almost every other ethnic group: belonging to a national community. His creation of a Commissariat of Jewish Affairs and a Jewish section of the Communist party was a tactical, not an ideological, about-face. As such, official Soviet Yiddish culture was destined to be transitory.

The corollary of the enlightenment and the Leninist quid pro quo was clear: If emancipation failed to eradicate antisemitism, then the fault lay with the Jews, who must have failed to fulfill their end of the bargain and must therefore be repeatedly purified of their national particularity until other people stop hating them. All proponents of the Haskalah (maskilim) from those in late 18th-century Germany to those in mid-19th-century Russia took it as a given that European Jews could eliminate the hatred directed against them by abandoning the moral degeneracy and cultural backwardness that had emerged as a natural consequence of their clannishness.

The maskilic ethos of looking to the Jews to eliminate antisemitism was so deeply ingrained in the Jewish political imagination that it even penetrated into Zionist ideology. In his “Auto-Emancipation,” Leon Pinsker (1821-1891) forcefully argued that the Jews had to cease waiting for the non-Jewish world to emancipate them and instead nationally emancipate themselves. A physician, Pinsker famously diagnosed antisemitism as a fear of ghosts, stemming from the Jews’ existence as a disembodied, spiritual nation. He also offered the grim prognosis that this disease proved incurable. However, despite our expectation that Pinsker would repudiate the belief in the Jews’ ability to eradicate anti-Jewish hatred, he revived it in a different form. The Jewish attainment of territorial sovereignty, he insisted, would eliminate the Jew-hatred by returning the Jews to the family of physically living nations.

Ruth Wisse has pointed out what Pinsker and subsequent Zionist thinkers failed to grasp: that Jews cannot eliminate antisemitic hatred since it stems from their enemies’ own psychological and political calculations. Far from eradicating antisemitism, the Jewish state, as the political embodiment of the Jewish national collective, became the cynosure of all hatred directed against the Jews.

In “Under the Hammer of History,” Kalmanovitch recognized the limits of Jewish ideologies of regeneration such as the Haskalah to eliminate antisemitism:

Only one point of the Haskalah program has not been fulfilled, precisely the one that did not depend on Jews: that when Jews were put on an equal footing with everyone else, the world would stop hating them. To the extent that they believed this to be true, the maskilim were deceiving themselves; they judged the world too optimistically. But to the extent that it involved Jews, the maskilim carried out their Haskalah program to the fullest. Let us hope that by the 100th anniversary of Pinsker’s “Auto-Emancipation,” we will have progressed as far with the national movement as we had with the Haskalah movement by the 100th anniversary of “Te’udah be-Yisrael.”

Here, Kalmanovitch was expressing his hope that by 1982, the Zionist movement would fulfill Pinsker’s vision to the same extent that East European Jewry in 1928 had fulfilled the maskilic program articulated by the leading Russian maskil, Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon, in his 1828 tract, “Te’udah be-Yisrael” [A Testimony in Israel].

Kalmanovitch’s prediction has proved prescient in more ways than he could have realized. Nearly 140 years after the publication of “Auto-Emancipation,” its goal of resurrecting the Jews as a physical, terrestrial nation has succeeded beyond Pinsker’s greatest expectations. Yet, rather than achieving equality with other states, the State of Israel has become the “Jew among nations.” If, for the past 200 years, advocates of Jewish emancipation accused Jews of clannishness, today these emancipationists’ intellectual progeny envision the State of Israel as the embodiment of all the injustices of the ethnic nation-state. Just as Lenin demanded that the Jewish proletariat alone shed its national identity, so too do today’s progressives demand that Israel alone shed its character as a nation-state. And in the tradition of Jewish thinkers since the late 18th century, today’s Jewish progressives, including the Jewish Studies professors in their ranks, assume that if Israel cannot live in peace with the Palestinians, then it must be Israel’s fault.

The larger academic world, however, will not stop its Jew-hatred with calls for the elimination of Israel, no matter how enthusiastically Jewish Studies professors sign on. The same academic departments that today are pressuring Jewish Studies scholars to condemn Israel as an admission ticket into academic respectability will tomorrow turn that hatred on the discipline of Jewish Studies and its practitioners. If my colleagues continue on their path of fleeing from the Jewish collective, it is they who will write themselves out of the Jewish story. The rest of us in Jewish Studies will overcome this trend and continue investing in a clear-sighted intellectual approach that accommodates the Jewish collective.

Joshua M. Karlip is the Herbert S. and Naomi Denenberg Associate Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and Associate Director of the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies. He is the author of The Tragedy of a Generation: The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism in Eastern Europe.