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Welcoming Zionist Ideas Into the Sukkah, Day 2

For every day of Sukkot, we’re publishing a text by a different Zionist pioneer. Today, a seminal figure in Hebrew literature: Joseph Hayyim Brenner

Gil Troy
September 25, 2018
Widener Library, Cambridge
The editorial staff of "HaAhdut:" Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, David Ben Gurion, Yosef Chaim Brener, Hareuveni, I. ZerubavelWidener Library, Cambridge
Widener Library, Cambridge
The editorial staff of "HaAhdut:" Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, David Ben Gurion, Yosef Chaim Brener, Hareuveni, I. ZerubavelWidener Library, Cambridge

In the tension between the ephemeral and the eternal. We build flimsy huts through which we can see the stars, to symbolize how transient life can be. Yet, typically, we Jews have turned this lesson in evanescence into a lasting tradition. This paradox is a central Zionist tension, which the founder of modern Zionism Theodor Herzl, captured in his novel “Altneuland,” Old-New Land, spurring homeless Jews to erect a modern state on our ancient homeland.

For every day of Sukkot, we will provide a text from Gil Troy’s newest book, an update of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic Zionist anthology, The Zionist Idea. Troy titled his update, The Zionist Ideas, to open the conversation, from right to left, religious to secular, traditional to modern. He organizes the book into three defining periods: Pioneers until 1948, Builders from 1948 until 1998, and Torchbearers – modern Zionists. In each time period, he identifies six schools of thought – whose ideas echo in all these essays: Political Zionism, Labor Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Religious Zionism, Cultural Zionism, and Diaspora Zionism. Since April, thousands of people have participated in Zionist Salons, reading these texts, developing their Zionist Ideas.

DAY 2: Political Redemption & Social Revolution — An Excerpt from Self-Criticism (1914) by Joseph Hayyim Brenner (1881–1921)

“Workers’ settlements—this is our revolution. The only one.”

Joseph Hayyim Brenner’s first novel, BaHoref (In the winter), ends with his autobiographical hero, Feierman, put off a train because he has no ticket, left stranded beside a snow-covered road in the middle of nowhere. By other names, Feierman (i.e., Brenner) is the protagonist of all his succeeding novels, and his destiny is always the same: abortive beginnings, unrealized strivings, and bitterness against himself and the world.

Both in his art and his personal life, Brenner wandered between the blackest pessimism and qualified affirmation. His childhood and youth were conventional—born in the Ukraine, educated in the usual orthodoxy, then a break to general studies—but there seems to have been an extra dimension of poverty and personal suffering. He matured in the 1890s during a particularly hopeless period for Russia and Russian Jewry. All thought of accommodation with the tsarist regime had ended; there were only three alternatives—to labor for a revolution, to migrate westward, or to turn Zionist and go to Palestine. In turn, Brenner attempted each of these solutions.

In his late teens Brenner was attracted by the Bund, the newly formed group of revolutionary Jewish socialists violently opposed to Jewish nationalism—they wanted the workers of all peoples to unite. After three years of working illegally for the party, he drifted out of that movement to reaffirm his Jewish loyalties through Zionism. From 1902 to 1903 he served in the Russian army—depicting this period of his life in a novella, Shanah Ahat (One year)—then escaped to London.

His experiences in England made him no happier. The new East European immigrants were packed tight in its Whitechapel section, London’s East Side, living in indescribable misery, eking out their existence in sweatshops.

In 1909 he left for Palestine, where he led the then small labor and pioneer groups. He also taught in Tel Aviv’s first high school while editing and writing. A dozen years later, he was found dead, murdered near Tel Aviv during the Arab outbreaks against the Jews in May 1921.

When Brenner had begun to write in the 1890s, he found inspiration in Russian literature, particularly Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Russian masters who offered uncompromising criticisms of society and treated convention as a sham. Brenner was also influenced by Mendele Moher Sefarim (Shalom Jacob Abramovitz), the greatest nineteenth-century novelist writing in both Hebrew and Yiddish, who targeted the disintegrating Russian ghetto. Invoking a conscious proletarian perspective, Brenner repeated this social criticism with greater vehemence.

The considerably shortened excerpt is from Brenner’s essay, Ha’arachat Azmenu be-Sheloshet Ha-Krahim. (The estimate of ourselves in three volumes). While he reviews a collected edition of Mendele’s works, he comments upon his own hatred of the Jewish past, both its culture and its society, and his faith that a new, sound, healthy Jew could be made to arise only if he were to begin over again in Zion. Brenner captures here the classic Labor Zionist bank shot, reacting to the misery of European oppression by seeking a state like all Political Zionists, but seeking to make that state a Socialist paradise too. Agree with him or not, Brenner challenges us all not to silo our identities, but to integrate them.


Self-Criticism (1914)

Yes, indeed, we have survived, we live. True, but what is our life worth? We have no inheritance. Each generation gives nothing of its own to its successor. And whatever was transmitted—the rabbinical literature—were better never handed down to us. In any case, by now it is more and more certainly passing away. Everything we know about our lives tells us that there are only masses of Jews who live biologically, like ants, but a living Jewish people in any sociological sense, a people each generation of which adds a new stratum to what preceded it and each part of which is united with the other—such a people hardly exists any longer. . . .

A “living” people whose members have no power but for moaning, and hiding a while until the storm blows over, turning away from their poorer brethren to pile up their pennies in secret, to scratch around among the goyim, make a living from them, and complain all day long about their ill will—no, let us not pass judgment upon such a people, for indeed it is not worth it. . . .

It would be a sign of steadfastness and power, of productive strength, if the Jews would go away from those who hate them and create a life for themselves. That I would call heroic sacrifice. . . .

History! History! But what has history to tell? It can tell that wherever the majority population, by some fluke, did not hate the Jews among them, the Jews immediately started aping them in everything, gave in on everything, and mustered the last of their meager strength to be like everyone else. . . .

Even when the yoke of ghetto weighed most heavily upon them—how many broke through the walls? How many lost all self-respect in the face of the culture and beautiful way of life of the others! How many envied the others! How many yearned to approach them!

. . . Yes, our environment is crumbling. This is nothing new, for this environment has never been stable; it has always lacked a firm foundation. We never had workers, never a real proletariat. What we had and have are idle poor. Basically nothing has changed, but now the very forms of life have dissolved. . . .

We have to start all over again, to lay down a new cornerstone. But who will do that? Can we do it, with our sick character? This is the question. This is the question: In order that our character be changed as much as possible, we need our own environment; in order to create such an environment ourselves—our character must be radically changed. . . .

Our urge for life says: All this is possible. Our urge for life whispers hopefully in our ear: Workers’ Settlements, Workers’ Settlements. Workers’ Settlements—this is our revolution. The only one.

Professor Gil Troy, a Senior Fellow in Zionist Thought at the JPPI, the global think tank of the Jewish people, is an American presidential historian, and, most recently, the editor of the three-volume set Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People.