Be a man abroad and a Jew in your tent

[Much of this article is the intellectual property of Anita Shapira. I have used substantial parts of her work to create this short thesis and its supplication]


The eponymous statement by Yehuda Lieb Gordon in the 1860s, which is the title of this article, seems particularly relevant today in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh massacre.

Where Bohemia (1781) and Austria (1782) introduced Edicts of Tolerance which opened previously unheard-of possibilities of education and economic advancement to the Jews of the Habsburg Empire, Tsar Alexander II of Russia brought these trends into the Russian Empire as well.

The significance of this is that, in Europe, the vast majority of Diaspora Jews centred in Poland, Western Ukraine, Lithuania and other parts of the Russian Empire had long lived and accepted the reality of occasional outbreaks of violence, humiliation, and discrimination. In the second half of the eighteenth century, modernization and the notion of nation states and the rights of the individual moved slowly east from Western Europe. Together with this, a demographic revolution occurred in Eastern Europe. Where, in 1800 there were between 1 and 1.2 million Jews in the Russian Empire, by the end of the century there were now some 5 million. This tremendous natural increase created an acute problem out of what had been a marginal one: the Jews did not speak the local language and did not send their children to their country’s schools.

In adopting the late 18th century model of education and economic advancement for the Jews of the Hapsburg Empire, Tsar Alexander’s policies for the Russian Jews likewise encouraged the budding of a Jewish Enlightenment in the Russian Empire through programmes aimed at modernizing them and turning those millions of marginalised Jews into useful citizens who would contribute to their local economy and culture. Here, learning the local language and secular education were the foundation stones of this movement.

However, this secularisation created an entire stratum of Jews who moved, to varying degrees, away from Jewish tradition. With the religious connection weakened, questions arose regarding the character of Jewish identity. The French revolution granted Jews equal rights as individuals, not as a nation, and the Napoleonic Wars sowed the seeds of nationalist consciousness where multinational empires, such as the Habsburg and Russian Empires, found themselves under attack by national movements.

For Europe’s Jews this meant that while the peoples of Europe were taking on national identities, the Jews were required to relinquish their collective, hitherto essentially religious, identity as a prerequisite for obtaining equal rights. This new Jewish self-definition created for the first time a distinction between Jewish religion and nationality and established a belief in Russian Jews who lived both within and outside of the Pale of Settlement (areas annexed by Russia from Poland where Jews were allowed to reside…) that this educational and vocational emancipation would lead to redemption from exile.

Where European nationalism saw an unbreakable bond between a people’s cultural heritage and its right to political self-expression, so too did the aspiration to learn the classical sources of the national culture, in its own language, manifested itself in the creation of a secular Hebrew culture. Abraham Mapu, a Lithuanian Jew, published his historical novel Ahavat Zion (Love of Zion) in 1853 in Hebrew. Jewish Enlightenment, as manifested in literature, poetry, philosophy, grammar, and autobiography, laid the cultural foundations for Jewish nationalist ideas to flourish. The Bible, whose beauty had been cloaked by the mantle of the traditional commentaries for generations, was now brought to life by the study of grammar, so that every educated reader could understand its text.

However, while in Western and Central Europe the dominant modernizing trend was toward relinquishing Jewish collective identity, the Tsarist regime and the Russian masses did not view favourably the idea of Jews integrating among them. This meant that millions of Jews lived in villages, towns, and medium-sized cities where they constituted a third or more of the population. With many Jews crowded into geographical and cultural proximity, secularization in Eastern Europe resulted not in an aspiration to become part of the general society but in a flourishing of Hebrew culture. And this, together with Tsarist repression on the one hand and secular consciousness on the other, gave rise to a sense of deprivation and injustice that underlay the newly awakened nationalistic ideas.

In addition, many Jews now adopted the national identity of the country where they lived and, seeing their connection with it as a sacred alliance, willingly went to fight in national wars of liberation. Consequently the various Jewish communities moved apart, separated by their ways of life, accepted behavioural norms, and cultures. Distinctions arose between Western and Central European Jews and their Eastern European brethren, and among Russian, German, and English speakers and the ways in which they had hitherto practised their Jewish Faith.

With the Tsar Alexander II, the welfare and security of Eastern Jewry grew precarious due to a spate of pogroms in the Ukraine unhindered by either church or state. The pogroms, unheard of in the previous century, not only undermined the Jews’ new-found sense of security to which the Kishniev and October pogroms of 1903 and 1905 only exacerbated, had two seminal results: mass migration of Eastern European Jews to (mainly) America with tens of thousands going to Mandated Palestine, and the radicalization of the Jewish masses. This last stemmed from three factors: a sense of being deprived and discriminated against by the authorities; a new self-awareness that came with increased exposure to the larger world; and the increasing trend of secularization in the Jewish street.

But an even more sinister process was in train.

As the security of Jews in Eastern Europe was increasingly undermined, modern antisemitism made its appearance in Western Europe.

Hatred of Jews was not new, but this time it was marked by racism and determinism: its object was not the Jewish religion but the Jewish race. Religion can be changed; race cannot. In an era of rising secularization, religious hatred might seem to be a thing of the past, but racial hatred was modern and up to date.

The old hatred of Jews had been aimed at the alien, different Jew.

Western European antisemitism targeted the Jew who looked like anyone else, who spoke the local language, whose appearance and behaviour was middle class, who took part in and even created national culture.

The murdered Jews in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh were Jews who turned to the general culture of the region where they lived and embraced it. Not even Gordon’s exhortation to be “…a Jew in your tent” were of any avail.

Today, Western antisemites accuse Jews of causing all of capitalist society’s ills, inciting to revolution, and undermining the existing order. They picture the Jews as parasites, incapable of establishing a society or culture of their own, as Nazis who murder others and as outsiders who rode on the backs of other peoples and copied or perverted their cultures.

It is against this background of cultural hate that the utterance at the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday 27th October 2018, “All Jews must be killed”, reverberates in the collective Jewish consciousness.

‘‘At Basel I founded the Jewish state,’’ wrote Theodor Herzl in his diary
after the First Zionist Congress in 1897, a year after he published his seminal pamphlet Der Judenstaat.

He did.

Herzl realised that the abstract principles of constitutional equality which laid the foundations for European nation states had not won the hearts and minds of people who refused to accept the Jews as part of the civic fabric.

Herzl’s conclusion was simple: there was no point in fighting antisemitism. The only option was to circumvent it. The Jews were a nation that needed a safe and defensible state of their own.

Nationalism notwithstanding, the long history of western antisemitism on October 27, 2018 reiterated that need.

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