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Between Zionism and Liberalism: Oscar Janowsky and Diaspora Nationalism in America

  • James Loeffler (a1)

Of all the varieties of modern Jewish politics, none has experienced a more curious fate than Diaspora Nationalism. This nonterritorial strain of Jewish nationalism, also known as Autonomism, was once widely regarded as “together with Zionism the most important political expression of the Jewish people in the modern era.” From its fin-de-siècle origins in the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, it spread rapidly across Eastern Europe, sprouting various movements for Jewish national-cultural autonomy. After World War II, however, Diaspora Nationalism vanished almost overnight. So too was its intellectual afterlife marked by silence, as postwar historians of Jewish political thought largely ignored its legacy. Recently, however, Diaspora Nationalism has emerged as a growing field of scholarship. The results are impressive: a striking new wave of studies on its intellectual leadership, political parties, cultural projects, and various interwar East European Autonomist experiments. This abundance of fresh research promises to reframe not only the history of Diaspora Nationalism, but also that of Zionism and Jewish nationalism more generally.

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1. Fagen, Melvin, “Review: The Jews and Minority Rights,” Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, 26, no. 1 (July 1935): 38.

2. An important exception to this trend was the continued focus on the career and posthumous intellectual influence of Simon Dubnow. See, for example, the following works: Simon Dubnow, Nationalism and History: Essays on Old and New Judaism, ed. Pinson, Koppel S. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1958); Seltzer, Robert M., “Simon Dubnow: A Critical Biography of His Early Years” (Doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, 1970); Dubnov-Erlich, Sophie, The Life and Work of S. M. Dubnow: Diaspora Nationalism and Jewish History, trans. Vowles, Judith, ed. Shandler, Jeffrey (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991); and Frankel, Jonathan and Zipperstein, Steven J., eds. Assimilation and Community: The Jews in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

3. For a recent reflection on this academic trend, see Arkush, Allan, “From Diaspora Nationalism to Radical Diasporism,” Modern Judaism 29, no. 3 (2009): 326–50.

4. Rabinovitch, Simon, ed., Diaspora Nationalism in Modern Jewish Thought (Brandeis University Press, forthcoming); Kel'ner, Viktor, Missioner istorii: zhizn' i trudy Semena Markovicha Dubnova (St. Petersburg: Peterburgskoe Vostokovedenie, 2008); Hilbrenner, Anke, Diaspora-Nationalismus: zur Geschichtskonstruktion Simon Dubnows (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007); Gorny, Yosef, “Bein otonomiyah le-kehilah: Shimon Dubnov, Benedikt Anderson ve-Antoni Smit ‘al ha-leumiut,” Iyunim be-tekumat yisrael 17 (2007), 107–21; Olson, Jess, “Nation, Peoplehood and Religion in the Life and Thought of Nathan Birnbaum” (Doctoral dissertation, Stanford University, 2006); Friesel, Evyatar, “Zionism and Jewish Nationalism: An Inquiry into an Ideological Relationship,” Journal of Israeli History 25, no. 2 (September 2006): 285312; Gechtman, Roni, “Conceptualizing National-Cultural Autonomy: From the Austro-Marxists to the Jewish Labor Bund,” Jahrbuch des Simon-Dubnow-Instituts 4 (2005): 1749; Rabinovitch, Simon, “The Dawn of a New Diaspora: Simon Dubnov's Autonomism, from St. Petersburg to Berlin,” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 50 (2005): 267–88; Veidlinger, Jeffrey, “Simon Dubnov Recontextualized: The Sociological Conception of Jewish History and the Russian Intellectual Legacy,” in Jahrbuch des Simon-Dubnow-Instituts 3 (2004): 411–27; Shanes, Joshua, “Yiddish and Jewish Diaspora Nationalism,” Monatshefte für deutschsprachige Literatur und Kultur 90, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 178–88; and Groberg, Kristi and Greenbaum, Avraham, eds., A Missionary for History: Essays in Honor of Simon Dubnov (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).

5. Weiser, Kalman, Jewish People, Yiddish Nation: Noah Prylucki and the Folkists in Poland (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010); Rabinovitch, Simon, “Alternative to Zion: The Jewish Autonomist Movement in Late Imperial and Revolutionary Russia” (Doctoral dissertation, Brandeis University, 2007); Rechter, David, “A Nationalism of Small Things: Jewish Autonomy in Late Habsburg Austria,” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 52 (2007), 87–10; and Silber, Markos, “Poalei Tsion be-Ostriyah be-milḥemet ha-olam ha-rishonah u-hamavak le-otonomiyah leumit shel yehude galitzia ve-polin,” Ha-tsiyonut 22 (2000): 99127.

6. Karlip, Joshua, “The Center That Could Not Hold: ‘Afn Sheydveg’ and the Crisis of Diaspora Nationalism” (Doctoral dissertation, Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2006); Gottesman, Itzik, Defining the Yiddish Nation: The Jewish Folklorists of Poland (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2003); Kuznitz, Cecile, The Origins of Yiddish Scholarship and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (Doctoral dissertation, Stanford University, 2000).

7. Weiss-Wendt, Anton, “Thanks to the Germans! Jewish Cultural Autonomy in Interwar Estonia,” East European Jewish Affairs 38, no. 1 (2008): 89104; Dohrn, Verena, “State and Minorities: The First Lithuanian Republic and S. M. Dubnov's Concept of Cultural Autonomy,” in The Vanished World of Lithuanian Jews, ed. Nikzentaitis, Alvydas, Schreiner, Stefan, and Staliunas , Darius(Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004), 155–73; Peled, Yoav, “The Concept of National Cultural Autonomy: The First 100 Years,” in Jewish Politics in Eastern Europe: The Bund at 100, ed. Jacobs, Jack (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 255–70; Abramson, Henry, A Prayer for the Government: Ukrainians and Jews in Revolutionary Times, 1917–1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); and Weinberg, Robert, Stalin's Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland: An Illustrated History, 1928–1996 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

8. Fink, Carole, Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, the Jews, and International Minority Protection (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004); and Levene, Mark, War, Jews, and the New Europe: The Diplomacy of Lucien Wolf, 1914–1919 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

9. On the interplay between Eastern Europe and the United States in interwar Jewish politics, see the recent cogent arguments in Kobrin, Rebecca, Jewish Bialystok and Its Diaspora (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010); and Sinkoff, Nancy, “Yidishkayt and the Making of Lucy S. Dawidowicz,” preface to Lucy Dawidowicz, From That Place and Time, 1938–1947: A Memoir (Camden, NJ: Rutgers University Press 2008), xiiixxxi.

10. As recently as 1996, the work was described by one historian as “still the best introduction to Jewish Diaspora Nationalism.” See Rachamimov, Alon, “Diaspora Nationalism's Pyrrhic Victory: The Controversy Regarding the Electoral Reform of 1909 in Bukovina,” in State and Nation Building in East Central Europe: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Micgiel, J. S. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 16.

11. See, for example, Nimni, Ephraim, “From Galut to T'fusoth: Post-Zionism and the Dislocation of Jewish Diasporas,” in The Challenge of Post-Zionism: Alternatives to Israeli Fundamentalist Politics, ed. Nimni, E. (New York: Palgrave, 2003), 117–52.

12. Myers, David, Between Jew and Arab: The Lost Voice of Simon Rawidowicz (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2008); Pianko, Noam, Zionism and the Roads Not Taken (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010); Pianko, Noam, “‘The True Liberalism of Zionism’: Horace Kallen, Jewish Nationalism, and the Limits of American Pluralism,” American Jewish History 94, no. 4 (December 2008): 299329; and Conservative Judaism 56 (2004) (Special Issue on Israel Friedlander).

13. Goren, Arthur A., “Spiritual Zionists and Jewish Sovereignty,” in Goren, Arthur, The Politics and Public Culture of American Jews (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 145–64; Frankel, Jonathan, “The Jewish Socialists and the American Jewish Congress Movement,” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 16 (1976): 202341; Halpern, Ben, “Diaspora Zionism: Achievements and Problems,” in Zionism in Transition, ed. Davis, Moshe (New York: Arno Press, 1980), 4556; and Michels, Tony, A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 125–78.

14. Oscar Janowsky, Unpublished autobiographical manuscript, American Jewish Archives, SC-14391–14393, 138, 147 [hereafter Autobiography]; Janowsky, Oscar, “Zionism Today: A Clarification,” Menorah Journal (October 1943), 228. Additional biographical information can be found in Janowsky, Oscar, “Rethinking the American Jewish Experience: Forgotten Worlds: An Unfinished Memoir,” American Jewish Archives 46, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 1994): 247–78.

15. Janowsky, Autobiography, 300, 303.

16. Hayes, Carleton, Essays on Nationalism (New York: Macmillan, 1926 [1966]), 2728. Janowsky himself recalled, “[To him the study of] Jewish nationalism was rank folly and even an impertinence.” Janowsky, Autobiography, 300–303, 308.

17. Janowsky, Autobiography, 304–306. On Baron's own evolving identity vis-à-vis Jewish minority status and political nationalism, see Engel, David, “Crisis and Lachrymosity: On Salo Baron, Neobaronianism, and the Study of Modern European Jewish History,” Jewish History 20 (2006): 243–64.

18. Janowsky, Oscar, The Jews and National Minority Rights, 1898–1919 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1933), 3436, 49, and 62–85.

19. On Dubnow's interpretation of the medieval kahal, see Bartal, Yisrael, “Taḥlif le-memshalah, li-medina u-le-ezraḥut—Shimon Dubnov ve-hashilton ha-atzmi ha-yehudi,” in Kozak u-vedvi: am ve-arets ba-leumiyut ha-yehudit, ed. Bartal, Y. (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2007), 196205.

20. Dubnow, Simon, Pis'ma o starom i novom evreistve (1897–1907) (St. Petersburg, 1907), 283. On the place of America in Dubnow's thought, see Seltzer, Robert, “Affirmation of the Diaspora: America and Palestine in Dubnow's Thought,” in A Bicentennial Festschrift for Jacob Rader Marcus, ed. Korn, Bertram Wallace (New York: KTAV Press, 1976), 529–38.

21. Janowsky, Jews, 158–59.

22. Ibid., 145–46. He further argues that American Zionists deserved credit for organizing American Jewish political action on behalf of East European Jews during World War I. Janowsky, Jews, 163.

23. See the incisive comments of Mark Levene on this aspect of Janowsky, 's narrative in “Resurrecting Poland—The Fulcrum of International Politics, 1917–1919,” Jahrbuch des Simon-Dubnow-Instituts 1 (2002): 31.

24. On the concept of “long-distance nationalism,” see Rosenthal, Steven, “Long-distance Nationalism: American Jews, Zionism, and Israel,” in The Cambridge Companion to American Judaism, ed. Kaplan, Dana Evan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 209–24.

25. Janowsky, Oscar, “The Problem of Minorities,” Conference on Jewish Relations Newsletter (April 1935), n.p.

26. Fagen, “Review,” 40–41.

27. YIVO RG 347.1.29, American Jewish Committee Papers, Box 44, Folder 10 (War and Peace. Minorities and Minority Rights), Letter from Morris Waldman to James Rosenberg, 25 May 1935; Internal Memorandum of Morris Waldman, 3 June 1935.

28. “The book and I made some enemies,” he recalled in his memoirs, “We ran afoul of the Jewish Anti-Zionists and ‘assimilationists’ . . . [for whom] the word ‘National’ was tabu [sic].” Janowsky, Autobiography, 311. See also the exchange between Janowsky and Max Kohler in M. Kohler, “Jews and Minority Rights,” and Janowsky, O., “Dr. Janowsky Objects,” in American Hebrew and Jewish Tribune 133 (1933): 150, 160, and 342.

29. On the background of the American Jewish Committee's activities in the mid-1930s on behalf of European Jewry and dealings with James McDonald, see Cohen, Naomi W., “The Transatlantic Connection: The American Jewish Committee and the Joint Foreign Committee in Defense of German Jews, 1933–1937,” American Jewish History 90, no. 4 (2002): 353–84.

30. YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, RG 347.1.29, Box 44, Folder 10, Correspondence between Morris Waldman and James Rosenberg, 1 Feb–3 June 1935.

31. Janowsky, Autobiography, 327–55.

32. Janowsky, Oscar and Fagen, Melvin, International Aspects of German Racial Policies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1937); and Janowsky, Oscar, People at Bay: The Jewish Problem in East-Central Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 1938).

33. Janowsky, People at Bay, 161, 183–87.

34. Janowsky, Oscar, “Jewish Rights in the Postwar World,” Survey Graphic 32, no. 9 (September 1943): 365. See also Janowsky, Oscar, “The Question of Loyalty,” Jewish Frontier 16 (June 1949): 56.

35. Janowsky, “Zionism Today,” 255–56.

36. Janowsky, “Jewish Rights,” 365.

37. Janowsky, “Zionism Today,” 257.

38. Ibid., 250–51, 255.

39. Janowsky, Oscar, “Towards a Solution of the Minorities Problem,” in Strategy for Democracy, ed. Kingsley, J. Donald and Petegorsky, David W. (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1942), 117.

40. Ibid., 114.

41. Ibid., 110.

42. See, for example, his essay, “Ethnic and Cultural Minorities,” in Group Relations and Group Antagonisms, ed. MacIver, R. M. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1944), 157–70, and Janowsky, “Towards a Solution.”

43. Borgwardt, Elizabeth, A New Deal for the World: America's Vision for Human Rights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005); Josephson, Harold, James Shotwell and the Rise of Internationalism in America (Cranberry, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1975), 237–47; Divine, Robert A., Second Chance: The Triumph of Internationalism in America during World War II (New York: Atheneum, 1971).

44. American Jewish Historical Society, P-874 (Papers of Oscar Janowsky), Series 1, Sub-series 2, Box 15, Folder 4 (Correspondence with James Shotwell, 1940–1960).

45. Janowsky, Oscar, Nationalities and National Minorities (with Special Reference to East-Central Europe) (New York: Macmillan, 1945).

46. For important contemporary reactions, see Arendt, Hannah, “Janowsky, Oscar I., Nationalities and National Minorities” [Book Review], Jewish Social Studies 8 (1946): 204; Kohn, Hans, “National Federalism,” New York Times, June 2, 1946, BR6; and Claude, Inis, National Minorities. An International Problem (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955), 6364. Strangely, Janowsky here ignored what he himself already knew of the fate of Soviet Jewry, that there had been no “adequate solution of the Jewish problem . . . [and thus] the Jews of the Soviet Union are fast disappearing as a national or cultural community.” Janowsky, Oscar, “Jewish Fate in Russia,” The Menorah Journal 30, no. 1 (January–March 1942): 100. After 1945 he never again invoked the USSR as a successful political model.

47. Janowsky, Nationalities, 151.

48. Duker, Abraham, “Political and Cultural Aspects of Jewish Post-War Problems,” Jewish Social Service Quarterly 19, no. 1 (September 1942): 61; American Jewish Conference, Program for Postwar Jewish Reconstruction (New York: American Jewish Conference, 1945): 46.

49. National Archives and Records Administration, RG59, Harley Notter Files, Box 1463, Folder 10–1644—10–1944, “SPA Memorandum, Oct. 17, 1944”; Commission to Study the Organization of Peace, Fourth Report. International Safeguard of Human Rights (New York: Commission to Study the Organization of Peace, 1944), repr. in Building Peace; Reports of the Commission to Study the Organization of Peace, 1939–1972 (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1973), I:163–84.

50. This historical shift from the League of Nations' Minorities Treaties to the UN global human rights regime has recently received a growing amount of attention. See, for example, Mazower, Mark, “The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 1933–1950,” The Historical Journal 47, no. 2 (2004): 379–98; Weitz, Eric, “From the Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions,” American Historical Review 113 (December 2008): 1313–43; and Pederson, Susan, “Back to the League of Nations,” American Historical Review 112, no. 4 (October 2007): 10911117.

51. Janowsky, Oscar, “The Human Rights Issue at the San Francisco Conference. Was It a Victory?,” Menorah Journal 34, no. 1 (April–June 1946): 29, 49, and 51.

52. American Jewish Committee, To the Counselors of Peace (New York: American Jewish Committee, 1945): 22.

53. Janowsky, “The Human Rights Issue,” 54.

54. Janowsky went on to work for decades on a never-completed study of the history of human rights, in which he offered a more nuanced view of the reasons for the decline of minority rights and rise of human rights. American Jewish Historical Society, P-874 (Oscar Janowsky Papers), Box 26, Folders 7–8, “The Mirage of an International Bill of Human Rights.”

55. See also Janowsky, Oscar, “The Status of Minorities in a Democracy,” The Reconstructionist 6, no. 7 (May 10, 1940): 11.

56. Janowsky, Oscar, “Conclusion,” in The American Jew: A Composite Portrait, ed. Janowsky, O. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1942), 253. For a parallel shift in vocabulary by Janowsky's friend and mentor Mordecai Kaplan, see Pianko, Noam, “Reconstructing Judaism, Reconstructing America: The Sources and Functions of Mordecai Kaplan's ‘Civilization,’” Jewish Social Studies 12, no. 2 (2006): 50.

57. Janowsky, “Conclusion,” 254.

58. Janowsky's attempt at distinguishing between “nation” and “nationality” evidently derived from his contemporary rereading of Brandeis's own explanation. In 1940, Janowsky wrote the introduction to a reissue of Brandeis's 1915 pamphlet. See Oscar Janowsky, “Introduction,” in Brandeis, Louis, The Jewish Problem and How to Solve It, ed. Janowsky, O. (New York: Hadassah, Women's Zionist Organization of America, 1940), 14.

59. Janowsky, Nationalities, 150.

60. Janowsky, Oscar, “A Nationwide Study of Jewish Education,” Religious Education 50 (1955): 3237.

61. Oscar Janowsky, “A Confrontation with Assimilationists: Concept of a Non-Sectarian Jewish Communal Institution (A Memoir),” in Korn, Bicentennial Festschrift, 191–218; Janowsky, “Landmark,” 13.

62. On the power of language to define Jewish social identity in mid-century American society, see Berman, Lila Corwin, Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); Goldstein, Eric, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 189208; and Biale, David, “The Melting Pot and Beyond: Jews and the Politics of American Identity,” in Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism, ed. Biale, D., Galchinsky, M., and Heschel, S. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 1733.

63. Oscar Janowsky, “A Confrontation with Assimilationists: An Oblique Attack on the JWB Survey,” in Janowsky, Autobiography, 33 [new pagination].

64. Janowsky, Oscar, “Conclusion: Image of the American Jewish Community,” in The American Jew. A Reappraisal, ed. Janowsky, O. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1964), 387–88.

65. Hannah Arendt, “The Minority Question (Copied from a letter to Erich Cohn-Bendit, summer 1940),” in Arendt, H., The Jewish Writings, ed. Kohn, Jerome and Feldman, Ron H. (New York: Schocken Books, 2007): 126–29.

66. Writing at the same time, an otherwise sympathetic colleague of Janowsky explained this dilemma in these terms: “There is no such thing as separate nationalisms reserved for the Polish, the Rumanian, the Russian Jews from which the American Jews can claim exemption. Either there is one Jewish people or there is none.” Tenenbaum, Joseph, Peace for the Jews (New York: American Federation for Polish Jews, 1945), 16.

* This article was written with the support of the University of Virginia Jewish Studies Program and Dean's Office, and the Posen Foundation. Jennifer Cole at the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, Elizabeth Vernon and Vardit Haimi-Cohen of the Harvard College Library Judaica Division, the staffs of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and American Jewish Historical Society, and Jessica Kirzner provided very helpful research assistance. I thank David Myers, Benjamin Nathans, Noam Pianko, Simon Rabinovitch, Eugene Sheppard, Nancy Sinkoff, and the editors and anonymous reviewers of AJS Review for their valuable comments and suggestions on various versions of this article.

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