Zamenhof & the new Jewish intellectual historiography (1)

First, a list of references:

Clash Of Zionisms In Academia
(Group of scholars pressing idea of cultural Zionism, amid pushback)
[review of a recent conference & of Noam Pianko's Zionism and the Roads Not Taken: Rawidowicz, Kaplan, Kohn]
by Eric Herschthal
The Jewish Week (New York), June 23, 2010

On the Idea of a Jewish Nation: Before and After Statism by David N. Myers, Perush, Volume 1, 2009

David N. Myers, Dept. of History, UCLA

Michael Berkowitz, Review of Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People, Reviews in History, review no. 973, 21 December 2010

My Articles | Noam Pianko, Professor of Jewish History, University of WA

David N. Myers’ “Between Jew & Arab: The Lost Voice of Simon Rawidowicz” by Jeremiah Haber, The Magnes Zionist (blog), June 2, 2009

When I say the new Jewish historiography, I mean, before anything else, new to me. It is, however, quite contemporary, judging from Herschthal. These scholars whom I am just encountering are deeply dissatisfied with Israel in its current state and are retracing their historical steps to uncover a variegated intellectual history prior to the hammering of history into a party line in conformity with the statism that congealed in Zionism in the 1940s. This means the highlighting of the cultural Zionism that was defeated by statism.

These authors appear to be historically scrupulous, not merely reshaping historiography to serve contemporary political needs in a crude instrumentalist fashion. They also are rethinking the nature of Jewish peoplehood from deep within that cultural milieu. Outsiders would of course not feel this weight in the process of pursuing identical research in the history of ideas, and perhaps they would see the political impetus connected with these scholars' work as ill-conceived or futile. However, if there is any way out of the current situation, those Jewish scholars emotionally connected to Israel will have to struggle their way into the future in their own terms, as part of the total process.

The most striking example among the authors of the articles listed above is Haber, a self-described Orthodox Jew with a heavy investment in Israel, with which he is now disgusted. One anonymous commenter stated the problem starkly: "I think that cultural Zionists lost ground to political Zionists since they were dealing with illusions while political Zionists were dealing with reality." But if you look at the debates outlined by Herschthal, you could also conclude that the conceptual basis for reforming the Zionist project is futile. Specific issues regarding Israeli policies and the treatment of Palestinian Arabs may be obvious and discussable within the cultural framework, but there is a deeper, absent discussion on the fundamental relation between cultural (trans)formation and political economy that suggests that this historiographical debate is trapped within ideological superstructures that were responsible for the illusions that gripped idealistic Jewish intellectuals a century ago.

It may be that these scholars, in reaching for an old perspective as a way to cope with a contemporary political impasse, are engaging in an illusory project, but as long as the scholarship on the past is sound, it can be very useful. By contrast, Berkowitz's review of Shlomo Sand highlights the dangers of reckless instrumentalization of the past in order to dislodge the reigning ideology of the present. Berkowitz finds Sand a shoddy scholar and a vulgarizer of far more exacting predecessors.

My project is really about understanding the evolution of social theory and is not immediately connected to contemporary politics except insofar as current exigencies oversimplify the historical trajectory that got us here. I am interested in two things:

(1) How did Jewish intellectuals conceptualize peoplehood in the last third of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th?

(2) How did social theorists—Marxists and others—conceptualize the nature of Jewish peoplehood in this same time span?

The upshot is the question whether social theory, from within or without the Jewish intelligentsia, had advanced in this time span to the point where it could adequately encapsulate the anomalous group cohesion of central and Eastern European Jews.

Now I want to introduce two of my bibliographies:

L. L. Zamenhof & the Cultural, Religious, Professional & Political Context of 19th-20th Century Eastern European Jewish Intellectuals: Selected Bibliography

Marxism & the Jewish Question: Selected Bibliography 

These reflect the interplay between the two questions I have posed, with the specific addition of the perspective of L. L. Zamenhof.  Zamenhof is best known as the creator of Esperanto; however, he passed through a number of other projects: Zionism, reform of Yiddish, reform of Judaism (Hillelism), and eventually a religious project (Homaranismo) transcending Judaism per se.  All along the line Zamenhof put forth bold conceptions of what did or would (re-)make of Jews a people.

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