Jewish peoplehood from Zamenhof to Jewdas

There is an interesting web site hailing out of Britain called Jewdas, subtitled "radical voices for the alternative diaspora". The contributors tout a countercultural version of Jewishness as an alternative to both Zionism and traditional religiosity. There is much of interest here, but for our purposes, I call your attention to this essay:

The Big Ethnic Love-In by Baruch Trotsky

Mr. Trotsky is skeptical about some contemporary propaganda in favor of Jewish "peoplehood", deeming it a dubious ideological metaphysical concept as problematic as nationalism or race. More importantly, he delves into the actual diversity and hybridity of real Jewish history and existence, and wonders what a unifying conception of Jewishness could possibly be. The readers' responses are also quite interesting, and in the process, the delineation of the question becomes refined.

Interestingly, this very question was debated over a century ago when a definable ethnic culture or meta-culture was easy to pinpoint, though even then the defining criteria of peoplehood proved to be elusive in the case of the Jews. One very interesting intervention, which is not brought into historical specialist or popular discussion as much as it should be, was that of L.L. Zamenhof, whose claim to fame is the creation of Esperanto, but who also went through a fascinating evolution in his engagement with the Jewish question perplexing Eastern European Jews. Zamenhof was an early proponent of Zionism, first recommending a settlement in the USA, later ceding to the Palestine option, and eventually categorically rejecting the whole project. Zamenhof also published a project for the reform and standardization of Yiddish, also later abandoned.

Ultimately, Zamenhof set his hopes on the reform of the Jewish religion itself, in a doctrine he called Hilelismo. Here he makes his most forceful arguments, mercilessly demystifying the notion of Jewish peoplehood, while posing the very questions now being asked in an entirely different historical situation. To learn more about this, you can follow the links on this blog. The key blog posts are:

L.L. Zamenhof's 150th birthday

L.L. Zamenhof and the Shadow People

Zamenhof & the new Jewish intellectual historiography (2)

Hilelismo was not Zamenhof's final formulation.While he sought to bring Eastern European Jewry into the 20th century, creating a modern people out of a "pseudo-people" nostalgic for a religion and a homeland it could no longer believe in (or at least the intelligentsia could not), Zamenhof generalized his religious reform program to include all who wanted to participate in a universal, common alternative religious practice, while recognizing or maintaining their inherited religious traditions if they so chose in a non-absolutist, non-theistic fashion, somewhat akin to Ethical Culture or Unitarianism. He dubbed his revised religious doctrine Homaranismo (not strictly translatable, but meaning considering oneself a member of humanity) which, along with his thinking about Jews and about Esperanto itself, continued to develop until his death in 1917.

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