Vladimir Jabotinsky, “On Zionism,” 1902. Translated by Conor Daly
Mr. Bickermann’s article in Russian Wealth has made a huge impression all round.
You hear some people saying: “Oh! A truly scholarly evaluation of Zionism.”
While other people say: “Oh! An article which proves scientifically that Zionism is utopian pie in the sky.”
Note those trendy little words: “scholarly” and “scientifically.”
Speaking of how too many books can damage a person, I neglected to mention one important point: how books can cheapen science.
I want you to have a clear understanding of what I mean by this.
I am not referring to the fact that books can communicate to a wide audience the conclusions and discoveries of science, making science accessible even to people of modest means. Because, yes, books do indeed play a wonderful and useful role there. God grants indeed that books – in that role at least – may find the widest possible distribution among all classes of the human race.
It is most encouraging that, thanks to books, science is now affordable. The problem is, however, that the amateur reading public has gradually transformed the objective affordability of science into something subjective.
Because books are cheap, and because anyone with a fifty-copeck piece can buy a book, these people have decided that science itself is cheap and that all they need is a fifty-copeck piece and they will gain mastery over science.
And it really is true that all these amateur readers have used their fifty-copeck pieces to become scientists and scholars.
- We think in a scholarly way, they say; and they are committing no transgression there, because all people are entitled to be as wrong as they like just so long as the matter under discussion remains purely personal.
Where we do observe a transgression, however, is when these people attempt to control others.
And that’s why it is impossible to argue with these people if you do not belong to the same social group as them.
- Your reasoning is not scientific! they declare. – Provide scientific proof for your assertion, if you can.
“If you can.” Fine words indeed!
Because that expression implies that they actually believe they are able to come up with some scientific proof for everything they say.
Whereas I prefer to believe that they are not able to do so.
Because science is a high calling – it is complex and difficult. Only a true scholar can master science and use it properly, just in the very same way as only a poet can write true poetry.
The poems of a non-poet are mere vers de société – not poetry, but light verse.
In the very same way the science you can pick up for fifty copecks, the homespun product that passes for scientific knowledge, the scholarliness arranged for the balalaika, which is so accessible to all and sundry, – all that is just science de société and boudoir scholarship; it’s fine for showing off with in front of the ladies but is not to be used for serious discussions held in good faith.
We, simple mortals that we are, are able to understand and appreciate the conclusions of science; we can be convinced that science has produced a true explanation for a given phenomenon and we can convey that same conviction to our neighbors.
But it is not our job to attempt the intellectual heavy-lifting of science ourselves.
To think scientifically you need to be a scientist; in other words, you need to be an actual producer in the field of science and not a mere consumer of its products.
How sad and ridiculous are the pretensions of pedants who delude themselves into believing they are teachers.
They deserve only ridicule, except that their delusions are not only ridiculous but dangerous as well.
The mission and destiny of all weeds is to smother healthy shoots.
Ordinary people do not get to prance about in style on the Pegasus of scientific thought, but they do possess a head on their shoulders, along with eyes and the ability to observe, and so they are able to extract meaning from the life around them in an independent way; they are able to use their own explanations and inferences to engage with the life they have and construct their own dreams and ideals. And very often, though not in every case, the inferences drawn by that actual living-and-breathing person may be valid and authentic.
But, no, this cannot be tolerated.
Because at this point the intimidation begins:
- He is thinking unscientifically! - Where is the scientific proof for that statement? - That is utopian pie in the sky!
Anyone with any respect for science should protest with all his might at this new trend, which seeks to knock from her pedestal an elevated deity, who should be accessible only to the few, and bring her down to the level of a common prostitute, whom anyone and everyone can possess for the price of the coins in his pocket.
And everyone who values the free and full development of all the forces of the human spirit should protest against this woolly thinking – thinking which stifles the stirrings of the spirit in its yearning to be free.
We really need to stop being afraid of that high-handed taunt: “It’s Utopianism!” Because that is a stupid word borrowed from the lexicon of cowards.
When a mass of people is entirely enthused by a single ideal it can’t have been the “pamphleteers” who whispered that ideal into their ears.
No, it was put there by the force of events.
Those ideals which are implanted by the force of events are not “utopian”.
They are authentic demands.
They are the future reality.
But let’s take a closer look at this “scientific method”.
At the end of the day it can only come up with one single argument against Zionism.
- World history, writes Mr. Bickermann, does not know of a single case where a group of people – a race, tribe, nation or horde – suddenly one fine morning decided to establish a state and then went and actually established one. States, in both ancient and modern times, have been the result of the activity of the human masses, but have never been the goal of that activity.
In other words:
- What has never happened before can never happen in the future.
In other words:
- All laws of historical development have already been discovered and nothing which we have not already seen or foreseen can possibly ever happen.
I hardly think that counts as a scientific approach.
In fact, quite the contrary: all disciplines which have elaborated a philosophy of history openly acknowledge that this science is still young and incomplete.
While they firmly insist on the soundness of their own basic principles, each of these disciplines nevertheless emphasizes that the diverse influences and factors which determine the path of history may combine in the most unexpected ways and may thus lead to the most unforeseen results.
No serious theoretician of history would dare to assert categorically that something which has not occurred in the past will also not occur in the future.
Only a complacent semi-ignorance which feels no obligation to respect either the value or prestige of science is capable of uttering such prophecies in her name.
And – after all of this – I don’t see in the ideal of Zionism anything particularly new, unheard-of or unprecedented.
Cases of mass emigration have occurred over and over again both in ancient times and more recently as well.
Zionism too presupposes mass emigration.
But in those days – from the time of the Barbarian Invasions up to when the New World was first settled in the 18th century – emigrants carried weapons when they went to these other countries and they used force to deal with indigenous leaders if they met with resistance.
They used the power of the fist to ensure that their autonomy remained sacrosanct.
But now is a different time and the conditions are different.
It is impossible now to march into Turkey and count on being able to safeguard one’s rights with the sword. Particularly for Jews, who have no sword.
And without a safeguard of some kind it would be unwise to settle in such a country as Turkey.
Therefore some safeguard is necessary in the form of an agreement which would vouchsafe emigrants their autonomy.
Zionism comprises two elements.
The first is mass emigration. Nothing new there.
The second is a guarantee of autonomy. Nothing new there either.
Except that these are different times, so the form will be different.
Previously migration took place on foot and on horseback but now it’s the steam engine.
And similarly the guarantee used to come via the law of the iron fist, whereas now it must take the form of a legal agreement.
This is fully in line with the spirit of the time, in which the duel and possibly even war itself are seen as old-style ‘iron fist’ methods of safeguarding both the individual and the collective, and so are gradually being replaced by the establishment of an arbitration court whose competencies are fixed by treaty.
And that is all there is to say.
Actually that is not quite all. Mr. Bickermann also accuses Zionists of trying to entice their people to follow them on a path of maximum resistance.
But that is pointless, because it is an inviolable law of nature that all kinds of energy must take the path of least resistance.
That is correct, of course. No energy will take the path of most resistance.
But Mr. Bickermann cannot know which of the two paths is the path of most resistance.
Why did the first Christians in Rome, or indeed the Jews on the Iberian Peninsula, or the Huguenots in France prefer persecution and emigration rather than being quietly and calmly assimilated or, in other words, adopting the faith of the oppressor?
Naturally that doesn’t mean that they all took the path of most resistance, because taking the path of most resistance is logically inconceivable.
It just means that for many different reasons it was easier and better for them in the long run to put up with persecution, be burned at the stake, lose every penny they had and even emigrate than it was to surrender.
It is never possible to know for certain at a particular moment in time which path involves the greater or lesser degree of resistance.
To know that you would need to be able to untangle the Gordian knot of those thousands of influences which might increase resistance – influences directly rooted in the core substratum itself – in the economy and the psychological structures which overlay it, untangle them, sort through them, weigh them all up, evaluate them.
If that is indeed possible then it is a task for scholars and not for Mr. Bickermann.
His article has left many people with the impression that it is extremely “scholarly.”
Any reader who knows me at all will also know that I am by no means intolerant of the opinions of others. There is nothing I treasure more than a broad spectrum of opinions and trains of thought. And I always prefer the dissenter to the conformist.
The reader should trust me when I say that it is not out of hostility to the conclusions of Mr. Bickermann, but as a result of an impression which is sincere and impartial that I make the following statement:
- This article is a perfect example of how hard it is for an amateur, however well read, to attain any independent competence in scientific thinking – which is the prerogative of an elite – because the ‘science’ on display in this article is the same ‘science’ we see when a doctor’s assistant performs an operation or a trainee pharmacist plays the role of Lavoisier.
Some objections to Zionism are purely practical and that is quite another matter.
When people make such objections you don’t hear any pretentiousness in their voice. They are the result of sober reflection by people using their common sense, and I enjoy responding to objections of that kind.
Sometimes these objections can be very well founded.
- Will Turkey make such a concession? - Will the great powers allow it? - Will Palestine be able to produce enough to feed us? - Are Jews good farmers?
These are all important and complex questions and it is impossible to make categorical statements about them, not least because it is impossible to be certain when you are talking about the future.
But at any rate there are certainly no fewer practical arguments for than there are against.
The Turkish treasury has been depleted to an unbelievable extent.
Whether everything in the Ottoman Empire will remain unchanged or the Young Turks will be victorious, the moment will come when Turkey finds itself in urgent need of money.
And you can just imagine the interest rates that the bankers will be demanding from such an unreliable payer as the Sublime Porte.
Under that scenario Turkey will be unable to ignore the fact that there is a bank now operating in London which was established for the specific purpose of offering it cheap credit.
When people need to borrow money they try to do so on the most favorable terms. The colonial bank will be obliged to offer such favorable terms.
It is also the case that Turkey will only stand to gain from Jewish settlement of Palestine. Because irrespective of whether or not the Jews manage to make Palestine “a land of milk and honey,” they will at least be making it a more lively, a more cultured and hence a more income-generating region than it is at present. The contribution paid by Jews will undoubtedly exceed the income which the Turkish treasury currently extracts from Palestine by means of direct and indirect taxation.
As for the great powers, there is no reason for them to “forbid” it.
Those Jews whom they tend to value highly – who provide stimulus to commerce – will probably not go to Palestine because life in Europe is still bearable to them.
The Jews who will travel are the Galicians, Congress Poles, Lithuanians, Romanians and other destitute down-and-outs who are nothing but a burden on the state and the local population.
Also travelling will be those intellectuals or semi-intellectuals who have not been able to settle down in their homelands, that same intellectual proletariat which no state will shed any tears over.
As regards the holy places of Christendom – I think they would be no worse off if the wild population of a different faith by which they are currently surrounded were to become subordinate in size to another population of a different faith – a population which would be, however, much more cultured; what is more, the great powers could continue to protect the integrity of the monuments of the Holy Land just as they do today.
As to whether Jews are good at farming, or whether the land of Palestine is able to produce cereal crops in sufficient quantities – these are questions which you could answer if you had the figures to hand.
I would just point out, though, that Finland has bare rock ledges but people have laid rich black soil on top of it and so are able to live off the fruits of that soil.
Naturally this isn’t something that comes immediately, but within a couple of generations it is possible to adapt oneself to anything, not just to farming.
Particularly so for Jews, who have long been used to proving their ability to adapt themselves to all kinds of living conditions, even circumstances which defy imagination.
You can have a laugh at that children’s game we played earlier with the term “scientific,” but its practical implications need to be thought through – need to be seriously weighed up and discussed. However, as for the third category of objections raised in relation to Zionism, the only appropriate reaction to those is to reject them indignantly and without compromise.
I am referring to the people who screech that Zionism is reactionary.
There are some people who live by the motto: “The only light I see is the one which shines in through my own window.”
These are ready to curse and trample underfoot anyone who thinks differently from them.
It would be pointless to make the following suggestion to such people:
- “…And his own received him not.” We may be travelling by different paths, but we have the same goal.
Because they don’t acknowledge the possibility of two paths. This would be their answer:
- So you are not with us? In that case you are against us.
They want to apply a one-size-fits-all solution to all the world’s problems and apply the same label to everybody – to make all people on this earth into the same type of narrow-minded, straightlaced, right-thinking, regular folks that they are themselves, incapable of using their own minds to reason a problem out properly – indeed seeing themselves as having no right to do so.
There is not a single repressive ingredient in Zionism.
How could nationalism be repressive?
To love your own nationality more than all other nationalities is just as natural as loving your own mother more than all other mothers.
Just as a person is entitled to protect and develop his or her own individual characteristics, so the nation is entitled to cherish its own individual characteristics.
And when attempts are made to deprive an oppressed nationality of its individual characteristics, as is happening right now in Poznan, we are all outraged and we empathize with that spirit of nationalism which has been awakened as a result.
We are all sympathetic to the nationalism of the person who is trying to defend himself.
That kind of nationalism is progressive in the highest degree.
What is reactionary is the nationalism of the aggressor, which tries to impose on another nationality its own features, its own language, its own customs.
Surely no-one is suggesting that the Jews need their own state so that they can have the opportunity to smother and oppress other peoples?
Some people have such crazy ideas about these matters: Zionism, nationalism, retrogradism…
- Zionism distracts Jews from those cultural activities which are common to all humanity; it distracts them from common human concerns.
A strange complaint – it is like saying that everybody is obliged to till in the same field.
You can be a friend of all humanity but work for the benefit of one nationality – because the well-being of that nationality forms part of the well-being of all humanity.
Does Zionism aspire to tear Jews away from spiritual closeness to Europe?
Zionism wants to give Jews a place where they can maintain that closeness, cultivate it and take pleasure in it – without being subjected to humiliation, without suffering persecution, without the risk of being deprived of their own essence as a nation.
You can argue against Zionism – you can say that it is unattainable or undesirable.
But saying that Zionism is reactionary – viewing its leaders as traitors to the ideals of the common human good – is not the same as arguing. It is tantamount to besmirching the dream which was born of all the lamentations and all the sufferings of the Jewish people – and, what is more, besmirching it in a crude and flippant fashion; it means forcing people into sharing your viewpoint by hook or by crook; it means responding to the tearful prayer of Ahasver, the tormented Wandering Jew, by cursing at him and by smearing with idle gossip and slander the sacred ideal which he has cherished for many centuries.
Curse away! Because ideals live on a higher plane than idle gossip and have no fear of slander.
Vladimir Jabotinsky, “On Zionism,” 1902. Commentary by Brian Horowitz
In 1902, Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Russian-Jewish writer and later leader of right-wing Zionism, was not known as a politician. Readers of Odessa’s leading newspapers praised him as a brilliant stylist and essayist who regularly published lively and caustic feuilletons. He wrote about everything—the weather, politics, school curriculum, the wealthy and the poor, books, opera, theater—anything and everything. But then, seemingly out of the blue, in September 1902, he wrote a piece, “On Zionism.” Ostensibly it was a response to a critical article on the subject by Iosif Bickerman in the populist journal Russkoe Bogatstvo (Russian Wealth). It was surprising that someone like Jabotinsky would seriously engage the subject. One would expect that Jabotinsky, an assimilated Jew, would agree with Bickerman. However, Jabotinsky tore into Bickerman, accusing him of offending everything sacred to a Jewish person! He formulated a defense of Jews as a nation with an irrevocable right of return to their historical patrimony, Eretz Israel, in order to develop a unique Jewish culture there through the mode of the modern Hebrew language. These ideas seemed so unlike the decadent Jabotinsky that Zionists in the Odessa cultural circles, such as Yehoshua Ravnitsky, were confused and elated.
It seemed a great catch for the Zionist movement that such a talented writer as Jabotinsky had joined the ranks. Indeed, Jabotinsky put into his mellifluous voice the ideas of spiritual Zionist Ahad Ha’am, arguing that the land could transform the Jews today as they had once been transformed in the distant past. In coming years, Jabotinsky helped build Zionist culture with his translations of Hayim Nachman Bialik into Russian. His advocacy for Hebrew in the diaspora was also significant. His talent as a writer of feuilletons attracted readers to the Zionist newspaper, Rassvet, which was published from 1904 until 1934, first in St. Petersburg and then in Paris.
“On Zionism” is central to Jabotinsky’s development because it was his first serious political credo and signaled his intellectual future. Previously an aesthete and an admirer of Alexander Pushkin and Edgar Allen Poe, from 1902 on he turned to nationalist politics, Jewish issues, socialism, the Bund, and liberalism. Once he found Zionism he never looked back, investing his efforts to promote it.
During the first decade of the twentieth century, he retained his effervescent style, irony, and spirit of vitality—the spirit of the feuilleton—but dedicated their use to Zionism. He denounced the Bund (Jewish socialism) and Territorialism, he launched a damning critique of anti-Semitism in Russian literature, and fought with colleagues over Jewish school curriculum and the centrality of Hebrew study in the diaspora. Incidentally, during the 1970s among the Refuseniks in Soviet Russia, many told me that Jabotinsky had been the reason for their decision to devote themselves to Jewish causes and become prisoners of Zion. His good writing combined with his politics proved irresistible.