Zionist leader, Yiddishist, journalist, and Jewish theoretician and philosopher Nathan Birnbaum (1864-1937), who sometimes used the pseudonyms “Mattisyahu Ascher” or “Mathias Acher,” is one of the most important Zionists you probably never heard of. He is most famous for coining the terms “Zionism” (in 1890) and “political Zionism” (in 1892).
His life, which was one of great philosophical and ideological transition, consisted of three distinct phases: a political Zionist phase, during which he was a great supporter of Herzl and served as Secretary General of the First Zionist Congress; a Jewish cultural phase, during which he advocated for Jewish cultural autonomy and actively promoted Yiddish language and culture; and a religious phase, which began when he became ultra-Orthodox and generally rejected Zionism in favor of Jewish traditional observance.
Birnbaum was born into an Eastern European Jewish family in Vienna where, after receiving a traditional religious education, he studied law, philosophy, and Near Eastern studies at the University of Vienna from 1882-85, and founded Kadimah, the first Zionist student organization of Jewish nationalist students in the West, in 1884.
More than a decade before Herzl published Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) in 1896, which many – mistakenly, in my opinion – credit as the seminal event in the birth of modern Zionism, Birnbaum published The Assimilation Disease/Mania (1884); founded, published, and edited “Self-Emancipation!” (1884-94), a periodical promoting the idea of a Jewish renaissance and the resettlement of Eretz Yisrael; and published The National Rebirth of the Jewish People in its Homeland as a Means of Solving the Jewish Question (1893). In all of these publications, he promoted essentially the same modern Zionist ideas for which Herzl was credited a few years later.
Birnbaum played a leading role in the First Zionist Congress in 1897, was elected its Secretary General, and became one of the most important representatives of cultural Zionism, which promoted the settlement of Eretz Yisrael without specific promotion of a Jewish state. However, after being drawn into political Zionism by Chaim Weizmann, he and Herzl developed ideological differences when Birnbaum began to question the political aims of Zionism and to attach increasing importance to the national-cultural content of Judaism. Unhappy with the movement’s negative view of Diasporan Jewry and unable to embrace Zionism as merely another national liberation movement lacking deep Jewish roots, he split with Herzl in 1898 after the Second Zionist Congress.
Abandoning the organized Zionist movement – many Zionist leaders, including Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky, considered him a traitor – Birnbaum became a leading spokesman for Jewish cultural autonomy in the Diaspora, so called “Galut nationalism,” pursuant to which he promoted the recognition of Jews as a unique people amongst other recognized national demographic groups. Emphasizing Yiddish as the language of Ashkenazi Jewish culture and proclaiming it the national Jewish language (at the turn of the 20th century, some 90 percent of Jews worldwide spoke Yiddish), he convened the Yiddish Conference in Czernowitz, Bukovina in 1908, which was attended by leading Yiddish writers.
In the years preceding WWI, however, Birnbaum began to question his secular viewpoint and, influenced particularly by the vibrancy of Chassidism and the Mussar movement, he embraced ultra-Orthodox Judaism; led the forerunner of what became the modern Baal Teshuva movement; and served as the first Secretary General of the new (then) anti-Zionist Agudath Yisrael Organization in 1919.
Rejecting both political Zionism and Yiddishism, he argued that Jewish authenticity could only be found in devout Jewish faith, and that the adoption of fundamentalist Orthodox Jewish beliefs and practices was the sole means for bringing about the salvation of the Jewish people through the coming of the Messiah. Seeking to raise spiritual awareness across the entire Jewish world, he initiated Chever Olim, the “Ascenders Society,” a movement designed to direct the renaissance of traditional Judaism and to teach agrarian skills to Jews so as to separate them from the pagan influences of modernism and secularism.
Birnbaum lived in Berlin from 1912-14 and again from 1921-33, but after the rise of Nazism, he left Germany for the Hague, where he published “Der Ruf” (“The Call”), an anti-Zionist newspaper. The rare, signed correspondence exhibited here was mailed from Berlin on November 28, 1932 to Yehoshua Radler-Feldmann (1880-1957) in Jerusalem:
Many thanks for your card of the 11th [of the month]. I cannot agree with the objection you raised in “Hahed” regarding my observation in “Aufstieg.”
If the arguments made originate from Frau Thon and Herr Lofban – and I believe that they do – then other conscious or unconscious motives cannot change the situation.
I hope you are well and with warm regards,
“Der Aufstieg” (“Ascension”) was a monthly journal published by Birnbaum between 1930-33 in which he wrote many of the articles himself. Reflecting his devoutness and deep Orthodox beliefs, the journal was dedicated to the proposition that the resolution to the “Jewish problem” lay not with the establishment of a territorial, state-like entity but, rather, a worldwide “all Israel Congregation” under halachic leadership.
“Ha-Hed” was a religious national monthly edited by Radler-Feldman from 1926-53 whose purpose was to bring the charedi population closer to the Zionist idea. (Radler-Feldman was also the first editor of the religious Zionist Movement’s newspaper, Hazofe.)
Yitzchak Lofban (1888-1948), who abandoned his Orthodox background and yeshiva studies for the “Jewish Enlightenment” – another phrase created by Birnbaum – joined the Labor Zionist movement and became a member of the cultural council of the Zionist Organization; served as a delegate to several Zionist Congresses, and became a member of the central committee of Mapai. Further, writing in many Yiddish, Polish, and German Zionist publications in Poland, Austria, and Germany, he championed non-religious Zionist positions.
Mrs. Thon (one of the persons referenced in the above exhibit) was the spouse of Rabbi Dr. Yehoshua (Ozjasz) Thon (1870-1936), a Polish journalist who was a strong supporter of Herzl and political Zionism. He was one of the organizers of the First Zionist Congress in 1897, and served as a leader of the Jewish political party in the Polish parliament. The Reform rabbi is also known for his shameful public proclamation at the Versailles International Peace Conference in 1919 that “[t]he Jews are a nation, not a religious sect, and we wish the world to know that.”
Though we do not know the issue being discussed in Birnbaum’s letter, it is not surprising that Radler-Feldman – and Lofban and Mrs. Thon – took positions antithetical to Birnbaum’s.
Radler-Feldman, who adopted the pseudonym “Rabbi Binyamin,” was a Hebrew journalist who published thousands of articles and essays on a broad variety of subjects, including analyses of the great figures of ancient and modern European civilization, Asian cultures, and modern Hebrew literature. Among the founders of the Berit Shalom association in 1925, he was an important progenitor of the binational concept in the Yishuv; a strident advocate for a binational state for Arabs and Jews; and a self-professed moralist who characterized Israel’s 1948 War of Independence as “a war of subjugation” rather than of liberation.
His contradictory and inconsistent ideology sought to fuse Jewish tradition and humanitarian liberalism. But the facts eventually got in his way, so he ultimately bypassed the great obstacle presented by the Arabs of Eretz Yisrael by defining Judaism not as a religion, but as an ethnicity. In fact, he went even further: Not only did “Rabbi” Binyamin not see the Arabs as a threat, despite ample evidence to that effect, but he also actively encouraged Jews to marry their Arab “brothers.” One can only imagine how this must have driven the pious Birnbaum mad.
Thus, in our correspondence, an obviously piqued Birnbaum seems to be arguing with Radler-Feldman over the latter’s objection to Birnbaum’s remark, which objection seems to incorporate references to remarks by Thon and Lofban. Given the questionable source of these opinions, Birnbaum seems to conclude that either: (1) the truth and reality of “the situation” cannot be changed, even if their opinions are intended, consciously or unconsciously, to appease or satisfy others; or (2) Thon’s and Lofban’s biases, conscious or otherwise, undercut their support of Radler-Feldmann’s objection.
In conclusion, although Birnbaum’s very name continues, not surprisingly, to be an anathema to contemporary political Zionists, I think it beyond argument that he was correct that the Zionist movement, while trying to solve the “Jewish problem,” failed entirely to address problems with Judaism as a religious faith, which continue to plague the modern Israeli state in so many ways. As one analyst aptly put it: “today, Israel suffers because the reality of the state is rooted in a modern European nationalism, and the desire to `be like the nations’ is not enough to sustain a unifying ideology that can take the place of a failing Labor Zionist ethos.”