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3 | “The Jewish Renaissance Movement” and “Jewish Autonomy” Nathan Birnbaum Mathias Acher [Nathan Birnbaum], “Die Juedische Renaissance-Bewegung,” Ost und West, September 1902, 576–84. Mathias Acher [Nathan Birnbaum], “Juedische Autonomie,” Ost und West, January 1906, 1–6. The articles “The Jewish Renaissance Movement” and “Jewish Autonomy” represent only one snapshot of Nathan Birnbaum’s (1864–1937) varied ideological and political career. Though Birnbaum has not been widely remembered, Jess Olson has quite aptly suggested that he was clearly a figure of significance to his contemporaries. While a young man in Vienna in the 1880s, Birnbaum was an early and influential Zionist. He was among the founders of Kadimah, a Jewish nationalist fraternity at Vienna University; he founded and edited Selbst-Emancipation, the first Zionist newspaper in German; and he even coined the term “Zionism” (zionismus in German). By the 1890s, however, Birnbaum had become more concerned with Jewish national rights in Europe than with Palestine, and his difficult relationship with Theodor Herzl, the charismatic Zionist leader, probably fostered his shift away from Zionism (to Birnbaum, Herzl was a neophyte who was unaware of the movement’s history; to Herzl, Birnbaum’s resentment was a product of petty jealousy). In 1899 Birnbaum formally resigned his position in the World Zionist Organization, a move that reflected the culmination of his ideological shift toward a diaspora-centered nationalism as much as it did his dislike of Herzl. During the years following his break with Zionism, Birnbaum wrote a number of articles criticizing the Zionist movement’s ideological resistance to the idea that Jewish nationalism could flourish in the diaspora through Jewish culture and politics. In particular, Birnbaum became increasingly interested in using Eastern European Jewish culture and the Yiddish language to craft a nonparty “Jewish Renaissance movement” rooted in Europe. Following his departure from Zionism, Birnbaum clarified a definition of “Jewish Renaissance” independent of the prevalent Zionist one. Such a radical nationalist conception of renaissance arguably dates at least to Moses Hess’s 1861 essay, Rome and Jerusalem, in which Hess, inspired by such nationalist contemporaries 46 | f r o m h a s k a l a to n at i o n a l r e n a i s s a n c e as Giuseppe Mazzini, had proclaimed that “only a national renaissance can endow the religious genius of the Jews . . . with new strength and raise its soul once again to the level of prophetic inspiration.” Writing in 1902, and distancing himself from more romantic conceptions of renaissance prevalent among such cultural Zionist figures as Martin Buber (who had himself recently used the term “Jewish Renaissance” in the same periodical), Birnbaum offered a conception of “rebirth” detached from what he saw as unusable, remote pasts and grounded instead in political and cultural realities. This concern for the present is signaled by, among other things, his preference for Yiddish—bearing as it did the marks of recent diaspora history—over Hebrew as a national language. Birnbaum’s modernist, pragmatic approach to the idea of renaissance appropriately accompanies his transition from Zionism—which, by 1902, he felt was an unrealistic solution to the Jewish question—to autonomism. The political debates about national minority rights in the Habsburg Empire during the early years of the twentieth century provided an opening for Birnbaum to argue for Habsburg Jewry’s political autonomy. It is the wrangling over Jewish exclusion or inclusion from new proposals for autonomy and political representation among the empire’s nationalities that form the context for the article “Jewish Autonomy.” Birnbaum became one of the leading advocates for Jewish national rights in the Habsburg Empire, in contrast to those people, both Jewish and nonJewish , who believed that, unlike the empire’s other nationalities seeking greater political representation, Jews should assimilate the political goals of one or the other of the nationalities among whom they lived. Though Birnbaum would move away from diaspora nationalism and eventually become a leading figure in the Orthodox political movement Agudat Yisrael, his writings, especially between 1902 and 1908, made a cogent argument for Jewish national rights in the diaspora. The Jewish Renaissance Movement In my article “Some Thoughts on Antisemitism,” published in the previous issue of Ost und West, I mentioned the “Jewish Renaissance movement.”44 I now feel obliged to explain in further detail the meaning I ascribe to this term. If I substituted this word for “Zionism,” one might think my intention was to coin a new word for the ideal of a...


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