restricted access 7. Jewish Autonomy Yesterday and Today
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7 | Jewish Autonomy Yesterday and Today Jacob Lestschinsky Yakov Lestschinsky, Di Yidishe avtonomye amol un haynt. Kiev: Central Committee of the Fareynikte Yidishe Sotsyalistishe Arbeter Partey, 1918. Like the many other ideological nomads in this volume, a belief in socialist auton­ omism and diaspora nationalism marked but one stage in Jacob Lestschinsky’s (1876–1966) long and varied political career. Lestschinsky was born in Horodische, near Kiev, where he received a traditional education before moving to Odessa, then Bern, and finally Zurich in pursuit of higher education. In Odessa, Lestschinsky became a Hebraist and devotee of Ahad Ha’am, but in Switzerland he transformed himself into a Marxist and returned to the Russian Empire a devoted socialist Zionist. Over the course of his life, Lestschinsky moved from socialist Zionism to territorialism, then to socialist autonomism and diaspora nationalism, and finally back to socialist Zionism. Lestschinsky is best known as a pioneering Jewish sociologist and demographer. He began publishing sociological studies as early as 1903, with an economic and demographic study of his hometown, and wrote the first work in any language to attempt to detail the impact of industrialization on Russian Jews. Der yidisher arbeter (in rusland) (The Jewish worker [in Russia]) was one of the first scholarly monographs in Yiddish, and in explaining the disadvantages faced by the Jewish proletariat, it made a Marxist argument for territorial concentration. During World War I, Lestschinsky worked for a Jewish relief agency based in Warsaw, and with the fall of the tsar, he moved to Kiev to participate in building Jewish autonomy there. He helped organize the United Jewish Socialist Workers’ Party (Fareynikte), the Kultur-Lige, and its publishing wing, the Folks-Farlag. In “Jewish Autonomy Yesterday and Today,” Lestschinsky analyzed Jewish economic and communal life in Poland before and after partition in a manner combining Dubnovian autonomism and Marxist history. Lestschinsky argued that Jewish self-government preserved Jewish autonomy from the beginning of the Jewish diaspora, but as a holdover from feudal autonomy and a stand-in for territory, the Jewish communal government could not survive modernization. According to Lestschinsky, in the nineteenth century Jewish self-government became a tool of oppression in the hands of the wealthy, and with increased economic and class 126 | s o c i a l i s m a n d j e w i s h p e o p l e h o o d stratification, the bourgeoisie and middle classes sought to separate themselves from the Jewish nation. In contrast, the newly emerging social classes—Jewish workers and artisans—reinforced national identity and created their own form of autonomy. By concentrating geographically, he wrote in a section of the essay before the part included below, the Jewish laboring classes in effect “create a new Jewish ‘territory,’ and urban and modern Jewish domain.” The Fareynikte published “Jewish Autonomy Yesterday and Today” in pamphlet form within the context of the competition between Jewish socialist and liberal parties to define, shape, and control the institutions of Jewish autonomy in Ukraine. Thus, the pamphlet was clearly intended to give a historic underpinning to the Fareynikte’s claim to Jewish national leadership. Lestschinsky went to great lengths in his argument to dismiss all efforts at Jewish national cultural construction preceding the revolutionary period. If Jewish autonomy has been historically preserved by the working class, then the Fareynikte must be best equipped to lead the way to Jewish autonomy in the future. Lestschinsky was known as a romantic who got carried away with ideas, but he never joined another party after the Fareynikte. In 1921 he became Berlin correspondent for the New York daily Forverts, and he wrote for the paper for the next forty years. Between 1923 and 1925, Lestschinsky was one of three editors for the journal Bleter far yidisher demografye, statistik, un ekonomik (Papers on Jewish demography, statistics, and economics), and with other émigrés from the failed autonomous experiment in Ukraine, he helped found the yivo Institute for Jewish Research, in particular its economic statistical section. After being expelled from Germany in 1933, and making brief stays in Prague and Riga, Lestschinsky lived primarily in Warsaw until 1938, when he moved to the United States. During the 1930s, Lestschinsky returned to socialist Zionism, seeing Israel as the only place where Jews had the combined freedom and insularity necessary to return to the cohesion of premodern diaspora Jewish life. Lestschinsky moved with his family from the United States to Israel in 1959. Below are the...


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Subject Headings

  • Jewish nationalism -- History.
  • Jews -- Identity
  • Jewish nationalism -- Europe -- History.
  • Zionism.
  • Judaism and politics.
  • Socialism and Judaism.
  • Jews -- United States -- Identity.
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