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  • David Gordon and Ha-Maggid: Changing Attitudes Toward Jewish Nationalism, 1860–1882
  • Yosef Salmon (bio)

David Gordon and E. L. Silbermann were forerunners of Jewish nationalism in the Central and Eastern Europe of the 1850s, via the weekly publication of their Hebrew newspaper, Ha-Maggid. Not merely publicizing, but addressing, the Jewish problems of their times, the two were among the pioneers of the new Jewish press (serving Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian readerships), which appeared in the late 1850s and early 1860s, and soon became central to the Jewish communities of both Eastern Europe and Palestine. 1

Throughout its reign (1856–1886), Ha-Maggid was the most important Hebrew periodical worldwide. During this time, David Gordon played a central role at the paper, first as an editor, than as editor and publisher (1880–1886). 2 Publishing out of Lyck, a small town on the border of eastern Prussia and Russia, the paper’s creators managed to evade the severity of Russian censors 3 while maintaining close contact with the Jewish centers of the Russian empire, as well as keeping in touch with Jewish communities in Western Europe, Palestine, and America. The paper’s location afforded it an ideal observation post on Europe’s political scene and its effect upon Jewish life.

E. L. Silbermann, first editor and publisher of Ha-Maggid, and Gordon—who began as co-editor in 1858—were products of the Lithuanian Jewish community. Though born in Konigsberg, Silbermann was educated in Krotingen, near the Lithuanian city of Kovno. Gordon was born near Vilna, spending his adolescence in Vilna and going to school there. The intellectual makeup of both men resulted from their synthesis of knowledge—common among Lithuanian Jews—about tradition and the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), though their understanding of the latter was achieved through auto-didactic endeavor.

Reflecting their distinctive background, the two men running Ha-Maggid were more interested in taking a stand on the social and political problems of Jewish life than in bringing their readership the daily news. But the fact that Silbermann and Gordon grew up at the center of the [End Page 109] Eastern European Jewish community and were committed to the traditional way of life made them more reliable, in the eyes of the Jewish public, than other individuals who grew up in southern and the more central regions of Russia.

Although their paper’s emphasis on internal community matters caused them to view world events through a Jewish prism, the editors’ high degree of familiarity with and sensitivity to the socio-political and spiritual problems of the Jews in Eastern and Central Europe enabled them to reexamine the primary assumptions of traditional Jewish society. Rejecting the separation of traditional Jewish culture from the evolving realities of European society, the two put forth a vision of Jewish modernization, treating two sets of issues: tradition versus Haskalah and the Jews’ emancipation versus their national revival. Although other Jewish leaders sought to develop models in which both goals in each respective set could be realized, Gordon (and to a certain extent Silbermann) was the most influential. 4

Gordon was far more a man of the world than Silbermann, possessing the better Jewish and general education. Yet Silbermann was more generally respected—being awarded medals for his public service by the Prussian government. As a professional team, the two men complemented each other: Silbermann was occupied chiefly with the financial and political aspects of publishing Ha-Maggid and Gordon was in charge of the paper’s content. Nevertheless, it was the evolution of Gordon’s national consciousness, as expressed in Ha-Maggid from the 1860s to 1886, that deserves the greater focus here.

From 1860 to 1880, known as the period of the forerunners of Zionism, and through the time of the Hibbat-Ziyyon movement, considered to be a reaction against the pogroms of 1881–1882, Gordon was among the important figures who played a central role in developing a Jewish ideology responsive to the times. Other activists such as the rabbis Kalisher and Alkalai, or the socialist thinker Moses Hess, initially played vital roles but died before the beginning of the second period.

Ha-Maggid’s self-proclaimed raison d’être...

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