- Jewish Rights, National Rites: Nationalism and Autonomy in Late Imperial Russia by Simon Rabinovitch
This engaging book sheds new light on the origins of Jewish nationalism and party politics in late imperial Russia. Much like the neighbouring Poles, Finns, Ukrainians, and other groups who began to define themselves as nations in the late nineteenth century, Jews in the Russian Empire formed a huge variety of political and cultural movements, all with a common goal to revoke discriminatory legislation against Jews and to secure civil and national rights. Both the socialist and Zionist movements realized their goals to an extent in 1917 and 1948, respectively, and have received much scholarly attention for that reason. Simon Rabinovitch’s focus here is among the lesser known, but arguably most influential, of Jewish national ideologies of this period: Autonomism, or Diaspora Nationalism — a movement built from the idea that despite their status as a non-territorial nation, Jews were entitled to rights of national autonomy within a modern constitutional framework.
The book begins with a discussion of the origins of autonomist ideology, a brainchild of the prolific and brilliant Russian-Jewish historian Simon Dubnov (1860–1941). Later chapters chronicle the influence of autonomist ideas on the rise of Jewish party politics during Russia’s 1905 Revolution; Dubnov’s formation in St. Petersburg of an autonomist political party (the Jewish People’s Party, or Folkspartey); and his leadership of the party from 1907 to its demise, shortly after the 1917 Revolution.
This study’s novelty is its detailed reconstruction of Dubnov’s ideas and their impact on Jewish national politics during the decade that preceded the collapse of Russia’s autocracy. While Dubnov’s writings as a nationalist historian are well known, Rabinovitch reveals here how Dubnov moved from the realm of ideas to that of practical politics. The main argument of [End Page 589] the book is that Dubnov’s influence extended far beyond that of his own party, which remained relatively small and never gained widespread support on the Jewish street; rather, his doctrine of autonomism offered a “common language of national rights and autonomy” (p. 118) that most of Russia’s Jewish political parties, including socialist, Zionist, and liberal variants, adopted as part of their respective platforms.
A first chapter explains Dubnov’s belief, expounded in a series of political treatises between 1897 and 1907, that national rights constituted at once a defense against (what he regarded as) the pernicious effects of assimilation, and a positive means to preserve Jews as a distinct spiritual and cultural nation (his terms) of people with full civil equality. He identified the historical model for Jewish autonomy in the form of the kehillah (Heb.), or self-governing community, which had existed in the Diaspora since ancient times. By 1905, “Dubnov’s historical vision had seeped into the political sphere” (p. 92), most visibly in its influence, in 1905, on Russia’s first unified Jewish political organization, the Union for Rights. Dubnov founded the Folkspartey after the disbandment of the Union of Rights in 1907, and one of the party’s major goals in the years before 1914 — to convert existing Jewish philanthropic and cultural organizations into legally recognized organs of Jewish self-government — was realized in unanticipated and highly inauspicious circumstances during World War I. These large charitable organizations formed a unified Relief Committee, known by its Russian acronym as ekopo, and provided aid to Jewish refugees and expellees from the Empire’s western war-torn provinces. The Russian government, which lacked the practical ability to help Jewish war victims, granted ekopo a large degree of independence in providing essential human and also cultural services to hundreds of thousands of Jews. Following the abdication of the Tsar and the granting of Jewish civil equality by the first Provisional Government in March 1917, the Folkspartey became key players in the first All-Russian Jewish Congress, but high hopes for establishing a representative body for Russian Jewry were dashed following the Bolsheviks’ dissolution of the All-Russian Constituent...