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  • 1897: The Year of Jewish Revolutions?
  • Derek Jonathan Penslar

1897 marked the beginning of twin Jewish revolutions, one national and one social, that started out separately but took on aspects of each other as they drew closer together over time. The one was embodied in the Zionist Organization, which held its first congress in Basel in August of that year. The other was promoted by the General Jewish Labor Bund in Russia and Poland, which was founded in Vilna in October.

Neither revolution appeared out of the blue, unfolding rather over a long arc of time. Across the nineteenth century, Jews had figured in radical politics throughout Europe, particularly in Russia from the late 1870s. Jewish nationalism assumed many forms, some of them oriented toward Palestine, such as the Hovevei Tsion (Lovers of Zion) societies, which sprang up throughout Eastern Europe and Romania after 1882, and which were organized into an international federation in 1884. Just as Jewish radicalism and nationalism preceded 1897, so did they continue to develop outside the framework of the Bund and the Zionist Organization.

Why, then, should we look to 1897 as a turning point in the history of both Jewish nationalism and radicalism? In that year, both the Zionist Organization and the Bund formalized and pushed forward previously inchoate revolutionary political projects, and within a few years they would become the most dynamic Jewish political institutions in Eastern Europe, with global influence. Their ideologies were mutually influential: Zionism quickly attracted socialists, and over time the Bund cautiously embraced the goal of Jewish autonomism in a postrevolutionary Russian federation. Many of the competing forms of fin de siècle Jewish political life such as territorialism and middle-class, nonsocialist diaspora nationalism responded to, and in turn influenced, Zionism and Bundism.

The word "revolution" is multivalent, and its meaning and consequences for Zionism and Bundism are not identical. The word is commonly associated with upheaval and the attempted supplanting of one [End Page 520] regime (be it political, social, or epistemic) by another. The revolutionary project of the Bund is obvious enough, as it sought to overthrow the Tsarist regime and construct a social democratic Russian federation. The extent to which that project succeeded, however, is debatable. The Tsarist regime fell, but the Bund did not bring about the revolutions of 1905 or 1917. During the early years of the Soviet Union, Jews enjoyed the fruits of emancipation, but in time they fell victim to oppression and persecution. The Bund's legacy was, therefore, ambiguous. Jews in North America still continue to identify more with the left than the right, but "left" almost always means liberalism, not radicalism, which is the province of small but vocal congeries of Jewish intellectuals, often cloistered in colleges and universities.

Zionist achievements have been more concrete than those of the Bund. A Jewish state was established in 1948. That state has recently marked its seventieth anniversary, and it has deeply affected Jewish consciousness across the globe. In most accounts of the history of Zionism, and in Jewish popular memory, the 1897 congress and its convener, Theodor Herzl, are accorded pioneering roles in the Zionist project. Herzl himself contributed to that perception, writing in his diary shortly after the conference's conclusion, "In Basel I founded the Jewish state."1 Did he?

The congress was indeed a momentous event, but its participants were divided about its goals and cautious in formulating them. Its platform, thenceforth known as the Basel Program, aspired to the "creation of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine to be secured by public law."2 This program represented a compromise between those who wanted a clear declaration of aspirations for statehood and those who feared that such boldness would endanger the status of the movement in Tsarist Russia and of those Jews living under Ottoman rule in Palestine. In the debate that preceded the adoption of the platform, some delegates demanded assurance that this "home" would be intended only for those Jews who did not wish to remain in their current lands of residence. Orthodox rabbis demanded that the movement limit itself to the improvement of the Jews' political status and not engage in religious affairs...