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  • The Power of Authenticity:Individualism, Gender, and Politics in Early German Zionism1
  • Manja Herrmann (bio)


Within the field of German-Jewish studies in general, and Zionist thinking in particular, the discourse of authenticity is of central importance. This article critically examines the functions and effects of the ideas of "the authentic Jew" and "the authentic Jewishness" or "Judaism" within early German Zionism. It will trace the skillful marking of "authentic" and "inauthentic" entities in German-Zionist thinking. Certain figures and a certain habitus are referred to as unambiguously "inauthentic"—usually summarized in the slogan "assimilation,"—and Zionism is constructed as the only authentic form of being.

By focusing on this concept in early German-Zionist discourse, this essay aims to reassess and modify conventional research which usually projects "authentic Judaism" or "Jewishness" solely onto Eastern Europe. Accordingly, most studies about Jewish nationalist authenticity deal with the East–West discourse or orientalism and stress the image of the "authentic Eastern Jew." In his 1982 classic, Brothers and Strangers, Steven E. Aschheim wrote that in Western Zionism the eastern European Jew became "the embodiment of Jewish authenticity" and an "exemplar of the unfragmented self."2 David A. Brenner explained in his innovative 1998 study, Marketing Identities, how the stereotypical representation of a "western Jewish enlightened identity" was opposed to an "eastern Jewish traditional identity" as a means to create an "ethnical pan-Judaism."3 Michael Brenner also refers to the "Jew as oriental" and uses the rhetoric of the "authentic eastern European Jew."4

Interpretations of German-Jewish history in general, however, and German Zionism in particular, alternatively carry the connotation of inauthenticity, an attitude that we also come across in early Zionist discourse. This article will reevaluate these statements, and point out [End Page 93] the existence of distinct German-Jewish nationalist and Zionist constructs of authenticity, which reveal a very individualist and transcultural understanding of an "authentic Jewish self."

Presenting German-Zionist ideas of authenticity as individualist and transcultural does not mean, however, that within German-Zionist thought we are confronted with uniform notions. On the contrary, German-Zionist understandings of authenticity were highly gendered and in studying them we at times encounter the very harsh politics of authenticity. This reveals the social and political implications of a theoretical concept and how both relate to questions of power. Concepts are not juxtaposed to politics but are merely embedded in a complex interrelation between theoretical thinking and social and political realities.

Based on important societal impulses in the sixteenth century, the idea of living in an authentic condition and leading an authentic life became—as Lionel Trilling, Charles Taylor and other twentieth-century scholars have convincingly argued—one of the most central goals, and even a moral obligation in modern times.5 During the nineteenth century, this idea became strongly interlinked with nationalist movements and the assumption that the individual could only find self-fulfillment as an authentic human being when part of a nation.6 The concept of authenticity therefore remained central in the nineteenth century, especially in the German lands and later in the Kaiserreich. Accordingly, it is no surprise that in German-Zionist discourse, too, the notion of authenticity is omnipresent.

Determining one's own authenticity in Germany was a particular challenge in the Zionist view due to the "German-Jewish experience."7 Here, the social status of Jews was particularly important and always of concern in negotiations of authenticity. German Zionism emerged at a time when German antisemitism was intensifying. For its part, antisemitism sent out a clear message regarding exclusionary German nationalism, which envisioned the image of an original and authentic German nation and thus an exclusionary concept of authenticity. Hence, the present study also reveals some of the numerous effects of this antisemitic resentment on German Jews. The Zionist discourse of authenticity evolved amidst the tension between emancipation, recognition, self-assertion, antisemitism, and cultural self-fulfillment. And although not all Jews or Jewish groups shared these perspectives—not everyone considered themselves as marginalized—a specific tendency can be identified in Zionist discourse. "Zionism," in this approach, denoted not only the political movement of a collective but also a matter of subjectivity, something that...


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