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Zionism and the Fin de Siecle. Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism from Nordau to Jabotinsky.

Zionism and the Fin de Siecle. Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism from Nordau to Jabotinsky. By Michael Stanislawsky. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. xxi + 275 pp.

This book belongs to the growing body of revisionist literature on Zionism. It was unavoidable, in the decades after the establishment of the Jewish state, that the history of Zionism would be critically reconsidered. The revisionist thrust came from diverse directions. One trend, starting in the late 1980s, questioned then-current Israeli views about the Israeli-Palestinian war in 1948 and the emergence of the problem of the Palestinian refugees. Another trend, which began in the mid-1990s, casts doubts on the ideological significance of Zionism in the light of new theories of nationalism. Zionism and the Fin de Siecle represents a further contribution to this revisionist literature, in the biographical direction, influenced by what its author calls "our post-ideological age."

Stanislawsky sketches an outline of four figures in Zionist history--Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, Ephraim Lilien, and Vladimir Jabotinsky--and literally demolishes what he considers the hagiographical tendencies of existing Zionist biographical writing on these men. The writer draws on sources that so far were either unknown or insufficiently examined and analyzes that material with incisive sharpness.

On one point Stanislawsky remains inside the borders of classical Zionist historiography: Zionism, as considered by him, was a strictly European phenomenon. American Zionism, or the Zionism of the Jewries in Muslim countries, and the interesting Zionist figures who emerged there, are not mentioned in the book, perhaps (in the best of cases) because they belong to a later time.

A refreshing quality of Stanislawsky's book is his familiarity with both Jewish and general European history, well served by a broad cultural background, qualities that unfortunately are not found in much of the existing revisionist literature on Zionism or the so far available biographies of the figures dealt with by the author. The result is a lesson for every student of history about the openmindness, the thoroughness, the intelligence, and the patience that are needed for real historical work. In addition, Stanislawsky knows how to tell a story. Rarely has this reviewer read such an engrossing book on Jewish history.

At the same time, Zionism and the Fin de Siecle suffers from structural weaknesses that apparently reflect problems in the conception underlying the work. The book concentrates on Nordau and (especially) on Jabotinsky. Theodor Herzl, a fascinating phenomenon in his own right, gets too short a treatment. The chapter on the artist Ephraim Lilien seems out of place. Between Herzl, Nordau, and Jabotinsky there were similarities in the character of their Jewishness (or un-Jewishness) and in the kind of Zionism they came to adopt. On both accounts, Lilien belonged to different categories, and his inclusion in the volume reads as forced. Last, the chapter of the conclusions starts with a description of the relations between Nordau and Jabotinsky for which space should have been found elsewhere.

The conceptual problem mentioned above regards the point of view of the writer: What actually is Stanislawsky trying to prove? With all his thoroughness, with all the sharpness of his views, in the end we know less about the reasons for the Zionist turn of the men Stanislawsky considers than we did at the beginning. Indeed, there is an almost anarchic trend underlying his analysis. The turn of Herzl, Nordau, or Jabotinsky to Zionism appears unrelated to any understandable logic: these were developments, as Stanislawky explains with great objective incisiveness and with even greater subjective gusto, that could or could not have occurred.

Whatever happened was, in Stanislawsky's view, related to the peculiar intellectual atmosphere of the fin de siecle in Europe. That concept deserves to be considered through the same uncompromising lens as the other themes of the book. Fin de siecle, the years between the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, became known for its very internalized, rather decadent mood. However, seen from our present perspective, such a view hardly corresponds to the actual realities of that past time. The period in question was an age of unprecedented peace and prosperity in Europe, accompanied by vigorous political, social, and intellectual creation of new technologies, new artistic expressions, new political and social movements.

Zionism was not the result of some end-of-century melancholic temper, but an expression of the general creative atmosphere of the time. Zionism was capable of encompassing cosmopolitan as well as national trends, Jewish exponents of assimilation, assimilationism, acculturation, and integration (to use Stanislawsky's categories), or the combinations, variations, or oppositions to those trends. The lives, turns, and activities of the people considered in Stanislawky's book are better understood on the positive background which the Zionist idea furnished. After all, if Herzl or Nordau or Jabotinsky became well-known names in Jewish life, it did not happen because of the intellectual contradictions of the first (or, for that matter, his matrimonial troubles), the affair with Olga Novikova of the second, or the weird inner musings of the last, but because of their activities in the framework of the Zionist movement. Obviously, there was a relationship between the personal idiosyncrasies of each of these men (or of any others) and their later Zionist work. Unfortunately, that very essential bridge is left unbuilt in Stanislawsky's otherwise so impressive work.

One example, relating to Vladimir Jabotinsky, a man who impressed Stanislawsky deeply, explains that point. His description of the diverse cultural milieus in which Jabotinsky grew up is a piece of sociological sensitivity that has few parallels in Jewish historical literature. Nevertheless, when we try to understand the connections between the man, his formation, and his subsequent political line, we get no help from Stanislawsky. There was sometimes a strange disconnection between Jabotinsky's personal conceptions and the political realities. For instance, no analysis of British policies in Palestine--at whatever time--was sharper, cleverer, and more logical than Jabotinsky's. There was a fault, however, at his point of departure: the starting premise of Jabotinsky was that England had entered into a holy alliance with the Zionist movement, embodied in the Balfour Declaration. Such a view was nothing but a figment of his imagination: there was no alliance, and whatever understanding had been reached in 1917, it was anything but holy. In other words, the impressive analytical building of Jabotinsky's views about British policies in Palestine hovered somehow in the air, unrelated at its basis to political realities. Now, such an interpretation of Jabotinsky's reasoning is as subjective as any other. But at least it represents an effort to link Jabotinsky's psychological framework and his intellectual formation to his later political behavior. We find nothing in that direction in Stanislawsky's book, regarding none of the figures he considered in whatever Zionist circumstances.

It is the fate of a good work of history that it answers some questions, and at the same time brings up new ones. And what a rich work Stanislawsky's is! But in the end his Zionism and the Fin de Siecle proves the opposite of what the author apparently had in mind. We may end convinced that to understand Zionism through the biographies of the figures analyzed in the book, or implicitly through the life stories of any other Zionist leaders, may lead us into an intellectual cul-de-sac. Back then, perhaps, to the ideology of Zionism?

Evyatar Friesel

Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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Author:Friesel, Evyatar
Publication:American Jewish History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2002
Words:1220
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