Zionism and the Fin de Siècle

Zionism and the Fin de Siècle: Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism from Nordau to Jabotinsky by Michael Stanislawski, University of California Press, pp282, price £12.95


History is in the mind of the beholder – until someone discovers new material which undermines passionately held truths. Michael Stanislawski, a Professor at Columbia University, has had access to the early writings of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist-Zionist movement, in former Soviet archives. He concludes that Jabotinsky’s autobiography, written in later life was essentially ‘a self-conscious and highly inventive literary creation that deliberately, if quite naturally, present a selective and factually distorted  portrait’. Based on articles in the Odessa press, Jabotinsky, a Russified Jew, was seemingly unaware of even a rudimentary understanding of ‘Jewishness’ and was not ‘a Zionist from birth’. This new material shows him to be typical of his time and society, ‘radically individualistic, anti-nationalistic, quasi-nihilistic’ and that he was not influenced by Garibaldi, Mazzini and Italian nationalism as he projected later years as an outstanding Zionist nationalist. Jabotinsky always argued that he did not become a Zionist due to the Kishinev pogrom in 1903. Accordingly, Stanislawski suggests that Jabotinsky was undergoing a spiritual and ideological crisis at this time. In letter to Maxim Gorky, Jabotinsky admitted that ‘those who predicted greatness for me are now convinced that I am lost.’. Shortly afterwards, he discovered the allure of building the future Jewish state at the sixth Zionist Congress. And contrary to his account in the autobiography, Stanislawski believes that Jabotinsky never met Herzl there.

This remarkable yet controversial book looks behind Jabotinsky the great orator and inspirer of generations. It certainly recasts Jabotinsky’s early life but it also relies heavily on his fictional works as clues to his real personality. Stanislawski also interprets Jabotinsky in his original Russian and not from the translated Hebrew.

This revision of Jabotinsky’s early life is complimented by the reconstruction of Max Nordau, Herzl’s right hand man – a social Darwinist rather than a liberal. Stanislawski discovered a cache of 300 letters in a Kansas University archive between Nordau and a hitherto unknown lover, Olga Novikov who was known for reactionary views and dislike of Jews. The correspondence which covers the period between 1886 until 1902 reflects Nordau’s growing self-perception as a Jewish nationalist. Clearly our perceptions of the founding fathers of Zionism including Herzl tend to be an extrapolation backwards rather than an actual understanding of the crises in both European and Jewish intellectual life at the turn of the century and the subsequent double conversion to Zionism.  This original book undoubtedly adds to our knowledge.

Jewish Chronicle 17 August 2001

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