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Memorial Address: Simon Dubnow 2

Paul Goodman

<plain_text><page sequence="1">(2) SIMON DUBNOW1 By the late Paul Goodman, F.R.Hist.S. In the unparalleled catastrophe which has overwhelmed Israel in Europe it is impossible to compute the spiritual and material values which have perished. It will, at least, be the duty of the Remnant that has escaped to give expression to the national grief, to rebuild the waste places, and to resume the tasks that have fallen from hands that are no more. It is in this spirit that we have met to commemorate Simon Dubnow, the greatest Jewish historian of our age, who two years ago fell a victim to the furor teutonicus which, like an elemental, irresistible cataclysm, has swept over the Continent of Europe and has left untold tragedies in its wake. Dubnow was both a hero and a victim of his time. He himself wrote of the fateful years 1914-1921, the years of the first world war and of the Russian revolution, as an experiment in vivisection which civilized mankind had undergone, and had manifested to the whole world the bare skeleton of the historical process that revealed the inner motive power of ancient, historic upheavals. It thus became possible to the Jewish historian to experience in his own person what his forbears had gone through in earlier times and during the Middle Ages. This at least can now be said of Dubnow. He passed away in the fulness of his years, with his life's work accom? plished, with the glory of martyrdom which he had to describe in the long and chequered annals of his people. And nothing that he suffered in his own bitter end can undo the imperishable achievement of which we are the grateful heirs. On the occasion of his seventieth birthday, in the year 1930, I had the honour to present to the Jewish Historical Society an account of " The Historical Works of 1 Delivered before the Jewish Historical Society of England on 3rd February, 1944.</page><page sequence="2">232 MEMORIAL ADDRESSES Professor Dubnow ", with an evaluation of the methods and the content of his historiography, to which those of the present generation who sow and glean in this field are profoundly indebted. I then sent him a copy of my address, and I felt highly gratified to receive in return his general concurrence with my conclusions. We became later mutually interested in a notable and promising venture whereby a chair of Judaica was established at the ancient University of Dorpat, in Estonia, which at last fulfilled the aspirations for the full academic recognition of Jewish studies that, from the days of Leopold Zunz and Abraham Geiger, had been put forward in vain by Jewish scholars on the European Continent. My welcome opportunity to meet Dubnow personally presented itself when, in 1937, I was invited by Professor Lazar Gulkowitsch, the holder of the Chair and one of Dubnow's distinguished disciples, to deliver at the University of Dorpat, my native town, an address on Don Isaac Abrabanel on the occasion of the quincentenary of his birth. On my passage through Riga, where Dubnow lived modestly in the outskirts of that city, I called upon him and was privileged to meet the Master face to face. Shimeon Dubnow (or Semyon Marcovitch Dubnow, in Russian parlance) was born in i860 at Mstislavl, in the province of Moghilev, in White Russia. His native town had the distinction not only of having given birth to this eminent scholar and thinker, but in the recorded list of his publications, the first is a contribution entitled " Correspondence from Mstislavl", which appeared in 1880 in the Russo-Jewish journal Russky Yevrei. He became prominently known in the early nineties by historical studies in that widely circulated periodical and also in Voskhod and Razsviet. He was particularly attracted to the subtle ramifications of Jewish mysticism, notably the Hassidic Movement, and the Cabbalistic aberrations of Sabbatai Zebi and the Frankists. In the latter respects, Dubnow brought a penetrating light to bear on periods and phenomena of Jewish religious thought with which the western founders and leaders of the J?dische Wissenschaft were, by their rationalist approach, entirely out of contact and sympathy. Dubnow had little in common with that romanticism which later developed philosophically into the new-Hassidism of Martin Buber. Dubnow, unlike most of the giants of the New Learning in the West, was firmly anchored in the life and thought of Eastern Europe. From the first highly critical, largely influenced by a radical rationalism and, later, fully equipped with the scientific apparatus of modern historiography, he remained throughout a faithful and devoted son of East European Jewry. If Dubnow had the very great advantage of being able to utilize the sources provided by the pioneers in the West, he struck out on independent lines of his own. He turned away from the theological and literary paths to which scientific research of Jewish history had been mainly confined ; he revised the treatment to which Jewish history had been subjected to meet the spirit adapted to the epoch of Emanci? pation, and dealt with the Jewish people as a living and pulsating organism which, by its own innate strength, had retained and developed its national genius, in the Diaspora no less than in ancient Judaea. It was in this specific approach by Dubnow and by his followers that the studies of the whole complex of Jewish life in the Dispersion received a new direction. His method, and the school which he led, certainly ceased to be didactic or apologetic, but became by its matter-of-fact secularist tendency of practical application to the needs of the present age. Jewish history was to be no mere archaeological record, except in so far as it related to the remote past, but even in this there was a design that made the millennial history of</page><page sequence="3">SIMON DUBNOW 233 the Jewish people a continuous whole, and not merely a haphazard collection of unrelated events. Dubnow endeavoured to follow in relation to Jewish life the system of Auguste Comte, which had made a special appeal to him by the comprehen? sive Positivist method in which this French thinker had built up his philosophy of human society. This so-called " sociological" treatment of Jewish historiography which has become too obvious to require now advocacy or explanation, was still a new con? ception in the eighties of last century, and it must have ripened early in the mind of Dubnow. For we find that in 1881, at the age of 21, he wrote in Razsviet an article on " The Necessity for an Economic Expedition ", and a contribution on " The Jews in the province of Moghilev ", which appeared in Voskhod in 1886, is described by him as an " historical-statistical " sketch. This feature became afterwards very popular ; it is characteristic of the course of events that even the romantic Return to Zion became later closely interwoven with statistics and economics. But Dubnow did not lose himself in the narrow by-paths into which such inquiries and studies are apt to lead. He chose the royal road of a vast undertaking that brought about the publication of his ten-volume history, which he entitled in Russian : Vseobschaya Istoriya Tevreyeu, translated by Dr. A. Steinberg into German as Weltgeschichte des j?dischen Volkes, i.e. General, or Universal, History of the Jewish People. We have been told that this grandiose title is justified by the fact that, with the exception of India and China, the Jews have participated in the development and vicissitudes of the whole of humanity, and that Jewry thus represents in its three thousand years' development an historical microcosm of mankind generally. Like his contemporary Asher Ginzberg, Dubnow could have designated himself as Ahad Ha'am, " One of the People," or, as some have interpreted his famous pen-name, " The One of the People." For Dubnow was not weltfremd like Steinschneider ; he was not involved in the struggle for religious and ritual reforms like Abraham Geiger and his circle. He took part in the cultural life of the Jewish masses and in the political activities of Eastern Jewry in the dangerous days of Tsarism and in the subsequent Bolshevik upheaval. He not only wrote history, but he also made it. Like everyone who has written Jewish history, Dubnow owed much to his predecessor Graetz. Let us pay a tribute to this illustrious Jewish historian as a god? father of the Jewish Historical Society of England by saying that some of those who have added certain aspects to his monumental History of the Jews or corrected some of its details, may have given the impression that Graetz was lacking in important respects. Of course, he could not be conversant with Russo-Jewish history as it became known by later intensive local research. Graetz had also the strong prejudices of the German Jews of his time against the Hassidic developments, and Yiddish was then a so-called jargon, before it had attained the status of a recognized literary medium among Jewish intellectuals. In the days of Graetz the establishment of the Yiddish Scientific Institute in Vilna, in which Dubnow took a leading part, was not even contemplated. But, to do him justice, Dubnow himself was far from under? rating the debt which he and others owed to Graetz as a pioneer and master in the critical treatment and comprehensive survey of phenomena and events in the vast Jewish Diaspora. In his detailed survey of Jewish life and thought Dubnow's view of the Jewish Diaspora differed substantially from the interpretation generally given to it in Western lands, and it differed, too, from the nascent and growing Jewish nationalism that was Palestino-centric and had taken up a more or less negative</page><page sequence="4">234 MEMORIAL ADDRESSES attitude towards the permanent future of the Jewish Diaspora. To Dubnow the Diaspora was presumably a tragic feature in the millennial fortunes of the Jews ; but, in his conception, free from theological or apocalyptic implications, it had proved its dynamic and creative values, from the days of ancient Babylonia to the settlements in the New World, notably in the United States of America. Yet, he was decidedly not an assimilationist in the current, and somewhat opprobious, connota? tion of this term. For Semyon Marcovitch did believe that there was a future for the Jewish people in Russia and Poland, and that Yiddish culture was an integral part of the intellectual equipment and achievements of those Jewries in Eastern lands that had retained their collective cohesion and national characteristics. Just as Babylon and Spain had produced the ripest fruits of the Jewish genius, and had almost rivalled, though never rose to the heights manifested in ancient Judaea, so did the Jews in Germany and Poland, and, in our own days, the Jews of Palestine, in a spiritual sense. Each of those great communities of Jews had held in the past the hegemony of oecumenic Israel ; to be sure, they arose throughout the ages in different regions, and then declined or even passed away, but the Jewish people found again its new centre as further aggregations of Jews created spiritual and cultural values which became the common possession of their people throughout the world. He thus saw Jewish life in its entirety ; to be sure, broken into fragments, but as a national entity which survived the corroding forces of individual assimilation. What, in the opinion of Dubnow, will prove decisive in the survival of the Jewish people was the development of a Jewish cultural autonomy in the lands where Jewish homogeneity could create and maintain a bond that would unite Jews on the basis of their collective, national consciousness, their cultural past and their national aspirations for the future. Of course, for the lack of a territory, the Jews in the Diaspora could not, politically, be a State within the State. But they were to be vested with the rights appertaining to the citizens of the land in which they were born or to which they owed political allegiance. Yet, even then they belonged to a special national group, with national characteristics of their own. Dubnow initiated in 1906 the establishment of the Volkspartei, the Jewish National Party, that adopted the views of which he had been the leading protagonist. The programme then adumbrated was, to all intents and purposes, afterwards embodied in the national minority rights that were recognized as valid in the Peace treaties of 1920. They would have met the Jewish claims and aspirations in Eastern Europe. But unfortu? nately they proved abortive, as in Poland and Lithuania, or were swept away by the avalanche of the Bolshevik Revolution of November, 1917. In November, 1917, another Revolution, a peaceful Jewish revolution, took place by the issue of the Balfour Declaration. Dubnow, the historian of the Sab bataian Movement and of its after-effects, was not to be carried off his feet by the Messianic expectations which that document had aroused among the Jews all over the world, and which even for a time stilled the Communist elan among the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe. Dubnow was certainly an illustrious chronicler of past events and their illuminating interpreter ; he was a veritable High Priest in the temple of knowledge ; but, alas ! he was no prophet. As his own experience proved, his attempt to create a Jewish spiritual autonomy in alien surroundings failed. His effort to formulate in a series of articles, entitled " Letters on Ancient and Modern Judaism", a Jewish " spiritual-historical" Nationalism did not succeed, as did the parallel endeavour of Ahad Ha'am in his</page><page sequence="5">SIMON DUBNOW 235 conception of a Jewish spiritual centre in Palestine. Dubnow was thus the historian par excellence of Israel of the Golah, not the Exile or Captivity in the traditionally accepted sense, but the Golah as a national, normal condition of the world-wide Jewish nation. He was the most eminent exponent of Jewish Diaspora Nationalism, and gave it an historic background which it had previously lacked. Zionism could appeal effectively to the classical past of Israel and to its Messianic aspirations, while in Western lands the Jewish future was envisaged in the light of a racial-religious, spiritual-cultural minority with no collective claim except that of religious freedom and of the right of participating in the national life surrounding them on terms of political equality. Simon Dubnow went far beyond that. Since it was not possible to make any Jewish territorial claims outside Palestine, the Diaspora Nationalists had to content themselves with the foundation of specific national characteristics which would distinguish the Jews, invariably a minority, from their non-Jewish fellow-men. The outstanding feature would, of course, be the possession of a Jewish national self-consciousness, and its cultivation by various religious, social, political, and economic means. The difficulties of a social segregation were partly overcome by external pressure in Eastern Europe, and by the fact that the Jewish masses were still cohesive, even when they had abandoned their former religious and social par? ticularism. Jewish Diaspora Nationalism led logically to Territorialism, the movement for the establishment of an autonomous Jewish territory which assumed an organized form after the split over the British offer of territory in East Africa, in the Zionist Movement. But Zionism, too, gave a content to Diaspora Nationalism, when, following the Basle Programme, the Jews began to organize on a national basis. After the failure of the eagerly expected concession in Palestine by the Sultan of Turkey, the Zionists then began to mark time by the creation of a Gegenwartsprogramm which, after the Zionist Helsingfors Conference in 1906, assumed in Eastern Europe the form of a Jewish Diaspora Nationalism. To be sure, the Zionist Gegenwarts? programm was intended to be, as this term implied, a temporary measure in order to create that reservoir of Jewish energy and man-power which was required for the ultimate Return to Zion. But, in spite of the deflection from the Zionist effort by the disciples of Dubnow in fostering the hopes of a Jewish autonomous life in the Dispora, Zionism garnered the fruits that were sown by those who, like Dubnow himself, enriched Jewish life and thought and made Jewish survival under most difficult conditions possible. Dubnow's idea of a so-called cultural autonomism made progress in other directions. It manifested itself in the Yiddishist movement, in which Yiddish was raised to the dignity of cultural nationalism. The cultivation of this language was to be recognized not merely as an ethnical but as a linguistic undertaking. In Soviet Russia to-day this form of Jewish nationalism is maintained after all other traditional manifestations of Jewish life have been excluded or abandoned. In the case of Dubnow, this peculiar feature of Jewish cultural autonomy could hardly be of decisive influence, for the trend of Russofication or Polonisation which had gathered increasing force among the Jews in Eastern Europe had also affected him personally for his own literary medium was not Yiddish, but Russian. While recognizing, however, the inadequacy of Jewish Diaspora Nationalism as conceived by Dubnow, let us pay this abiding tribute to him. Until the present catastrophe overwhelmed the Jewish people on the Continent, Dubnow's conception</page><page sequence="6">236 MEMORIAL ADDRESSES of Jewish destiny in exile gave a cultural and political direction to a people that had become largely secularized, and provided a content and inspiration to Jewish life in Eastern Europe. In the happier days to come, the Jews in those parts will assuredly once again rally to the ideal which the Jewish people, broken and dispersed, owes to Shimeon Dubnow.</page></plain_text>