Simon Dubnow

Foundational Jewish historian and non-Zionist nationalist.

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Dubnow's departure from the Graetzian view began with his renewed emphasis on the previously marginalized history of Eastern European Jewry. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Dubnow pioneered a new philosophy of history. His new sociological, as opposed to spiritual, approach held that the basic unit of Jewish history and that the most important manifestation of Jewish nationhood was the autonomous community. Jewish culture and religion, rather than representing the lifeblood of Jewish existence, were merely superstructural expressions of a more fundamental national and social reality.

Yet Dubnow's sociological approach was not straightforwardly materialist.  Dubnow believed that history could not be summed up in economic terms, but had to be understood in terms of the impact of broader religious, political, and social factors. The historian's job was to evaluate these factors, judging which served to strengthen communities and bind their members together, and which had the opposite effect, weakening communities and tearing them apart.

Migrating Centers

In line with this sociological view, Dubnow believed that the essence of Jewish history was a story of "migrating centers."  One after another, autonomous Jewish centers arose, thrived, and declined: the Land of Israel, Babylonia, medieval Germany, the Golden Age of Spain. The latest of these centers was the spiritually vibrant, Yiddish-speaking community of Poland and Russia.

Dubnow's view of Jewish history can best be understood through a concrete example, his analysis of the origins of the Hasidic movement in 18th century Poland. Dubnow wrote that Hasidism emerged as the result of the intersection of two processes--socioeconomic changes in Polish Jewry and an inner spiritual dynamic, deep-rooted in Jewish tradition. How did the two coincide?  Increasing economic hardship led to the breakdown of communal autonomy and created a new spiritual thirst among the Polish Jewish masses. A widening gap between rich and poor created a sense of alienation from the elitist Talmudic tradition.

A spiritual solution emerged in the shape of Hasidism. Dubnow saw this as a new form of Kabbalah that represented a reaction to the trauma caused by the false messianism of Shabbtai Zvi. Despite the fact that Hasidism was individualist and resolutely anti-political, Dubnow judged the movement to have been a socially centripetal force which strengthened the Jewish center in Poland.

Ideology of Autonomism

Although his most important work was historiographical, Dubnow was also an important political and ideological innovator. He worked for the modernization of Jewish education, organized Jewish self-defense groups during the pogroms, and demanded the extension of democratic rights. In 1906 he founded the Folkspartei (Jewish People's Party) and initiated the ideology of Autonomism.

Autonomism was based on Dubnow's understanding of history. It held that there are three progressive stages of national evolution: the tribal, the territorial-political, and the cultural-historical-spiritual. The Jews, as the only people who had survived the loss of a homeland, were unique in having reached the most advanced stage of development. This near-miraculous survival was made possible by the existence of a continuous chain of self-governing Jewish communities. Unlike Zionism, which envisioned Jewish nationhood at some point in the future, or assimilationism, which relegated it to the distant past, Autonomism recognized the reality of Jewish nationhood in the present.

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.