Simon Dubnow

Foundational Jewish historian and non-Zionist nationalist.

Print this page Print this page

As a committed modernizer, Dubnow understood that the path of emancipation had been discredited by the emergence of racial anti-Semitism. The granting of citizenship to individual Jews had not led, as hoped, to integration into a truly cosmopolitan society, but rather to attempts at assimilation into a hostile nation state. Individualism stripped the Jews of their social defenses and had failed to successfully integrate Jews into the modern world.

Instead, Dubnow proposed a program of national-cultural autonomy for the Jews living within the multinational states of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. While relinquishing any claim to territorial sovereignty--the Jews were, after all, dispersed among the Christian population--the Autonomists asserted the Jewish community's right to manage its own educational, cultural, and religious affairs and, most importantly, to speak their own national language--Yiddish.

Autonomism's heyday came in the aftermath of World War I. The peace treaties of 1919 recognized the break up of the multinational empires and sanctioned the establishment of new, democratic states whose governments were legally bound to recognize the rights of minority peoples--including the Jews. Yet these hopes were quickly dashed by the growth of anti-Semitism and fascism in Eastern Europe, and ultimately by the Nazi takeover of Germany.

In 1933, Dubnow left Berlin--his home for the previous 11 years --and escaped to Riga, the capital of Latvia. In December, 1941, during a roundup of Latvian Jews, Dubnow was killed by a Gestapo officer. Dubnow's murder symbolized both the fate of European Jewry and the death of Autonomism as a force in Jewish politics.

Yet even though Autonomism has ceased to exist as a political force, the issues it struggled with have not been resolved. Today's Jewish world is dominated by two competing centers, the United States with its liberal vision of Jewish individualism and equal rights, and the territorial, nationalist state of Israel. Both have proven themselves flawed in their ability to generate an authentic national-spiritual culture and to guarantee meaningful Jewish continuity. The question of which model best serves the future of the Jews remains on the table, and Dubnow's idiosyncratic vision of autonomous national life in the Diaspora might provide a starting point for imaginative new possibilities.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.