Source: Work in Progress
Source: Work in Progress
I’m currently completing in-depth scholarly research on the social, cultural and political habitats of late 19th- and early 20th-century Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Munich, Berlin and Paris. My objective is to write a scrupulously-researched text arguing that the influx of Russian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants to these particular metropolitan centers further exacerbated an already existing problem of antisemitism in Austria-Hungary, Germany and France. Moreover, I will argue that this influx was propelled by state-sanctioned pogroms taking place throughout the Russian Empire at that time. Further, I will suggest that the alarming escalation of antisemitism in this region can be explained, in part, as a corollary of the extensive immigration of Russian and Eastern European Jewish peoples to these old-world European municipalities.
While calling attention to the dramatic demographic change in the ethnic makeup of these cities, I will emphasize that this transformation is only one small part of a far more complex state of affairs. This tangled state of affairs involves the socioeconomic and political relations of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in Europe and throughout the world during what scholars in the Global North often periodize as the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment, romantic era and modern times. I will discuss this larger historical context in a concise, critical overview, but my main focus will be the periods 1880-1899 and 1900-1929. I have singled out these specific historical periods because contemporary scholarly studies in various academic disciplines have made it increasingly clear, to me, that these were incredibly tumultuous periods in European history, particularly in the arts.
In order to elucidate the sociohistorical contexts of these periods in European history, I will foreground the radical social and cultural revolutions which distinguish them by examining the cultural production of some particular writers, scholars, artists, architects, dancers, choreographers and composers working in these European hubs of artistic activity. An in-depth consideration of the work of fourteen artists and scholars will provide the main contours of my study. The works of other artists and scholars will appear in the warp and weft of the colorful historical tapestry I analyze, but their predominant themes and motifs will not stand out in the same striking manner as it does in the work of the fourteen artists and scholars on which I focus in this study.
The terms of discourse I employ to describe the predominant themes and motifs of these particular artists and scholars may seem somewhat arbitrary, but I believe they more accurately represent these periods in European art history (including literature) than any others I might choose. For the years 1880-1899, I will use the terms Symbolism, Decadence and Jugendstil [or Art Nouveau]. For the years 1900-1929, I will use the terms Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Art Deco, Futurism, Dada, Bauhaus, Surrealism, “primitivism,” Suprematism, Constructivism and Die Neue Sachlichkeit [or the New Objectivity].
In addition to discussing the radical social and cultural revolutions which distinguish these two periods in European art history, I will make note of the establishment of Zionism as a international political movement during these same five decades in European history. I will also assign importance to the little-known fact that most Jewish artists and scholars were adamantly opposed — and for good reasons — to the Zionist colonial project being debated at the World Zionist Congresses during the years which that international body met between 1897-1929. One of the focuses of my research, in fact, has been the history of Zionism as a human reservoir of languishing nationalist aspirations which can be better understood, I believe, by examining them in this particular sociohistorical context.
My analysis of these particular historical periods will call attention to the work of some extraordinarily talented and influential French- and German-speaking artists and scholars raised in predominantly “Jewish” families. The ultimate objective of my investigation is to elucidate the geopolitical and sociocultural context of late 19th- and early 20th-century Western and Central Europe. I will do this by characterizing these periods in European history as, significantly, virulently nationalistic. Consequentially, these two periods encompass time spans in which the World Zionist Organization (WZO) would be emboldened to formulate effective strategies and activities which would eventually lead to the restoration of an ancient Jewish state in lands which had been for many generations a small but sacrosanct part of the Arab and Ottoman Empires.
In his futuristic novel, Altneuland [The Old-New Land] (1902), Theodor Herzl transforms that part of the Ottoman Empire known as Palestine into a modern, social democratic state in which the indigenous peoples have equal rights with the Jewish immigrants. In his political pamphlet, Der Judenstaat [The Jewish State] (1896), by contrast, Herzl characterized the Middle East and Asia of his day as a wellspring of “barbarism” (96) and suggested that the best form of governing the Jewish State would be a combination of “democratic monarchism” and “aristocratic republicanism” in order to preserve “a true balance of power. I am a staunch supporter of monarchial institutions, because these allow of a continuous policy, and represent the interests of a historically famous family born and educated to rule, whose desires are bound up with the State.” “Nations are also really not fit for unlimited democracy at present, and will become less and less fitted for it in the future” (144). “Our people” (the Jews) who colonize Palestine, Herzl suggested, will “thankfully accept the new constitution it offers them. Should any opposition manifest itself,” he made clear, “The Society [of Jews] will suppress it” (145).
Herzl made his strategy for the colonization of Palestine quite explicit in the concluding chapter of this political pamphlet in which he suggested that the first colonists must be primarily from the Jewish underclass: “It is precisely the poorest whom we need at first [because] only the desperate make good conquerors” (155). Herzl is also remarkably transparent about his social and political loyalties in this carefully-crafted political pamphlet: “Universal brotherhood is not even a beautiful dream,” he writes. On the contrary, “antagonism is essential to man’s greatest efforts” (153). In fact, he argued, the Christian humanist and Enlightenment concepts of “universal brotherhood” — as splendid as they may sound in theory — have turned out to be ill-advised in practice. The father of modern political Zionism — Theodor Herzl — specifically rejected the Christian humanist, Reform Judaism, Muslim and secular versions of “universal brotherhood,” maintaining that human “antagonism” [as opposed to cooperation or collaboration] is “essential” to human achievement.
Of course, the mere fact that Theodor Herzl was a believer in European colonialism, and apparently did not believe in either democracy or universal human rights, does not mean that Zionism should be consigned to the archives of some drab national history museum. Far from it. In fact, I will argue that many Zionists who emigrated to Palestine advocated working with the native population to establish “a modern, social democratic state in which the indigenous peoples [would] have equal rights with the Jewish immigrants” (like Herzl did in his futuristic novel Altneuland). Zionism can be disengaged from the ideology of colonialism, I suggest, and reclaimed as an ideology of emancipation, one which can be redeemed through the recognition of the Palestinians’ equal rights, their right of self-determination, and the Palestinian refugees’ right of return to Palestine/Israel.