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 about the immigration of Russian and Eastern European Jewish peoples to these metropolitan centers in Austria-Hungary, Germany and France during this period.  I will argue that the immigration of Russian and Eastern European Jews was set in motion by state-sanctioned pogroms taking place throughout the Russian Empire at that time.  Moreover, I will suggest that the alarming escalation of antisemitism in Europe during this period can be explained, in part, as a corollary of the extensive immigration of these peoples during these years to these particular 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 complex 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 — from the Middle Ages to the modern world — 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 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, dancers, and composers working in these European hubs of cultural activity.  My analysis of the work of fourteen artists and scholars will provide the main contours of this study.  The works of other artists and scholars will appear in the warp and weft of the colorful historical tapestry I examine, but their predominant themes and motifs will not stand out in the same striking manner as it does in the work of those 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 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-discussed 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 Jewish nationalist aspirations which can be better understood, I believe, by examining them in this particular sociohistorical context.

The sociocultural context of these periods can be usefully characterized as virulently nationalistic.  By scrutinizing the ideology of militant nationalism which marked this period, I suggest, readers can better understand how the World Zionist Organization (WZO) would be emboldened to formulate effective strategies which would eventually lead to the restoration of an ancient Jewish State in lands which had been for many generations constituent parts of the Arab and Ottoman Empires.  I will begin my analysis of the ideology of nationalism, however, only after first discussing the importance of differentiating between Theodor Herzl’s futuristic novel, Altneuland [The Old-New Land] (1902), and the critically-important founding text of Zionism, Herzl’s earlier work, Der Judenstaat [The Jewish State] (1896).

In his futuristic novel, The Old-New Land, 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, The Jewish State, by contrast, Herzl characterized the Middle East and Asia of his day as a place 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,” Herzl continued, “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, will “thankfully accept the new constitution it offers them.  Should any opposition manifest itself, 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 was 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, I will demonstrate, 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.

The mere fact that Theodor Herzl was a believer in European colonialism and looked with disfavor on both the political theory of democracy — he was a staunch advocate of monarchism — and the legal concept of universal human rights does not mean that Zionism should be consigned to the archives of some national history museum.  Far from it.  In fact, I will suggest 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 have equal rights with the Jewish immigrants” (like Herzl did in his futuristic novel The Old-New Land).  Zionism can be disengaged from the ideology of colonialism, I argue, 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.

I believe Zionism can be disentangled from the ideology of nationalism in the same manner that it can be disengaged from the European ideology of colonialism.  This can be done, however, only if the development of nationalism as a political ideology is first critically appraised and found begging.


One thought on “Work in Progress”

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, Cathi, and for showing an interest in the period(s) of European history on which I have chosen to write.

      This blog is titled a “Work in Progress” because I still have a great deal of reading and writing to complete before I can formulate a more definitive abstract of my research (or the text I would like to finally write). This blog is meant to give readers only an approximate idea of the direction my research is leading me.


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