The Failure of Cultural Zionism

To its shame, the movement led by Ahad Ha’am missed the extreme urgency of the Jewish situation in Europe. Thankfully, the revival of his thought in today’s Israel is another matter.

A ruined synagogue in Munich after Kristallnacht. Wikipedia.
A ruined synagogue in Munich after Kristallnacht. Wikipedia.
Oct. 26 2016
About the author

Asael Abelman teaches in the History Department at Herzog College and is a lecturer in Jewish history at Shalem College. He is the author of a comprehensive history of the Jewish people, Toldot Ha-Yehudim, which was published by Dvir in Hebrew in 2019.

In Hillel Halkin’s masterful portrait of Ahad Ha’am we meet a man whose approach to Zionism hardly reflected his pen name of “One of the People.” An archetypal elitist, this Zionist leader shunned extensive contact with either the Jewish public or the life of practical politics. Not only was the B’nei Moshe association that he founded in Odessa short-lived and of limited influence, but he also regularly abstained from most gatherings of the Zionist Congress. Further distancing him from the activities of the movement, and from the younger generation of Zionists, were the many years he lived in London.

Nevertheless, until the 1930s (he died in 1927), Ahad Ha’am’s powerful advocacy of a highly intellectualized “cultural” or “spiritual” Zionism might be said to have dominated the ideological center of the movement as a whole—until, with the rise of genocidal Nazism, it was supplanted by the frankly and urgently political Zionism championed by the heirs of Theodor Herzl. Nowadays, in the very different atmosphere of contemporary Israel, the thought of Ahad Ha’am is enjoying something of a revival, if not a vogue. So we have before us a complicated figure, whose place in history remains a puzzle.

Correctly identifying the quarrel between Ahad Ha’am and Herzl as one of the most fateful and enduring controversies in the annals of 20th-century Jewry, Halkin opens his essay with the former’s searing critique of the latter’s 1902 novel Altneuland and concludes with a balance sheet of their respective successes and failures. In what follows, I want to assess Ahad Ha’am’s position and enduring relevance by calling to the witness stand one of his most forceful critics, Yeḥezkel Kaufmann (1889-1963): a figure whose Hebrew political writings have largely been forgotten today, even in Israel.


As a young man in Odessa, Yeḥezkel Kaufmann studied in a yeshiva directed by the religious Zionist rabbi and essayist Ḥayyim Tchernowitz (known by his pen-name Rav Tsa’ir). He then enrolled in the Academy for Oriental Studies at the University of St. Petersburg and went on to obtain a doctorate at the University of Bern, Switzerland. Emigrating to Palestine in 1929, he served as a secondary-school teacher in Haifa; from 1949 on, he was a professor of Bible at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

In the world of Hebrew letters, Kaufmann is known primarily for The Religion of Israel, a path-breaking, multi-volume work in the field of biblical studies. (A one-volume English abridgment appeared in 1960.) Few, however, are aware of his seminal essays and books on Jewish national thought. A full appreciation would require a separate essay, but at the core stands an attack on the cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha’am.

Kaufmann first outlined the essence of his critique in the pages of Hashiloaḥ, the same Hebrew publication in which Ahad Ha’am had launched his dispute with Herzl. “The Judaism of Ahad Ha’am” (1914) vigorously rebuts the idea that Judaism possesses any “normative content,” “moral principles,” or “national ethic”—the terms are those of Ahad Ha’am—separate from the religious faith, rooted in revelation, that since ancient times defined its essence. In another essay on the same theme, “The Desire for National Survival” (1920), Kaufmann states that when it comes to sustaining the Jewish collective in times of destruction, “anyone who thinks it possible to locate some other ‘instrument’ to take the place of religion, either temporarily or permanently, . . . is gravely mistaken.” In this respect, Kaufmann writes, Ahad Ha’am’s abstract notions of a “Jewish renaissance” that will rescue Judaism and the Jews from the modern perils of secularization and assimilation, like his notion of founding a “spiritual center” in Palestine, are so much wishful thinking.

In the 1920s, Kaufmann published Exile and Estrangement (“Golah v’Neykhar”), a thousand-page analytic treatment of the entirety of Jewish history. Despite its length, and despite the distinctive Hebrew style that for today’s reader makes the work all but impenetrable, its importance is hard to exaggerate. One of the first to recognize its significance was the poet Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik, who called it “a great book, the likes of which has not appeared among us for a long time. . . . My instinct tells me [Kaufmann] will be the savior of Hebrew thought.”

Expanding on ideas first expressed in his two essays for Hashiloaḥ, Kaufmann now cites chapter and verse from his deep knowledge of Jewish history to demonstrate that religious faith had always constituted the powerful inner force of the Jewish people, a force that alone could account for their survival through centuries of exile. The extraordinary historical fact was that the Jews, declining to assimilate into the various peoples among whom they were dispersed, had remained stubbornly foreign—“estranged.” But then came the crisis of modernity, encapsulated in the twin forces of Enlightenment and emancipation. Stripped now of that stubborn, saving quality of the old Judaism, the new, adaptive Judaism of the modern cultural secularists had inevitably reached a point of no return.

There was also, Kaufmann wrote, a second aspect to the Jewish crisis—namely, the failure of European emancipation. For generations, under the protection of local rulers, the Jews had survived as a minority with its own unique identity. In the modern states that emerged after the French Revolution, the demand for civic equality meant there was no longer a place for the Jews as a legally and socially distinct community. In exchange for receiving individual rights, they were required to abjure their collective identity. And many Jews were happy to comply, becoming loyal Germans and Frenchmen and integrating themselves into the surrounding society. Yet, despite their best efforts, acceptance eluded them, while hatred of them persisted and even intensified.

Thus the Jews found themselves doubly trapped. On the one hand, they were obligated to assimilate, which meant eventually disappearing altogether as a distinct people; on the other hand, the European nations conspired to make assimilation impossible. Kaufmann termed this double-bind a “metaphysical defect”—and irresolvable. Citing the prophet Ezekiel, he depicted the Jews of his day as unable to break completely through the Gentiles’ “gate of wood and stone.” Without the ancient religion that had protected them over the generations, Diaspora existence in Europe was doomed.

If the failure of emancipation and the growing anti-Semitism of both elites and masses spelled disaster, what then? In order to weather their double crisis, Kaufmann answered, the Jews needed instead to be redeemed from exile, restored to their ancient homeland; only thus could they solve the problems both of assimilation and of anti-Semitism. This was precisely the solution proposed by the Love of Zion movement and embraced by such early Russian Zionist leaders as Moshe Leib Lilienblum and Leon Pinsker, and given vital impetus by Theodor Herzl.

As for the spiritual Zionism of Ahad Ha’am, which saw the solution to the Jewish crisis not in a nationalist mass movement but in the gradual evolution of a modern Jewish culture, Kaufmann relegated it to the same category as other Diaspora movements—Yiddishism, Bundism, extraterritorial autonomy, and so forth—whose common denominator was the belief that the material problems of the Jews could be addressed through largely secular and humanistic means. These ideas were based in error and destined to fail. The essential and urgent question facing the Jews was not cultural but existential. At stake was nothing less than the rescue of the Jewish people from those who would destroy it.


To Kaufmann’s great sorrow, the political Zionism of the 1920s and 30s—Herzl’s Zionism—likewise failed to accomplish the practical rescue of the Jews, remaining the cause of a small and statistically almost insignificant minority of the Jewish people. Not even the growth of the Yishuv in Palestine and the broadening sympathy for Zionism throughout the Jewish world led to the needed mass migration.

In 1944, writing in the shadow of the catastrophic annihilation of European Jewry, Kaufmann published a brief Hebrew work entitled Between Paths. His tone was now bitterly caustic. Herzlian Zionism, the movement concerned not with abstractions but with the immediate salvation of the Jews, had “failed tragically—as did the Jewish people itself.” That fate, he suggested, had been sealed by the cultural Zionists’ prior conquest of their political counterparts in “one of the most fateful moments in Jewish history.”

Was he right to place so much blame on the Ahad Ha’amists? An honest historical assessment of Ahad Ha’am’s critique of Herzl must be prepared to stipulate explicitly that the path of spiritual Zionism, which in the 1920s became the central ideology of the Zionist movement, was indeed a “fateful” error. This is also the conclusion of another great historian, Benzion Netanyahu (the late father of Israel’s prime minister), who in The Founding Fathers of Zionism pointedly omitted to include any of “those who founded movements like ‘spiritual Zionism’ that sought to alter the goal of Zionism.” In contrast to Ahad Ha’am and his disciples, who erroneously believed there was time to allow for a long cultural evolution, Herzl, “attuned to the underlying currents of his day . . . , heard the distant thunder of the gathering storm of anti-Semitism.” Herzl died in 1904; in words quoted by Netanyahu that might have been written decades later, Herzl wrote:

Can it really be that no one will expel us? That no one will murder us? I predict that these horrors will befall us, and others. . . . I am no doomsayer, but disaster will surely come to Hungarian Jews, and the later it comes, the worse it will be, the more ferocious and savage the form it will take. There is no escaping it.

The weakness and incapacities of political Zionism at the moment of truth are heartbreaking to contemplate. Only after global anti-Semitism reached its brutal apogee in the killing fields and extermination camps were masses finally brought to the land of Israel, definitively disproving Ahad Ha’am’s judgment that such a wholesale emigration was impossible. But those Jewish masses came to their homeland in tears and in tatters—truly, in Jeremiah’s words, “a nation of survivors of the sword.”


Now that a Jewish state has been established, and is both prosperous and relatively secure, what remains today of the debate between Ahad Ha’am and Theodor Herzl? Has the time arrived to revisit Ahad Ha’am and consider the cultural vs. political question anew?

This is by no means a foolish question, as even Yeḥezkel Kaufmann would agree. Although not personally religious, as we have seen, he regarded religious faith as the source of the historical life force of the Jewish people. Of himself and other members of his generation he once said that “Ours is the situation of people whose hearts have been entirely severed from belief and have no hope of returning to it, but whose souls still cling to that expressly Jewish world which draws all its strength from the life of faith.” Kaufmann’s hope was that the national and political revival of the Jewish people—the primary precondition—would in turn make possible a cultural renaissance. To my knowledge, he never articulated his view of what would or should be the nature of such a renaissance, but he envisioned it as “a critical component of the aspiration for redemption.” And he added, significantly: “This pillar of Ahad Ha’am’s thought lives on.”

So what is the current state of Jewish culture in Israel, and what form ought it to take? Unsurprisingly, Israeli Jews, an argumentative lot, continue to argue about these questions. Blessedly fortunate to be living on their own soil, speaking their own language, they express a wealth of different opinions, including on the need to grapple seriously with Ahad Ha’am’s insistence on a native culture that will also be a Jewish culture.

Yes, there are those who insist that Israeli culture is altogether in dire straits; they adduce the decline of Jewish education, the corrosion of Jewish values, the directionless state of Israeli cultural life in general. But I’m not one of them. In Israel there is high culture as well as low culture. New works in all areas appear every day. Some artists and scholars seek to elevate the tone of discussion, while others express no such desire, and the truth is that the work produced by the latter isn’t necessarily of inferior quality to that produced by the former.

In the world of Israeli culture, a Jew can find an abundance of variegated religious experiences, and an equally rich offering of secular experiences. Among both, to borrow from the poet-songwriter Naomi Shemer, one finds the bee’s honey as well as its sting, the sweet and the bitter. As for a Jewish cultural renaissance, the bottom line is that both it and the discussion of it are proceeding apace. Israelis are inclined to complain, but I’m happy to report that our country is filled with talented people.

More about: Ahad Ha'am, History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism