Speaking Volumes: Stephen Poppel's Zionism in Germany 1897-1933: The Shaping of a Jewish Identity

April 25, 1997

On Stephen Poppel's Zionism in Germany 1897-1933: The Shaping of a Jewish Identity.

The history and culture of British Jews count among the most dynamic research fields in Jewish studies. Yet as recently as the mid-1980s they were marginal subjects. My work on Zionism in England would have been unlikely without a slim volume by an American Jewish historian that I read during a year at Columbia University in 1979-80.

Zionism in Germany 1897-1933: The Shaping of a Jewish Identity by Stephen Poppel (1977) challenged the mainstream of Jewish history written from a triumphalist Zionist perspective. Seen through this optic, the history of diaspora communities was a chronicle of assimilation and demographic decline culminating in the Holocaust, a catastrophe redeemed only by the far-sighted minority who built the Jewish state.

In a startling departure from Zionist historiography Poppel announced that "I have concentrated on the effects of Zionism on the German Zionists themselves, rather than on their efforts on behalf of Zion." He began with a succinct account of how the Enlightenment and emancipation affected European Jews entering "the modern world, which was partly secular but ultimately Christian in its outlook". Spurred by the recrudescence of anti-Semitism in the 1880s, Zionism was a reaction to the chimera of assimilation.

Yet however vehemently German Zionists attacked the "assimilationists" they showed little enthusiasm for migration to Palestine. Rather, they articulated a minority nationalism and mentally reconstructed Germany as a pluralistic state in which Jewish and German nationalism would co-exist. This proved to be a delusion but in the 1900s it was not so demented.

Reading texts without hindsight, Poppel revealed in Zionism functions that were previously overlooked. Zionism helped Jews who were attenuated from Jewish traditions to live in Germany under the worst circumstances. "Being able to depart apparently made one all the more comfortable in remaining. Zionism offered an escape from the demeaning pressure of anti-Semitism and self-disdain, and a solution to the dilemma of Jewish existence in a Germany that seemed to deny the Jew the right to a full life of his own."

This was an exhilarating heresy but I saw how it applied equally to British Jews. Suddenly Zionism in England was not a minor player in the global history of the Jewish national movement; it was not a failure because it did not produce great Zionist leaders. Zionism was colonised by British Jews for their own ends: it replaced an increasingly untenable denominational self-definition with a resilient form of ethnic identity.

Poppel's book helped liberate me from an oppressive historical tradition and validated the study of the Jewish community that I knew best and cared most about.

David Cesarani is Parkes-Wiener professor of 20th-century Jewish history and culture, Southampton University.

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