Twentieth Century Jews: Forging Identity in the Land of Promise and in the Promised Land

An important new volume traces the trajectory of Zionism and Jewish emigration and its effects in Israel and America

By Rebecca Abrams, January 27, 2011
Fifty Jewish refugee children, aged 5-16,  arrive in New York from Hamburg on June 3, 1939

Fifty Jewish refugee children, aged 5-16, arrive in New York from Hamburg on June 3, 1939

Monty Noam Penkower
Academic Studies Press, £54.50

On Easter Sunday, 1903, a pogrom erupted in the city of Kishinev in Bessarabia; 49 Jews were killed, 495 wounded and nearly 2,000 left homeless. Over the next three years, there were violent, antisemitic attacks throughout Russia and the Pale of Settlement, killing around 3,000 Jews and seriously wounding a further 2,000. From 1919 to 1921, ten times that number were murdered in pogroms of increasing brutality in Russia and the Ukraine.

As Professor Penkower demonstrates, the horror of these pogroms marked a turning point in Jewish history and shaped the century to come in two quite distinct ways: first, it led to the emigration of nearly a million Jews to America between 1900 and 1914; secondly, it radicalised young Jews across Eastern Europe, creating a generation of men and women who defiantly rejected the passive endurance of their parents and grandparents and instead took up the call of Zionism and self-help.

The idea of nationhood took on a new urgency. Disgust expressed by non-Jewish commentators at the Russian atrocities bolstered the call for a Jewish homeland. Many of the leading figures in the Zionist movement in the 1920s and '30s, including Jabotinsky, Ben Gurion and Katznelson, were born and raised in Eastern Europe during the years of these terrible pogroms. Some, like Chaim Arlosoroff, future political leader of the Jewish Agency in Palestine, had, as children, experienced the violence at first hand. Zionism for these men was not an ideological dream or a religious promise, but a practical and pressing imperative.

Others sought a new life in America, where they formed an increasingly confident and vocal community. But, while the Jewish voice was now heard speaking up for Jews on both sides of the Atlantic, between Jews themselves the question of what it meant to be Jewish became an ever more heated topic of debate. As Zionism gathered pace throughout the '30s and '40s, so the voice of anti-Zionists grew ever louder.

In America, assimilation, secularisation and intermarriage were the fruits of freedom, but also posed a direct threat to Jewish identity. In Eretz Israel, there was an ever-growing population of Jews from an array of different countries, speaking different languages, observing different customs, and holding wildly differing views on politics, religion and almost everything else in-between. Young Jewish radicals regarded the charity-dependent ultra-Orthodox with suspicion bordering on hostility. The Orthodox in turn rejected the entire Zionist project out of hand.

Penkower focuses on a handful of notable individuals to highlight the ways in which Jewish identity became increasingly complex as the 20th century progressed: Hayim Nahman Bialik, the Jewish national bard; Abraham Selmanovitz, who emigrated to the New World to found a vibrant, Orthodox community that enshrined the values and customs of the Old; Haim Arlosoroff, the brilliant political moderate whose assassination in Tel Aviv in 1933 blighted the course of Zionism; Felix Frankfurter, Supreme Court judge, one of the highest placed Jews in America after 1939; and Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, an ardent anti-Zionist, who refused to appoint Jews to leading posts on the paper or print the full names of his Jewish contributors, and who was responsible for "grossly" muting the Times' coverage of Nazi atrocities.

At times, these lives overlap but, singularly or jointly, they powerfully portray the cultural, political and religious tensions that transformed Jews and Jewish identity on both sides of the Atlantic.

Rebecca Abrams's book, 'Touching Distance' (PanMacmillan, £7.99) won the 2009 MJA Open Book Award for fiction and was shortlisted for the McKitterick Prize

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011