The Gentle Totalist

Reviewed by Jonathan Dekel-Chen

Crisis, Revolution, and Russian Jews
by Jonathan Frankel
Cambridge University Press, 2008, 334 pages.

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When a young Jonathan Frankel embarked in the 1950s on what would become an exceptional scholarly career, most historical accounts of Russian Jewry during the late imperial period were oriented toward a narrative of victimhood. According to the traditional view, the pogroms of 1881-1882 were a watershed, signaling the failure of Jewish emancipation in the Russian Empire and ushering in an era of even greater antisemitic persecution. Almost single-handedly, Frankel changed this conceptual paradigm, offering in its stead a more complex view of the myriad Jewish responses to violence and repression, both in Russia and in those lands to which the Russian intelligentsia emigrated en masse. He demonstrated that the ideological shift of Russia’s Jews to the left caused by this crisis, combined with their physical migration to the United States, Western Europe, and Palestine, was in truth crucial to the development of communism and socialism among Jewish communities in those places, just as it was the driving force behind the emergence of Jewish nationalism and Zionism there. This theory, which he refined over the course of nearly twenty-five years, finally sprang forth fully formed in his magnum opus, Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews.
The book, published in 1981, would revolutionize the perception of modern Jewish history. By exporting political idealism on a massive scale, the transplanted Russian Jewish radicals were not just history’s victims. On the contrary, they were also viable actors in their new host societies and even on the international stage. Years before the term transnationalism had come into academic parlance, Frankel demonstrated the existence of intense interaction between the Jewish denizens of the Russian Empire and their brethren abroad, interaction that would prove critical to the Jews’ emergence as a modern political force and to the establishment of the sovereign State of Israel.
By the time of Frankel’s death in Jerusalem in May 2008, at 72 years of age, his scholarship had left an indelible mark on his field, making him, in the words of Stanford University professor Steven Zipperstein, “the most highly regarded historian of modern Jewry of his generation.” Indeed, although Frankel spent most of his adult life in Israel, it was indicative of his international stature that obituaries for him appeared in The Independent, The Guardian, and The Times—a remarkable show of respect from mainstream British media for an Israeli scholar. In the months before his passing, Frankel was preparing a volume of his essays for publication. That book, Crisis, Revolution, and Russian Jews, features a collection of his writings on a subject that formed a focal point of his expansive career: the politicization and politics of the Jewish people in the Russian Empire during the late czarist period. The volume was completed by his wife and colleague Edith Rogovin Frankel in the months after his death. Through its sheer breadth of scholarship, as well as the seeming effortlessness with which it combines case studies, bird’s-eye views of individuals, events, and trends in Russian Jewish politics and life, Crisis, Revolution, and Russian Jews is a fitting conclusion to Jonathan Frankel’s career.
Born in London in 1935, Frankel was the son of a British mother and an immigrant father from Nazi Germany. He earned his Ph.D. from Cambridge under the tutelage of legendary scholars E.H. Carr, Isaiah Berlin, and Chimen Abramsky, and was later made a fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge and of Columbia University. Upon making aliya in 1964 at the age of 29, he was appointed a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He went on to number among the founders of Russian and Slavic studies in Israel.
Frankel was among the most prominent of the wave of young academics from the West, graduates of its finest universities, who arrived in Israel during the 1960s and early 1970s and redefined in great part the teaching of the humanities and social sciences there. He advocated a rigorous, value-neutral approach to scholarship, insisting that the study of history had no role to play in the creation of politicized narratives of the past that inevitably sought to justify this or that version of the present. Indeed, although he himself was an ardent, lifelong believer in the national cause, those scholars who tended to interpret modern Jewish history through a Zionist-centric lens found Frankel’s work problematic, revealing as it did multiple centers of Jewish life and thought, many of them no less fruitful than the one established in the Land of Israel. Others found it difficult to accept his synthesis of the “high” and “low” cultures of the Jewish world, in which the lofty ideas of politics intersected with the nuts and bolts of labor activism. That Frankel was able to achieve such a synthesis at all was thanks to his unique ability to feel equally at home crafting the biographies of great men, drawing out the subtleties of literature, or sifting through the intricacies of mass movements.
Frankel’s work was rooted in the belief that the fate and impact of Jews in Eastern Europe could not be understood without fully engaging the history and politics of the region. Indeed, unlike most scholars of Jewish history, Frankel was a trained historian of Europe; his conceptualization of Jewish issues lay within the larger framework of the continent’s political landscape. He believed that one must consider the broader picture in order to understand how East European Jews affected Jewish life everywhere else. This theme is discussed at length in Prophecy and Politics, which almost single-handedly reinserted the Bund and other socialist movements into the Jewish historical narrative, demonstrating how their members—a crop of young people inspired by revolutionary ideals and equipped with skills in mobilizing mass support—came to occupy a significant place in Jewish communities throughout the West. It also highlighted the messianic drive shared by these movements, an impulse whose roots lay in Judaism but that, in the ideological maelstrom of Eastern Europe during the fin de siècle, had been recast in secular form.
Another landmark publication was The Damascus Affair: “Ritual Murder,” Politics, and the Jews in 1840 (1997), at once a biography of several key figures, a deft deconstruction of complex international events, and a tour de force study of the emergence of global antisemitism. In keeping with his emphasis on Jewish activism, Frankel shows how the Jews succeeded in mobilizing global public opinion in response to the affair—this, despite being members of a supposedly “powerless” people.
Finally, Frankel’s extensive editorial work had a significant influence on the field. Perhaps most important among these efforts was his editing of seven volumes of the annual Studies in Contemporary Jewry, which, since its founding in 1984, showcased some of the best work on the modern Jewish experience. But it is not only Frankel’s publications, marked by the quality of their writing and research, that should be credited with bringing Israeli scholarship on East European Jewry to the attention of a non-Hebrew-speaking audience. No less important was Frankel’s devoted mentorship of a generation of young scholars and students, both in Israel and through visiting professorships at many of the world’s leading academic institutions, including University College, London, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, and Dartmouth. It was fitting, then, that in honor of his retirement in 2004, an international conference was convened at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where many of the best and brightest minds in the field gathered to celebrate Frankel’s distinguished career. Now, reading Crisis, Revolution, and Russian Jews, one is reminded of why this unique scholar will be sorely missed.
With characteristic modesty, Frankel explains almost nonchalantly in his introduction to Crisis, Revolution, and Russian Jews that its twelve essays deal with the history and historiography of Jews in the Pale of Settlement, Congress Poland, the United States, and Ottoman Palestine. For almost any other modern scholar, this would be an unfathomable range of research. Here, then, is the essence of Frankel’s quiet, powerful genius: the masterful synthesis of both shared and unique trends spreading over decades and across oceans. Developing and elaborating upon ideas first put forward in his Prophecy and Politics, Frankel once again links the intellectual seedbed of late Imperial Russia with its offshoots in the Soviet Union, the West, and Mandatory Palestine, showing how ideas, and eventually entire movements, took root in Jewish political and cultural life on three continents (or perhaps four, if we include South America).
As in all Frankel’s work on Russian Jewry and its diaspora, what emerges clearly is a portrait of a people that, without the benefit of autonomy—to say nothing of sovereignty—was nonetheless empowered. This empowerment took various forms, some political (e.g., the Bundist labor movements) and some activist (e.g., the mobilization of media campaigns on behalf of embattled Jews in the Ottoman Empire or Eastern Europe). Although not always effective, such campaigns—whether undertaken by organizations or by individuals—were significant in their own right, as they generated and affirmed a “Jewish power” that would prove critical to the eventual establishment of a sovereign state.
To be sure, this phenomenon had some unintended, even ironic consequences, and Frankel does not shy away from examining them. For example, as he explains in the essay “Jewish Politics and the Press,” the growth of an organization like the Alliance Israelite Universelle in the latter half of the nineteenth century did not lead to the unification of European Jewry—a fact that did little to prevent it from becoming fodder for antisemites who claimed that the Alliance’s reach indicated an emergent international Jewish conspiracy. Another essay, “The Paradoxical Politics of Marginality,” this one dealing with the 1914-1921 period, shows that the widespread perception of Jewish clout far outweighed its actual influence, cutting both ways. For their part, Jewish activists manipulated a popularly held, nearly mythical belief in Jewish dominance to “intervene at crucial moments and at the highest government levels… and to win grandiose promises with regard to the future.” The problem, of course, was that this odd symbiosis between the perception and reality of Jewish power had catastrophic consequences with the rise of fascism, as those inflated images became a core element in the pathological antisemitism that swept through Europe during the 1930s.
The volume also advances one of the key themes of Frankel’s oeuvre: the notion that Jewish history cannot be studied properly outside the flow of international events, especially crises.
Indeed, as the essay “Jewish Politics and the Russian Revolution of 1905” affirms, some events really were pivotal, both in terms of their consequences for the Jewish people as well as for our own understanding of the world in which it lived. While the 1905 revolution, for instance, did not transform the Jewish world, it was decisive inasmuch as it magnified the “Jewish question” both inside and outside of Russia. Moreover, 1905 witnessed a sort of quantum leap in the politicization of Jewish youth, which rippled outward onto Russian radicalism, the American labor movement, and the new Zionist settlement in Palestine.
Similarly, the failure of liberalism in late Imperial Russia, along with the parallel failure of Jewish emancipation there, had far-reaching implications for modern Jewish history. Frankel identifies a key moment of crisis, the 1881-1882 pogroms and the subsequent May Laws, with the emergence and strengthening of a variety of radical politics among the Russian Jewish intelligentsia. With the sense of a doomed present so palpable, the idea of a radically transformed future—be it in the Russian Empire, Palestine, or the West—seemed suddenly not only possible, but essential in these circles. Hence, political activists seized the moment to mobilize the Russian-Jewish street. Finally, the effects of the czarist crisis were also felt abroad. Frankel shows this through the proliferation of philanthropic and advocacy organizations around the turn of the twentieth century, created to intervene on behalf of the embattled Russian and East European Jewries.
The main contribution of Crisis, Revolution, and Russian Jews, however, is undoubtedly its explication of Frankel’s unique perspective on modern Jewish politics, which focuses on the transition from the older models of individual efforts by shtadlanim, Jewish intercessors, to the more modern, fervent public activity of myriad voluntary associations, movements, and parties. For most of these activists and groups, the democratization of the Jewish street was a revolutionary, and not an evolutionary, process. According to Frankel, the rise of these democraticized forces at the intersection of modernity had a profound impact on the Jewish world, even if its communities lacked conventional political power, and many of their members were still quite traditional in their beliefs and practices. For example, as he demonstrates in the essay “Jewish Politics and the Press,” newspapers were one of the most important catalysts for democratization in the latter part of the nineteenth century for politically disenfranchised Jewish activists and thinkers—from socialists and Yiddishists to Zionists and traditionalists—to engage in the frequent and fruitful exchange of ideas. These ideas were in turn absorbed into the emerging ideologies of Jewish political movements and parties, which themselves eventually evolved into policies and concrete action. Moreover, newspapers helped to facilitate a significant democratization of Jewish politics by giving relatively unknown individuals, such as the journalists Ludwig Philippson of Saxony and David Einhorn of Baltimore, an opportunity for participation and influence.
Frankel’s interest in the popular press no doubt magnified his appreciation of the vital role played by imagery in the formation of collective consciousness. Images, he stressed, played a significant part not only in Jewish relations with non-Jews, but also in the development of the Jewish world itself. Hence he was among the first scholars to attempt to decode early Zionist mythology, as can be seen in “The ‘Yizkor’ Book of 1911: A Note on National Myths in the Second Aliya.” Conceptualized around the turn of the twentieth century along the lines of redemption and self-defense, some of these images still enjoy public and political currency in contemporary Israel. A number of the essays here also help to explain how the mobilization of imagery was instrumental to the merging of Zionism and the labor movements in Eastern Europe and Palestine—a union that, on its face, was highly unlikely, given the traditional animosity between nationalists and socialists.
Frankel also tackles another meeting ground of intellectual and political activity: literature. Whether by examining S. An-sky’s vivid descriptions of public space and generational struggles or Y.H. Brenner’s more abstract notions of Jewish nationalism, Frankel traces the points of connection and overlap between storytelling, political radicalism, Jewish redemption, and national consciousness. Moreover, by showing how Brenner’s and An-sky’s writings changed over time, Frankel poked holes in many of the supposedly thick walls that collective memory and previous scholarship had erected between the histories of Zionism, Bundism, and territorialism. Most historians today concur that this more porous vision of the triadic relationship between the three movements is the most accurate depiction of the actual state of political affairs at the time.
Finally, in keeping with one of Frankel’s foremost interests, this collection elucidates intersections between Russian and Jewish socialism in Eastern Europe—intersections whose effects can still be felt today. Frankel reminds us that the olim (immigrants) of the Third Aliya (many of whom were among the founders of Israel’s national institutions) drew inspiration not just from the Jewish tradition, “but also from the example of total social change they had just witnessed in Lenin’s Russia.” This longing for “total social change,” analyzed so skillfully by Frankel, continues to shape many aspects of Israeli society and its mentality. In fact, one cannot fully grasp the dynamics of Israel’s frenetic political scene without taking it into account. 
The introduction to the volume, written shortly before his death, gave Frankel an opportunity to reply to some of his critics’ dissentions. Perhaps the most salient criticism concerns his supposed over-emphasis on the central part played by the intelligentsia in the radicalization of Russian Jewish politics. While agreeing with the importance of the role played by the Jewish “street,” the middle classes, and the “half-intelligentsia,” Frankel essentially sticks to his guns, insisting that the intellectuals were the main cultivators of Jewish radicalism. Furthermore, Frankel maintains that these essays do not undermine the concept of grassroots political phenomena, as his critics claim. On the contrary, he argues, they display a deep appreciation for the power of individual, non-institutional action carried out in parallel to the world of ideas. A clear example is the essay “The ‘Yizkor’ Book of 1911,” which shows that many of the foundational experiments initiated by the Yishuv’s labor movement were carried out without the involvement of politicians and party ideologues.
The introduction also responds to those who criticized Frankel’s view of crises as stimuli for pivotal developments in Jewish politics. Here Frankel updates the argument he advanced more than twenty years ago by insisting that the awareness of “crisis” was a key factor in the creation and strengthening of transcontinental links between Russian Jews and their brethren in the West. Frankel’s examination of Bundism in the United States, for example, starts from the premise that the movement’s activists emigrated from the Russian Empire when the situation there became critical for Jews and non-Jews alike. The essay on the subject demonstrates that the reactions to crisis in Russia were important, even if the Bund did not carry the same weight in the goldene medina; Frankel wrote that, “The American Bundists were an integral part of a generation of Jews who, recruited into the world of radical politics, would attain positions of influence and power—in Palestine, changing the course of Jewish history; in Russia, even perhaps that of world history.” 
With the perspective that evidently comes with age, the introduction also appraises some of the more sensitive issues in the study of history, such as whether and how the personal experience of the scholar, particularly in turbulent political times, affects his or her perspective. In an essay dealing with the writer and activist Simon Dubnov, for instance, Frankel notes that “Dubnov’s life and work were from the very first inextricably intertwined with the mounting tragedy of Russian and then of European Jewry.” One could argue that Frankel’s work was similarly influenced by his own experiences, first as a child in wartime Britain and then as an adult in Israel.
A particularly impressive component of these essays is a readiness to confront head-on some inconvenient truths about Jewish history. Among these is the initial resistance to the Zionist movement among large segments of the Jewish public. As Frankel explains, socialists at first rejected Zionism as a counterproductive fantasy that threatened the prospect of recruiting new cadres among Eastern Europe’s alienated young Jews. Even the adoption of class consciousness by leftist ideologues like Ber Borochov, who were close to the movement’s mainstream, did not, in fact, encourage Zionists to cooperate with Jewish socialists. We can only postulate what the effects on Jewish communities everywhere might have been had Zionists and socialists applied more of their early energies to joint action rather than competition.
Indeed, Frankel does not shy away from exposing the foibles of Jewish individuals and groups. For example, it is hardly surprising that Jewish communities across Europe could not cooperate during the First World War. But even after the war, inter-organizational conflict prevented more comprehensive action on behalf of the beleaguered communities in Eastern Europe. Simply stated, Jewish identity had become a very complex issue in modern times. Another inconvenient truth treated in this volume concerns activists in the Evsektsiia, the Jewish section of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. Many of those activists were former Bundists and as such had a pre-existing antagonism toward Zionism. With the ascent of the Bolshevik regime, they also had a powerful new platform from which to attack the Zionist movement. As Frankel notes, these points of friction never entirely abated. The basic arguments used by the left to tarnish Zionists around the fin de siècle have been taken up again by contemporary post-Zionist historians, who brand the Jewish state an essentially “colonialist” and capitalist enterprise with only a thin socialist veneer.
As a whole, the essays of Crisis, Revolution, and Russian Jews subtly merge intellectual history, politics, labor history, sociology, international relations, the study of antisemitism, and the application of a kind of network theory, even before the term had achieved popularity among academics. For Frankel, the goal was—to borrow a term from Dutch football—“total” history: a holistic view of Jewish history that puts a premium on the connections between Jewish activists, communities, and their environments spread over a great deal of time and place. This kind of historiography, which emerged in the late 1960s, allowed scholars like Frankel to take into account the ground-level complexities of Jewish life, liberated from paradigms that had prioritized differences and distinctions.
Jonathan Frankel was my teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend. For me, there will forever be a twin image of Jonathan’s towering authority in the scholarly world, matched only by his sincere concern for, and commitment to, those around him and to Israel. Words cannot express my sorrow for this life shortened, depriving us all of the wisdom and friendship of this remarkable man.

Jonathan Dekel-Chen is a senior lecturer in modern history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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