Interview with Eliyahu Stern- Jewish Materialism.

Several years ago after he finished his book on the Vilna Gaon, Professor Eliyahu Stern thought he was going to write a book about trends in Russian Jewish entry into modernity, a book reflective of a survey course.  There was going to be Mitnagdim and Hasidim as well as Zionist and secular. However, the more time he spent with Russian Jewish ideas, the more he found that the shift in the 19th century was not to secularism and Zionism but to materialism. When Stern found Mitnaged Orthodox rabbis who were Marxists and Darwinists and simultaneously Kabbalists, he knew he was onto something. Therefore, Eliyhau Stern recently wrote a book on this important aspect of Russian Jewry entitled Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s (Yale 2018)

materialism cover

Elli Stern is Associate Professor at Yale University. He received his Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley in 2008 having studied with Daniel Boyarin and Martin Jay. Prior to that, Stern was ordained by RIETS. From 2009-2010 he was Junior William Golding Fellow in the Humanities at Brasenose College and the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford. His first book entitled, The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism  (Yale University Press , 2012). He has served as a term member on the Council on Foreign Relations a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and a consultant to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland. Most importantly, he now has tenure at Yale. Accordingly, some people should be afraid; he will not suffer fools lightly.

Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s is a tour-de-force of rewriting the history of Russian Jewish thought away from intellectual issues- that parallel Western Europe- such as Enlightenment, haskole, nationalism, secularism, or Zionism- and toward their own 19th century Russian concern with materialism.  The volume shows mastery of Russian and Yiddish sources as well as important bibliographic sleuthing showing how 20th century Zionist editions of 19th century works removed the Russian literature and the materialism and replaced with Zionism

Example of his cast of characters include: Rabbi Isaac Baer Levinsohn (RIBaL) (1788–1860), who should not be situated just in the enlightenment project, rather he should be seen as dealing with questions of economic base and productivity.

The father of Jewish socialist Aharon Shemuel Lieberman (1843–1880), should not be seen as secular but as materialist, in that, he combined the Lurianic Kabbalah of Ramhal (Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto) with Karl Marx, a move of materialism not secularism.

Rabbi Joseph Sossnitz combined Kabbalah with Darwin; the innovation is the materialist turn to Darwin while remain an Orthodox rabbi who wrote Kabbalah.   In someone else’s hand, this might of become a rouges gallery of obscure kabbalists and Jewish scientists, but in Stern’s hands, the book become a major study of the Jewish entrance into modernity.

Why should I care about this materialism? First, it changes the narrative of Russian Jewish modernity.

Second, as an analytic category it has vital uses to explain many diverse aspects of contemporary Jewish life. For example, the best way to explain the difference between the creation of Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism is that the former was a cultural middle class project while the latter was a materialist project of jobs and self-sufficiency.

Or one can reframe much of the Russian Jewish immigrant experience as a materialist movement creating Lower East side socialism, or even modern synagogues with names such as Hebrew Alliance or Hebrew Institute were originally aimed to uplift the working class. They do not fit into our current denominational models. It is also worth noting that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan received ordination from the religious Zionist Rabbi Reines and studied with the scientist Darwinist kabbalist Sossnitz allowing for a reconceptualization of the project of early 20th century modernizing rabbis.  Or that the cultural project of Ahad Haam was relying on these prior materialists.

Third, it opens up new ways to read other works. Contemporary historian Jeffrey Veidlinger notes in his Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire (Indiana, 2009) that the books most read by late 19th century Jews in Jewish public libraries were the materialists Nikolay Chernyshevsky & Dmitrii Pisarev. Zionism, Jewish worker’s movements, the musar movement, Mitnagdut, and early 20th century Hasidism were all responding to Russian materialism. After Stern’s narrative, we can go back to these movements and see what they were responding to in their works.

Stern’s book is however incredibly restrained and terse. The writing is so clipped that one needs to look up the biographic details as well as the philosophic details elsewhere.  A reader unfamiliar with Russian materialists such as Nikolay Chernyshevsky, Dmitrii Pisarev, or Nikolai Dobroliubov would not know the oblique references about Narodism or materialist theories.

And more tragically, the classics of Russian Jewish intellectual life have never been translated into English and are nearly forgotten compared to common knowledge of German Jewish thinkers. The books of Isaac Baer Levensohn, Rashi Fuenn,  or Moshe Leib Lilienblum are unknown today despite their importance in their own time. A reader of translations is sorely needed to create a canon of Russian Jewish intellectual history to correspond to the German one. However, Stern tight prose assumes great familiarity with these works and does not offer introductions or extensive translations.  Stern also does not directly deal with the bigger issues of Werner Sombart or Jews and capitalism.

In order to keep a crisp narrative on materialism, Stern has already spun off two side articles from his research. The first is entitled “Catholic Judaism: The Political Theology of the Nineteenth-Century Russian Jewish Enlightenment” which deals with how Russian Jews – focusing on Levinsohn and Fuenn- defended the Talmud as tradition, the same way Catholics defended their reliance on the teachings of the Church. And the other article is “Marx and the Kabbalah: Aaron Shemuel Lieberman’s Materialist Interpretation of Jewish History,” which was removed to be a separate article because he was not writing a history of the Kabbalah in Russia.

This interview concludes with some application by Stern of his ideas to contemporary forms of Modern Orthodox and Zionism. His views on Modern Orthodoxy in Question #10 is meant to challenge those who ignore materialism.


  1. What is the thesis of your book Jewish Materialism? And how does it change the way we see 19th century Russian Jewish history?

The book tries to answer what accounts for Jews’ over-representation in late nineteenth and twentieth century political-economic movements such as Communism, Capitalism, Socialism, and Zionism.

Jewish Materialism argues that before we look at immigration patterns (to Palestine and the United States) class, anti-Semitism or marginality, we need to take into account the way in which Judaism itself in the 1870s was redefined around a new set of categories, namely around land, labor, and bodies. It was this conceptual shift that laid the groundwork for Jews’ involvement in movements ranging from Zionism to Communism to Bundism and in some instances capitalism and minority rights.

Jewish Materialism challenges the narratives of modern Jewish politics and modern Judaism by overcoming the bifurcation of “Judaism” as a religion and “Jew” as a secular political description. Scholars of modern Judaism have largely focused on the way Jewish metaphysics, eschatology, revelation, and ethics were reinterpreted to reflect models put forward by modern Protestant and German idealist thinkers. On the other hand, modern Jewish historians have studied the secular nature of modern Jewish politics and labor movements. This division between Judaism as a set of religious ideas and beliefs and Jews as a secular historical-political category is pronounced in the way the modern Jewish experience is most commonly divided in the American academy between departments of Religious Studies (Judaism) and History (Jews). The new agenda put forward in Jewish Materialism challenges this distinction and in so doing explains the experiences of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Jews more accurately. It also wagers that such an approach will better illuminate the historical underpinnings of the major contemporary markers of Jewish identity in United States and Israel.

Instead of concentrating on Western European lands, where the division between “Jew” and “Judaism” was conceptually developed and economically reified through a set of institutions and practices, Jewish Materialism focuses on the Russian Empire, where these categories were often employed interchangeably. By focusing on Russian Jewish thinkers, the book returns Marx and Darwin’s economic and scientific writings (rather than the various forms of idealism and ethics promulgated by Immanuel Kant and his followers) back to the center of modern Jewish thought. It was in Russian lands where Jews began to read Marx and Darwin through a specifically Jewish lens. Conversely, it reveals the kabbalistic, Hasidic, and biblical sources for today’s supposedly “secular” modern Jewish politics. Jews in Russia read Marx as part of a Jewish prophetic tradition and identified the project of historical materialism as reflecting a new form of tikkun olam.

2)      If your book is about a revolution in the 1870s why do you begin in 1795?

The material condition of Jews living in Russia in the 1870s was a by-product of political events that occurred at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1795 the Russian Empire, along with the kingdoms of Prussia and Austria, completed the third and final partition of the early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Russia acquired large swaths of territory spreading east of the Nieman River and down into Volhynian Ukraine. With its territorial expansion it also gained a number of new religious and ethnic groups. Now, Russia ruled over not only Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Catholics but also over roughly one million Jews. This Jewish community had existed for two hundred years as a corporate entity–a state within a state. Under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Jews were allowed to establish their own courts and civic institutions in return for taxes paid by leaders of local Jewish corporations. The corporate leaders negotiated these taxes, as well as the Jews’ legal and residential rights, with the Polish aristocracy. The Polish-Lithuanian Jews did not fit into any preexisting socioeconomic category of the Russian Empire. Their customs, dress, and languages appeared foreign and strange within the largely Christian, agrarian world. Jews were for the most part not agriculturalists. And as Jews they were barred from owning property or joining Christian guilds. The empire struggled to determine how best to rule its new population.

Russia was not the first state to be confronted with a seemingly independent Jewish population. For at least two decades, France and Prussia had been taking decisive steps toward dismantling medieval corporate institutions and assimilating their Jewish populations into new confessional and economic structures. In France and Prussia, Judaism would be increasingly restricted to family law, rituals practiced in the home, and services conducted in the synagogue.

In contrast to their coreligionists in Paris and Berlin, Jews residing in Russian lands in the second half of the nineteenth century remained landlocked, sidelocked, and locked out of major labor markets and state offices. Unlike Jews living in Prussia, France, and Britain, Jews living in the Russian Empire did not experience any material improvement to their lives. In fact, Jews in the Russian Empire were still denied basic access to land and labor markets even late in the nineteenth century. The state identified Jews as a foreign entity. Jews dressed in different clothes from those of other Russian subjects, they worked in circumscribed labor markets, and, for the most part, they resided in designated lands. They were not alone in their polarization: the Russian Empire also discriminated against Catholics and Muslims at various times.

The Russian Empire was not simply unable to provide basic material necessities for Jews well-being; increasingly, it began to appear that it was precisely because Jews were Jews that they were being materially discriminated against. For Jews living in Russia “the Jewish Question” quickly turned into a material question:  Would Jews ever be able to obtain the necessary means for ensuring their survival.

3) What happened in the 1870’s in Russia that warrant the focus of your book?

In the 1870s there was a reevaluation of Judaism through the material & physical world:We can point to at-least three factors.

  1. When the serf population was emancipated in 1861, Jews, for the most part remained circumscribed and limited in their professional options. By the 1870s, the stagnant Jewish population begins to experience the economic repercussions of the emancipation of the Russian serfs. The newly emancipated serfs flooded Jewish handcrafting markets creating a glut of laborers and fierce competition for jobs. Jews began to become acutely aware that being Jewish in Russia meant that you had a limited economic profile.
  2. Jews begin to experience increased physical threats and decreased access to resources. In 1871 the Jews of Odessa suffered a pogrom. Their bodies were being marked and punished for being Jewish. Anti-Semitism was not something social; it was becoming something physical and violent.
  3. Marx’s and Darwin’s writings begin to be translated into Jewish languages in Russia. The reception of Marx among Jews in the 1870s was unique. Marx made Jews see themselves as political actors through their labor. One did not have to be a citizen of State to see oneself as a political actor with the capacity for revolutionary activity. Russian Jews read Darwin through a uniquely Jewish prism and attempted to redefine Judaism through the struggle for survival.

4)      What are the three types of materialism, social, scientific, and practical?

As the Jewish memoirist Pauline Wengeroff remarked, a “whole new set of household words” emerged in the 1870s. These included, “nihilism, materialism, assimilation, Anti-Semitism, and decadence.” The term materialism was used to describe various intellectual movements and likewise, when employed in Jewish contexts materialism meant a range of different things.

Even in the 1860s and 1870s there was no consensus about what the term materialism meant. Scientists, social commentators, economists and philosophers all used the term in multiple and often competing ways. For example, F.A. Lange’s grand work The History of Materialism–praises “scientific materialism” in the context of critiquing L. Büchner’s “philosophical materialism.”  In my work, I explore the various discourses in which the term materialism was employed, using each as a locus of discussion.

For Moses Leib Lilienblum, being a materialist meant promoting “a materialistic perspective on life,” in which social practices and religious institutions were scrutinized according to universal scientific principles of efficiency and utility.

For the Darwinian Rabbi Joseph Sossnitz, it translated into being a proponent of a “materialistic religion” based on reading the Bible and Kabbalah through the works of Darwin and Vogt.

For the Marxists Aaron Shemuel Lieberman and Isaac Kaminer, being a materialist entailed practically transforming the world through a critical analysis of history with “labor being the first principle of life.”  All these social, scientific and practical definitions of materialism circulated throughout Europe in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, often overlapping with monistic and certain strands of positivistic thought. What is unique, however, about this book’s protagonists is the way in which they connected these forms of materialism to their identity as Jews. Their Jewishness was defined by the way they related to physical world, to land, to labor and bodies.

5)      Why do we do we need to know about Lilienblum, Sossnitz, Shur, and Lieberman?

Jewish Materialism addresses people’s biographies only insofar as it illuminates something about their political and intellectual significance.

Moses Leib Lilienblum’s role as the founder of Zionism in Eastern Europe turns on his conversion from a melamed to the political upstart who said “in taten aryin.” His break with the rabbinate and critique of the Jewish enlightenment was based on the fact that in Russia both were equally impotent at helping him to procure the necessary means of survival.

The father of Jewish socialism, Aaron Shemuel Lieberman’s embodied the very political revolution he helped to put into motion. His transformation from a husband and supporter of the Russian State to an outlaw and a bisexual occurred while he was turning the pages of Marx’s Capital and Moses Hayyim Luzzatto’s 138 Gates of Wisdom. Lieberman’s life expressed in bold relief the radical sexual and political impulses in the kabalistic tradition and allows us to see why the concept of tikkun olam animated Jewish revolutionary activity.

Joseph Leib Sossnitz’s path from Habad Hasidism to proponent of a materialistic religion laid the groundwork for the idea of Jewish peoplehood developed by his American student, Mordechai Kaplan. Sossnitz’s own crisis with Habad’s acosmicism brought him to identify God in nature and to see the Jews as a distinct species.

Finally, the future Communist revolutionary Hasia Shur’s experience of being pelted with stones for taking a Shabbat walk hand in hand with Eliezer Tsukerman provides a window onto the way sexual and social liberation went hand in hand with political liberation.

The book tries to explain why these colorful vignettes in fact reflected a crucial turning point in Jewish politics.

6)      How did this effect Zionism?

Zionism was first and foremost a movement that redefined what it meant to be Jewish: Judaism went from being understood as a religion focused on rituals, reason, and study to a collective identity whose touchstones were the protection of Jewish bodies and the fair and equal distribution of resources. It is for this reason that Leon Pinsker and Judah Leib Levin and even Moses Lilienblum originally saw the immigration of Jews to the United States and Palestine as being part of the same movement. Zionism was not founded on the fetish for a particular parcel of land in the Middle East, it was directed at ensuring Jews physical protection and diversifying their labor profile. For the Jewish materialists, the choice between Palestine and the United States was rather minimal; the viability of one or the other was based on a cold and rational calculation of what option would offer greater forms of material protection and opportunities.

Zionism, as understood by the Jewish materialists, stood in opposition to Orthodox economics and politics: the shuls, yeshivot, hechsherim, and rabbanim, and the idea that Jews should be passive subjects to rulers of the various nation-states and Empires in which they resided. Lilienblum made Jews aware that they were starving because of a religious lifestyle and a set of values that drained their resources, and because of their support for a Tsar who could not adequately protect them.

7)      How have people read Klausner incorrectly?
Joseph Klausner is the scholar who came closest to identifying my thesis, but ultimately he also became the largest stumbling block to my research. Klausner was the first to recognize the novel historical impact Marx and Darwin had on eastern European Jewish thinkers in the 1870s. He knew that the Jewish reception of Marx and Darwin (and for that matter Chernyshevky and Pisarev) had radically changed the way Jews understood Judaism and related to their surroundings.  But Klausner submerged these insights into a broader theory of Zionism.

In his writings Klausner consistently insinuated materialism into ancient Jewish sources making it difficult to see the ways in which the materialist idea emerged in Jewish circles in the 1870s. “What do you mean Jewish materialism is a new idea?” Klausner might say, “look, here it can be found in the Bible!” To be sure, Klausner knew that Marx and Darwin could not be found in the Bible. but due to his own disputes with Marxist Zionists and Bundists, he asserted that the conceptual provenance of Zionism could be traced back to the words of the biblical prophets. It was only a matter of time until the writings of Marx, Darwin, and Chernyshevsky would be passed off by Zionists and Bundists as a form of “biblical messianism.”

In this regard Klausner followed in the footsteps of Asher Ginzburg, Ahad Ha-Am (who followed in the footsteps of Smolenskin). Scholars often forget that Ahad Ha-am’s insistence that Zionism was a spiritual movement was built on the material premise first put forward by Lilienblum and Lieberman via Chernyshevsky, Darwin and Marx. In other words, Ginzburg in the 1880s and 1890s was not secularizing ideas that could be traced back to Hasidic or Biblical sources; rather, he was spiritualizing the idea of Jewish land, labor, and bodies first articulated by the Jewish materialists in the 1870s.

8)      How does this change the way we see the breakdown of the religious world?

This is one the most important claims made in the book: the breakdown of the religious world did not come through what are often identified by scholars’ as a secular Jewish modernity:  the rejection of God and religious reform.

It came through the rejection of Orthodox economics and Jews’ revaluing the physical world. The Jewish materialists explained how the resources Jews were putting into yeshivot, synagogues, schools, and rabbis had come at the expense of protecting their bodies and developing their labor capacities.

As the founder of Zionism, Moses Leib Lilienblum explained in 1871, “[Jews labor profile primarily consisted of] the professions of preaching, religious adjudication, teaching, cantoring, matchmaking, writing, kabbalistics, synagogue work, psalm recitation, prayer recitation, seminary studies, asceticism, those who make their living from dowries, creditors, the fear of heaven and thievery.” Lilienblum’s answer to this problem was not to reform the Jewish soul-changing Jews beliefs reinterpreting Scripture or reforming Jewish rituals–but rather to see the Jewish body—its sustenance, maintenance, and protection—as the primary site of identity and then to ask how Jews might go about healing that body.

9)   Is this a book just about the 1870s, or does it have a message for contemporary Jewry?

The book concludes with a cliffhanger: Lieberman, Smolenskin, and Lilienblum debating the pros and cons of joining Russian revolutionary politics, immigrating to the United States, or traveling to Palestine. This debate, of course, foreshadows the big story of modern Jewish politics and present day debates over identity politics and economics and I touch on some of those issues in the Conclusion.

But for American Jewry, the most important takeaway is the deep spiritual background to its progressive character.

The poverty stricken Russian Jewish immigrants who followed in Lieberman and Winchevsky’s footsteps and arrived on these shores became leaders in progressive, socialist, communist, and other left wing political and economic movements. Inevitably, these movements were directed at rectifying America’s discriminatory economic system. From progressives (such as the future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis) to socialists (such as Forward founder and publisher Abraham Cahan) Jews advanced a political agenda for the fair distribution of the social surplus and the protection of citizens’ rights as laborers. “The labor question is and for a long time must be the paramount economic question in this country,” Brandeis once remarked.

Their investment in these movements was not simply an attempt to be American or a rejection of their Jewish backgrounds. It reflected the kinds of sensibilities and assumptions about Judaism that were first outlined by the Jewish materialists. As I have detailed elsewhere, for these thinkers there is a clear line that runs from Luria to Luzzatto’s kabbalah to Lieberman’s Marxism. The American Jewish Left’s employment of Tikkun Olam to describe their commitment to social and economic equality was rooted in a long tradition that runs back to the very first yeshiva bochruim who read Marx in the 1870s and became the founders of Jewish socialism, Zionism and Communism.

10) …And what would the Jewish materialists say about contemporary Modern Orthodoxy?    

Jewish materialists, like Lilienblum and Lieberman, would have chuckled at a recently published 100-page sociological survey on Modern Orthodoxy. Its authors asked participants every ideological, halakhic, and theological question that you could imagine. But they forgot to ask them the most simple and basic question about their own lives: What do you do? What is your profession?

Lilienblum and Lieberman remind us that it is a mistake to examine Orthodoxy’s beliefs and spiritual positions independent of its adherents’ class profile. As I detail in Chapter Two, Lilienblum wanted Jews to realize the full implications of what it meant that religious life was an economic choice.

That means instead of understanding Orthodoxy by asking its adherents about their beliefs regarding God, Jewish law, and Torah U-madda, they should first ask them what kind of labor they perform. The Jewish materialists insist that if we want to understand Orthodoxy, we should not begin with its scholastic debates over the status of philosophy or secular knowledge. Instead we must look at its adherents’ marital patterns, zip codes, and the maintenance of boundaries (membership and conversion) that ensures a certain kind of social economy.

By starting with questions surrounding class, you will be able to better understand the cost of day schools, shul membership, and the adoption of various halakhic stringencies far better than if you begin by asking people if they accept or reject a certain paragraph in Karo’s Code. If the Judaism being promulgated by Modern Orthodoxy costs too much it is not Maimonides or Karo fault; it is because ultimately, Orthodoxy’s adherents are invested in it costing that much and want to ensure that only certain individuals can afford to be Orthodox or Jewish.

Applying Lilienblum’s insights to contemporary Modern Orthodoxy we might entertain the possibility that the high tuition fees at Jewish Day schools exist to enforce a desired socio-economic boundary: to be Modern Orthodox one must be wealthy. We might ask, do the schools ensure that only wealthy people (or those that willing to be charity cases) can be part of that community? To what extent do those who support the study of Torah together with secular subjects (Madda) do so because it costs double and ensures that only people who can afford to pay double can be part of their communities? We need to understand why only wealthy people can convert to Orthodoxy Judaism. Generally speaking, the RCA tries to convert only people that can afford to be Orthodox.

Materially speaking you cannot be part of a Modern Orthodox community and be poor; you cannot identify as a Modern Orthodox family and be working class.  To be sure, sometimes this approach will still fail to explain the full range of people’s behaviors. Checkbooks alone do not fully account for commitments.

Today’s Orthodox, however, in their voting patterns, ideological beliefs, and religious practices, reinforce a very defined class profile. They vote for Trump for the same reasons they support school vouchers and day schools: it advances the reproduction of their wealth.  It is certainly interesting and important to study the ways in which various ideas and beliefs –“love of Israel” and “halakha”—reinforce and shape this class structure. However, what Lilienblum reminds us is that if we want to understand why a group votes the way it votes, educates the way they educate, and resides where it resides (in the wealthiest zip codes in the United States), we need to first see its adherents in material terms. We must look at their labor profile and per capita income, and ask in what ways their cultural institutions and political proclivities support a certain class profile.

Lilienblum would insist: there is no such thing as “a conversion crisis” or “a Day School crisis.”  Instead, he would demand that we ask how the high cost of Day School tuition and conversion reinforce Modern Orthodoxy’s class profile. How many poor Modern Orthodox Jewish families do you know (a net income beneath $25,000)? It is a chutzpah for laypeople and rabbis to blame that on Karo or Maimonides, however it is educational malpractice for scholars and academics to continue to perpetuate these “crises” by ignoring the issue of class when examining Orthodoxy.

Channeling Lilienblum and Lieberman, I find it deeply troubling that Orthodox Jews think it costs so much be Jewish. Every time I go to a Shabbat table in an Orthodox community someone inevitably talks about how expensive it is to be Jewish. Do people really believe that Judaism was meant to be given only to rich people or that Jews are allowed only to engage in a few niche professions. Wasn’t the Torah given to the poor?

Once we understand the class profile of Modern Orthodoxy the next step would be to go about creating a space for Jewish practice that would not be classist.  We should develop forms of Jewish observance and culture that are accessible to civil servants, janitors, artists, and chefs, a Judaism for a public-school teacher or a struggling musician. That means ensuring that whatever is being taught does not require one to be able to pay a fortune or be indebted to the largess of philanthropists. We want an educational system that helps people tap into their full capacities. This does not mean that there will not still be lawyers and accountants; it means ensuring that the Judaism being promoted would be one that reflected the full range of people’s labor abilities.

11)   What is economic Zionism? What does it have to do with contemporary Israel?

Economic Zionism was an antidote to Orthodox economics and imperial politics. It attempted to ensure that people did not need to pay double to be Jewish.

Its goal was to ensure that Jews could explore the full range of their human capacities and protect themselves without recourse to institutions outside of their control. Specifically, economic Zionism promised Jews that they could be observant without necessarily being wealthy or recipients of charity.

From Lilienblum and Pinsker, to Herzl, to Borchov and Ben Gurion, Zionism was first and foremost about ensuring greater forms of economic equality. As Herzl stated in the first sentences of the Jewish State: “It is astonishing how little insight into the science of economics many of the men who move in the midst of active life possess. Hence it is that even Jews faithfully repeat the cry of the Anti-Semites: ‘We depend for sustenance on the nations who are our hosts, and if we had no hosts to support us we should die of starvation.’”

There are deep contradictions between the economic and political programs of the Zionism put forward by the Jewish materialists and that proffered by contemporary Israeli and American Jewish political actors. This is confirmed by other recent studies on related subjects. Most notably, James Loeffler has shown in his work, Rooted Cosmopolitans, the strong ties between the early twentieth-century Minority Rights Movement and early twentieth-century Zionists.  According to Loeffler, Zionism and international law were conceived of, and built, alongside one another as complementary protectors of endangered and oppressed ethnic and racial groups.

Similarly, the Israeli historian Dimitry Shumsky has revealed the way in which Zionist thinkers (from Pinsker to Ben-Gurion) stood in opposition to the fetishizing of land and the nation-state. One of the points that emerge from these new histories of Zionism is the deep discontinuity between much of historical Zionism and contemporary Israeli and American Jewish politics. The latter, unfortunately, is largely based around the fetish of a specific landmass, messianic aspirations, Orthodox economics, and the promotion of capitalistic industry and maximalist definitions of a Jewish nation-state.

It is more than ironic that a movement that was founded on the principle equality and the protection of Jewish bodies has flourished into an Israeli State with one of the highest poverty rates in the Western world.

Likewise, a movement that justified itself through an argument about economic mobility and the fair and equal distribution of resources to all groups of people has given rise to a State that seems incapable of applying the same principles to its Palestinian inhabitants.  Finally, and perhaps most shocking it not only tolerates the economic unproductivity of its Orthodox citizens, it encourages such behavior through a vast network of state-based welfare.   It makes one wonder what if any relationship there is between the current version of the State of Israel to the Zionism of Smolenskin, Lilienblum and Pinsker. But that’s a subject for a different book.

12)   What are your next projects

A small-pamphlet on the relationship between Jewish Orthodoxy and the Right Wing of the Republican Party. A large-scale history of the reception of Marx as a Jew. And I will explore the continuity of the ideas in the book in the formation of 20th century American Jewry.

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