Titelbild Osteuropa 8-10/2008

In Special Issue

Civil Rights and Multiculturalism
Simon Dubnov’s Concept of Diaspora Nationalism

Anke Hilbrenner

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The Russian-Jewish historian Simon Dubnov was the first to ascribe to the Diaspora a major role in shaping Jewish identity. From his analysis of the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe, he developed the concept of “nationalism without a nation-state”: Diaspora Nationalism. The minorities in supranational states were to enjoy the same civil rights as the majority. Their cultural rights were to be guaranteed through the creation of autonomous communities. The field of nationalism studies has largely ignored Dubnov’s work. But his concept is quite relevant to contemporary multicultural European societies.

(Special Issue, pp. 101–116)

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The Russian-Jewish historian Simon Dubnov was the first to ascribe to the Diaspora a major role in shaping Jewish identity. From his analysis of the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe, he developed the concept of “nationalism without a nation-state”: Diaspora Nationalism. The minorities in supranational states were to enjoy the same civil rights as the majority. Their cultural rights were to be guaranteed through the creation of autonomous communities. The field of nationalism studies has largely ignored Dubnov’s work. But his concept is quite relevant to contemporary multicultural European societies.

Before 1917, the Russian Empire was home to the largest part of the Jewish Diaspora. Most of these Jews had come under Russian rule due to the partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century.[1] At the start of the 19th century, the vast majority of the Tsar’s Jewish subjects lived within the traditional setting of the Jewish shtetl in the Pale of Settlement, the group of western and southwestern provinces to which the Russia’s Jews were confined.[2] Despite such restrictions on settlement and the isolated way of life prescribed by Jewish religious and communal law, there was at this time no substantial difference between the Jews and other subjects of the Russian Empire.[3]

The Russian Empire was a multiethnic entity, in which the population only grudgingly acquiesced to the efforts of the authorities to centralise and modernise the state, and in which the particularist and estate-based premodern order had by and large been retained. For that reason, the traditions of Jewish communal self-administration, which allowed the authorities access to the Jews only through Jewish religious leaders, was conform with the structures of the empire overall.

It was Catherine II (1729–1796) who had made an – unsuccessful – first effort to impose a rationalised, modern bureaucracy on various regions of her realm. Over the course of the 19th century, these efforts were intensified and, together with modernisation, urbanisation, acceleration, and industrialisation, led to the breakdown of traditional Jewish lifeworlds.[4] This painful development, however, did not unfold evenly, but instead resulted in considerable conflicts within Jewish communities and between Jews and the non-Jewish neighbours. In the collective memory of Russian Jews, specific events facilitated this process, or at least allowed it to seem clearer in hindsight. The conscription of Jewish boys into military service under Nicholas I would be one example.

In Jewish memory, this regulation, which the authorities used as an instrument of acculturation,[5] serves as an example of Russian anti-Jewish policies.[6] However, these efforts paid off, and these conscripts grew up to comprise an early cohort of acculturated Jews within the Russian Empire. In the era of Great Reforms under Alexander II, the drive towards acculturation crested again.[7] During this period, a policy of education and modernisation prevailed. As a reward for successful integration, the authorities held out certain privileges, such as the lifting of settlement restrictions.

The year 1881 marked a significant turning point in Russia’s policy towards its Jews.[8] After the assassination of Alexander II a wave of pogroms shook the Pale of Settlement until 1884. The pogroms – in traditional Jewish historiography – showed the Jews the futility of acculturation. The consequences of this violence were the rise of the Jewish national movement[9] and the mass migration of Jews from the Russian Empire to Western Europe and beyond.[10] Between 1881 and 1904, roughly 1 million Jews emigrated from Eastern Europe to the west. Of these, 700,000 came from the Russian Empire and the rest from Romania and Habsburg Galicia. Some 850,000 East European Jews moved to the United States, 100,000 settled in England, and only about 30,000 remained in the German Empire. Another 20,000 Jewish immigrants spread out across the rest of Western Europe.

The year 1881 marked the end of Russian policies designed to modernise and integrate the empire’s Jewish subjects; instead, disenfranchisement and discrimination were taken to extremes. Representatives of the “lachrymose school” – to use Salo Baron’s term – which considers the experience of the Jewish Diaspora a bitter history of persecution and disenfranchisement, see 1881 as the start of a war against the Jews that lasted decades.[11] According to this interpretation, the authorities incited the Russian lower classes against the Jews. The year 1881 therefore signals the start of the era of pogroms in Russia, an era that runs through the Kishinev (Chişinău) pogrom of 1903, the pogroms that followed the mobilisation for the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, and the October pogroms of 1905, to the large number of Jewish deaths that took place during the First World War and the Russian Civil War.[12]

Thus, 1881 stands not only for the politicisation of Russia’s Jews, it is considered a milestone in the history of the Jewish-American Diaspora. Even if this interpretation is simplistic in searching for the reasons for Russian Jewry’s political awakening only in the antisemitic policies of the Russian authorities and the anti-Jewish violence of the Russian population, it is primarily during the last decades of the 19th century that the development of ideologies and identities on the Jewish road to modernity became particularly dynamic. Less appreciated than the year 1881 – but no less important for Jewish history of ideas – is the year 1897, when several camps in modern Jewish politics assumed definite shape. The Russian-Jewish historian Simon Dubnov notes in his memoirs:

"The year 1897 led to a change in the life of Russian Jewish society. The stagnation of society that had lasted 15 years now gave way to national and social movements. As a result of the Basel Congress, Zionist circles were set up everywhere. Herzl’s young Zionism created a stir on the Jewish street, in circles and gatherings. At the same time, the Bund was formed, the organisation of the Jewish Social Democrats, which was forced to operate illegally under the then conditions of the police state. Amid these currents, an ideology broke new ground, which I took up in my Letters on Old and New Judaism and gradually developed."[13]

Simon Dubnov was born in 1860 in the traditional Jewish shtetl of Mstislavl’ (today Mstsslau, Belarus), then a part of the Pale of Settlement. In the 1880s, he made a name for himself in St. Petersburg as a Jewish journalist and literary critic who promoted the acculturation of Jews into their Russian environment. In the 1890s, he dedicated himself to researching Jewish history. In this context, he developed an understanding of history and the world that was profoundly influenced by Jewish nationalism. Accordingly, he became the history teacher and the national historiographer of the Russian Jews.

Dubnov’s Letters on Old and New Judaism (1897–1902) can be considered the core of his ideology, which can be called “Diaspora Nationalism”.[14] This term was not coined by Dubnov. His concept of national history was based on what he referred to as a “sociological view” of Jewish history.[15] He called the political programme derived from this concept “autonomism”,[16] which is also how Dubnov’s contemporaries knew it. The analytical term Diaspora Nationalism refers to both, the historiographical concept and the political programme, and thus establishes the connection between history and politics characteristic of Dubnov’s work. The ostensible contradiction between Diaspora and nationalism makes Dubnov’s understanding of the world interesting. The notion Diaspora Nationalism reveals Dubnov’s re-assessment of traditional ideas – such as a positive understanding of the traditionally negatively connoted Diaspora – and makes equally clear his novel understanding of the concept of nationalism: Dubnov synthesises the promise of modernity with his reading of history into an understanding of nationalism that runs counter to the 19th-century European faith in progress, which despite, or precisely because of, his borrowings from pre-modern times, appears quite paradoxically to be modern.


In his Letters, Simon Dubnov rehabilitates the Diaspora, to which the Jewish people had been subjected since the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE).[17] Contrary to the conventional tendency in Jewish intellectual history at the time, Dubnov did not understand the scattering of the Jews as God’s punishment, but as a historical reality dating back almost 2,000 years. The Diaspora had significantly influenced Jewish life and had turned the “chosen people” into a collective personality, which Dubnov referred to as the “light to the nations”. As Jewish national attributes had developed during the Jews’ struggle for existence since Biblical times, for such an evolutionary thinker as Dubnov, the Jews were the most “developed” of all peoples and for that reason the most “historical” one.

By the standards of historiography at the time, this reading was revolutionary, for statehood was seen as the sine qua non of historicity. The foundation of Dubnov’s Diaspora Nationalism in the age of national historiographies was to refer to a people without a state as the “most historical” (historicissimus) of all peoples.[18] The transnational and transterritorial lifeworld of the East European Jews within the heterogeneous communities of Eastern Europe is handed down in the leitmotiv of the Diaspora. Dubnov elevates it to the vision of a modern democratic future.

Despite the lack of a territory, Dubnov treats the Jewish nation like other national historiographers treat their objects of investigation, basing his analysis on the experience of the Jews in the multiethnic Russian Empire. He integrates the history of the Russian Jews, which he places at the centre of his work, into two larger frames of reference: He vertically anchors the history of the Russian Jews in 4,000 years of Jewish national history, while horizontally interpreting it in 19th-century Eastern Europe, where numerous stateless nations were struggling for their right of self-administration.[19]

19th-century Eastern Europe was characterised by various processes of national awakenings, which were subjecting the three large multiethnic empires – the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Russian – to centrifugal forces. Dubnov referred to these national awakenings as the nationalisation (natsionalizatsiia)[20] of minorities. These processes spanned all the stages of national movements from their intellectual beginnings (the Jews), to mass movements and uprisings (the Poles), and the formation of states (the Serbs). For Dubnov, Russia’s Jews were just another one of these minorities. Accordingly, the multiethnic Russian Empire became the general framework of his construction. Unlike the existence of that part of the Diaspora subjected to the homogenising pressures of the nation-states of Western Europe, the situation of the Jews in the Russian Empire amid such a diverse menagerie of religious and ethnic minorities could be better characterised as autonomous national life. In this sense, the Jews were an “imperial population”.[21]

Dubnov’s historicism took the East European Jewish experience and created from it a vision of the Jewish people’s future. Derived from this historical experience, Dubnov’s goal was not a nation-state (not even a Zionist one) but a form of national life based on self-determination for extremely diverse peoples within supranational states.

For Dubnov, state and nation were separate matters. He described the individual and its relationship to nation and state by referring to a dualist principle. According to him, the nation was derived from the inner connection of individuals to a collective body. The state, however, was an “artificial”, “legal”, or “socio-political” institution held together by an “external bond”.[22]

If the national community was responsible for the organisation of its education, culture, and edification, then the state was to guarantee individual civil rights. The individual was a part of the state in the sense that there was a legal bond guaranteeing individual rights and imposing certain duties. At the same time, the individual was an organic component of the collective body of the nation, which influenced the individual’s culture and conveyed the feeling of rootedness and belonging. Under these conditions, nation and state did not have to be one and the same thing. 

Against the backdrop of the multiethnic Russian Empire, the formation of new nation-states in Eastern Europe threatened Dubnov’s vision, because nation-states encouraged a certain “national egotism”[23] among the most populous nation. It was for this reason that Dubnov, drawing on the historical experience of the Diaspora, created a vision of coexistence among various autonomous peoples, of a peaceful and free Eastern Europe beyond the “prisons of nations”.

According to Dubnov, the institution that was to mediate between the members of the collective body was not the state, but the community. In the history of the Diaspora, the community is of special importance.[24] It enabled continuity and stability of Jewish life in the absence of a state and was therefore a key prerequisite of Jewish life in the Diaspora.[25] As such, the community is denoted by the Hebrew term kehilla. The kehilla kept up the most important institutions of Jewish life for the individual: the cemetery, the synagogue, the ritual bath, an authority offering protection from the outside world, and a legal body that ensured adherence to religious law and could be consulted in the event of problems. The communities assumed the functions of maintaining general order, raising taxes, administering justice, regulating the economy, providing education and social services, and organising cultural life. In the communities, the Jewish population was able to maintain its existence relatively independent of the surrounding majority population. The community authorities were elected, but the structure of the community was nonetheless oligarchic and patriarchal. The politically connoted term kahal was used to refer to the community authorities.

The kahal supervised the community and in return offered physical and legal protection. The most effective means available to the communal authorities for maintaining social discipline was the kherem, or ban, which could be used as a form of punishment. Furthermore, the community presided over the right to settle and to lease land, the hazakah. The community’s contacts with the outside world were handled by an intercessor, the shtadlan.

In Eastern Europe, the community and Jewish life remained stable well into the 19th century, even if religious divisions, pogroms, economic problems, and state bans triggered severe crises at various times. Because the entire system of communal self-administration was founded on religious law, the community was thrown into an existential crisis by secularisation. At the outset of the modern era, the Jewish community was subjected to criticism from nearly all sides. Adherents of the Jewish Enlightenment, and later Jewish Socialists, denounced the way, the Jewish authorities ruled the communities as oligarchic, patriarchal, and exploitative.

Antisemites suspected that the community was in fact a “state within a state”, with whose help non-Jews were exploited.[26] These communities, which in the minds of anti-Jewish conspiracy theorists were united in a large and secret “world kahal”, worked in turn for a “worldwide Jewish conspiracy”. In their efforts to modernise the state, the non-Jewish authorities attempted to dissolve the community as a remnant of the estate-based system. Only religious Jews refrained from calling the community into question.

The Diaspora Nationalists for their part saw in this institution a suitable instrument for leading Jews of the Diaspora into modernity.[27] Simon Dubnov was the first to rehabilitate the community, which he referred to using the political term kahal. To him, it was a “substitute for government, for a state, and for a citzenship”[28] as well as a territory of the Diaspora.[29] The community became the supporting element of Dubnov’s vision of Jewish national life in the Diaspora. Through it, the individual would partake of his cultural and national rights. Dubnov’s Diaspora Nationalism was accordingly a dual concept in the political sense as well. As a citizen, the individual realised his civil rights and duties and, as a member of the community, was a part of the nation and participated in its cultural and autonomous life. At the state level, the nation was in turn to be represented in an assembly of communities consisting of delegates sent by the individual communities.

Equal rights and a national life in the Diaspora mediated by the community was the central message of the political ideology Dubnov called autonomism. Autonomism was, so to speak, the “political arm” of his understanding of history. It was represented in the Russian democratic movement of 1905 by the People’s Party, the Folkspartey.[30]


The politicisation of Russian Jews gained enormous momentum through the revolution and the democratic movement of 1905.[31] After the disastrous course of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) and the brutal dispersal of demonstrators in the Bloody Sunday incident (January 22, 1905), the number of people calling for the modernisation of the Russian Empire grew steadily. The liberal opposition advocated primarily a constitution and a parliament. The peasants were still dissatisfied with the implementation of agricultural reforms. In the cities, the nascent working class was beginning to organise.

It was in this setting that the radical forces of the intelligentsiia also began to agitate. Liberals and radicals agreed on some issues concerning social modernisation, for example, women’s rights. In addition, problems with the nationalities on the empire’s periphery were severely destabilising the Russian Empire. The nationality question was one of the great unsolved problems in the tsarist “prison of nations”. Poles, Ukrainians, Finns, the peoples of the Caucasus, and many others among Tsar Nicholas II’s non-Russian subjects used the revolutionary unrest, which first broke out in the empire’s major population centres, in order to demand their right to national self-determination.[32]

In their search for allies, the Great Russian opposition movements accommodated in part the national demands of the non-Russians. Almost all parties that had come into existence after the October Manifesto of 1905 and the promise of parliamentary representation, including those that had previously operated in the underground, were aware that any post-revolutionary “new order” would have to solve the nationalities question. During the Revolution of 1905, the political public had become sensitised to concepts such as “civilised nation”, “national rights”, “language rights”, and “national education”. Russia’s Jews were also able to profit from this. According to their own self-perception, they were one nation among many, and the Great Russians also saw them as such. Therefore, it was also time for the Jewish nation to claim their right to self-determination. The Jews were thus part of the all-Russian democracy movement, with the Jewish general public being as differentiated as the opposition in general.[33]



[1]   John D. Klier, Russia Gathers Her Jews. The Origins of the “Jewish Question” in Russia 1772–1825 (DeKalb 1986).

[2]   See the map “Jews in East Central Europe ca. 1900” in insert I.

[3]   Manfred Hildermeier, “Die jüdische Frage im Zarenreich. Zum Problem der unterbliebenen Emanzipation”, Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, 32 (1984), pp. 321–357.

[4]   For a critique of this term, see: Frank Golczewski, “Jüdische Welten in Osteuropa?”, in Annelore Engel-Braunschmidt, Eckhard Hübner, eds., Jüdische Welten in Osteuropa (Frankfurt/Main 2005), pp. 13–28.

[5]   Adina Ofek, “Cantonists: Jewish Children as Soldiers in Tsar Nicholas’s Army”, Modern Judaism, 13 (1993), pp. 277–308.

[6]   Simon Dubnow, Weltgeschichte des jüdischen Volkes, 9 (Berlin 1929), pp. 188–197.

[7]   John D. Klier, “The Jewish Question in the Reform Era Russian Press, 1855–1865”, The Russian Review, 3 (1980), pp. 301–319.

[8]   Jonathan Frankel, Prophecy and Politics. Socialism, Nationalism and the Russian Jews, 1862–1917 (Cambridge 1981).

[9]   Dubnow, Weltgeschichte, 10, pp. 119–225. For a critique of this construction, see Anke Khil’brenner, “Lichnyi opyt istorikov kak ‘stroitel’nyj material’ formirovaniia kollektivnoi pamiati: pogromy 1881 g.”, in Karl Ajmermacher a.o., eds., Kul’tura i vlast’ v usloviiakh kommunikatsionnoi revoliutsii. Forum nemetskikh i rossiiskikh kul’turologov (Moscow 2002), pp. 449–471.

[10]  David Berger, ed., The Legacy of Jewish Migration: 1881 and Its Impact (New York 1983).

[11]  Salo W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 4 (New York 1957), p. 147.

[12]  John D. Klier, Schlomo Lambroza, eds., Pogroms. Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History (Cambridge 1992).

[13]  Simon Dubnow, Buch des Lebens. Erinnerungen und Gedanken. Materialien zur Geschichte meiner Zeit, 3 (Gottingen 2005), p. 341.

[14]  Simon Dubnov, Pis’ma o starom i novom evreistve (1897–1907) (St. Petersburg 1907). This 1907 compilation served as the basis of this analysis. An English edition of Pis’ma o starom i novom evreistve – “Letters on Old and New Judaism” – forms a section of Koppel S. Pinson, ed., Simon Dubnow, Nationalism and History Essays On Old And New Judaism (Philadelphia 1958).

[15]  Dubnow, Weltgeschichte, 1, pp. 8–23.

[16]  Dubnow, “Letters on Old and New Judaism”, pp. 131–143.

[17]  Anke Hilbrenner, Diaspora-Nationalismus. Zur Geschichtskonstruktion Simon Dubnows (Gottingen 2007), pp. 119–131.

[18]  Dubnow, Grundlagen, p. 41,

[19]  Benjamin Nathans, “On Russian-Jewish Historiography”, in Thomas Sanders, ed., Historiography of Imperial Russia. The Profession and Writing of History in a Multinational State (New York 1999), pp. 397–432, here p. 411.

[20]  On the concept of natsionalizatsiia, see Dubnow, “Letters on Old and New Judaism”, pp. 131–143; Hilbrenner, Diaspora-Nationalismus, p. 93.

[21]  Dan Diner, “Editorial”, Jahrbuch des Simon-Dubnow-Instituts, 1 (2002), pp. 9–14, here p. 11; Anke Hilbrenner, “Jüdische Geschichte. Digitales Handbuch zur Geschichte und Kultur Russlands und Osteuropas; <http://epub.ub.uni-muenchen.de/2055/1/Hilbrenner_JuedGeschichte.pdf>, Ch. 2.2. “Imperiale Bevölkerung”.

[22]  Dubnow, Grundlagen, p. 44.

[23]  Dubnow, “Letters on Old and New Judaism”, pp. 116–130.

[24]  Hilbrenner, “Jüdische Geschichte”.

[25]  Verena Dohrn, “Die jüdische Gemeinde (kehilla) und die Stadt unter russischem Recht”, in Jüdische Welten in Osteuropa, pp. 65–84; Isaac Levitats, The Jewish Community in Russia 1844–1917 (Jerusalem 1981).

[26]  One source for this is the apostate Jakov Brafman’s work of antisemitic slander, Kniga Kagala, 1–2 (St. Petersburg ²1882, 11869); Jacob Katz, A State Within a State. The History of an Anti-Semitic Slogan (Jerusalem 1969).

[27]  Hilbrenner, Diaspora-Nationalismus, pp. 167–186.

[28]  Dubnow, “Letters on Old and New Judaism”, p. 138.

[29]  Hilbrenner, Diaspora-Nationalismus, pp. 133–147.

[30]  Ibid., pp. 193–206.

[31]  Abraham Ascher, The Revolution of 1905. A Short History (Stanford 2004).

[32]  Andreas Kappeler, Rußland als Vielvölkerreich. Entstehung, Geschichte, Zerfall (Munich ²2001), pp. 268–277.

[33]  Dubnow, Weltgeschichte, 10, p. 387.

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