The Education of Abraham Cahan (and Seth Lipsky)

Forward Editor Blended Universal and Jewish Values

By Ezra Glinter

Published October 15, 2013, issue of October 18, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

Not content to merely observe the proceedings, he insisted on submitting a question for the agenda, asking, “What shall be the stand of the organized workers of all countries concerning the Jewish Question?” The move met unanimous opposition from both Jewish and non-Jewish delegates, who thought it inappropriate to focus on the concerns of a single national-ethnic group. But unlike his younger self, Cahan was no longer willing to throw Jewish concerns under the socialist bus. The issue at stake wasn’t whether Jews could be socialists, but whether socialists could also be Jews.

To say that such provocations made Cahan a nationalist, however, would be an exaggeration. Lipsky, more than previous biographers, focuses on Cahan’s relationship with Zionism, drawing attention to the fact that Cahan was born in the same year as Theodor Herzl and that he corresponded with such Zionist thinkers as Vladimir Jabotinsky. But like many Jewish socialists, Cahan didn’t consider Zionism a practical solution to the problems of Diaspora Jewry.

While the rejection of Zionism by such a prominent Jewish leader may strike us as radical, Cahan’s position was not unusual for its time. Indeed, his occasional sympathies for the movement — he once told the Hebrew newspaper Davar that “I do not believe in it, but there is no hatred for it in my heart” — struck some of his peers as heretical. And like countless skeptics, he wasn’t above being charmed by a free trip.

In 1925, Cahan traveled to Palestine on behalf of the Forverts, visiting holy sites and kibbutzim and meeting with leaders like David Ben-Gurion, whom he described as “a genuine labor leader and… a man of strong character.” During his visit, he marveled at the accomplishments of agricultural pioneers, telling an audience at Kibbutz Ein Harod that “you are bringing true the best of my dreams and the dreams of my friends of 40 years ago.” When he visited the Western Wall on Yom Kippur, he wept.

Yet Cahan remained convinced of Zionism’s limitations. While elsewhere he had objected to the tendency of international socialism to stifle Jewish concerns, in Palestine he saw working-class interests being sacrificed on the altar of Jewish nationalism. In the Forverts, he wrote:

When you tell a revolutionary in Palestine that you are going to write about the greed of the property owners in Tel Aviv… he finds himself in a quandary. As a socialist he has to insist that you do write about these matters, but as a Zionist he is afraid that to do so may harm the endeavor in Palestine…. In the end, he is first of all a Zionist, and all the other “ims” only come afterwards.

Lipsky considers Cahan’s skepticism a failure of historical foresight, and given the ultimate successes of Zionism, that might seem reasonable. (Cahan also tended to downplay the conflict between Palestine’s Arab and Jewish populations, arguing that economic development would eventually smooth everything out.) But Cahan was more perceptive than Lipsky gives him credit for. He understood that Zionism might fix some problems — and significant ones — but that it wouldn’t resolve the socioeconomic issues facing his Diaspora readers. In the words of B. Charney Vladeck, then general manager of the Forverts, Cahan opposed a philosophy of “Palestine alone” in favor of “Palestine also.” Nearly 90 years later, the reality for most Diaspora Jews, even the most Zionist among them, is indeed “Israel also.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.