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.
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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.”


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