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The Zionist Imagination | The Nation

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The Zionist Imagination

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The Five tells the tragic story of the Milgroms, a successful Jewish grain merchant's family with five children, whose disintegration, helplessly watched and recorded by the narrator, chimes with the outbreak of revolution in Russia in 1905. From Potemkin Day onward, this family "that had become like my own family" is surrounded by a "dark plague." The star of the family, the beautiful, flirtatious Marusya--"I've yet to encounter any young woman better than Marusya"--dies in a careless domestic fire. Serezha, the "scamp," is disfigured by acid when his liaison with a semi-incestuous mother-daughter couple is discovered by the former's husband. Marko, who loves Nietzsche but is viewed by his father as a fool, dies when he tries to rescue a woman he wrongly believes to be drowning in a frozen lake. Lika, arrested for anti-czarist agitation and sent into exile, becomes an agent for the secret police, although the intimation at the end of the book is that she is a Bolshevik and Cheka executioner. Studious Torik, the ideal child in the eyes of his parents, whose library includes Grätz's History of the Jews--"the single book with Jewish content in the entire household"--shockingly converts at the end of the novel, although not before graciously warning his father in case he should wish to disinherit him. "My diagnosis is established irrevocably: disintegration," Torik explains to the narrator. "The Jewish people is dispersing every which way, and it won't ever return to its previous state." For Torik, Zion will not exist and Zionism is simply hastening the Jews on their path to assimilation, with "conversions, mixed marriages, and the complete annihilation of the race": "only one thing will remain--the desire 'to be like all other peoples.'" This is in itself heavily ironic, since the desire to be like other peoples, not through assimilation but through entry into the world of nations, was central to the Zionist drive to become a mono-ethnic Jewish state.

About the Author

Jacqueline Rose
Jacqueline Rose teaches at Queen Mary, University of London. Her books include On Not Being Able to Sleep:...

The tragedy of the Milgrom family is therefore the tragedy of assimilation and incipient Bolshevism. Although as a young man, Jabotinsky called himself a socialist, and in The Five he is clearly on the side of anti-autocratic sedition, he came to loathe the Russian Revolution for tearing the Jews away from other, nationalist ideals (remember, only one ideal). A revolution in another nation was not, as he saw it, worth "the blood of our old men, women, and children." If the novel is in praise of revolt, nonetheless the Milgroms make the fundamental error of believing they can lead a fully Russian life. In his 1908 article "Jews in Russian Literature," Jabotinsky addressed an assimilated socialist writer of Jewish origin "who enthusiastically pledged allegiance to the Russian people and Russian culture.... You went over to the rich neighbor--we will turn our backs on his beauty and kindness; you worship his values and have left our little patrimony to rot.... We will exaggerate our hatred to make it help our love." Once again, such violent repudiation can only be suspect. Placing love in such proximity to hatred is a risky game. Sadism, as Jabotinsky wrote on the subject of anti-Semitism in The War and the Jew, cannot bear to lose its object, never lets go. Repugnance is a binding tie. In 1935 the result of such exaggerated, fondly nurtured hatred would be to return him to the assimilated Jews of Odessa with a passion.

Everyone in czarist Russia "except the tsar himself," writes Yuri Slezkine in The Jewish Century, belonged to a group that was in some way the target of discrimination; nonetheless, the Jews were "first among nonequals." At the dawn of the twentieth century, the Russian Empire was home to most of the world's Jews, who formed the largest and most urbanized group of those who could make no claim to a national home. Although Jabotinsky eventually saw the education he had interrupted (and subsequently completed) as the Jewish ticket out of the Pale, he had in fact, like many of the Jews in Odessa, never been there. He was typical as a literary-minded Russian-speaking Jew with virtually no ties to Jewish tradition or culture. According to Stanislawski, it was far from abnormal for an upper-middle-class Russian Jew to be raised with no knowledge of Yiddish, Hebrew or Judaism. Before he discovered Zionism, Jabotinsky could therefore be described as a Jew who "passed." When he eventually introduced a "religious plank" into the Zionist Organization at the Vienna Congress of 1935, the move was as much political as sacred (or rather the two combined). By this stage Jabotinsky's explicit revolutionary aim was to make his organization the embodiment of the totality of the Jewish people; for this it would be folly to ignore a "factor of such magnitude as thirty centuries of religious inspiration and thought." "We need," he wrote to his son two days after the Congress, "religious pathos as such."

But Jabotinsky did not believe in the veracity of the Bible and, as Ya'acov Shavit has related, in all his writings there is not one reference to God's covenant with Abraham, the Exodus, the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai or indeed the conquering of Eretz Israel by the Israelites. Jabotinsky's Zionism is shorn of Jewishness even when he appeals to sacred tradition as having a part to play in the forging of the national (racial) mind. To this extent it is arguable whether the demise of the Milgroms in The Five can be traced to their betrayal of their Jewish identity and spiritual legacy, or whether Zionism itself--or rather Jabotinsky's Zionism--arose at least partially not just out of the desire to be free of an increasingly violent anti-Semitism but paradoxically also from a longing to leave the Jewish legacy and world behind. Better get out, if a family as beautiful and talented as the Milgroms--carrying the forlorn hope for the Jews of a civilized European life--cannot survive. The novel does not judge; it laments. Seen in these terms, Jabotinsky's Odessa is less a prelude to Zion than its rival--as the publication of this novel in the year he founds the New Zionist Organization suggests--one that persists in his mind even when its world has vanished. The city rises up as a counter-utopia to his own chosen destiny, a lost paradise rather than a mistake. This gives an added dimension to the acknowledged role in Zionism of contempt for the Diaspora Jew, as it does to the Zionist fantasy of creating an outpost of Western civilization in the East. It was because the Jews could not fulfill the true dream--to assimilate in Europe--that they were so determined to travel as Europeans to Palestine.

Might there be inside Jabotinsky's project, therefore, a core of hatred, as much as love, for the Jews? ("We will exaggerate our hatred to make it help our love.") When the narrator takes up a career in public service ("Secretary in the Temporary Administration of the Society of Sanatorium Colonies and Other Hygienic-Dietary Institutions for the Treatment and Education of Students Suffering From Bad Health From the Indigent Jewish Population in the City of Odessa and Its Surrounding Areas"), Marusya offers to accompany him to visit these impoverished, indigent Jews. "Would you like to get away from all these Jews?" she asks at the end of a visit that has at once dismayed and exhilarated her, "both rich and poor?" And accompanying her sister Lika into exile in Volgoda, she writes home to the narrator: "Don't forget to remind me when I return to join some political party or other, just as long as there are no Jews in it" (remember, she is the best woman he has ever known). Slezkine tells the story of Esther Ulanovskaia, who came to Odessa from a shtetl in the Ukraine and joined the Young Revolutionary International: "The Jews represented the world I wanted to get away from."

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