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SIMON DUBNOV (1860¨C1941)

SIMON DUBNOV (1860¨C1941)
No Jewish historian ever had a greater impact on his time than Simon
Dubnov. He died at the hands of the Nazis in Riga in December 1941 at
the age of 81. Because he was too frail and infirm to deport, they
shot him in the ghetto. Those who witnessed the murder reported that
Dubnov's last words were, "Jews, write it down."
Born Shimon Meyerovich Dubnow to a large poor
family in the Belarusian town of Mstislavl (Mahilyow region), after
receiving atraditional Jewish education in a heder and a yeshiva, he
entered into a kazyonnoe yevreyskoe uchilishche (state Jewish school)
where he learned the Russian language. Simon was unable to graduate
because these institutions were soon eliminated by a Tsarist ukase
(see May Laws), and he had to pursue his interests in history,
philosophy, and linguistics by educating himself. He was particularly
fascinated by Heinrich Graetz.

In 1880 he used forged documents to move to St Petersburg, which was
officially out of reach: a rare exception to the obligation to settle
in large cities was made only to "useful Jews", such as registered
prostitutes, former cantonists, or very wealthy merchants (see Pale of

Soon Dubnow's publications appeared in the press, including the
leading Russian¨CJewish magazine Voskhod. In 1890, during the expulsion
of Jews from the capital city, Dubnow was forced to leave. He settled
in Odessa and continued to publish studies of Jewish life and history,
coming to be regarded an authority in these areas.

Dubnow actively participated in contemporary social and political life
in the Russian Empire. He called for modernizing Jewish education,
organizing Jewish self-defense (see Pogrom), and for equal rights,
including the right to vote.

In 1906 he was allowed back to St Petersburg, where he founded and
directed Jewish Literature and Historical-Etnographic society and
edited the Jewish Encyclopedia. In the same year, he founded the
Folkspartei (Jewish People's Party), which successfully worked for the
election of MPs and municipal councillors in interwar Lithuania and
Poland. After 1917 Dubnow became Professor of Jewish history in
Petrograd University.

In 1922 he emigrated to Kaunas and later to Berlin. His magnum opus
was ten volumes of History of the Jewish people, first published in
German language in 1925¨C1929.

In August 1933, after Adolf Hitler came to power, Dubnow moved to
Riga, Latvia. Nazi troops occupied Riga in July 1941, and Dubnow, with
thousands of other Jews, was transferred to the Riga ghetto. According
to the few survivors, Dubnow repeated to ghetto inhabitants: "Yidn,
shreibt un ferschreibt" (Yiddish: "Jews, write and record").

On December 8, Simon Dubnow was murdered in the Rumbula forest, along
with other ghetto Jews.
One of the greatest of Jewish historians, presented his own liberal,
nonsocialist conception of a nation. He proposed three periods in the
historical evolution of nations: tribal, territorial-political, and
cultural-historical (or spiritual). He argued that "a test of the full
development of the national type comes in the case of a people that
has lost its political independence, a factor generally regarded as a
necessary condition for national existence."[43] Such a nation is
bound by its cultural, historical, and spiritual aspects rather than
by land or economic interests, which are important primarily on a
lower level of national existence. The Jews represented such a nation
to Dubnov, for they were bound together by Judaism as a "body of
culture," not simply as a religion. The main criterion of a nation's
existence was its consciousness: "I think of myself as a
nationality¨Ctherefore I am."[44] To protect itself, he argued, the
Jewish nation must oppose both the thesis of isolationism and the
antithesis of assimilation. Instead, a new synthesis of autonomy must
be asserted: "The chief axiom of Jewish autonomy may thus be
formulated as follows: Jews in each and every country who take an
active part in civic and political life enjoy all rights given to the
citizens, not merely as individuals but also as members of their
national groups."[45] Such autonomy would focus on three institutions:
the community as a whole, language, and education.

While Dubnov was close in many ways to the spiritual Zionism of his
friend Ahad Haam and did not oppose the development of the Palestinian
Jewish community, he considered political Zionism as a political
messianism that would be unable to solve the Jewish question. He was
bitterly opposed to any negation of the Diaspora; as a liberal who
formed his own Folkspartei during the storms of 1905-1906, he also
opposed the Bund bitterly. He attacked the Bund's claim to being the
"sole representative" of Jewish workers, and shortly after the pogroms
of 1905 stated:

They talk of "the right to self-determination" and even "national
cultural autonomy," among the principles of universal freedom, but
they do not care for the concrete development of national Jewish
culture, for the organization of autonomous communities, or for
national education, as a shield against assimilation which they
consider a natural phenomenon.[46]

This last comment was aimed at Medem, who himself attacked Dubnov on a
variety of points, including the idea that there was a world Jewish
people. Lacking a unified Jewish environment, Medem wrote in 1911, one
could not speak of a worldwide community of Jews¨Cin each country the
Jews were more identified with the local culture. Perhaps, he
suggested, a time would come when one would speak of several Jewish
nations.[47] This did not represent an isolated position in the Bund.
During discussions in 1917 to create a Russian Jewish Congress, the
Bund opposed making the problems of non-Eastern European Jewry an

For Dubnov, the Bund's approach was a thorough misconception. He
argued that its emphasis on class rather than national politics was a
catastrophic error for an oppressed nation like the Jews:

To all the arguments that the class struggle is natural and necessary,
I answer: Yes, it is natural and necessary in so far as it stems from
the true relationship between the forces of capital and labor among
our people; but it has not yet reached a stage of such decisive
importance as to justify its claim to be the supreme principle and
sole guide in our social and national life. The class struggle is one
of the factors, but not the only factor, and not even the most
important one, in our life, and its influence on our national politics
must be set in proper perspective and not artificially exaggerated and
inflated. Even if we grant that the class problem will become the
chief factor for us in the distant future, even then national politics
will not have to yield its supremacy to class politics if this entails
a danger to the unity and integrity of the nation.[48]

Seen in light of these theories, Borochov represents a middle ground
that interweaves various aspects of them while parting company on the
final issue¨Cthe ultimate future of the Diaspora. Like Medem and the
Bund, Borochov sought an analysis of nationalism and the Jewish
question that would both remain within the Marxist framework and face
Jewry's immediate crises. Borochov alternated between high praise of
the Bund's organizing and self-defense efforts and condemnation of its
national program. Like Dubnov, he derided the Bund's claim to be the
Jewish proletariat's sole representative. Borochov could accept
neither Bauer's nor Medem's final conclusion vis-¨¤-vis the Jews, i.e.
their disappearance with socialism's advent in the former case and
neutralism toward such a possibility in the latter. A Dubnovian theory
of the spiritual individualism of a nation was insufficient as an
analysis of the concrete realities of national existence for Borochov,
as much as he recognized the role of spiritual factors and supported
Diaspora autonomy as a halfway measure in the struggle for Jewish
survival. Like the young Marx, Borochov believed that the Jews
survived because of history, not in spite of it. And for the
Marxist-Zionist, positive national struggle did not necessarily
preclude class struggle, although he was very much recognized
potential contradictions (which were ultimately the result of the
abnormality of Diaspora existence). The Borochov of Borochovism¨Cunlike
his earlier formulations and those of many General Zionists¨Cinsisted
on class struggle in the Diaspora, struggle for Jewish autonomy in the
Diaspora, struggle with progressive forces against autocracy, and
concurrently, the struggle for Zion.

Most important was the radical opposition between Borochov's prognosis
for the Diaspora and that of this ideological foes. For Borochov,
unlike Dubnov, Medem, the Bund, the majority of Russian Social
Democrats, and the Vozrozhdeniye (but like the Territorialists), the
Jewish condition required radical surgery. Diaspora autonomy, a
necessary palliative, was simply not enough and failed to take into
account the anomalous reality of Galut. In fact, autonomy offered
nothing radical at all. The Jews had once possessed an autonomous
structure in eastern Europe. To argue that autonomy was the solution
was to argue for a modernized version of what once was, albeit in new
conditions and shed of religious domination. The Bund's demand for
autonomy in a socialist Russia was a call for a cultural, nonpolitical
reconstruction of Jewish internal self-rule. But it offered no truly
radical critique of the Jewish situation, and certainly did not offer
an economic or political form of self-determination. Similarly, the
Vozrozhdeniye, in supporting territorial autonomy "in the long run,"
negated the urgency of the Jewish question while Dubnov, in opposing
class politics, was a liberal who didn't fully grasp the motor of
history. A Socialist Zionist synthesis was the only real alternative.