Jews and polesjan peczkis|Saturday, February 11, 2017
This book is much more than a biography of long-term Yiddishist activist Noah Prylucki (1882-1941). It offers a broad sweep of Jewish thinking from the latter part of the 19th to the first part of the 20th century. Owing to the fact that it is based primarily on Yiddish newspapers, it brings a wealth of information to light that would otherwise be inaccessible to the non-Yiddish reader.
This work is quite relevant today, perhaps in ways not intended by the author. Nowadays, Poles in general, and National Democrats (Endeks) in particular, are often berated for not having been "inclusive", for engaging in "ethnonationalism" instead of “civic nationalism”, for regarding Jews as perpetual foreigners, for not embracing Jews as fellow Poles, and for saying that Jews and Poles are two mutually-exclusive nations. Ironic to all this, Poland's Jews had long thought of themselves in exactly this same way, as this book makes so graphically clear, yet Jews are never faulted for that.
The reader may be surprised, as I was, in another way. It turns out that many “anti-Semitic” themes were once held by respectable Jews themselves, as author Kalman (Keith) Weiser clearly shows. Yet—surprise—only Poles are blamed for once having held them.
My review focuses on a number of salient themes:
THE TALMUD ON “WHO IS A JEW”
The modern definition of a Jew is someone born a Jew who remains unconverted to another religion. This is largely based on the Talmud (Megillah 16a), which states that any Jew who does not turn to idolatry remains in fact a Jew. (p. 156).
INDIVIDUAL EXCEPTIONS ASIDE, POLAND'S JEWS WERE NEVER POLES
Wieser comments, (quote) Thus, like other pre-modern Jewish communities, they [Ashkenazic Jews] understood themselves to be a fragment of the people Israel, a people exiled from its ancient homeland in Palestine to the four corners of the earth. (unquote). (p. 5).
NOAH PRYLUCKI: POLAND'S JEWS ARE NOT POLES. PERIOD.
What about Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries? Prylucki left nothing to the imagination as he promoted the complete and everlasting national polarization of Poles and Jews. Weiser thus quotes Prylucki, “We are not Russians, we are not Germans, we are also not Poles. We were, we are, and we will remain Jews…” (p. 313).
YIDDISHISTS: JEWS ARE THEIR OWN VOLK. JEWS-AS-RACE CONNOTATIONS
To the casual reader, the term VOLK brings to mind the Nazi idea that Germans are a VOLK, while German Jews are excluded from the German VOLK. However, some Jews themselves considered the Jewish people a VOLK, and did so decades before the Nazis even existed. Kalman Weiser comments, (quote) Like other forms of European populism, Yiddishism reproached intellectuals with betrayal and abandonment of the loyal FOLK (the Yiddish parallel to the German concept of VOLK), the idealized guardians of the national soul and identity, through the adoption of foreign tongues and cultures. (unquote). (p. 75).
Noah Prylucki thought highly of Moses Hess and his view of all Jewish people comprising a race. Prylucki even called Hess a modern prophet for elevating RASSENKAMPF (“racial struggle”) over the then-popular Marxist concept of class struggle. (p. 115). For further analysis of Moses Hess, please click on, and read my detailed review, of Rome and Jerusalem : A Study in Jewish Nationalism.
ENDEKS DID AFFIRM EQUAL RIGHTS FOR JEWS. THEY ONLY REJECTED SPECIAL RIGHTS FOR JEWS. SO DID POLISH LIBERALS
The Endek position on Jews should be analyzed, and not demonized. Consider what nowadays is called identity politics. Interestingly, during the Second Duma, the Endeks supported the rights of Jews as individuals, but not group rights, national rights, or collective rights for Jews. The Endek opinion was seconded by Polish progressives, and this especially infuriated Prylucki. (p. 55).
WHY POLES DID NOT TAKE JEWISH ASSIMILATION MORE SERIOUSLY
Pointedly, relatively few Jews attempted to assimilate. Author Kalman Weiser cites a 1917 Prussian study. It concluded that only 3-5% of Poland’s Jews were Assimilationists. By contrast, 40% were petit bourgeois nationalists (encompassing Folkists and all Zionists); 8% were Bundists and supporters of Poale Zion, and nearly 50% were Agudists. (p. 312).
The implications are not difficult to deduce: The marginality of assimilated Jews, moreover at a relatively late date (the eve of Poland’s independence), facilitated their exotic and questionable status (in the eyes of both Poles and Jews). It also discouraged belief, even among Polish idealists, that assimilation would ever become decisive in Polish-Jewish relations.
PRYLUCKI CONCURS WITH THE ONR: EVEN TOTALLY-POLONIZED JEWS ARE NOT FULLY POLISH
Certain Jewish memes can survive even radical assimilation, and the Endeks warned that large-scale assimilation of Jews, were it to occur, would cause the Judaization (ZAZYDZENIE) of Poland. That is, the essence of Polish-ness would be diluted by large numbers of Jews that are outwardly Polish, but which retain the “Jewish spirit” and “do not feel the Polish spirit.” Interestingly, Noah Prylucki also believed that there is a clearly-evident “Jewish spirit” that respectively differs from the “German spirit” and the “Polish spirit”. Thus, Weiser quotes Prylucki, who thus wrote in 1931, (quote) “When I read belletristic or poetic works by famous modern German or Polish writers of Jewish descent, I often cannot free myself from the impression that even for the linguistic virtuosos among them the psychic apparatus and the language in which they express themselves is, nonetheless, not the same as that of a born German or Pole.” (unquote). (p. 237).
JEWISH INFLUENCE IN NEWSPAPERS (AND LATER THE MEDIA AND ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY)
As newspapers, and then motion pictures, became common, the Jewish influence in them was questioned in many nations. It was said that Jewish influence led to a noticeable tendency to frivolity, cynicism, and an appeal to lower instincts. Interestingly, Jews themselves voiced similar complaints about a leading Jewish newspaper. Weiser quips, (quote) In contrast with UNZER LEBN, which concentrated chiefly on events in Warsaw and the Polish provinces, DER HAYNT styled itself a newspaper for Jews in all of the tsarist empire. It revolutionized the Yiddish press with its large format and innovations in the form of regular columns and thematic sections. As suggested by its title (“Today”), it gave priority to current news items, albeit in a highly sensationalized manner. Indeed, the pejorative term “Yatskanism” entered the Polish and Jewish lexicons to describe a penchant for journalistic scandal and sensation. (unquote). (p. 61).
JEWS AND ART
Consider the historical Jewish disinclination to the visual arts. Religious Jews had thought of art as facilitating idolatry, and as something that highlighted sensuality, as occurs in pagan cultures. Others thought that this Jewish aniconism stemmed from Jews devaluing beauty and spirituality in favor of practical matters [or material gain]. (p. 109). Prylucki also called attention to the Jewish disinclination to art, and to the Jews’ preoccupation with everyday concerns. (p. 110).
JEWS IN "UNPRODUCTIVE" OR "PARASITIC" OCCUPATIONS
Many times in the past, Jews had been accused of gravitating to exploitative occupations (e. g, usury) that involved quick profit for minimal work. Interestingly, some Yiddishist educators also thought in terms of Jews needing to overcome “the traditional taboo against physical labor as undignified among Jews”, and to be torn “away from unproductive professions”. (p. 129).
INTERWAR POLAND (1918-1939): JEWISH ECONOMIC HEGEMONY AND THE RATIONALITY OF GOVERNMENT DISCRIMINATION AGAINST JEWS
Nowadays, Poles are portrayed as some kind of primitive people that had nothing better to do than to hurt their Jews. Such was far from the case.
Jewish author Kalman (Keith) Weiser displays an atypically even-handed understanding of Polish-Jewish economic rivalry. He realizes the extreme Jewish advantages, and the fact that Polish policies against Jews were designed to put limits on Jewish economic dominance, and not to exclude or deprive the Jews. He writes, (quote) Tobacco and alcohol concessions, areas of production in which Jews were traditionally strongly represented, were granted to Poles supposedly in order to benefit war invalids. But this law was also aimed at reducing the proportion of Jews active in commerce to a level commensurate with their part of the overall population. According to statistics published by Y. Schipper in 1928, 41.2% of Jews were engaged in commerce and Jews made up 76.3% of those engaged in commerce in Poland. (unquote). (pp. 317-318).
The magnitude of Jewish economic hegemony becomes staggering once the reader remembers that Jews were only 10-12% of Poland’s population! No wonder that Poles needed what nowadays is called affirmative action (discrimination against a more successful group in order to create more opportunities for a less-successful group).
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