The Clara Sumpf Yiddish Lecture Series
“Jewish Diasporism between Negative Identity and Political Vulnerability: The Politics of Adaptation, Resistance, Catastrophe, and Exit in the Polish Jewish 1930s” offered in English on Thursday May 2, aims to speak to the history of diaspora as a political project, minority political culture, and the history of political rationality and risk through an investigation of how early 20th century Europe’s most ambitious diasporist political project – East European Jewish diaspora nationalism – confronted the incommensurability of two kinds of communal peril in the 1930s. These were, on the one hand, the spectre of communal descent into hopelessness and immiserated identity and, on the other, an opaque but rising prospect of far-reaching danger to the well-being of the population for which it claimed to speak. As the 3 millions Jews of Poland were submerged by a devastating economic Depression and faced ever-more mainstream calls for radical solutions to the ‘Jewish Question’ in Poland and across Central Europe, the diasporist movement that sought a healthy Jewish communal future in Poland found itself confronting an acute, disturbing communal reaction to the economic turmoil and political enmity: widespread despair in all parts of Poland’s variegated Jewry about the possibility of any decent future in Poland/Europe, coupled with a marked reorientation of popular hopes not just toward Zionism but toward self-evacuation as such.
Many diasporists took the discourse and psychopolitical reality of despair and flight to be itself a major threat to Polish Jewry’s capacity to ‘bear up,’ defend communal interests, and adapt to the difficult ‘new normal’ that seemed in the offing. These thinkers sought both new categories to understand what was happening to Jewish consciousness under the sign of immiserated minorityhood, and new ways to respond to such a danger. The first part of the paper examines this new thought and praxis.
But some among these same diasporists also responded to the new situation by reconsidering diasporism’s largely Marxian approach to making sense of the larger economic and especially political factors conditioning Jewish life in Poland and Europe. The second part of this paper investigates how this subset of would-be political sociologists groped toward new kinds and categories of political analysis in a less Marxian and also more extrapolative mode – how they groped toward new accounts of the workings of nationalism, illiberal democracy, and antisemitism, but also towards extrapolative and predictive modes of political analysis.
The paper closes by examining how this bifurcation of the diasporist gaze brought to the fore sharpened questions of political rationality for Polish Jews themselves, questions of how one decides existential questions in the face of limited resources and immeasurable but possibly grave risk. And it traces some of many new lines of thought that began to grow out of this forcing-bed regarding questions of Palestine and Zionism, dispersion and concentration, the balancing of individual and communal obligations, about the possibility of preserving cultural identity or the need to give it up for more basic kinds of ‘goods,’ and about how to know if and when to leave.