Beyond the Nation-State

The Zionist Political Imagination from Pinsker to Ben-Gurion

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Dmitry Shumsky
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , October
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


During the last decade, our understanding of how Zionism envisioned a future Jewish state has undergone significant revisions. As several recent publications argue, the goal of many pre-state Zionist visionaries varied from far-reaching autonomy in a multi-national empire to variations of a bi-national society. Dmitry Shumsky is the leading, and perhaps most radical, proponent among these recent voices. In many articles, mainly published in Hebrew scholarly journals, he takes the lead in deconstructing the myth that Zionism had always been about establishing a full-fledged Jewish nation-state. In Beyond the Nation State: The Zionist Political Imagination from Pinsker to Ben-Gurion, he presents a summary of his extensive research on the subject of nationalism and the Jews.

Shumsky’s arguments stem from his research on Jewish autonomy in central and eastern Europe prior to World War I. He therefore approaches the roots of the Zionist movement from an angle different from other scholars. Additionally, he does not only use Hebrew and Yiddish sources, but is also equipped with profound knowledge of the languages used by many of the early Zionist leaders—German and Russian—and this helps him to present a revised reading of some of the classic sources of Zionism.

Shumsky reads Zionist history against the grain. When it comes to Leon Pinsker, the pioneer of the idea of Jewish sovereignty, Shumsky argues that the Odessa physician did not just want Jews transplanted to a newly established Jewish state, but that his Autoemancipation! promoted the full emancipation of Jews in Europe as well. In Shumsky’s words, Pinsker “sought to turn the Jew from a member of an obviously homeless people into a person with a dual home, like a Greek in Odessa or a Ukrainian in Moscow” (45). The Jewish home which Pinsker envisioned was far from being a state, yet had a “profoundly substatist format” (47), and was not necessarily located in Palestine.

With respect to the founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, Shumsky leaves no doubt that the author of Der Judenstaat—literally: “The State of the Jews”, but often translated as “The Jewish State”—did not envision a state in the modern sense of the word. What Herzl had in mind was an autonomous territory in which Jews would build a model society for all humanity. Shumsky strips Herzl of the role many historians have allotted to him: in Shumsky’s description Herzl becomes, in fact, “no less a true ‘cultural Zionist’ than Ahad Ha’am,” his internal Zionist rival (59). This is not just a minor revision, but a frontal attack on most previously held opinions. Scholars juxtapose Herzl’s political aim of establishing a Jewish state with political means with Ahad Ha’am’s idea of creating a “spiritual center” for a small nucleus of the Jewish people, which would then revive Jewish—in particular Hebrew—culture for the majority of Jews living in the Diaspora. Just as the Czech national movement fought for a “Czech state” within the existing Habsburg Empire, Shumsky claims that the term Judenstaat did not mean a full-fledged sovereign state.

Shumsky argues convincingly that most of the mainstream Zionist leaders, including David Ben-Gurion, did not insist on the demand for an independent state until the 1942 Biltmore Conference, which signaled a dramatic shift in the face of the Holocaust, and the changing realities on the ground. Most significant is Shumsky’s chapter on the right-wing nationalist arm of Zionism. Just as with the left-wing leaders of Zionism, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky was not at all sure as to what kind Jewish political sovereignty would ultimately be achieved. Would it be the “situation of contemporary Serbia or in the situation of any state in the United States?” (148). Even after World War I, Jabotinsky “projected the federative multinational vision that he had earlier hoped would be implemented in Austro-Hungary, Russia, and Ottoman Turkey onto his political vision for Palestine” (153). In fact, according to Shumsky, Jabotinsky fought for two fully autonomous Jewish and Arab entities held together by a “coordinating mechanism” (158) in a greater Palestine, which also included present-day Jordan. Jabotinsky never forgot that Jews lived for many centuries as a minority among other nations: “[w]e think that honor and justice commit us to demand that the future Arab minority in future Jewish Palestine must have everything that we demand for the Jewish minority in the diaspora lands” (166).

At times, Shumsky could have given more weight to historians who previously considered variations of his own readings of Zionism. While his judgment of the existing literature may not always be fair, he has a point when claiming that “most historical studies” refuse to consider the actual meaning of Jewish statehood “because of the same retrospective distortion caused by viewing the Zionist past through the lens of the post-1945 and post-1949 realities in Eastern-Central Europe and the Middle East” (96).

In the face of the Jewish nation-state law of 2018, Beyond the Nation State not only provides a refreshing look into Zionist history, but has striking relevance for today’s Israel. One would like to make it compulsory reading, especially for those politicians sitting not just in front of a portrait of Herzl, but also of Jabotinsky. A history lesson from this groundbreaking new study might have them reflect more carefully about their own historical heroes.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Brenner is Director of the Center for Israel Studies at the American University in Washington, DC.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dmitry Shumsky is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and  former director of its Cherrick Center for the Study of Zionism, the Yishuv and the State of Israel.


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