German Jews in Palestine, 1920-1948

Between Dream and Reality

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Claudia Sonino
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , September
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Claudia Sonino’s German Jews in Palestine, 1920-1948: Between Dream and Reality presents the experiences and reflections of six German Jewish intellectuals who spent time living in Palestine during these tumultuous years. Sonino’s portraits illustrate the diversity of German Jews with regard to their ideological approaches but also highlight several underlying themes. These themes, however, could be spelled out more clearly in the introduction and the book lacks a concluding chapter summarizing its central arguments.

Sonino emphasizes feelings of uprootedness, disappointment, and isolation in each of the six figures as they tried to establish new lives in Palestine. As writers, language plays a key role for all of them, making it difficult to break with their ties to German culture. It was their profound connection to their German culture and language that differentiated them from the Eastern European Jews who, lacking a strong bond with their countries of origin, defined themselves primarily in terms of their Jewishness.

While these six individuals shared an attachment to German culture and language, their views on Zionism and Jewish nationalism differed. The subjects of the first two chapters, Hugo Bergmann and Gershom Scholem, both actively and enthusiastically embraced cultural Zionism, but upon immigration were bitterly disappointed by the political realities of life in Palestine. Bergmann saw Zionism as a synthesis between spirituality and reality, and sought in it a resolution between his German and Czech Jewish identity—a bridge between the East and the West and between Arabs and Jews. Scholem viewed Zionism as a utopian return to Jewish history but rejected political Zionism, revisionism, and the goal of a Jewish state. The goal of Zionism for Scholem and Bergmann was to attain spiritual rebirth. Both identified with the Brit Shalom movement, founded in 1925 by Arthur Ruppin, and were dedicated to finding a peaceful, binational solution to the conflict with the Arabs.

 On the other hand, Gabriele Tergit and Else Lasker-Schüler, discussed in the next two chapters, expressed more ambivalence toward Zionism and embraced romanticized visions of Palestine. Tergit believed that the diversity, variety, and multiplicity of the Jews should be celebrated in Eretz Yisrael while Lasker-Schüler felt that the Land of Israel connected the biblical past of the Hebrews to the present and future settlers searching for God. Tergit, who went to Palestine for filial reasons, encountered prejudice against German Jews there. Rather than being welcomed in Palestine, they were criticized for their lack of ties to Judaism and for having come to Palestine by necessity in order to escape Nazi persecution, rather than as Zionists. She rejected the notion of Jewish isolation that characterized cultural Zionism, and believed that, as a German writer and journalist, she should not be compelled to forsake her German-Jewish heritage. Lasker-Schüler was simultaneously attracted to and repelled from what she called the Land of the Hebrews. Her initial travels to and from Palestine allowed her to maintain her fantasies about it while distancing herself from the harsh realities. Ultimately, during her second stay—which began in 1939—Lasker-Schüler found herself deeply disappointed, disillusioned, and isolated.

The subjects of the final two chapters—Arnold Zweig and Paul Mühsam—went to Palestine for practical reasons: to escape Nazi persecution. Zweig had earlier embraced Zionism but turned cynical after immigrating and experiencing alienation in the Yishuv. On the other hand, Mühsam never identified with Zionism, yet managed to adapt to life in Palestine more easily than most Zionist German Jews, for whom reality never lived up to their ideals. Zweig’s early enthusiasm for the youthfulness of Zionism and its spirit of Judaism gave way by the late 1920s to a socialist, internationalist perspective. When forced to leave Germany in 1933, Zweig could not leave his German culture and language behind. In Palestine he felt himself a foreigner and longed to return to Germany as soon as possible, eventually doing so in 1948. He, like many other German Jews in Palestine, felt marginalized by Eastern European Jews—a curious reversal of the situation in Germany in the early 1900s when German Jews looked down upon their Eastern coreligionists. Mühsam, whom Sonino describes as the most individual in his approach to Palestine, came with no ideological preconceptions and, therefore, was the most willing and able to adapt. Despite difficulties, he successfully adjusted and found in Palestine the freedom to be a Jew.

Sonino’s focus on the difficulties and isolation faced by German Jews downplays the difficulties and challenges faced by the Eastern European Jews. It would be helpful to put the experiences of German Jews into the broader context of those of all Jewish immigrants during this period, in order to shed more light on the similarities and differences of their struggles and viewpoints. Additionally, more could be said about the impact gender had on the identity and experiences of these German Jews in Palestine, as well as how the experiences of these intellectuals relate to those of ordinary German Jews. On a pragmatic note, Sonino’s writing style lacks fluency and clarity, which might be attributable to the translation, and inconsistencies in the spelling of Hebrew words are distracting. Nevertheless, Sonino’s study provides important insights into German Jewish intellectuals’ efforts to adapt to life in Palestine and their perspectives on a multitude of key issues including Arab-Jewish relations, the debate over the secularization of the Hebrew language, and the impact of nationalism on Zionism in Palestine.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alison Rose is part-time faculty member at the University of Rhode Island and at Ohio Wesleyan University.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Claudia Sonino teaches modern and contemporary German literature at the University of Pavia.


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