Episode 97: The Zionist Movement in Czechoslovakia

Host: Augusta Dell’Omo, Department of History, UT-Austin
Guest: Tatjana Lichtenstein, Professor, Department of History, and Director, Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, UT-Austin

Lichtenstein book coverAfter World War 1, the Zionist movement – the Jewish nationalist movement that had the creation of a national homeland as its ultimate goal – took root in the new country of Czechoslovakia. However, through the mechanisms of the Zionist movement itself, Czechoslovak Jews realized their collective power as an organized group within their own country for the first time. What happened next was a struggle between the goals of international Zionism and the potential reality of what Czechoslovakian Jewry could attain through collective bargaining – until the rise of Hitler and WWII tipped the scales.

Guest Tatjana Lichtenstein has studied the Zionist movement in Czechoslovakia and gives us a glimpse into the interwar period when Czech Jewish leaders saw the possibility of being accepted into European society, ironically through the mechanisms of a movement that’s become associated with immigration to the Middle East.

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Let’s start with how you would define Zionism.

Well, I think Zionism is best thought of as a Jewish nationalist movement that emerges in Europe in the late 19th century. If Jews have traditionally been thought of as a religious civilization defined by Judaism, by their difference in religion, Zionists really thought of Jewish nationalist and Zionists thought of Jews as a national community, as a nation. As a nation that shared historical language, a unique territory (the land of Israel) unique culture, and also an ethnicity. A biological component as well. So, within this broader umbrella of Jewish nationalism, Zionism is one of these movements that starts thinking of Jews not as a religious civilization alone, but actually as a national community.

Where and when does Zionism emerge?

Zionism emerges in Central Europe in the late 19th century. Jewish author Theodor Herzl, who was a Viennese journalist, thought of as the founder of Zionism, he organized the first Zionist Congress in 1897 in Switzerland. But, there were actually would you call proto-Zionist groups already, people who wanted to return Jews to the land of Israel in the Russian Empire in the 1880s. Smaller groups of settlers, young people went to the land of Israel and starting working in agriculture and sort of renew the Jewish people there. But the Zionist movement as an organized movement really emerges from these congresses in 1897 and then going forward in Central Europe.

Is Zionism, based on that, always been a kind of transnational movement, but were there distinct national movements that were separate from the overarching group?

That’s a really good question. It has always been a transnational movement because the Jews are a diaspora people, spread all over the large empires of Europe, also in the New World, in Western Europe and so on. There were Zionist groupings in all these small towns and big cities. The Congress that Theodor Herzl organized in 1897 and then happened every two years was meant to bring all these groups together as a community of activists and thinkers and writers together to talk about the priorities, and to try and govern the Zionist movements. They acted almost as a government of the Jewish nation.

That makes a lot of sense. So, how does World War I change the possibilities for Zionists in Eastern Europe and elsewhere?

So, it does this in a couple of ways. First of all, the land of Israel (the territory of Palestine) changes hands from the Ottoman authorities to the British. Herzl had lobbied the Ottomans to allow for more Jewish settlement in Palestine when they were in control of that territory. But hadn’t met with a lot of success. That did not prevent Zionists from actually creating settlements in the land of Israel to buy up the land and so on, but they did not get the Ottoman authorities support for this. When the British takeover the territory in 1917, and later after the war they get the Palestine Mandate, there really is a possibility, an opportunity, it looks like for the British to appear as if they want to support Jewish settlement. The idea of creating a Jewish national society in Palestine actually becomes more of a possibility because now the imperial authorities look as if they are favorably inclined. That is one aspect.

The other important way in which World War I changes and challenges the Zionist movement is that the largest body of Jews, the largest Jewish community was in the Russian Empire. With the Bolshevik Revolution in World War I, the Russian Empire changes form radically. Not only does it become a Soviet state, but it parts of that community are now in other nation-states, in new countries that make up Eastern Europe. New Poland, Czechoslovakia, and so on. The Soviets really promise emancipation for the minorities, and it really transforms the basis for Jewish life in the Russian Empire. It is transformative: legal discrimination is done away with officially, and it really opens new social opportunities for Jews. That was actually one of the big reservoirs of the Zionist, “human material,” that they were hoping to have emigrate to Israel.

But now, suddenly it is looking like there actually is a reason for these Jews to stay. Of course, Russia had been the source of mass immigration to the West. The American Jewish community, the North American Jewish community really grow a lot from that immigration and Zionists were hoping they would be the ones to come to the land of Israel. But now it seems to be a new possibility, a challenge to the Zionist solution to Jews poverty, discrimination, and so on.

The third reason, I would say, that is very important is the break-up of the multinational empires and the establishment of aspiring nation states in Eastern Europe. It is important to remember that the vast majority of Jews live in Eastern Europe, and the majority of those Jews live in Poland. Nationalism gets new legitimacy as a political movement, as a state building movement. At the same time, the Allies are concerned about making sure that nation states respect the rights of minorities, so different kinds of provisions are made to respect their right to schools in their own language, and to have state resources funneled to social welfare organizations and cultural organizations. Nationalism not just as a nation state but also as national minorities, as being legitimate entities within these states, it kind of redefines and gives a new dynamic in the interwar period, after World War I.

This is why Zionism really emerges on the political stage in Czechoslovakia after World War I, because now they are one of these country’s national minorities, and that democratic state is committed to respecting the rights of the national minorities. It is really an opportunity for Zionists to come in and say choose our, like the Germans, like the Hungarians, like the Czechs, to choose our organization that has rights as well as responsibilities as citizens of the new state.

Could this stake in this new state have made Zionism less popular? How does it change how popular Zionism was in the Jewish community during this period?

That’s a really good question. That is very hard to answer, how does one measure the popularity of Zionism? First and foremost, right after the war, in the course of the war as well, what many Jews were concerned with, and this is in the context of displacement of millions of Jews, when the Russian Empire as well as elsewhere, experiences a massive refugee crisis among Eastern European Jews during and after World War I.

As the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapses and Czechoslovak independence is declared in October 1918, anti-Jewish violence and rhetoric really escalates in Bohemia and Moravia as it had already in Poland and in other places. Jews are really concerned about this and what authorities are going to intervene. Zionists really boldly and courageously insert themselves into the negotiations with the new authorities and try and convince them to restrain, crack down violence, and restrain the incitement to violence against the Jews. They do this by saying that this is really in the interest of the new Czech leadership to show that they know how to govern, that they can run a stable country, and that they are going to be a reliable part of the new order in Europe.

What is the process of “petitioning the imperial authorities?” How do the Zionists work with the British, do they subvert that relationship at all, what is that dynamic like, and what are they advocating for?

In Palestine, there is a Zionist leadership that is the Jewish leadership in Palestine leading the Jewish community. What they were hoping for was that the British would support Jewish immigration to Palestine as well as allow for public resources to be used to settle and integrate these new immigrants to the country, the Jewish settlement. But the British got quite quickly alerted to Palestinian opposition to the influx of Jewish immigrants, and kind of backtracked on the early forthcoming promises about encouraging Jewish immigration. The British were interested, however, in the kinds of developments that Jewish immigration and investment could bring to the territory. That is one of the big aspects of Zionist activism is of course fundraising to buy land and build settlements.

In Palestine, that is a lot of Zionist activity in the diaspora is actually to collect money to send to Palestine to buy land and settle Jews in that land. The tension between the two communities really is what the British are negotiating in the 20s and the 30s. Jewish immigration, with the closure of American immigration, Israel becomes more of the destination for Jews to go, but in the 20s, it is very very hard for immigrants to make a life there: very harsh conditions. Some years, more people leave Palestine come in than come in in terms in immigrants. But it is really during the 1930s, especially in terms of German-Jewish immigration after Hitler comes to power that the Jewish population of Palestine grows immensely. That is also when tensions escalate as the British end up restricting Jewish immigration.

What is the Zionism movement look like in Czechoslovakia, both in the interwar period and moving into the long-term impact in Czechoslovakia, which is where you focus your research.

Very much when Zionism first emerged as an organized movement in 1897, going forward, some Jews from Bohemia and Moravia at that first congress, they established local chapters and Zionist groups in their small towns, and cities already in the 1890s. Some of the first organizations that are actually created are gymnastic organizations because there was this aspiration within the Zionist movement that this national awakening would create a “new kind of Jew.” Part of that was the kind of physical and mental discipline and transformation that physical activity and gymnastics, and later, sports could provide. It is also a place that really builds community and social bonds that nationalists think are very important for nations to share loyalty and interests. They exist before World War I as well, but it is really only when the Austro-Hungarian empire falls apart and the Czechoslovak authorities take over that Zionists gain a political role.

To do that, there is lobbying to restrict anti-Jewish violence, and they do it by addressing and convincing the Czech leaders that Zionist leaders abroad, especially in the United States, that they have their eye on the Czechs. They are watching to see how they are going to handle anti-Semitism and Jews. Important Zionists, Bohemian Zionists claim, are going to influence Wilson and the American administration, along with the international public audience pro or against Czechoslovakia. At this time, they are negotiating their own boundaries and conditions for their new state in Paris, so they really try and address the Czechs on a local level, and by alerting them to the potential, alleged power of the Zionist movement. This draws on longstanding ideas about Jews and international power.

How accurate is this dynamic that they are talking about that could potentially exist?

It is very much drawing on and exploiting the uncertainty of Czechs as to how important this power was. That was what in some ways, what was most useful about this image of international Jewish willpower. What is so interesting about World War I with the mass displacement of Jews, anti-Jewish violence on an unprecedented scale, in the Russian Civil War, estimates run between 80,000 to 250,000 Jews that are murdered through anti-Jewish violence that causes displacement and exposure that people have to disease and poverty, this was a time when Jewish powerlessness was really on display. It was in the newspapers, Jews in the West collected lots and lots of money to help Jews who were really at the mercy of these shifting militias and armies on the Eastern Front.

At the same time, the idea that the Jews have a world organization or world power, that there is an international network of very wealthy Jews, but also revolutionary Jews, that idea at the same time also grows. So, it is a kind of paradoxical situation of evidence of Jewish powerlessness, but the idea of Jewish power is on the rise. That comes of course with respect, but certainly most with fear and hatred. The Czechs were uncertain about the clout of the Jews in the West. They weren’t sure, but they were not going to alienate a potential ally if they didn’t have to. This is actually a strategy the Zionists generally used when they were trying to address authority because they don’t really have tangible power. It is something on the local level that Zionists activists that I studied in Prague very much tried to utilize to try and alert the Czechs to the dangers of turning this great power against them would do. In many ways, I think it is sort of a strategy of people who don’t really have anything else to bargain with. They were simply trying to say this is in your self-interest, protect the Jews in your territory.

What happened to these activists during and after World War II? How does this dynamic shift?

The activists that start out, it’s actually a very small group of mostly men based in Prague, who do a lot of the lobbying with the government and continuously work with the government to shape what becomes the Czechoslovak state’s policy towards the Jews, many of them are very much committed to, and that is one of the things my book really shows, that these Zionists are very supportive of building a Jewish society, state in Palestine. They fundraise, continuously, through the 20s and 30s, they travel to Palestine, they participate in Congresses, they spend a lot of energy raising awareness and again, fundraising for building the Jewish society.

At the same time, they are equally committed, if not more, for themselves, to create a Jewish national community in Czechoslovakia that really prospers. They really saw this multinational state, as a state that supported its minorities with public resources for their schools, the most important national institution where children learn what it means to be German or Jewish or Czech. Public resources for these national institutions where there were provisions for minority language, for representation and so on, they really saw this as a unique opportunity to create a thriving national community in the diaspora, where they already lived, where they were already at home. They had multiple projects at the same time. To them, they were not mutually exclusive.

But it did create tensions. One of the tensions it did create was that ideally young Zionists who were raised in the sports club, in the Jewish schools and so on, one might think the ideal for them would be to immigrate to Palestine to build this new society. But some of the Zionists were concerned about this, because for them, these men were the future of their nation in Czechoslovakia. These were the young people who were going to be the leaders of their community. So, there was tension between these aspirations sometimes. It is kind of a stable group of middle class men who run the organization and organize young people, women, as well, who are very prominent in the sports and youth movement.

It is only with the tensions rising with the Nazis taking over Sudetenland and eventually occupying the rest of Bohemia and Moravia in March of ’39 that these men and women who were organized Zionists, begin to leave. Some of them leave for Palestine, they get special visas because they were plugged into the Zionist movement. They get visas to go to Palestine. Some go to England. Others go to neighboring countries like Hungary or France. Many stay too. They had families, they had homes, or they couldn’t leave, or they didn’t want to leave. Some of these, and these are some of the interesting findings, how important some of these activists became in representing and leading the Jewish community during the Nazi occupation. For many of them, who managed to survive to the end of the war, they nevertheless succumbed to the stress of those years later on.

But during the war, when Czechoslovakia has a government in exile in London the Zionist movement has a representative on that committee. That was not something that happened right away. Some pressure had to be applied, again thinking about Jewish importance of the international Jewish community. Those arguments were relaunched in order to ensure that the Zionist movement got a representative in the government in exile. And they did. Viktor Fischl returns to Czechoslovakia after World War II to lead the Jewish community. But of course, by then it is obvious, what had been a promising community from a Zionist perspective of building national community, only remnants existed. They establish some Zionist organizations. First and foremost, they try and reestablish a Jewish community. But with the political developments, these activists end up leaving very quickly leaving the country for England or Palestine in the state of Israel.

When thinking about this relationship between Jews and the state, how did Zionists conceptualize the nation state based on what you were looking at? Is that relationship any different from other conceptions of the nation state going on at this time?

One of the things that is so interesting about the interwar period is that the dominant nations, so in Czechoslovakia, the Czechs, or the so-called Czechoslovaks, but really everyone knew that was a fiction, were the dominant group. In Poland, it was the Poles. They really had this strong ideology that this territory belongs historically and presently most to them. But they had to deal with the reality of populations that were very diverse with large minorities and minorities that had a sense of themselves as a kind of coherent group. They had shared characteristics most often language or religion that set them apart from other groups in the territory.

In the way that this has been studied, and there was certainly lots of this really very explicit efforts to make sure that for instance, that Czechs and Slovaks became the dominate groups. There were land reforms that undermined German, Hungarian and even Jewish land owners or managers. There were privileges or priority given to Czech speakers in the public administration in everything from rail master and postman up until very positions in the ministry in Prague. There were demands of people being able to master the new state language. That was a major transformation that official language had been first and foremost German, even though Czech had had some status as well. Now, everyone had to master these two languages. This was a major challenge for people. There were these ways that minorities certainly felt and could provide evidence that they were being discriminated against. The states were also interested in stability, in economic and social stability, and especially in solidifying the borderlands. They also offered opportunities in which to bring minorities on board. That is one of the things that I found with my work that many Czech bureaucrats go beyond the legislation.

Technically, Jews were not large enough in numbers to be rewarded funding, but they do it nevertheless because they can see that it makes political sense to have the Zionists on board and ensure that they remain patriots. They created opportunities for minorities to become, as you say, have a stake in creating a strong new state, and ensuring that there is stability and that they are loyal citizens who perform their loyalty. They obey the laws, military service, all these kinds of priorities that all these interwar European states have.

In thinking about Zionism and the state, why is it important to study Zionism specifically, and minority nationalism generally?

I think that maybe two ways of thinking about this are important. It is important from a Jewish history perspective, and especially for East European Jews, the first and second World War really dominate the way we think about what Jews lives were like, and what the possibilities for minorities were in Europe during the 20th century. These massive episodes of violence, and they are catastrophic no doubt about it, but they tend to kind of cover up the ways in which Jews actually worked to create lives for themselves in Europe, and how they tried to transform their identities and communities. Not just in ways that would enable them to live prosperously, but also in peace with their neighbors, to transform their communities in ways that made sense to them, and that they wanted to identify with. There was something that was meaningful to them.

Because the interwar period has these bookends of disastrous wars, where Jews are particularly targeted, we tend to forget those twenty years in between where there was a lot of innovation and creativity happening in Jewish life. So, I think that studying Zionism here, especially the perspective that I have found which is that this is a really diverse movement, it is traditionally broken into political Zionists and cultural Zionists. But this is really much more diverse. These activists are really plugged into the local political and cultural environment. They learn from, and cooperate with non-Jews who are also nationalists, they compete with them, but they also cooperate and learn from them. That local perspective is important, as are these international congresses that lay out the priorities for this movement as a whole.

Thinking about the Zionist movement as actually one that had many different priorities and pursued multiple political projects at the same time, especially at this local level, I think really adds a new dimension to Zionists. Because sometimes it seems like these activists are presented as kind of utopian, that they wanted to create a Jewish society in Palestine with the British. Then there is a sense that “they never went,” they never go themselves, they want to build this Jewish society. But when you actually look around at what the different projects were that they had, you can see that their politics and their actions made a lot more sense. They had the Palestine project, but they also had, in my case, the Czechoslovak project. They were really trying to integrate themselves into the places where their families lived for generations and where they wanted to stay.

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