by Thomas Siurkus
When people think about the roots of Zionism, Theodor Herzl and the publication of Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State”) in 1896 may come to mind. But while Herzl was one of the most important figures in the Zionist movement, he was far from the first to call for a Jewish homeland.
“The German Roots of Zionism” is one of the current exhibitions curated by the Leo Baeck Institute, a New York-based research library devoted to German-Jewish history. The exhibition, produced in cooperation with the German Information Center, explores the development of Zionism and the influential role played by German-speaking Jews.
The German roots of Zionism go back to the 19th century, when Europe was shaken by revolutions, including the 1848 March Revolution in Germany. Revolutionary groups in pursuit of a united German country and democracy failed, but the idea of democracy and a united state stayed in the minds of the people. Many Jewish citizens were part of the revolution in Germany and soon came up with the idea of their own state—a Jewish state.
Among the forerunners of the Zionist movement were Moses Hess and Zvi Hirsch Kalischer. In 1836, Kalischer, a German Orthodox rabbi, convinced a French banker to buy land in Palestine for Jewish immigration. Until his death in 1874, he promoted the idea of a Jewish state—using other national independence movements in European countries as models—by traveling to large Jewish communities around Europe and publishing articles in Hebrew newspapers. His ideas encountered resistance from the majority of Orthodox rabbis, but also inspired some Jews who were supportive of the Zionist idea, a minority at the time.
Moses Hess, a German-Jewish philosopher, dealt with the topics of socialism and Zionism in his work and is considered the father of “Social Zionism.” He believed Judaism to be not just a religion, but a nationality. In 1862, he published “Rome and Jerusalem,” writing, “The rise of Judea begins with the reincarnation of Italy,” a reference to the revolution in Italy in 1848.
Almost 30 years later, Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl developed the idea of a state in his seminal 1896 pamphlet. But he also acknowledged the German roots of Zionism, writing, “Since Spinoza, Jewry had no bigger thinker than this forgotten Moses Hess.”
The Leo Baeck Institute exhibit reminds us of the lesser-known names of the Zionist movement, displaying the history of Zionism from 1862 to 1941 on 15 panels. The framed panels—along with illustrations, texts and timelines—show the development of Zionism. The exhibition first opened at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in fall 2015.
“Zionism was a transnational phenomenon,” says Renata Stein, the exhibition’s curator. “It started very much as the brainchild of various thinkers. There were a number of Eastern European thinkers, but they were predominantly German-speaking Jewish intellectuals and rabbis who came up with the idea of a homeland for the Jews.”
Normally, Stein uses material objects to support the message of the exhibition, but not in this case. “This was a different exhibition, because of the venue,” says Carol Kahn Strauss, the longtime international director of the Leo Baeck Institute who retired in December. “The space was limited–there were no material objects there, which we usually include in our exhibitions–whether there are paintings, documents or books or something else. But because of the configuration of the synagogue’s space, we had to figure out a design solution that worked to tell the story without using material objects. That limited what we could do.”
The 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany last year was the impetus for the exhibit.
The response has been overwhelming, and the GIC now plans to expand the reach of the exhibition by taking it to more cities.
Strauss believes the exhibit highlights a key aspect of Jewish history. “In keeping with 50 years of German-Israeli relations, it’s important to show that there were always relations between Germany and Israel before there was an Israel, between German-speaking Jews and other Jews,” she says. “Germany and Israel, one way or another, for a very long time in our mutual history, have been connected, and I think that´s important to show.”