Negotiating the Nation in Interwar Warsaw

Kenneth B. Moss

John Hopkins University

We possess much scholarship on the formal ideologies of Jewish nationalism, anti-nationalism, and counter-nationalism in interwar Polish Jewish politics. But questions of nationhood and national identification loomed large for Polish Jews well beyond the formal ideological and organizational bounds of Zionism, Folkism, Bundism, Communism, assimilationism, or orthodoxy. This was due to such factors as the new Polish state’s nationalizing drive, powerful strains of nationally framed anti-semitism in public life, the new possibilities of civic integration offered by Polish nationalism (despite the first two factors),  the consolidation of the Zionist project in Palestine and the extension of its relevance to much of Polish Jewry by family connections, and the institutionalization of the nation as the ‘natural’ category of political organization in post-imperial Europe as a whole.

Without assuming that nationalist logics were universally shared in interwar Jewry, this paper takes up the question of how interwar Warsaw Jews wrestled with the question of the nation beyond the bounds of organized, formal nationalism or anti-nationalism. I will focus particularly on Warsaw and indeed take as one of my analytical questions how Warsaw as an actual space shaped and inflected Jewish relations to nationalism.

The first part of the paper will try to offer a more nuanced account of how ethnic difference and nationalist categories of thought and self-perception did and did not relate by looking at the workings of urban space, the political significance of visible and audible difference between Jews and (other) Poles, the role of personal networks in shaping nationalist consciousness in Jewish Warsaw, and the differing salience of various organizational settings for Jewish relations to nationalism.

The second part of the paper will move from socio-cultural to intellectual history and focus on divided attitudes toward Jewish nationalism among various subgroups of Warsaw Jews who stood outside either organized Jewish nationalism or anti-nationalism. In particular, I will look at the complex renegotiation of ideological relations to Poland on the one hand and the Yishuv and Zionist project in Palestine on the other among a range of influential figures associated with the network of self-declared ‘progressive Jewish’ social and communal organizations such as ORT, TOZ-OSE, and the Jewish tourism organization the ZTK.


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