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How European Jews Went From Touting Assimilation To Embracing Zionism

Matthias Lehmann’s new biography of Maurice de Hirsch, ‘The Baron,’ ably tells the story of ‘one of the most important yet understudied figures of modern Jewish history.’


“The Jewish question can only be solved by the disappearance of the Jewish race,” declared the prominent European Jewish financier and philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch in 1889 in the pages of The New York Herald, “which will inevitably be accomplished by the amalgamation of Christians and Jews.”

Hirsch’s proclamation reverberated throughout the Jewish world on both sides of the Atlantic, convulsing both traditional and liberal communities already struggling to stay grounded in tumultuous times. Indeed, in the decades before Zionism took hold of the Jewish imagination, with the winds of nationalism and imperialism blowing at gale force, devising a stable structure for Jewish longevity and thriving on the continent was no easy task.

Hirsch’s assimilationist posture reflected his own background: As a prosperous, aristocratic banker who had in many ways overcome his Jewishness to attain his high station among continental elites, he sought to elevate his co-religionists to the same plane of faithless cosmopolitans. The only catch? This approach stoked considerable antisemitism, leading Hirsch to take a different tack later in life, including by developing Jewish colonies in the Pampas of Argentina.

Matthias Lehmann, a history professor at UC Irvine, explores the story of Hirsch, “one of the most important yet understudied figures of modern Jewish history,” in “The Baron: Maurice de Hirsch and the Jewish Nineteenth Century,” his absorbing and well-researched biography. In Lehmann’s nuanced telling, Hirsch’s abundant generosity and supremely good intentions were eclipsed in part by his ambiguous, and ultimately unresolved, relationship with the universal and the particular.

Assimilationist Tendencies

Hirsch was born in 1831 in Munich to Joseph, a wealthy banker awarded a baronage by the Bavarian court, and Caroline (née Wertheimer), a Viennese descendant of the personal banker of Emperor Charles VI. After marrying Clara Bischoffsheim, heiress to yet another European Jewish banking fortune, Hirsch spent his early career shuttling among the financial institutions of Paris, Brussels, and Vienna.

Along with other notable Jewish financiers like the Rothschilds, the Hirsches sought entry to the European aristocracy writ large, building mansions, collecting citizenships, and contributing generously to civic organizations. Indeed, Hirsch’s desire to blend into gentile society led him to some unusual political dalliances, such as his alliance with the French Boulangist cause, which favored ultramontane Catholicism and disdained capitalism.

Hirsch’s integrationist tendencies were personal, not just theoretical. He raised his only son, Lucien, with no apparent connection to Judaism, even seeking to marry him off to a (gentile) noble English family. When Lucien died young at 31, the only religious debate between his parents involved whether to raise the daughter who survived him as a Catholic or a Protestant.

An Austrian journalist once noted, “Baron Hirsch has an interesting approach to antisemitism: the complete fusion of the Jews with the Christian population.” Among Jewish elites, this universalist orientation wasn’t uncommon. Even Theodor Herzl himself, in his pre-Zionist phase, once advocated for mass baptism for his co-religionists and declared “the integration of Jews into European civilization” the “purpose and essence of modern Jewish existence.”

But these assimilationist tendencies collided with a certain particularism, or perhaps more precisely, realism, as antisemitism reared its ugly head in so many aspects of even Hirsch’s highly cosmopolitan life. For instance, he invested millions of francs and years of his life building a railroad connecting European cities to Constantinople, and then onward to the Middle East and India, an incredibly complex multinational project, requiring the most delicate diplomacy, that contributed immensely to the expansion of late 19th-century commerce — and to his own net worth. At every turn, he encountered scathing criticism from various quarters that he was selling out one European country or another in pursuit of filthy lucre; an Austrian newspaper inveighed against “Hirsch’s swindle,” lamenting “how a noble spirit was caught in the devilish Jewish net.”

In response, Hirsch sought to influence the plight of his co-religionists through charitable contributions. In Lehmann’s telling, “philanthropy did not operate outside or beyond the realm of politics: it was the principal form of Jewish political action at the time.” (emphasis in original) Thus, in the 1870s, the Hirsches committed part of their substantial wealth to the Alliance Israelite Universelle, the foremost advocate for Jewish civil rights, education, and emancipation.

“If, dispersed to all the corners of the globe and mixed with the nations, you remain attached with your heart to the ancient religion of your fathers,” the organization’s mission statement proclaimed, “give us your membership, your cooperation.”

And indeed, in 1878, following a devastating Russo-Ottoman war that scrambled the geopolitical map and left hundreds of thousands of southeastern European Jews destitute and stateless, the Alliance, leveraging Hirsch’s railroad positions, successfully pressed the Romanian government to grant civil rights to its Jewish population. A decade later, Hirsch created a new foundation in Austria, devoting 12 million francs to developing new schools in the heavily Jewish and deeply impoverished regions of Galicia and Bukovina.

Yet even through these efforts, Hirsch insisted that “far from promoting exclusionary or strictly confessional tendencies with my foundation,” his charitable efforts “have always been to fight against separatist trends and tendencies among my coreligionists and to prepare the ground for their assimilation with their Christian fellow citizens.” Similarly, during negotiations with Russian authorities to expand the Galicia program eastward, he asserted his aim was “the moral uplift of an entire population in order to facilitate and hasten their assimilation with their co-citizens” and “a social fusion, which after some generations can lead to a religious fusion.”

But pogroms, displacement, and other forms of persecution in Galicia, Russia, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe gave the lie to this approach. Not only were the oppressed and penurious Jews Hirsch sought to elevate deeply uninterested in Christianizing, but the gentiles in whose midst they lived were even less inclined to welcome them socially or religiously. And when the Russian government finally rejected Hirsch’s educational funding proposal, he had no choice but to recalibrate.

Thus, in 1891, he launched his grandest philanthropic enterprise yet, known as the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA), funded with 50 million francs in seed money and aiming:

to assist and promote the emigration of Jews from any parts of Europe or Asia in which they may, for the time being, be subjected to any special laws or political or other disabilities, to any other parts of the world, and to form and establish colonies in various parts of North and South America and other countries for agricultural, commercial, and other purposes.

No longer, Hirsch reckoned, could the Jews of Eastern Europe expect to find normalcy in their countries of origin. Only a radical change of venue, and a corresponding change of mindset, could vindicate Jewish interests and ensure Jewish continuity. Indeed, he mused, “I would not consider it to be a misfortune without compensation if an imperial Ukase was promulgated that ordered the Jews to abandon Russia within a determined time frame.”

To this end, and at the suggestion of Wilhelm Lowenthal, an Eastern European Jewish doctor who had previously conducted a fact-finding mission to Argentina, Hirsch instructed the JCA to launch several colonies in the South American heartland that could absorb hundreds of thousands of migrating Jews.

The colonies of Moisesville, Clara, and Mauricio, named for the Hirsches, began operating in the early 1890s under the banner, per Hirsch’s diktat, of battling “in the most absolute manner against the idea that our Jewish colonists, because they are Jews, should be treated any differently than one commonly treats the peasants of any other country.” In this sense, the JCA sought to forge a proto-Zionistic “new Jew,” hardy and tied to the land, while insisting that this new Jew be treated as the peer of his gentile neighbor in every respect.

Sadly, however, the Argentine project foundered and eventually collapsed, as linguistic, cultural, and climate challenges proved too great for the thousands (not the hoped-for hundreds or even tens of thousands) of Jews who journeyed to the Pampas. Then, too, Hirsch’s controlling, flip-flopping management style and frequent replacement of local administrators, including Lowenthal himself, only exacerbated matters.

Hirsch ultimately conceded the dubious wisdom involved in establishing farming colonies for Eastern Europeans who “had never worked in agriculture and had no idea about farming … in an entirely unfamiliar country and completely uprooted from their old habits.” Upon Hirsch’s death in 1896, the JCA shifted focus, reallocating funds to farming communities in Palestine.

The Limits of Philanthropy

Lehmann’s focus occasionally wanders, and he delves deeper than necessary into the arcana of railway contracts and agricultural yields. Some of this derives from the necessarily scant source material — unhappily, Hirsch instructed the executor of his will to burn his personal papers. Yet Lehmann has done yeoman’s work exhuming the baron’s correspondence and other related records from archives spanning Vienna to Buenos Aires to Istanbul.

Ultimately, Hirsch’s strenuous and partially successful efforts to sustain and bolster the Jewish people reflected the limits of late 19th-century philanthropy and the seesawing, unreconciled nature of European Jewish communal theory and practice before Zionism and socialism gained purchase. Lehmann aptly posits that “where philanthropy played a role mimicking the modern state, political Zionism eventually embraced the idea of actually creating a state.”

For Hirsch and his ilk, grappling, as both Zionism and socialism themselves would later do, with the universal and the particular, with assimilation and continuity, proved an indomitable challenge from which, to their credit, they never shied away.

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