“An Open Letter” and “An Answer to Mr. Lilienblum”

Translated by:
Ruth Murphy
Spring 2019
Part of issue number:
Translation 2019

As Theodor Herzl’s Zionist Organization expanded across Europe, various factions battled to control the direction and vision of the movement. In this lively exchange of letters published in the Yiddish newspaper Der Fraynd (The Friend) in January and February of 1903, we see the clash of ideological differences between two dedicated Zionists, one a member of the proto-Zionist organization Khibat Tsiyon (Love of Zion) and the other of the Labor Zionist party Po‘ale Tsiyon (Workers of Zion).

The first letter is written by Jewish writer and scholar Moyshe Leyb Lilienblum, one of the founders of Khibat Tsiyon. “An Open Letter” was written in response to an earlier letter Po‘ale Tsiyon sent to him and other Zionist authors stating the need for a separate Zionist literature to be created for ordinary Jews. Lilienblum strongly opposes this proposal. Most “ordinary Jews” already have strong Jewish identities, he says, and thus need no complex arguments to convince them, as they are already Zionists in their hearts.  

The second letter, written in the name of the Vilna chapter of Po‘ale Tsiyon by Avrom Kunin, gives a sharp response to Lilienblum’s position. Kunin maintains that the majority of middle- and working-class Jews still remain outside of the Zionist movement, no longer willing to simply accept the Torah-laden discourses provided by the rabbis and Zionist scholars. Zionism, Kunin argues, must speak to the working masses on their own terms and show them how Zionism functions in the real world.  

These two letters, with their colorful and well-constructed opposing arguments, clearly articulate some of the crucial issues the various Zionist movements wrestled with at the beginning of the twentieth century.


“An Open Letter” (To the Representatives of the “Workers of Zion” Chapters)

In the letter that you sent to me and, it appears, also to other Zionist authors, you write that we lack a Zionist literature for our everyday people, and that the want of such a literature for our worker is even more evident, etc.

I must tell you, my dear sirs, that I am not in agreement with you. We should have, and in a certain measure we indeed do have, a Zionist literature for our aristocrats: for those Jews who say that there is no such thing as a Jewish nation, and even if it does exist—they don’t want to know anything about it, they don’t want to belong to it, and they feel very bad when they unintentionally remember that they are Jews. These are the people that one must make understand that being a Jew is not a disgrace, rather it is something of an honor; that however much they screw up their faces like monkeys in order to mask their Jewishness, it will do them no good: in the salons where they are admitted only grudgingly, they will always be hated and condemned. Their position in the society into which they push themselves is a false one. The true aristocrat is not the flatterer who makes a servant’s genuflections before the one he considers a nobleman, but he who respects himself as both a human being and a member of the Jewish nation; such a man wants to be an aristocrat in his own home, in the land of his forefathers.

For our plain folk, however, who have never ceased to regard themselves as Jews, one doesn’t need any kind of special Zionist literature whatsoever. Not only because the ordinary people cannot devote themselves to reading an entire body of literature but simply because to a real Jew, one doesn’t need to offer a lot of arguments about Zionism. It is enough to present several good speeches, a few good articles in the Yiddish newspapers, and our work with him is done.

I imagine that if I were carrying on a conversation with an everyday Jew about Zionism, I would not need to engage in a long discussion with him:

“Reb Nakhman,” I would ask him, “do you want the Messiah to come?”

“What’s the matter with you?” answers Reb Nakhman, a little offended. “What kind of question is that? What do you mean—am I not a Jew? Do I not know the taste of exile?”

“Well, then—what are you doing to make the Messiah come more quickly?”

Reb Nakhman looks at me like I’m crazy, and bursts out laughing: “You are making fun of me, friend. Do I have a lot of pull with God? When it is His will, the Messiah will come and redeem us. We human beings can do nothing about it.”

“Reb Nakhman, I’m being serious. Just tell me, have you ever had a child become ill?”

“Yes, may they be well. My little Khayim had scarlet fever and was close to death; my Lipele had a bad case of pneumonia . . .”

“Well, what did you do in that situation?”

“What do you mean? I did what everyone does: I called doctors, gave them medicine, and God had mercy.”

“So you see, Reb Nakhman—if God had mercy on your children, he surely could have been merciful without doctors and without medicine. He is a healer of the sick, isn’t He, and without His will, nothing can be done.”

“Yes, but God himself works through an envoy. He says: You act—and I will help you.”

“You are indeed correct, Reb Nakhman, and our redemption must also come through an envoy, through our own efforts. Imagine that the Messiah comes, and that He leads—all at once—ten million Jews into the desolate Land of Israel, in which there aren’t even half a million houses. They will have to wander around homeless for months under the open skies, and without even a piece of bread to eat, for there are also no roads there, and God forbid, they will one by one die of hunger. When our ancestors came from the desert into the Land of Israel, seven nations were already living there. Our ancestors took away their houses, their wells, and their vineyards, just as the Torah tells us. But now, everything there is desolate . . .”

“Are you serious? When the Messiah comes, he will then and there miraculously provide everything that is needed—after all, that’s why he is the Messiah!”

“You’ve already forgotten your own words, Reb Nakhman, that God acts only through human hands. Of course, holy books have promised us great miracles in the time of the Messiah. But Reb Nakhman, you surely know the finer points of the text. Take, for instance, Maimonides’ On the Laws of Kings. In the eleventh and twelfth chapters, you will see that he explicitly states that the Messiah will not perform any miracles. What then should we do if it turns out like he says? Perhaps we will call all these holy books before a rabbinical court because they misled us, and now on their account we are left without houses and without bread? Moreover, Reb Nakhman, take a look in the eleventh chapter and you will see that even before the Messiah comes, there will be a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Who will bring this about before the Messiah comes?”

Reb Nakhman reflects a bit, and asks: “So what can we do?”

“Listen, Reb Nakhman: you’ve probably heard that for more than twenty years now towns and villages are being founded in the Land of Israel. Also there are Zionists with a Dr. Herzl in the lead. Dr. Herzl has already had a discussion with the Sultan about the Land of Israel, and moreover with important European dignitaries about allowing Jews to enter the Land of Israel with certain rights. For this, a lot of money is needed. A colonial bank and a national fund have already been established to buy up land in the Land of Israel. To achieve this, all Jews must help, each according to his capabilities. Our salvation depends on this. Therefore, Reb Nakhman, you too must give however much you can—after all, you also are a Jew!”

“Well, and the European nations will allow the Jews to leave their countries?”

“Yes, Reb Nakhman. These days there is no pharaoh; Jews everywhere are allowed to leave. Would that as many wanted to go to the Land of Israel! When it comes to letting Jews in, they don’t want to do it, even in England or America. But when it comes to letting them leave, all of them will be told: Tseyskhem lesholem, ‘Go in peace!’”

After two or three such conversations, our Reb Nakhman becomes a Zionist. The only time we have no chance with him is when his little children sit without bread and in the cold. At such a time, poor man, his head is splitting from troubles, and one can’t discuss elevated matters with him. During such a time, even his devotion to Zionism can be of no use.

Consequently, I say that we don’t need a special literature to attract our ordinary folk to Zionism. Every Jew who feels himself to be a Jew, who wants to be a Jew, who has no personal issues with this or that Zionist, is more or less a Zionist.

Concerning our Jewish workers, however, and the utility that they as workers can expect from Zionism, I have already expressed my opinion in the Yidishe Folkstsaytung (Number 26 of the preceding year). I don’t consider our workers to be a separate party, and I don’t consider Zionism as a pair of pants that the worker shouldn’t accept until he knows what he can get for them. Zionism doesn’t see Jews as rabbis, doctors, jurists, and workers, but as Jews, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We old maskilim have always regretted that among us Jews—whose history knows no marquises, aristocracy, nobility, or peasants—a special place has been made for craftsmen and workers, not only with being called up to the Torah, but with other Jewish matters as well. So we cannot now be content that within the holy idea of Zionism, the workers are setting up separate cliques of their own.

I understand that in assemblies of rabbis and scholars, plain people cannot participate: the rabbis will give Torah talks, the learned will cite great scholars, and an everyday person won’t understand them. But people with the same level of education—for example shopkeepers, merchants’ clerks, craftsmen, and the like—can understand one another very well. There is no need to divide themselves into different guilds, for each Jew experiences the situation according to his social standing.

The worker is also a Jew, and he knows how others look at him when they’re not thinking about converting him to their movements. Every Jewish worker and artisan constantly sees how the non-Jewish worker and artisan lives much better and more securely than does he, the Jew, as long as the former leads a sober life. This by itself should be enough for the Jewish worker, as for every Jew, to understand the importance of Zionism.

If there are those among us to whom the situation of their nation as a whole is of no interest, but only the situation of their own small guild—and in so doing they are deceiving themselves just as our intelligentsia did several dozen years ago—and they think that they too will be brought in as partners, I would tell them this:

“Dear brothers: In any case there is not room enough for all Jews to enter the Land of Israel; you stay here and wait for your dreams. We Zionists will get along without you!”

Moyshe Leyb Lilienblum


An Answer to Mr. Lilienblum (In the Name of the Vilna “Workers of Zion”)

Der Fraynd 4 February 1903

While giving thanks to our honored columnist, Mr. M. L. Lilienblum, for responding in the press to the appeal we sent to our Zionist writers, we find it necessary to voice our opinion on several thoughts that Mr. Lilienblum has expressed in his “Open Letter” to us.

Mr. Lilienblum is not at all satisfied with the fact that the Jewish workers are constructing a separate organization within Zionism. He also does not agree that the Zionist party to this very day still lacks such a literature that would explain to the everyday public, and even more to the Jewish worker, the necessity and utility of Zionism.  For our people, Mr. Lilienblum thinks, it suffices to have “several good speeches, a few good articles in the Yiddish newspapers.” It is enough to explain to a Reb Nakhman, for example, who “certainly wants the Messiah to come,” that to this end we must apply our own efforts, that for this goal each must add his own contribution, and with that “our work with Reb Nakhman is done.” Especially if one brings him proof from Maimonides’ On the Laws of Kings: he would instantly become an ardent Zionist.

This is the response that Mr. Lilienblum provides regarding our ordinary people in general. With our Jewish workers in particular, Mr. Lilienblum speaks a bit more sharply: he does not consider Zionism to be a pair of pants that the worker shouldn’t accept until he knows what he can get in return for them. Every Jewish worker knows that the non-Jewish artisan and worker lives much better and more securely than he, the Jew. And this by itself should be enough for the Jewish worker, as for everyone, to understand the importance of Zionism.

Regarding the workers for whom “their own small guild is dearer to them than their people” and who have “their empty dreams,” Mr. Lilienblum dismisses them with a curt reply: “You stay here, little brothers; we Zionists will get along without you.”

With these three short and simple answers—per the opinion of Mr. Lilienblum—the Zionist party has performed its duty to everyone’s satisfaction.

We, the “Workers of Zion,” are in utter disagreement with the opinion of our esteemed columnist. Our populace is fortunately not at all so ignorant and naive that they can be completely sold on an idea with a couple of speeches and articles. The Zionist organization in its two forms—earlier as “Love of Zion” and now as “political Zionism”—has existed for more than twenty years. During this time, our Zionist preachers have spared no “P.R.D.S.” from our sacred texts, that is: with pshat, literal meaning; remez, allegorical meaning; drash, metaphorical interpretation; and even soydes, hidden meanings, they have striven to demonstrate that it is permissible for the Jew to want to live like all the nations, and that the Messiah will have no complaints against us if he finds, as the verse says, “Every man underneath his vine and underneath his fig tree.” On the contrary, he, the Messiah, that is, will be pleased.

During this time, more than one “preacher” has sharpened his mind in order to find within the Torah (not just from Maimonides’ On the Laws of Kings) permission to take a ruble, buy a share, and donate it toward the Redemption of the Land. A certain portion of our Torah-observant writers have also “girded themselves with verses” so that they may prove that everything the Zionists advocate is truly useful for the Jewish nation. They have even discovered in the Talmudic tractate “Marriage Contracts” a section that explicitly states that the Land of Israel is enough for all twelve million of our people.

For twenty years now we have been trying to convince our “ordinary people” in this manner—and let us not deceive ourselves, Mr. Lilienblum: Have we had such a great success with our masses? During this time, have at least the larger number of our Reb Nakhmans actually joined our ranks? Nothing of the kind! Still to this day, the “people” stand just as far from us as they did twenty years ago. And this is precisely because it was thought then that our masses “must” accept all that pleased our preachers and maskilim to hand out, because we didn’t concern ourselves with the education and enlightenment of our people but rather were content with scripture and Talmud. Our masses—above all our city dwellers—have already passed through the years when, with a clever twist of argument, one could bend them in whatever direction one pleased. Even a simple Jew like Reb Nakhman demands that we convince him why he should take part in our movement. He asks whether our concept has roots well established in real life, or if it is nothing more than something cooked up by preachers and “old maskilim” and the like. Our public must chew over each thought in their own minds, they must understand it; otherwise, they will not accept it.

You say yourself, Mr. Lilienblum, that we have no chance with Reb Nakhman when his little children are without bread. The majority of our nation today is made up of Reb Nakhmans. They—so we Zionists believe—can receive vital help only through Zionism. Yet if we require of our masses that they indeed devote themselves to Zionism, if we want our ideal to occupy their weary, worry-ridden, worn-out minds and their bitter hearts, then we must be able to persuade them that without Zionism, there can be no help for the Jewish people, that our concept can be carried out in real life, and so forth—but not by feeding them sermons and watered-down essays. A good literature, however, we do not have.

True, there are even associations that were founded “after the wonderful sermon of the renowned preacher”—immediately after a preacher gave a sermon. True, there are Zionists “convinced by verses from the Torah” and Zionists “convinced by verses from the Talmud” who demand no higher level of wisdom.

But, Mr. Lilienblum, such associations are “stillborn children”—one word from a “Kovner” opponent of Zionism, from the “Black Office,”[1] and the association crumbles. This is the first point. Secondly, let us, Mr. Lilienblum, place our hands on our hearts and address this question: Can we hope that such elements alone will be capable of reviving our nation? Will they, by themselves, rebuild what lies now in ruins?

In order to revitalize our nation, we must have our young Jewish workers. This is the most capable, most faithful, and most energetic foundation of our people. At the very least, take a look at our chapters of “Workers of Zion.” You’ll find them in many Jewish cities, and you will be convinced that they are the liveliest associations of the organization. Yet the chapters are few and small, because the majority of our young workers still hang far back.

We must not reject from Zionism the workers who are inclined toward “empty dreams” and ask them to “remain here.” On the contrary, we must win them over in favor of our work, in favor of our concept, admit them into our circles. To this end, a conversation such as that with Reb Nakhman is much too little.

Our young working rank and file, Mr. Lilienblum, is one of the most sensible in the world; if you will not demonstrate to them that our idea is consistent with the progress of the world, they will not budge from their spot.

Our worker’s life is not the same as that of Reb Nakhman. When Reb Nakhman has a few hours free from the shop or the market, and if he has largely lost the desire to hear a Torah lesson, he goes to hear a Zionist preacher. Why not? And if what he hears sounds reasonable to him, he also donates a ruble. Well, so be it; what’s forty kopecks[2] more or less in his purse?

Our worker, however, who toils by the sweat of his brow to earn his bit of dry bread, seeks out in his free time his own society, indeed “his own guild,” with whom he has shared interests. It is they who can help him not to lose his bit of bread, not to be pushed out into the ranks of our “luftmenschen,” and to improve his situation at least to the extent possible. To attract such a worker to our organization means to refute his whole previous way of thinking and replace it with our doctrine—and this is not as easy as you think.

You write that we truly need a Zionist literature for our aristocrats—assimilationists who flatly deny that the Jewish people are a nation, who are ashamed to be called “Jews,” etc. Well, rest easy, Mr. Lilienblum! Our worker masses may not be aristocrats, but of assimilation they know all too well. It’s been several years already that our Jewish worker has begun shoving himself into a Western European–style coat, without considering that such a coat might be too big for his emaciated, exile-wearied Jewish body. It’s already been a few years that our worker—no less than our aristocrats—has become remote from our people and considers any work for our nation as chauvinism, fanaticism, etc.

Such workers, Mr. Lilienblum, constitute the majority of our young working masses. In order to win them back for our nation, we must create a special literature that would answer all questions that our opponents have been raising. This literature should explain that our concept has arisen from the entire evolution of our history and must be carried out in real life, and that outside of Zionism, no question regarding the Jews can be resolved. In short, we must have a Zionist people’s literature and a Zionist organization of Jewish workers.

And because the Zionist idea is so dear to us, we have a right to demand of our writers that they speak seriously to our people, to our workers, and not make do with a few words based just on Maimonides.

Avrom Kunin


[1] A reference to followers of Rabbi Yaakov Lifshits (Jacob Halevi Lipschitz, 1838–1921), a fierce opponent of the Haskalah and Zionism. His office in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania, from which he issued sharp and often anonymous critiques of these movements, was referred to as the Black Office by his opposition.

[2] The shekel was the annual membership fee, paid in each country’s own currency, to join the Zionist organization, which gave the member the right to vote for delegates to the Zionist Congress. In Russia, the fee was forty kopecks.

Original Yiddish published in the newspaper Der Fraynd, January 26 and February 4, 1903.

RUTH MURPHY lives in Texas with her husband, three cats, and friendly neighborhood squirrels. This translation is dedicated to her teacher, Nokhem, without whom none of this would have been possible.