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Tsvi Bisk

Tsvi Bisk – Polishism & Zionism: the Ironies of History

Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s warnings of the threat Eastern European Jews faced galloped like Paul Revere through every shtetl and town. KNESSET.GOV.IL

Tsvi Bisk – Polishism & Zionism: the Ironies of History

Many early Zionists were Jews from Poland and Polish speaking Belarus. They were greatly influenced by Polish Nationalism, which had constituent parts similar to Zionism and which developed in ways analogous to Zionism. Ben Gurion, Begin and Shamir all attended the University of Warsaw during the most intense period of Polish Nationalism. Jabotinsky was a great admirer of Polish Nationalism. Given the tremendous overlap between Polish Catholicism and Polish Nationalism in Polish identity, one might justifiably consider Polishism as a semi-synecdoche*, analogous in some ways to Hinduism and Judaism.


The intellectual and cultural climate of the early 19th century engendered Polish ambitions for self-government and liberation from foreign dominance. Polish intellectuals were influenced by the Romantic Movement’s stress on culture and language[i] as the basis of ethnic identification. As with Zionism, Cultural Nationalism quickly led to Political Nationalism. The national poet Adam Mickiewicz (akin to Israel’s national poet Hayim Nahman Bialik) concentrated on patriotic themes and the glorious national past. Chopin’s music was infused with the tragic history of Poland. As with Zionism it was the intelligentsia (and in the case of Poland some of the aristocracy) that initiated nationalist sentiments, with the peasant masses slowly being won over. As with Western Europe and the United States in the 18th century, the concept of nationhood came to include all persons in Polish society, replacing the old class-based “noble patriotism” exemplified by the Sarmatism movement which characterized the Polish nobility from the 15th to the 18th centuries, and which in the 19th and 20th centuries typified a particular exaggerated courtliness amongst Poles of all classes; especially towards women. Some Polish Jews were greatly influenced by this behavior – foremost amongst them was Menachem Begin, the consummate ‘Polish’ gentleman.



* The literal meaning of this word is “simultaneous understanding”. It is a figure of speech in which a term for a part of something is used to refer to the whole of something, or vice-versa: for example Hollywood for the movie industry or Washington for the Federal Government or City Hall for the Municipal Government, or conversely the Internet for the Worldwide Web or America for the United States.


Like Pinsker, many 19th and 20th century Polish nationalists insisted on self-emancipation. They linked self-emancipation to social justice and political modernization which included emancipation of the serfs and adoption of republicanism; in other words, the emancipation of Polish society and culture from its pre-Enlightenment characteristics by way of the hard social, economic and cultural work of the Poles themselves.


At one point Polish Nationalism took a turn that resembled the Practical Zionism of the First Aliyah. It was called “Organic Work” (Praca organiczna), which aimed to strengthen Polish society at the grass roots through education, economic development, and modernization. Its advocates saw it as a strategy to combat repression while awaiting an eventual political opportunity to achieve self-government (similar to Israel’s pre 1948 ‘State on the Way’).


General Jozef Pilsudski, the dominant nationalist figure between the two world wars, led the fight for Polish independence. He opposed anti-Semitism and was supported by many Polish Jews. Pilsudski influenced Jabotinsky almost as much as Garibaldi and Mazzini. “Jabotinsky even suggested in a 1935 speech before Betar members in Krakow that soil from Trumpeldor’s grave in Palestine be brought to Pilsudski’s grave as a symbol of the two national movements’ close relations.”[ii] Pilsudski’s military thinking was emulated by Jabotinsky followers.  As Professor Eran Kaplan has noted, “…young Revisionists saw in Pilsudski a leader who actually used his army to achieve concrete, recognizable goals… the founders of the Irgun were inspired by the example of Pilsudski’s military organization in Poland.”[iii]


Pilsudski and other Polish Romantic Nationalists saw the Poles as a “chosen people”; ‘chosen’ to act as the shield of western civilization, with a mission to civilize the Eastern Slavs, (much as some early Zionists saw their mission to civilize the Arabs and later the Middle Eastern Jews).  Like early Labor Zionists, Pilsudski felt that Socialist ideology should be merged with nationalist ideology, since that combination offered the greatest chance of restoring Polish independence.


Like Zionism, Polish Romantic Nationalism morphed into messianism. Polish messianism saw its mission as the salvation of mankind. It became a mystification of the Polish nation. As with de Maistre and Mazzini, Polish messianists felt that nations determine the fate of humanity. They felt that the Polish nation had been assigned the role of messiah to all the nations of the world. Mickiewicz actually considered the Polish nation to be the “messiah”. Poles were the chosen amongst nations and Poland was the “Christ of nations”.


Similar to the national religious wing of the Zionist movement, they sincerely felt that Polish national liberation was a prerequisite for universal salvation. Mickiewicz wrote:

For the Polish Nation did not die. Its body lieth in the grave; but its spirit has descended into the abyss, that is, into the private lives of people who suffer slavery in their own country…. For on the Third Day, the Soul shall return to the Body; and the Nation shall arise and free all the peoples of Europe from Slavery (italics mine).


Polish independence in particular preoccupied Woodrow Wilson’s concept of self-determination. The 13th of President Woodrow Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points at Versailles was explicitly dedicated to Poland; it might have been termed the ‘Balfour Declaration’ of Polish self-determination, if it weren’t so much more unambiguous than the Declaration:

An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations (italics mine), which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant. (substitute Jewish for Polish and you have the very essence of Zionism)


The following anecdote published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 1926 is a concrete example of the ambivalences and ambiguities of Polish and Jewish relations in the 20th century, highlighted at the end by the metaphor of the Exodus as representing Polish national aspirations.

The extent of Jewish participation in the struggle for the independence of Poland, in the early days of the movement, unrecognized by the Great Powers and Polish public opinion at large, was impressed upon the public mind yesterday when Josef Pilsudski, first Marshal of Poland and leader of the Legionnaires, kissed publicly a Jewish invalid who fought in the Legion.

A highly dramatic scene was enacted when the twelfth anniversary of the crossing by Pilsudski’s Legion of the frontier of Congress Poland was celebrated at the Legionnaire Congress, opened yesterday in Kielce, the first Polish city to be occupied by the Polish Legion under Pilsudski’s command in 1914. Many Jewish Legionnaires were present at the celebration. Pilsudski publicly kissed a Jewish Legionnaire who lost both his legs on the battlefield.

  1. Stpiczynski, editor of “Glos Prawdy,” Pilsudski’s organ, in his address, stated that Poland, like the Jews in the desert, must wait another forty years for a new, free generation to arise.[iv]


Similar to Zionist Messianism, some Polish Messianists were rationalists and others mystics. Edward Abramowski, one of the founders of the Polish Socialist Party was, like Tubenkin, a state-rejecting Socialist who advocated for the cooperative organization of society and, like A.D. Gordon, was influenced by Leo Tolstoy. Other views evolved that can only be described as Polish Fascism, displaying contempt for the rights and lives of other peoples (best exemplified by modern Polish anti-Semitism); not unlike the most militant factions of the settler movement who actively cultivate a disregard for the dignity of other peoples.


But here the similarity ends. I am talking about the active cooperation of hundreds of Polish villages in the slaughter of Polish Jewry during the Holocaust. Because, despite the above similarities between Polishism and Zionism, anti-Semitism has always been a sentiment characteristic of the vast majority of the Polish population – nurtured and encouraged by the Polish Catholic Church. Yet this atrocious sentiment (which could justifiably be called an integral part of the Polish national character) and the abominable behavior of a huge portion of the Polish people during WWII has never called into question the very right of the Polish nation to have a Polish state. No this kind of delegitimization is reserved for the alleged sins of the Jewish People and the Jewish State alone. Thus, we have seen anti-Zionism morph into that strange and virulent postmodern iteration of anti-Semitism which has infected large portions of the so-called “progressive” left.

Incongruously, given the similarities described above between enlightened Polishism and Zionism, Israel (and the Jewish People at large) are now in a position to have a much more constructive relationship with historically anti-Semitic Poland than with the historically philosemitic left. Ah! The ironies of history!



[i] Zionism’s preoccupation with the rebirth of Hebrew was completely within the context of European Romantic nationalism’s preoccupation with reinventing national languages to make them suitable for the modern era. It is impossible to imagine the emergence of Ben Yehuda in any other context.

[ii] Kaplan, Eran. The Jewish Radical Right: Revisionist Zionism and Its Ideological Legacy; University of Wisconsin Press; (2005), (p. 150).

[iii] Ibid pgs. 8,9

[iv] “Pilsudski Kisses Jewish Soldier Crippled in War for Polish Independence”, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (August 10, 1926)

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