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Autonomism Definition

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Autonomism - Jewish Autonomism should not be confused with the Italian Marxist Autonomism movement that developed in the 1960s. Jewish Autonomism was a thesis developed by the great Jewish historian, Simon Dubnow at the start of the twentieth century. It proposed that Jews must develop autonomous an community, language and schools in the separate territories and areas of the Diaspora. Dubnow's Autonomism was similar to proposals by socialists of other nationalities controlled by Russia, each of which sought to preserve and justify their national characteristics and rights in the face of Communist internationalism. They proposed either territorial autonomy or non-territorial autonomy. It is unclear how the latter, could work in practice. Dubnow proposed non-territorial Jewish autonomy.   

Like the Zionists, Dubnow recognized that prior to the 19th century, the restrictions of the ghetto and the administrative and community framework of rabbinical Judaism, had successfully preserved the national character of the Jewish people. The "bargain" made for the special taxes and restrictions on Jews, was that the Jews would be free to maintain their national life, community, culture and language within the ghetto. This possibility was erased with the institution of liberal nation states that offered equality to Jews, leading to rapid assimilation, to which Dubnow was opposed. He wrote:

Assimilation was bound to reveal itself as national suicide.... We have become alienated from our own people, without being able to become integrated into the nations around us. Assimilation turned out to be in practice psychologically unnatural, ethically damaging and practically useless. We gave up autonomy, the virtual artery of every national body, and exchanged it for heteronomy, an alien principle of development (Dubnow, Nationalism and History, pp 134-5).  

Dubnow also wrote:

The Jew says: "As a citizen of my country I participate in its civic and political life; but as a member of the Jewish nationality I have, in addition, my own national needs, and in this sphere I must be independent to the same degree that any other national minority is autonomous in the state. I have the right to speak my language, to use it in all my social institutions, to make it the language of instruction in my schools, to order my internal life in my communities, and to create institutions serving a variety of national purposes; to join in the common activities with my brethren not only in this country but in all countries of the world and to participate in all the organizations which serve to further the needs of the Jewish nationality and to defend them everywhere."  (Dubnow, Nationalism and History, pp 136).

The independence of other national minorities might refer to the Russian or Austro-Hungarian empires of that period or the Ottoman Empire, where Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Czechs and Hungarians as well as many others enjoyed a degree of national autonomy in fact. This was tolerated reluctantly and sometimes uneasily in Eastern Europe, Russia and Turkey. In Western Europe this form of polyglot empire was already obsolete. Eventually it proved to be an anachronism in the east too, a holdover from pre-nationalist days that must give way to national separatism or to eradication of minorities. The big pre-national empires would break up, either because of conquest, or because the pressures of groups like the Serbs and the Greeks for real national independence rather than autonomy forced them to break up. Moreover, in no case was any nation state willing to tolerate a minority that existed internationally, in numerous nation states, and demanded national rights and the right of international organization as Dubnow proposed. How could France for example, allow development of a community that claimed national ties with brothers who were formally organized in national communities in Germany or Russia?

Dubnow proposed that Jews must develop a secular program, assert their separatism and demand autonomous rights for their communities in order to fight Anti-Semitism and assimilation. He did not explain how this was to be accomplished - how the unarmed Jews would wrest their rights from the nation states, or how the creation of a nation within a nation would combat, rather than increase, anti-Semitism. At least in its early form, Autonomism advocated the teaching of Hebrew language and culture, and therefore it was not incompatible with Zionism, especially with Cultural Zionism. This was especially true as long as the Jewish state was only a distant dream, and it was possible to imagine Cultural Zionism without Israel being at the center of Jewish culture.  Dubnow's ideas were adopted by various Jews Socialist groups including the Jewish Bund and the Sejmists.

In countries such as Poland, the educational program of the Bund and the Autonomists could be implemented at least in part. Inasmuch as this secular education program coincided with the desires and needs of the Zionists, it was possible to form an educational network that did preserve Jewish cultural life for a time. However, the Jews were never really organized in any recognized national framework in any country, of course. It is questionable whether this loose framework of schools and community organizations was what Dubnow had really envisioned, whether it could be called "The Basis of the National Program" or whether, even in the best circumstances, it could be a substitute for a formally organized nation. Certainly these little autonomous communities could not regulate their own economies and it is not imaginable that they would have been allowed to raise independent armies or even a gendarmerie for self-defense. The latter was not even allowed by the British in Mandatory Palestine. Without an independent economy and an integrated land base, it is hard to see how these autonomous communities could really develop an autonomous and international Jewish culture. The Jews of Poland did succeed in developing such a cultural life and community for three million Polish Jews. To some extent, it was integrated with other Eastern European Jewish communities. Lacking an army and a national organization, however, they tragically could not defend that community from destruction. Simon Dubnow was murdered by the Nazis on December 8, 1941 in Rumbula Forest in Riga, Latvia, at the age of 81.

Though Autonomism is said by some to be extinct following the Holocaust, there are certainly echoes of it in similar ideas proposed in the United States and elsewhere to deal with the problem of Jewish assimilation.

Ami Isseroff  

Synonyms and alternate spellings:

Further Information: DUBNOW S.: "Autonomism: The Basis of the National Program" fourth letter in Nationalism and History - Essays on Old and New Judaism. Jewish Pub. Society, Philadelphia. 1958, p 131 ff. 

Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.

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