A term coined by Simon *Dubnow in 1901 to designate a theory and conception of Jewish nationalism in the Diaspora, based on a specific view of Jewish history. This gave rise to a program for the future of the Jews, who were to be politically and territorially members of the states in which they were dispersed but at the same time exist as a national-cultural entity.
At the basis of Autonomism is the view that in "the evolution of national types… we can distinguish the following stages…: (1) the tribal…; (2) the territorial-political…; (3) the cultural, historical, or spiritual…" (S. Dubnow, Nationalism and History… (1958), 76). The Jewish nation is regarded as exemplifying the development of this third stage: "This people, after it had passed through the stages of tribal nationalism, ancient culture, and political territory, was able to establish itself and fortify itself on the highest stage, the spiritual and historical-cultural, and succeeded in crystallizing itself as a spiritual people that draws the sap of its existence from a natural or intellectual 'will to live'" (ibid., 84–85). In the view of the Autonomists, this development within Jewry has a general historical significance, for to reach this third stage and continue to exist in it is a "rigid test for the maturity of a nation…. Such a people has reached the highest stage of cultural-historical individuality and may be said to be indestructible, if only it cling forcefully to its national will…. We find only one instance… of a people that has survived for thousands of years despite dispersion and loss of homeland. This unique people is the people of Israel" (ibid., 80).
The survival of the Jewish people in this "third and ultimate stage" of national existence was brought about in the Diaspora through the strength of "the chain of *autonomy – the essential source of power of the Jewish communities in all lands. Were it not for this chain… Israel would not have survived all these generations after the destruction of its state and its land. The secret of national survival is dependent on the positive command of the ancient prophecy, 'the scepter shall not depart from Judah' (Gen. 49:10). It is indeed possible to say that kingship never ceased in Israel. It merely shed one form to assume another…. The state is destroyed and the national body separates into its parts – the communities. In this way the people build for themselves in every place something like a kingdom in miniature. Our enemies… in modern times… call it 'a state within a state.' But the congregation of Israel goes on in its historical path and says: 'Indeed, a state within a state,' an internal autonomous group within an external political group and the nature of things sanctions it" (ibid., 48–49). On this basis Dubnow insisted – in opposition to both the Zionist view as he understood it and to the assimilationist view – that it is only "the Autonomists [who] recognize Jewry, not only as a nation of the past or of the future, but also as a nation that is of the present, which has never ceased to exist and which will never cease to exist in time to come" (ibid., 167). The Autonomists conceive that Jewry is a nation in spite of and in the fact of its dispersion throughout many countries and amid many peoples.
Although the Autonomist theory is based on an overall view of Jewish history, its application and even its theoretical premises are in reality limited by the European outlook of its founders. This is apparent in the intrinsic nexus between Autonomism and *Yiddish. Dubnow stated that "among the forces which are the basis of our autonomy in the Diaspora I also set aside a place for the powerful force of the folk language used by seven million Jews in Russia and Galicia…. Insofar as we recognize the merit of national existence in the Diaspora, we must also recognize the merit of Yiddish as one of the instruments of autonomy, together with Hebrew and the other factors in our national culture" (ibid., 51). In practice, Yiddish was the only cultural factor stressed by most Autonomists and in the main they were concerned solely with Jewish problems in Europe.
The European centrism of the Autonomists was also conditioned by the fact that even their theory was founded on their prognosis for the future development of states within Europe, particularly those areas where the greatest masses of Jews were then concentrated. They believed that the concept of statehood in Europe must logically lead to the autonomy of various nationalities within the framework of a "multinational state," such as was bound to evolve from the struggle for cohesion within the vast complexes of *Austro-Hungary and czarist *Russia. In its resolution of 1890 the "Austrian school of Social Democracy" formulated a program for an autonomous coexistence of the separate nationalities within Austro-Hungary. Otto *Bauer stated the theoretical foundation of this policy in his Die Nationalitaetenfrage und die Sozialdemokratie (Vienna, 1907). This is the background to Dubnow's affirmation "that Jewish nationalism… is concerned with only one thing: protecting the national individuality [of the Jewish people] and safeguarding its autonomous development in all states" (ibid., 97). On the basis of what he considered the immanent tendency of the past and the victorious trend of the future, Dubnow thought that "the chief axiom of Jewish autonomy may thus be formulated as follows: Jews in each and every country who take an active part in civic and political life enjoy all rights given to the citizens, not merely as individuals but also as members of their national groups" (ibid., 137). Since it was impossible to evade the fact that the Jews did not live in a single compact territory even within one state, the Autonomists had to insist on "personal autonomy" to be granted to the communities scattered throughout a given state.
The policy of the Autonomists was accepted by the Folk-spartei, the Sejmists and, after lengthy hesitation, by the *Bund. Although Zionism never accepted the Autonomist doctrine, in its program of "Gegenwartsarbeit" (as formulated at the *Helsingfors Conference, 1906) – especially in Eastern Europe – the movement shared most of the goals of its policy.
After World War i the realization of Autonomist hopes seemed ensured by the affirmation of *minority rights by the peace treaties and the autonomous institutions established in the Baltic states and the U.S.S.R. The blatant infringement of these rights, however, in the 1930s and later the *Holocaust put an end to the existential foundation of Autonomism. Theoretically the philosophy is as valid or invalid as before; in practice neither the philosophy nor the policies based on it have any force in the thinking or the aspirations of the Jewish people today.
K. Pinson, in: S. Dubnow, Nationalism and History (1958), 3–65.
[Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson]