Idelson, Abraham

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IDELSON, ABRAHAM (1865–1921), Zionist theoretician, publicist, and editor. Born in Vekshni (Wexna), Lithuania, Idelson had a traditional education but at the age of 15 turned to secular studies. In 1885–90 he studied at the University of Moscow. In 1886 or 1887 he joined the Moscow *Ḥibbat Zion society Benei Zion, of which other members included M. *Ussishkin, J. *Tschlenow, and J. *Maze. In 1889–93 he was a member of the *Benei Moshe in Moscow, and during this period he worked as a clerk in various firms. When *Herzl appeared on the Jewish scene Idelson had reservations about him; but after the First Zionist Congress he joined the movement of political Zionism and was an active lecturer and debater in student circles. In 1901 he was one of the activists of the *Democratic Fraction, and in 1902 the Russian Zionist Convention at Minsk elected him to its Cultural Committee.

In 1905 he was invited to settle in St. Petersburg and become the editor of the Russian Zionist journal that appeared in various forms (as the monthly Yevreyskaya Zhizn with a weekly Khronika, later as the weekly *Razsvet, etc.) until September 1919, when it was closed by the Soviet authorities. Although some articles by Idelson had appeared earlier (in Hebrew and Russian), it was not until 1905 that he began to react systematically in print to the gamut of ideological, political, and cultural problems of Jewry and Zionism under a number of pen names (Davidson, Zhagorski, Nevski, Ibn Daud, A.D., etc.). The prospect of democratization in Russia moved him to formulate a plan of Zionist activities that would integrate Diaspora work and settlement in Ereẓ Israel into a system of Jewish national renaissance and a policy applicable within the anticipated reconstruction of Russia. Thus he became the father of the *Helsingfors Program.

In May 1917, after the overthrow of the czarist regime, Idelson opened the All-Russian Zionist Conference in Petrograd. In 1919, after the Zionist Movement was gradually strangled, Idelson was sent abroad on behalf of the Russian Zionists to join the leadership of the World Zionist Movement. In Paris he participated in the work of the *Comité des Délégations Juives at the Versailles Peace Conference. Later he was appointed editor of the central Zionist organ, the weekly *Ha-Olam (London, 1919–20). In 1921 he moved to Berlin, planning to resume publication of Ha-Olam and Razsvet there, but died suddenly.

Idelson's specific trait as a Zionist theoretician was his sociological approach along the lines of historical materialism, which made his exposition understandable to the Marxist-oriented Jewish intelligentsia. According to Idelson, the national element is not a goal in itself, but rather the most convenient groove for the expression and manifestation of that which is most universally human. The goal should not be the rigid conservation of fixed values, but to secure a framework for the free development of the ever-changing human creativity. National conflicts, he believed, are independent of social conflicts and will continue, though mitigated, under socialism. Zionism, like the assimilationist trend that preceded it, is essentially secular and "anti-Judaistic." They both stem from the same source: worldliness – the desire to live in the world like all other nations. Zionism is not nostalgic national conservatism, but forward-looking national liberation. The normalization of Jewish existence can be achieved only on the Jewish nation's own soil, as the Diaspora conditions cripple the national entity. Jewish social activity in the Diaspora can have only one goal: to remove discrimination to the point where separate Jewish activity becomes superfluous. Jewish cultural life in the Diaspora is bound to retreat before the dominant cultures and to remain a shrinking secondary, supplementary relic. Therefore, Zionism builds toward future independence, and to achieve this goal it must mobilize Jewish energy and strengthen Jewish positions in the Diaspora. To rally the Jewish masses and their energy Zionism must respond to all Jewish needs and become the pivotal force of Diaspora Jewry. Idelson's attention as a theorist was drawn particularly to the relation of the class factor to the national factor in social life. He stressed that socialism meant political class struggle, i.e., the struggle for power in a state, and concluded that Jewish socialism was doomed to impotence and inconsistency as long as there was no Jewish state in which it might attain its goal.


S. Gepstein, in: Sefer Idelson (1946), 11–46, 235–42 (bibl. of Idelson's writings).

[Mark Perlman]