Steinberg, Isaac Nahman

views updated


STEINBERG, ISAAC NAHMAN (1888–1957), Russian revolutionary, jurist, writer, and leader of the *Territorialist movement. He was born in Dvinsk (Daugavpils, Latvia) into a family in which Jewish tradition and Haskalah coexisted. His father was a well-established merchant and his mother was the sister of the Yiddish literary critic *Baal-Makhshoves. Steinberg received a traditional Jewish education, which had a marked influence on him until the end of his life. He studied law at Moscow University, from which he was expelled because of revolutionary activities. In 1910 he completed his legal studies at Heidelberg University, receiving the title of Doctor of Laws for his dissertation Die Lehre vom Verbrechen im Talmud (1910; "Penal Law in the Talmud"), published as a book. For a few years before the outbreak of World War i he practiced as a lawyer in Moscow.

Steinberg had begun his revolutionary activity in 1906, when as a student he joined the Social Revolutionary Party. He was arrested, imprisoned, and exiled abroad. In 1910 he returned to Russia. After the February 1917 Revolution, when the Social Revolutionary Party split up, Steinberg joined its left-wing faction. When the faction joined the first Soviet government headed by Lenin, Steinberg represented his party in it serving as commissar for law (minister of justice) from December 1917 to March 1918. After the split between the left-wing Social Revolutionaries and the Bolsheviks Steinberg was arrested several times. He left Russia, and from 1923 lived in Berlin. There he acted as representative abroad for his party, and went on lecture tours on its behalf. From 1933 to 1939 Steinberg lived in London, and in 1943 settled in New York. There, among other activities, he was a member of the board of directors of *yivo, on whose behalf he made several journeys to South Africa and South America.

Steinberg began his literary activity by contributing to legal and general periodicals in Russia. Subsequently he continued as one of the editors of party organs in Moscow and Berlin. He also contributed to the general socialist press, and to the Yiddish Zukunft in New York. From 1926 to 1937 Steinberg published and edited the series in Yiddish Fraye Shriftn farn Yidishen Sotsialistishn Gedank in which he attempted to formulate his ideas in the spirit of ethical socialism, which combined Jewish ethics with the ideal of universal justice and human solidarity. From 1943 to 1956 he edited the monthly Oyfn Shvel of the Freeland League, founded by Ben *Adir. Apart from numerous articles of literary and political interest, Steinberg published a series of books in Russian, Yiddish, and German on the Russian Revolution, which were translated into English and other languages. He also wrote a social drama in German, Der Dornenweg ("The Thorny Path," 1927; Yid. trans. 1928), which was produced in Germany. His best-known book is his comprehensive work on the Russian revolutionary Maria Spiridonova (Eng., 1935; Yid., 1936; Heb., 1936). His socialist credo is expressed in his Der Moralisher Ponim fun der Revolutsiye ("The Moral Aspect of the Revolution," Yid., 1925; Rus., 1925); Gewalt und Terror in der Revolution (Ger., 1931); In the Workshop of the Revolution (1953; 1955). He wrote on his brief experience as minister of justice in Russia in Als ich Volkskommissar war (Ger., 1929; Memoirs of a People's Commissar, Eng., 1931; Yid., 1931).

His activity in the Territorialist movement forms a special chapter in Steinberg's life. Hitler's rise to power in Germany, and subsequently the outbreak of World War ii, led him to advocate the idea of Territorialism. He argued that the safety of European Jews could not await a change in the British policy in Palestine, and accordingly founded the territorialistic Freeland League which advocated Jewish colonization in other countries. In pursuit of this aim Steinberg went to Australia and proposed the creation of an autonomous Jewish colony in the northwestern Kimberley. His efforts failed, however, the Australian government being prepared to accept Jewish refugees but not to tolerate a separate national unit on its territory. After the failure of the Australian project, Steinberg promoted a similar plan, though on a more limited scale, in Surinam, which also ended in failure. He wrote on his ideas on Territorialism and attempts to put them into practice in Geleblt un Gekholemt in Australie (Yid., 1945; AustraliaThe Unpromised Land, Eng., 1948), and to some extent also in Mit Eyn Fus in Amerike (1951), on personalities, events, and ideas.

Steinberg's was an unusual personality, in which varying and seemingly conflicting elements combined. While an extreme left-wing revolutionary, and among the leaders of the party which relied on the Russian peasant, Steinberg was an observant Orthodox Jew, with Jewish national ideas, and active in Jewish politics. He was a prolific writer, with a lucid style, as well as an accomplished speaker and controversialist.


Rejzen, Leksikon, 4 (1930), 604–8; Yiẓḥak Naḥman Steinberg Gedenk-Bukh (1961); M. Enav, Be-Sa'arat ha-Ḥayyim (1967).

[Simha Katz]

About this article

Steinberg, Isaac Nahman

Updated About content Print Article