Syrkin, Nachman

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SYRKIN, NACHMAN (1868–1924), first ideologist and leader of Socialist Zionism. Born in Mogilev, Belorussia, Syrkin received a thorough Jewish education by private tutors, and when he moved with his family to Minsk (1884), he completed his studies at a Russian high school. There he joined Ḥovevei Zion (see *Ḥibbat Zion), while maintaining contact with Russian revolutionary circles. He was placed under arrest for several weeks, after which he went to London and then to Berlin (1888), where he studied psychology and philosophy. In Berlin he was a founder of the Russian-Jewish Scientific Society, from whose ranks a number of Zionist leaders emerged (Shemaryahu *Levin, Leo *Motzkin, Chaim *Weizmann, and others). His writing career began at the age of 19 as a contributor to Ha-Meliẓ while in Minsk; his first booklet, Geschichts-Philosophische Betrachtungen ("Reflections on the Philosophy of History," Berlin, 1896), in which he criticized Marx's concepts and stressed the voluntary element in historical processes.

Syrkin participated in the First Zionist Congress in 1897, leading the few representatives of Socialist Zionism. In 1898, two years after the appearance of *Herzl's Der Judenstaat, he published an article in the Austrian Socialist monthly Deutsche Worte and enlarged it in the same year into a pamphlet Die Judenfrage und der sozialistische Judenstaat ("The Jewish Question and the Socialist Jewish State"), in which he outlined for the first time the idea to which he adhered throughout his life: the realization of Zionism through cooperative mass settlement of the Jewish proletariat. In the press, as well as from the rostrum of the Zionist Congresses, Syrkin forcefully attacked the preponderance of "bourgeois and clerical" elements in the Zionist Organization, as well as Herzl's diplomatic overtures to "reactionary monarchs" (William ii) and "tyrants" (Nicholas ii). His speeches often caused loud protests and even scandals in the Congress sessions.

Syrkin was an early sponsor of the idea of the *Jewish National Fund and submitted a resolution to this effect to the Second Zionist Congress (1898). Herzl, who seemed to like Syrkin in spite of his provocative speeches, called him "that exaltado." From 1901 Syrkin worked for the establishment of Socialist Zionist groups in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland and attained modest results, such as Hessiona (1901, named after Moses *Hess) and Heirut ("Freedom," 1902). He founded short-lived journals in Yiddish (Der Hamoyn, 1901) and Hebrew (Ha-Shaḥar, 1903) and wrote Socialist-Zionist pamphlets (such as the "Call to Jewish Youth" in Russian), which were often smuggled illegally into czarist Russia. For some time Syrkin tried to support himself and his family by literary work, translating Tolstoy into German and publishing political and sociological articles in leading German magazines. His public activity, however, prevented him from persevering in this career. After an abortive attempt to study medicine he returned to philosophy and published his doctoral thesis, Empfindung und Vorstellung ("Sensation and Idea") in Berne in 1903.

In 1904 Syrkin was banished from Germany and spent some time in Paris and then, after the 1905 revolution, in Russia. At the Sixth and Seventh Zionist Congresses (1903, 1905) he strongly supported Herzl's *Uganda Scheme, eventually seceding from the Zionist Organization and for several years becoming a leader and spokesman of the socialist *territorialists, who, in Russia and among some Russian-Jewish émigré circles, insisted on calling themselves Zionist-Socialist (Russ., Sionisty-Sotsialisty, or ss). In 1907 he emigrated to the United States, where in 1909 he joined the Palestine-oriented *Po'alei Zion and returned to the Zionist Organization, having arrived at the conclusion that the revolution of the Young Turks had opened new perspectives for Jewish nationhood in Ereẓ Israel. He was the leader of American Po'alei Zion until his death.

During World War i Syrkin worked for the convention of the Jewish Congress in America, and supported the idea of the *Jewish Legion to fight with the Allies for the liberation of Palestine, at a time when his party still opposed it. In 1919 he became a member of the American Jewish delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference, which joined the *Comité des Délégations Juives. In 1919 Syrkin was the key figure at the world conference of Po'alei Zion in Stockholm, which elected him to head a study commission charged with visiting Palestine and drawing up a plan for mass settlement on a cooperative basis. He toured Palestine with the other members of the commission (whose secretary was Zalman (Rubashov) *Shazar) and was the principal author of the plan, which expressed the basic ideas later implemented by the Zionist labor movement.

Returning to the U.S., he founded a short-lived Po'alei Zion daily Di Tsayt, edited by David *Pinski, which existed for only about a year. Syrkin, who had always neglected his own economic interests and had lived as a "professional revolutionary," mainly by writing and lecturing, then intended to settle in Palestine, but he died suddenly in New York of a heart attack. In 1951 his remains were taken to Israel and buried at kevuẓat Kinneret, alongside the graves of other founding fathers of labor Zionism.

Syrkin was a prolific writer in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, German, and English. He wrote a political play in Yiddish, "The Jewish People," and began to write a monumental history of the Jews, but, except for brief chapters published during his lifetime, the manuscript has apparently been lost. His selected works were published in Yiddish (Geklibene Tsionistish-Sotsialistishe Shriften, 2 vols., 1926), Hebrew (Kitvei Naḥman Syrkin, edited by B. Katzenelson and Y. Kaufman, vol. 1, 1939), and English (preceded by a biography written by his daughter Marie *Syrkin, 1961). The moshav Kefar Syrkin and streets in various Israel towns are named after him. During World War ii an American Liberty Ship was named "Nachman Syrkin" by the Jewish National Workers' Alliance (Farband) in the U.S.

At no later than the age of 20 (1888), Syrkin conceived the idea which became his lifelong creed and which at first seemed paradoxical: a complete synthesis of socialism with Jewish nationalism, as embodied in Zionism (or, for a while, territorialism). In his youth Syrkin attacked "the wealthy Jewish plutocrats of St. Petersburg, the Poliakovs, and the Guenzburgs, and others of their class who opposed Jewish emigration from Russia." In his early writings (1898) he postulated that "a classless society and national sovereignty are the only means of completely solving the Jewish problem." He criticized Jewish socialists to whom "socialism meant, first of all, the abandonment of Jewishness, just as the liberalism of the Jewish bourgeoisie led to assimilation…. Jewish socialism used internationalism as a cloak to cover its nakedness." He also attacked *Aḥad Ha-Am's concept of a "spiritual center" in Ereẓ Israel because it disregarded social realities like antisemitism and Jewish mass migration, which were the real forces pressing for a Zionist solution. In resolutions of his group Heirut and in articles in Der Hamoyn (1902), Syrkin expounded his ideas in unequivocal terms: "The Jewish masses consist chiefly of a proletariat which does not live from labor; only a small proportion belongs to the labor-proletariat …" Therefore, the Jews "bear the whole yoke of the 'slave of slaves,' the 'proletariat of the proletariat' – persecuted, driven from land to land, destined to perish physically and spiritually." This "proletariat" includes the miserable shopkeepers, peddlers, tailors and shoemakers, and their "sole redemption lies in Zionism." He warned (in 1903) that "emigration to free lands" will eventually be restricted, "even in democratic countries like America." But, though "the masses may be helped" by such emigration and the securing of equal rights in Russia, "it would be only momentarily, not historically." Therefore the Jewish proletarian masses are the "natural fulfillers of the Zionist idea," and their Zionism "is more than the colonization projects of Ḥovevei Zion with its bourgeois limitations; more than the longing for a spiritual center of the maskil; more than the philanthropic Zionism of the West Europeans. Their Zionism is social and bound up with the idea of a new society."

Syrkin differed in some fundamental respects from many of the later Socialist Zionists. He was not an orthodox Marxist, and his socialism was more the concept of a moral-voluntary effort than the necessary outcome of the class struggle. He also criticized *Borochov's Marxist analysis of Zionism and his concept that the "elemental" ("stychic") process of mass migration will by objective necessity produce a concentration of the Jewish masses in Palestine. He was a supporter of Hebrew (which he mastered perfectly) as the sole Jewish national language, and rejected Yiddish for this role (though he used it extensively in writings and speeches). On current issues – such as the question of taking sides in World War i and the question of the Jewish Legion, or the idea of co-opting "Jewish plutocrats" to the Jewish Agency (1923) – he often differed from the majority of his comrades. During the 1920s split in Po'alei Zion between those who remained faithful to the Zionist Organization and those who sought to affiliate with the new Communist Third International, Syrkin tried to reconcile both views by maintaining that only the "un-Jewish Jews" among the Communists were the cause of the Communist rejection of Zionism; but he never again abandoned his clear stand in favor of the adherence to the Zionist Organization. Even in matters of religion he went his own way. Though opposed to the "petrified" form of rabbinical practice, he was apparently a deeply religious man. On his death-bed, he called Chaim *Tchernowitz ("Rav Ẓa'ir") and recited with him the viddui, the traditional confession before death. Two days before he died, he even wrote a Hebrew prayer, Birkat ha-Mavet ("Blessing of Death"), in which his metaphysical sense found poetic expression.


M. Syrkin, Nachman Syrkin, Socialist Zionist: a biographical memoir and selected essays (1961); B. Katznelson, Ha-Eḥad ba-Ma'arakhah (1939; lnyl, 6 (1965), 433–42.