This Day in Jewish History / The Man Nobody Remembers Who Coined 'Zionism' Dies

Nathan Birnbaum embodied a myriad aspects of the early 20th-century Jewish experience, from Orthodoxy to political Zionism and back to Orthodoxy.

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On April 2, 1937, Nathan Birnbaum, a thinker and activist whose ideological transformations ran the full gamut of the Jewish experience in the half-century before the Holocaust – but who is as little remembered today as he was influential during his lifetime – died, at the age of 72.

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Birnbaum was born in Vienna on May 16, 1864, and grew up in a religiously observant family. However, by the time he arrived at the University of Vienna, in 1883, where he pursued philosophy, law and Near Eastern studies, he had moved away from Orthodoxy. It was there, in 1883, that Birnbaum and two fellow students started Kadima, a campus Zionist organization that functioned before the Zionist movement as such even existed.

During 1885-1894, Birnbaum also published and wrote much of the contents of a journal he called Self-Emancipation!, which is where he coined the term “Zionism” in 1890 – five years before Theodor Herzl wrote “Der Judenstaat.” (He also was the first to use the term “political Zionism,” in the same periodical.)

For his early advocacy of political Zionism (in 1893, for example, he published an article on the subject of “The National Rebirth of the Jewish People in its Homeland as a Means of Solving the Jewish Question”), Birnbaum was elected secretary-general of the Zionist Organization, at the First Zionist Congress in 1897. He soon resigned the position, however, as by that time, he was already moving toward Jewish cultural nationalism, which foresaw a Jewish national rebirth in Eastern Europe, and through the Yiddish language – rather than a renascent Hebrew.

In 1908, Birnbaum was the chief organizer of the Yiddish Language Conference, which convened in Czernowitz, where Yiddish was declared to be “a” – although not “the” – Jewish national language. A year earlier, he had run for the Austrian parliament as a candidate from Buzacz, in East Galicia. Campaigning with the support of Ukrainians in the district, he actually won a majority of the votes, but he was deprived of his seat by political maneuvering by his Polish nationalist opponents.

The final station in Nathan Birnbaum’s ideological-spiritual journey was a return to his Orthodox roots, beginning in 1912. So thorough was his transformation that in 1919 he was invited to become the secretary-general of Agudath Israel, the Orthodox, non-Zionist political body of European Jewry. He also founded his own organization, Olim (“ascenders,” in Hebrew), which focused on the Jews’ spiritual rebirth. To this end, he advocated for a de-urbanization of the Jews, and the establishment of agricultural colonies, where they could rid themselves of their “pagan” tendencies.

According to historian Jess Olson, who published a biography of Birnbaum last year, Birnbaum’s “turn to politicized, conservative religious Orthodoxy… was his most radical transformation” – one that Olson characterizes as “an impossibly rare and daring decision for the early 20th century.” In retrospect, Birnbaum was on the wrong side of history (as opposed to the Zionists), and for Olson, this helps explain why historians have largely ignored Birnbaum until now.

In 1933, Birnbaum fled Berlin, where he’d been living since 1911, for the Netherlands. There, in Scheveningen, he died of illness on this date in 1937.

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