Meyerhoff Center hosts lecture on Hans Kohn’s struggle with nationalism

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By Nicole Reisinger
For the Mitzpeh
@nareising

Adi Gordon, an assistant professor at Amherst College, spoke April 26 to a group of around 25 students and faculty from this university about Hans Kohn’s lifelong struggle with nationalism and his subsequent divergence from Zionism.

Gordon specializes in European and Jewish history and is the author of “In Palestine: In a Foreign Land” and “Brith Shalom and Bi-National Zionism,” in addition to multiple articles on Zionism, Jewish thought and European political outcasts.

Gordon offered a preview of his newest book, “Toward Nationalism’s End: An Intellectual Biography of Hans Kohn,” which provides a biographical portrait of Kohn, a leading 20th century scholar of nationalism. Gordon presents the continual evolution of Kohn’s theory of nationalism in the context of Jewish history and the changing world around him.

Considered the “father of nationalism,” according to Gordon, Kohn struggled with deep apprehension of nationalism’s destructive potential, and was forced to realize the persistence of national sentiment. Kohn wrestled with its centrality and formative impact on people’s lives, present and future.

During the last overseas trip of his presidency, to Athens, Greece, former President Barack Obama warned against nationalistic tribalism.

“We are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism or ethnic identity, or tribalism, that is built around an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’” Obama said on Nov. 15.

President Donald Trump’s victory in November, Britain’s vote in June to leave the European Union, and France’s unpredictable presidential election result from a rapidly globalizing world. 

The question of if there can be any nationalism without an ethnic, tribal grouping, and how to effectively tell the one from the other, frames Kohn’s struggle. Gordon described him as a “serial ideological convert” who never formulated “the complete theory of nationalism, because there is none.”

Adi Gordon speaks to students and faculty about Hans Kohn's struggle with nationalism April 26. Nicole Reisinger/Mitzpeh.
Adi Gordon speaks to students and faculty about Hans Kohn’s struggle with nationalism April 26. Nicole Reisinger/Mitzpeh.

His lifelong contention with nationalism began with his Zionist activity in Habsburg-ruled Prague; however, his major works were written during and after his slow and painful break with Zionism.

When Kohn initially discovered nationalism, he saw it as a solution to the Jewish question. Traditionally a conventional European institution inapplicable to the Jewish case, Kohn sought to amend it to replicate Jewish thought of turning inward.

Before World War I, in the face of wanting imperial world power, ethnic romantic nationalism was rooted in the idea of a national race, land, culture and language. As an Austrian soldier and prisoner of war, Kohn observed the dichotomy between “cultural” and “political” nationalism.

Upon his return from war, Kohn wanted the Jewish legacy to transcend nationalism, and called for a binational Palestine. He believed the ideology of a nation-state conflicted with his view of nationalism, and subsequently promoted what he called “active pacifism” to achieve world order.

Gordon marked 1934-1971 as Kohn’s American career. The discontent scholar moved to the U.S. because he viewed Zionism as ethnic nationalism of the German type, and focused on American Jewry’s role in a civic Jewish nationalism.

The tension between his rejection and acknowledgement of nationalism is expressed in Kohn’s insistence that there is a good, even justified, nationalism, and a bad nationalism which is to be combated and eventually eradicated.

Junior David Malamud, a history, Jewish studies and classics major and president of the Jewish Studies Student Association, Tzavim, said Kohn took “an unusual path that few influential Jewish thinkers have pursued in the mid-20th century,” referring to his initial embrace, gradual distancing and final rejection of Zionism.

“Hans Kohn’s struggles with Zionism are very relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today,” Malamud said, “as journalists annually mourn the death of the two-state solution and more people begin to embrace a binational state like Kohn.”  

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