The May (June) 1917 Seventh Congress of Russian Zionists in Petrograd  (A CORRECTION)

A correction to the error made in M. Hickey, Competing Voices in the Russian Revolution:  Fighting Words (Santa Barbara:  ABC-CLIO/Greenwood, 2011), pages 174-175.  


In translating a document on the May 1917 Seventh Congress of Russian Zionists in Petrograd for my 2011 book,  I made a serious error.  As this error threatens to "pollute the data stream," it demands (public) correction  

In fact, I made two errors:  first, I had the closing date of the congress wrong (the conference ended on 31 May 1917 [OS], not on 18 May); second, I translated the Russian term for Jewish language used in the text (evreiskii) as "Yiddish" when the correct translation in this particular case is "Hebrew"

Here is a corrected introduction to the document, followed by a corrected translation, to remedy the errors made in my book (the origins of which I will explain after the translation).


The Seventh Congress of Russian Zionists on Cultural Issues

The following document is a resolution on cultural affairs passed by the Seventh Congress of Russian Zionists, which met in Petrograd in May 1917.  More than 500 delegates representing over 300 locales attended the congress, as did some thirty Jewish soldiers from military units across Russia.  Zionism, or Jewish political nationalism, had strong roots in the Russian Empire, where it took two basic forms:  the belief that Jews as a distinct nation must establish a Jewish state in Palestine; and the "territorialist" position that Jews as a nation could exercise autonomy (self-government) within a Russian republican federation. 

Zionists also split over the issue of socialism.  Socialists organized several Zionist and territorialist parties in the early 1900s:  two of these, the Zionist Socialist Labor Party and the Socialist Jewish Workers' Party, merged in 1917 to create the United Jewish Socialist Workers' Party (which adopted an abstractly territorialist platform); the third was the Jewish Social Democratic Workers' Party, known as Poale-Tsion ("Workers of Zion").  Opposing the socialists were a religiously-oriented Zionist party (the Mizrachi), and the liberal secular Zionist organization often referred to as the General Zionists.  The May 1917 Seventh Congress f Russian Zionists gathered members of General Zionist organizations.  

As the Tsarist regime had declared Zionism an illegal movement, all Zionist groups had been driven underground.  Once the February Revolution created freedom of political mobilization, the General Zionists began to emerge as a dominant force in Russian Jewish political life, although they did not fully eclipse the various Jewish socialist parties until fall 1917.  The resolution below reflects the General Zionist conviction that Hebrew must be the Jewish national language, in contrast to the socialists' promotion of Yiddish.     

Resolution on Cultural Issues.

Recognizing the Hebrew language as the Jewish people's only national language, necessary for the Jewish upbringing, culture, and daily speech of all Jews, the Seventh All-Russian Zionist Congress proclaims the following demands:

a. That--in addition to the language of the state, the language of the region, and other languages--the Hebrew language be the language of instruction in all grades in all [Jewish] communal schools and educational institutions;

b. That the Hebrew language be established as the official language in all of the Jewish people's public institutions;

c. That it is the responsibility of all members of Zionist organizations to introduce these principles in the Jewish communal associations, in all [communal] schools and educational institutions, and in all other [communal] institutions that serve public needs.    


The error in the version of translation of this document in Hickey, Fighting Words, and why it occurred:

My 2011 published translation of this document contained two fundamental errors. 

The first, regarding the date on which the congress closed, was serious but did not alter the document's meaning.  Following the information in the Russian document collection from which I took the text, I dated the meeting as taking place on 11-18 May 1917 according to the Julian calendar then in use in Russia.  Contemporary press accounts, however, note that the congress' closing session took place on 31 May 1917.  I could have prevented this error by considering original texts rather than using a reprinted text from 1930 (see below).

The second error, though, altered the document's fundamental meaning.  When I translated the Russian word "evreiskii" (as in "evreiskii iazik") as meaning "Yiddish" rather than "Hebrew," it led me to claim that the 7th Zionist Congress had declared Yiddish the Jewish national language.  I should have known--and, in fact, I did know--that the General Zionist position claimed Hebrew as the national language. Moreover, I compounded the error by speculating in the document's introductory header that the resolution's endorsement of Yiddish might reflect the influence of the various socialist Zionist factions.

My translation was based on the text of the document as it appeared in S. M. Dimanshtein, Revoliutsiia in natsional'nyi vopros:  doukmenty i materialy po istorii natsional'nogo voprosa v Rossii i SSSR v XX veke, vol. 3, 1917 fevral'-oktiabr' (Moscow:  Kommunisticheskaia Akademiia, 1930), p. 279.  In that text, based on a Russian-language copy of the congress resolution, the Jewish language is referred to using the Russian word "evreiskii."

Generally, in Russian usage (both now and in 1917), the term "evreiskii iazik" refers to the Yiddish language, and Hebrew is referred to as "drevneevreiskii iazik" (the ancient Jewish language) or as "ivrit."   In the 1917 Russian-Jewish socialist press and archival documents that I had read extensively (including those of socialist Zionists), Hebrew was always referred to as "drevneevreiskii."   (I regret that I paid far less attention than I should have to Russian-language General Zionist materials.) 

Based upon that pattern of usage, I made a fallacious assumption about the document.  Indeed, my assumption that "evreiskii" here referred to Yiddish went against everything that I as a historian knew about the General Zionist's stance on language.  And so I made a second false assertion--that the resolution might have referred to Yiddish because the socialist Zionists had an influence on its drafting. 

I regret that I can only describe this error as the result of three failures to apply correct historical methodology: 

First, I was not careful enough in taking notes when I first read the relevant primary sources.  Years before preparing this translation, I had read several Russian language newspapers and made very brief notes on their coverage of the Seventh Congress of Russian Zionists (e.g., in the periodical Evreiskaia zhizn').  But as it was outside my research interests at the time, I did not make extensive notes on these articles and I did not copied the text of any of the articles.  Had I done so, I might not have made subsequent errors.

Second, I did not base my translation of the resolution on a "first generation" source.  When  it came to choosing and translating this specific document, I relied on a republished text in a Soviet-era document collection, rather than returning to seeking out the text in 1917 press sources.  I did this despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the document translations in my Fighting Words bok are based upon texts as I found them in contemporary sources rather than as they appear in later collections or compilations. 

Admittedly, using the original Russian-language press accounts might not have prevented my error in translating "evreiskii."   Had I looked at an easily-obtainable contemporary English-language source, however, I would have seen clearly that "evreiskii" here meant Hebrew and not Yiddish.  ( See "Review of the Month:  The Russian Zionist Congress," The Zionist Review (London) vol. 1, no. 3, July 1917, p. 50.  At the top of the second column on this page, it clearly says the congress called for Zionists to work towards "establishment of a network of schools in Hebrew....")                                   

Third, I made a false assumption based upon published criticism of a previous translation into English from the Dimanshtein collection.  Robert Paul Browder and Alexander F. Kerensky, in their document collection The Russian Provisional Government, 1917 (Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 1961), vol. 1, pp. 428-429, presented two documents from the Dimanshtein collection:  the Zionist document discussed above, and a resolution from the April 1917 Tenth Conference of the Bund (The Jewish Social Democratic Labor Party).  In both documents, Browder and Kerensky rendered the Russian "evreiskii" from Dimanshtein as "Hebrew."  The eminent historian Zvi Gitelman, in a footnote in his classic book Jewish Nationality and Soviet Politics:  The Jewish Sections of the CPSU, 1917-1930 (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1972), in reference to the usage of "evreiskii" in the Bund document, noted that "Browder and Kerensky, translating from Dimanshtein's Russian, incorrectly and and incongruously render this as 'Hebrew.'  Hebrew was considered by the Bund to be a language of religious ritual, artificially revived by the Zionists, whereas the true language of the masses was Yiddish" (p. 65, fn. 123).  Without giving the matter adequate thought, I illogically assumed that the same criticism applied to the translation of "evreiskii" as "Hebrew" in the Zionist document.          

So, what should I have made of the use of "evreiskii" in this document? 

Although Zionists in 1917 sometimes also referred to Hebrew as the "ancient Jewish language," it was a matter of Zionist principle that Hebrew was a living language, one not confined simply to the Jewish past.  A contemporary Russian language Zionist text referring to Jewish language education and public services certainly would have used "Evreiskii" to mean Hebrew, as a way of emphasizing that Hebrew (not Yiddish) could and must the language of a new, revitalized Jewish culture.   (We should note, though, that the Zionists frequently published materials in Yiddish and Russian as well as in Hebrew, since relatively fewer Jews could Hebrew than could read Yiddish and Russian.)

For excellent recent English language study that elucidate matters of language in relation to cultural projects, the reader should refer to Kenneth Moss, Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution (Cambridge MA:  Harvard University Press, 2009).  For the best account in English concerning the May 1917 Russian Zionist congress, the reader should consult Simon Rabinovitch, Jewish Rights, National Rites:  Nationalism and Autonomy in Late Imperial and Revolutionary Russia (Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 2014).    

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