Yoni Eshpar


The Closing of the Liberal Alternative: Hermann Cohen and the Problem of Jewish Immigration


It has already been firmly established that the massive Jewish migration from Russia and Eastern Europe to the West between the 1870s and the 1920s was a transformative event in modern Jewish history. In addition to the economic, cultural and political redefinition of much of the Jewish world, this human influx forced Jewish intellectuals to reevaluate their most fundamental ideas.


This paper examines this latter process, which appears to have drawn less attention from historians, through the writings of German-Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen, who was a, if not the, prominent Jewish philosopher in late 19th and early 20th century Germany. An examination of his ideas regarding Jews and their relationships with Judaism, humanity, nation and state – and the ways in which those ideas changed – in the context of the great migration, reveals several axes of transformation: 1) the demise of optimistic Jewish liberalism, along with its commitment to assimilation as the solution to the Jewish problem, 2) the inversion of popular perceptions of East-European Jews among West-European Jews – from relics of a despicable past to guardians of collective authenticity and future existence, and 3) the replacement of the spiritual foundation for modern Jewish life with a biological, volkish notion of belonging.


In their main countries of passage and destination, the eastern migrants sparked fierce debates on immigration restrictions. These debates challenged the broad liberal consensus among West European Jews, as is evident in Cohen’s writing on this issue. On the one hand, he fiercely opposed emigration as a solution to the problems of Jews in Russia, on the other hand, his liberalism compelled him to object to any form of immigration restrictions. In addition, he, like many German Jews, found his formula of dual yet uncontradictory allegiance to Germany and Judaism increasingly difficult to sustain as the number of migrants pouring from across the borders kept rising.


The great migration, and the reactions to it, posed an unpredicted challenge to the Jewish-liberal paradigm which, during the course of the 19th Century, came to dominate the political and intellectual spheres of Western European Jews. The space cleared by the receding faith in the liberal project was filled by its alternative, more radical projects - namely various forms of Zionism, socialism, and combinations of the two.