History Prof. Matthias Lehmann, the Teller Family Chair in Jewish History at the University of California at Irvine, visited the University of Michigan Frankel Center for Judaic Studies on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the lesser-known history of Jewish colonization.
Before Palestine was chosen, Argentina was actually considered as a destination for the relocation of the Jewish masses in response to anti-Semitism.
LSA freshman Scott Straetmans, who attended the event, was fascinated by the idea of a Jewish state in Argentina.
“I’ve never learned much about Judaic studies before, but I think in the mainstream history, you hear about the foundation of Israel,” Straetmans said. “(Lehmann) talked about the Argentinian colonies … it’s interesting that this happened first, but you never hear much about it.”
Lehmann began the discussion by introducing the somewhat complex story of Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a Jewish banker, entrepreneur and philanthropist who brought the idea of Argentina as a Jewish homeland to the forefront of Jewish politics in the late 1800s.
After de Hirsch had amassed a relatively large fortune by marrying into a wealthy dynasty, he and his wife used their money for philanthropy. Lehmann continued by saying one of the grand philanthropic schemes of de Hirsch was to resettle a large number of Jews in Argentina, partially to create agricultural colonies and prove that Jews were not unfit for agricultural labor.
De Hirsch established the Jewish Colonization Association to accomplish this. Unfortunately, though he had envisioned settling millions of Jews, just 6,757 colonists lived in his four Argentine settlements.
After describing the bare bones of de Hirsch’s background, plan and ultimately unsuccessful attempt, Lehmann posed a few questions to the audience.
“Was his project actually a failure? How do we assess? What is its significance? Why did (Theodor) Herzl’s (movement to establish the Jewish state in Palestine) succeed?” Lehmann asked.
Lehmann negates the idea that the Argentine project was a wasted attempt. He emphasized that de Hirsch’s efforts were valuable.
“It was precisely the local footprint of the philanthropist that allowed Jews to see themselves as participating in a global community,” Lehmann said.
Some even believe that it was hugely successful. One of de Hirsch’s first colonists in Argentina, a Russian Jew named Leibele, stated in a sermon that Argentina was the new Zion. Despite the small number, the colonies in Argentina survived long after de Hirsch’s death.
Moreover, de Hirsch’s ideas and efforts helped to reshape the very core of Jewish political thought.
“Philanthropy, not ideology, was the defining element of modern Jewish politics,” Lehmann said. “The true leaders of the Jewish community were not rabbis, reformers and intellectuals, but philanthropists.”
Lehmann compared de Hirsch’s ideas to those of Theodor Herzl, who successfully established the Palestinian homeland for Jews.
Both men had the same goal — they wanted to solve anti-Semitism and Jewish homelessness. However, while de Hirsch took the political route, Herzl built his idea on a narrative of national revival.
While Hirsch attempted to make great strides, Herzl is the one who is celebrated for his drive and establishment of the Jewish state.
Lehmann concluded with what he believes was de Hirsch’s flaw.
“He never made Leibele’s sermon his own,” he said.