A revisionist account of interwar Europe’s largest Jewish community that upends histories of Jewish agency to rediscover reckonings with nationalism’s pathologies, diaspora’s fragility, Zionism’s promises, and the necessity of choice.
What did the future hold for interwar Europe’s largest Jewish community, the font of global Jewish hopes? When intrepid analysts asked these questions on the cusp of the 1930s, they discovered a Polish Jewry reckoning with “no tomorrow.” Assailed by antisemitism and witnessing liberalism’s collapse, some Polish Jews looked past progressive hopes or religious certainties to investigate what the nation-state was becoming, what powers minority communities really possessed, and where a future might be found—and for whom.
The story of modern Jewry is often told as one of creativity and contestation. Kenneth B. Moss traces instead a late Jewish reckoning with diasporic vulnerability, nationalism’s terrible potencies, Zionism’s promises, and the necessity of choice. Moss examines the works of Polish Jewry’s most searching thinkers as they confronted political irrationality, state crisis, and the limits of resistance. He reconstructs the desperate creativity of activists seeking to counter despair where they could not redress its causes. And he recovers a lost grassroots history of critical thought and political searching among ordinary Jews, young and powerless, as they struggled to find a viable future for themselves—in Palestine if not in Poland, individually if not communally.
Focusing not on ideals but on a search for realism, Moss recasts the history of modern Jewish political thought. Where much scholarship seeks Jewish agency over a collective future, An Unchosen People recovers a darker tradition characterized by painful tradeoffs amid a harrowing political reality, making Polish Jewry a paradigmatic example of the minority experience endemic to the nation-state.
Scholars of Jewish history have devoted a great deal of attention to interwar Poland as the site of a cultural efflorescence that emerged out of the devastation of World War I…Now Kenneth B. Moss…has come to complicate the story, in ways at once surprising and intuitive, in his new book An Unchosen People…The reluctant recourse to Zionism tells us a good deal about the limited agency and sense of futurelessness found among Polish Jews in this age of cultural pessimism. It is a story exceptionally well told…a brilliant affective history of Jewish political culture in interwar Poland…It is one of the merits of Moss’s fine book to show that, for Polish Jews even before the German invasion of 1939, immigration to Palestine was nothing more or less than a path of escape from a hellish abyss, the full depths of which they could not yet imagine.
An insightful, incisive, thoroughly documented study of how interwar Polish Jews understood their situation in real time…In a tour de force of investigation and erudition, [Moss] has uncovered troves of unpublished private correspondence, journals, notes, and memoranda that, taken together with a substantial body of published works, constitute an ongoing conversation in Yiddish, Polish, and Hebrew among some two dozen guiding figures who tried to predict where the increasingly treacherous currents might lead and what Jews might do in response.
Unsettling and important…The poignancy of this carefully researched and thoughtful volume lies not only in the story it recounts but in the way it surreptitiously causes the reader to reflect on the fragility of democracy and the rise of extrusionary nationalism in our day.
One of the most important studies of Polish Jewry to appear in years, An Unchosen People is a deeply original exploration of how Jewish political thought in interwar Poland grappled with rising antisemitism and a growing sense of Jewish vulnerability.
With stunning erudition and deep compassion for its subjects, An Unchosen People portrays an interwar Polish-Jewish community shaped and sustained by a sense of desperation in the face of a bleak future. Moss’s book bristles with insights about the relationship between global economic crisis, political extremism, and Jewish national identifications in the twentieth century.
A profound, eloquently narrated study germane not only to the debates over the 1930s ‘Jewish Question’ but also to our engagement today with racism and political alienation. Moss makes clear that Jews were becoming increasingly convinced their identity-politics ideologies were no match for the incipient ethnochauvinism and fascism already ensconced in the politics of Central Europe. This is a work that resonates quite beyond Jewish history in addressing the precariousness of liberal and progressive ideals in illiberal times.
A brilliant new account of Jewish political thought and activism in interwar Poland. Moss tells a troubling story of how a politically, socially, and religiously diverse Jewish community confronted questions about belonging and the possibilities for a future in Poland, Palestine, or elsewhere abroad. In the process he reframes the history of Zionism, diasporism, and interwar Polish-Jewish life itself. This is essential reading for anyone interested in Jewish history, East European history, and the history of minorities in Europe and beyond.
A landmark publication that brilliantly reinterprets the arc of Eastern European Jewish history. Well before the Holocaust, Moss demonstrates, Polish fascism and antisemitism had bankrupted every extant Jewish political ideology—from Communism to Zionism to liberalism to religious Orthodoxy—leaving Polish Jews a futureless people as they entered the fateful era of war and genocide. Never have we had such a fine-grained historical analysis of the Polish-Jewish predicament framed against the backdrop of the crisis of Western modernity. The result is a revelatory book.
An Unchosen People deftly illuminates the struggle of Polish Jews to come to terms with modernity in general and with the growing threat to their everyday existence in the crucial period of 1928–1935. Moss analyzes the complex arguments among Jews about how to meet the fearsome challenges of discrimination, racial antisemitism, and poverty that emerged with the Depression, the rise of Hitler, and the growing virulence of Polish nationalism. An essential read for any student of modern Polish-Jewish history.
This fascinating, masterfully written book is a breakthrough in our understanding of Jewish political thinking in interwar Poland. Moss shows both the devastating effects of ethnic nationalism and fascism on Polish Jews and the novel ways in which Jews reacted. An essential work for readers interested in Jewish politics in Eastern Europe and issues of emigration and transnationalism, as well as crucial background for Polish-Jewish relations before and during the Holocaust.
Moss has produced a grand history of Jewish political disillusionment—the equivalent of a photographic negative in which the polychromatic period of interwar Polish-Jewish history, full of cultural vitality, is transformed into a sepia-tinted frame marked by despair and fear for the future. In the spirit of Wilderson’s Afropessimism, Moss marshals his unparalleled skills as historian and thinker to capture an ominous and chilling moment of Judeopessimism.
- 2023, Winner of the National Jewish Book Awards
- 2023, Winner of the The Oskar Halecki Polish and East-Central European History Award
- 400 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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