An Uncho­sen Peo­ple: Jew­ish Polit­i­cal Reck­on­ing in Inter­war Poland

January 3, 2022

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.

Discussion Questions

This is a work of pas­sion­ate­ly engaged schol­ar­ship that delves into the polit­i­cal think­ing of Pol­ish Jews before World War II. Using diaries, nov­els, auto­bi­ogra­phies, let­ters, essays, soci­o­log­i­cal stud­ies, and oth­er sources, Moss uncov­ers the pro­found hope­less­ness of Pol­ish Jews, includ­ing non-Zion­ist ones, regard­ing their future in the face of ris­ing anti­semitism. Moss dis­cov­ers an intense yearn­ing to emi­grate in a world where there was usu­al­ly no place to go, along with an intense inter­est in Pales­tine, not out of Zion­ism but out of sober analy­sis of their present and despair over their future in Poland. This is a haunt­ing book that rais­es ques­tions about the lim­its of Jew­ish ide­olo­gies in the face of fierce hos­til­i­ty in the state and soci­ety, and the inabil­i­ty of Jew­ish polit­i­cal move­ments to engage in effec­tive col­lec­tive action. Writ­ten in a com­pelling and riv­et­ing style, this is a book that will pro­voke dis­cus­sion and soul-search­ing among read­ers of all types.