Jewish Studies Simon Dubnov
Simon Rabinovitch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0099


Simon Dubnov (also written Shimon, Shimen, and Semyon, Dubnow and Doubnov) was a journalist, historian, political figure, and public intellectual of wide influence among Jews in the 20th century. Dubnov was born to a traditionally religious family in Mstislavl, in the Russian Empire, but he stopped observing Jewish law as a teenager and sought, unsuccessfully, to gain credentials to enter a Russian university. Instead, from 1880 until 1922 he worked as a journalist in the Russian-language Jewish press (and to a lesser extent the Hebrew and Yiddish press), living in St. Petersburg, Mstislavl, Vilna, and Odessa. During those years Dubnov published a historical look at Hasidism (first published serially in Voskhod), outlined his philosophy of Jewish history, and published books on Jewish history intended for a general audience, especially students. Dubnov was also important in the establishment of the Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society in St. Petersburg and its journal Evreiskaia starina. Dubnov’s transition from journalist to professional historian coincided with his evolution into a Jewish nationalist, as he published essays, primarily in Russian, advocating a form of Jewish nationalism consistent with the Jews’ history in the Diaspora. As such, Dubnov’s historical work and political work are so intertwined that in some cases there is no true distinction between the two. Dubnov believed that Jewish national preservation in the modern world was only possible by securing legal recognition of the Jews as a nationality, building a secular Jewish culture based on historical self-consciousness, and instituting secular communal self-government. Because he considered Central and Western European Jewry to be already lost to assimilation, Dubnov focused his efforts on Eastern European Jewry: the Russian Empire, and to a lesser extent the Austrian Empire. His writings on Jewish history emphasized the long history of Jewish self-government and autonomy in the Diaspora. His political writings—most famously those published between 1897 and 1907—on Jewish education, the Jewish press, Jewish politics, emigration, and Jewish nationalism focused on the necessity of a renewed commitment to Jewish autonomy in the Diaspora. Dubnov described his political philosophy as Jewish autonomism. Several key tenets of his political philosophy were adopted across the Jewish political spectrum, in the Russian and Austrian Empires, but also in Palestine before Israeli independence and to a lesser extent in the United States. Dubnov settled in Berlin in 1922 where he finished and published (first in German translation) his magnum opus, World History of the Jewish People, and lent his stature to the founding the YIVO Institute. Dubnov moved to Riga in 1933, and was murdered there with the rest of the Jewish population in 1941. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem and the archives of the YIVO Institute in New York both hold substantial collections of Dubnov’s personal papers and correspondence. A guide to YIVO’s collection of Dubnov materials (Record Group 87) is available online in the form of a digital finding aid.

General Overviews

A vast literature exists that assesses Dubnov’s life, theories, and influence on the development of both Jewish nationalism and Jewish historical self-consciousness. Several scholars have attempted an assessment of Dubnov’s oeuvre and influence in a short essay. Jonathan Frankel’s and Renée Poznanski’s are the most insightful. In his brief introduction to a biography by Dubnov’s daughter, Sophie Dubnov-Ehrlich, Frankel 1991 focuses on the evolution of Dubnov’s way of thinking about history and politics from the 1880s until the 1920s. Renée Poznanski’s introduction to her French translation of Dubnov’s “Letters,” Poznanski 1989, takes a similar approach but also considers Dubnov’s relation to other ideologists and ideologies, as well as the significance of Dubnov’s autonomism and Diaspora nationalism in recent years. Pinson 1970, an introduction to an English edition of Dubnov’s “Letters,” looks at several issues of central importance to Dubnov and his contemporaries such as Diaspora, autonomy, language, America, and Palestine. Yudl Mark, a Yiddish linguist who had been a follower of Dubnov and an activist in his political party, also takes a thematic approach in his short book on Dubnov with chapters on Dubnov’s life and on how Dubnov approached such questions as Yiddish, spiritual nationalism, and autonomism. Groberg 1993 looks to how Dubnov’s oeuvre has been treated by other historians and at the same time provides a helpful assessment of the historiography dealing with Dubnov. Haruv 2010 has compiled an extensive bibliography of secondary literature dealing with Dubnov’s life and thought. Finally, Shapiro 1975 provides a succinct and helpful summary of Dubnov’s entire life in less than eight pages.

  • Frankel, Jonathan. “S. M. Dubnov: Historian and Ideologist.” In The Life and Work of S. M. Dubnov: Diaspora Nationalism and Jewish History. By Sophie Dubnov-Erlich; translated by Judith Vowles; edited by Jeffrey Shandler, 1–33. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

    A succinct introduction to Dubnov’s life, influence, and way of thinking.

  • Groberg, Kristi A. “The Life and Influence of Simon Dubnov (1860–1941): An Appreciation.” Modern Judaism 13 (1993): 71–93.

    DOI: 10.1093/mj/13.1.71

    A “bio-bibliographical” essay assessing the historiography on Dubnov (until 1993), and in particular, Dubnov’s influence on other historians. Excellent source for bibliographical references for articles on all stages of Dubnov’s life.

  • Haruv, Dan. “Shimon Dubnov: Reshima bibliografit mo’eret.” In Safra ve-saifa: Shimon Dubnov, historyon ve-ish tsibur. Edited by Avraham Greenbaum, Yisrael Bartal, and Dan Haruv, 213–262. Jerusalem: Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 2010.

    An excellent bibliography (annotations in Hebrew) listing nearly 250 works about Dubnov. Particularly useful are the forty-five well-annotated entries listing where Dubnov is mentioned in memoir literature of family, peers, and figures of scholarly or political stature.

  • Mark, Yudl. Shimen Dubnov. New York: Workmen’s Circle/Futuro, 1962.

    A collection of short essays (in Yiddish) examining different aspects of Dubnov’s intellectual biography, as a historian and political figure.

  • Pinson, Koppel S. “Simon Dubnow: Historian and Political Philosopher.” In Nationalism and History: Essays on Old and New Judaism. Edited by Koppel S. Pinson, 3–65. New York: Atheneum, 1970.

    An overview of Dubnov’s life and major literary contributions.

  • Poznanski, Renée. “S. Doubnov, l’homme et son époque.” Lettres sur le judaïsme ancien et nouveau. Translated and edited by Renée Poznanski, 11–70. Paris: Cerf, 1989.

    Poznanski’s substantial introduction to her annotated French translation of Dubnov’s “Letters.”

  • Shapiro, Leon. “Simon Dubnow: A Biographical Essay” and “Introduction.” In History of the Jews in Russia and Poland: From the Earliest Times until the Present Day. Vol. 1. Edited by Simon Dubnow, ix–xxvi. New York: Ktav, 1975.

    Serving as the introduction to a reprinting of Dubnov’s History of the Jews in Russia and Poland (translated by Israel Friedlaender), the biographical essay draws mainly from Dubnov’s memoirs and his daughter’s biography.

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