Leaders of the Bar Kochba Association, Prague, 1910. (Central Zionist Archive)

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Bar Kochba Association

A student organization that played a decisive role in shaping the Zionist movement in the Czech lands before World War I. The history of the group can be traced to 1893, when the Maccabi Association was founded at the German university in Prague.

Interestingly, neither Czech- nor German-speaking Jewish students played crucial roles in the Maccabi Association; rather, the leadership came from Russian students reacting to the antisemitic behavior of German nationalistic students attending the university. The Russian leaders of the association were not able to enlist many students from Bohemia, so in 1896 the organization changed its name and revised its statutes. The new Verein der jüdischen Hochschüler in Prag (Association of Jewish Academics in Prague) backed away from its original Zionist program and directed attention to “the ethical and material interests of Jewish students.” In 1899, its leaders again decided to rename the organization, to Bar Kochba, though it continued to bear the German and Czech subtitle “Verein der jüdischen Hochschüler in Prag / Spolek židovských akademiků v Praze.” The orientation of the association was now openly Zionist.

No longer displaying their earlier indifference, Czech-speaking Jews played a crucial role in Bar Kochba. Though some of them, including Alfréd Löwy, Arthur Klein, Josef Kohn, and Ludvík Singer, had been members of the integrationist Czech Jewish movement, they switched to Zionism in response to the antisemitic mood of the late 1890s, a period that witnessed the ritual-murder accusation against Leopold Hilsner in 1899. Löwy, who had been a member of Spolek Českých Akademiků-židů (Association of Czech Academic Jews) took on the first chairmanship of Bar Kochba.

Czech-speaking students dominated Bar Kochba until 1903, when a group of primarily German-speaking students took control. Influential members who shaped the association and turned it into an internationally renowned organization included Hugo Bergmann and his brother Arthur; Robert Weltsch and his cousin Felix; Hugo Herrmann and his cousin Leo; Siegmund Kaznelson; Oskar Epstein; Hans Kohn; Viktor Freud; and Viktor Kellner. Hugo Bergmann served as chairman in 1903; under his control, Bar Kochba offered a range of courses, including the study of Hebrew and Yiddish, as well as Jewish history and literature. Since most members of Bar Kochba had attended German or Czech schools, the goal of the classes was to address a lack of knowledge about Judaism. Not all adherents accepted this new intellectual approach to Zionism. In 1904, a group led by Robert Neubauer, Jakob Fränkel, Julius Löwy, and Ernst Gütig founded the Barissia Association, which embraced, instead, the political Zionism of Theodor Herzl.

The philosophy of Bar Kochba consciously supported and developed the ideas of cultural Zionism as originally formulated by Ahad Ha-Am and Martin Buber. The latter came to Prague in 1909–1910 to give three lectures, which had an enormous impact on the Prague Zionists and were published as “Drei Reden über das Judentum” (Three Speeches on Judaism). This cultural and spiritual orientation was also apparent in the collection Vom Judentum (About Judaism), published by the association in 1913. Contributors to Vom Judentum emphasized the need for Western Jews to search for the spiritual sources of their Judaism in an age characterized by profound acculturation. They offered examples of East European Jews as authentic models for Jews to maintain religious lifestyles, social contacts, and rootedness in Jewish folklore and culture.

Members of Bar Kochba had an enormous influence on the character of Zionism in the Czech lands. Beginning in 1910, they edited the only Zionist weekly in the Czech lands, Selbstwehr, which had been founded in 1907 by members of the Barissia Association. They also supported and initiated various Zionist projects and new associations, including the Mädchenklub, an association of Zionist women; Haschachar, an association of Zionist students from secondary schools; the Maccabi Sporting Club in Bohemia; and the Jüdischer Gesang- und Musikverein in Prag, a musical society. Together with B’nai B’rith, they organized “the Toynbeehalle in Prag,” a project of cultural events as well as refreshments for homeless and needy people.

In 1905, members of Bar Kochba who had completed their studies founded the Verband Alter Herren des Vereines Bar Kochba in Prag (Union of Seniors of the Bar Kochba Association in Prague). In addition, the growing number of Bar Kochba members influenced the formation of the Theodor Herzl Association of Czech-Speaking Jews, an independent association of Zionist academics that was established in 1909. Czech and German associations cooperated closely.

World War I marked a turning point in the history of Bar Kochba. The war years saw a transition from intellectual theory to practical implementation of Zionist politics. Though the importance of Bar Kochba then faded in the interwar period—with the leadership of Theodor Herzl eventually replacing it at the forefront of Zionist academia—former members of Bar Kochba occupied decisive positions in many organizations, including the Czechoslovak Zionist Territorial Federation (Josef Rufeisen, Franz Kahn), Židovská Strana (Jewish Party; with leaders such as Max Brod, Angelo Goldstein, and Emil Margulies), and the Jewish press (Felix Weltsch, Friedrich Thieberger).

Several former members of Bar Kochba also led Zionist movements in Germany, England, and Palestine. Hugo Bergmann headed the Hebrew University’s library in Jerusalem and later became its first rector. Leo Herrmann was the general secretary of the World Office of the Jewish National Fund; Robert Weltsch served as editor in chief of the Jüdische Rundschau in Berlin from 1918 to 1938; and Siegmund Kaznelson was head of the Jüdischer Verlag in Berlin. Hugo Bergmann, Robert Weltsch, and Hans Kohn also cofounded the Brit Shalom Association for Jewish–Arab Dialogue in Jerusalem in 1925. In contrast to the Theodor Herzl Association of Czech-Speaking Jews, whose membership steadily increased until World War II, Bar Kochba officially ceased its activities in January 1937, due to lack of members.

Suggested Reading

Kateřina Čapková, “Specific Features of Zionism in the Czech Lands in the Interwar Period,” Judaica Bohemiae 38 (2002): 106–159; Hillel Kieval, The Making of Czech Jewry: National Conflict and Jewish Society in Bohemia, 1870–1918 (New York and Oxford, 1988); Scott Spector, Prague Territories: National Conflict and Cultural Innovation in Franz Kafka’s Fin de Siècle (Berkeley, 2000).