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Bloch, Yosef Shemu’el

(1850–1923), rabbi and political leader. Born in Dukla, east Galicia, the son of a poor baker, Yosef Shemu’el Bloch studied independently and in yeshivas throughout east Galicia but then pursued a secular education in Central Europe, eventually earning his doctorate at the University of Munich. After serving as a rabbi in several small communities, Bloch accepted a post in Floridsdorf, a working-class suburb of Vienna.

Bloch first earned widespread recognition for his successful refutation of the antisemitic pseudo-Talmudist August Rohling, whose book Der Talmudjude became one of the most notorious and reprinted antisemitic tracts of the century. In 1883, after Rohling testified under oath that Jews practiced ritual murder, Bloch accused him of incompetence and fraud. In turn, Rohling sued Bloch for libel but ultimately dropped the charges. Bloch also earned popularity for his efforts on behalf of Jewish girls in Galicia who allegedly were kidnapped by the Catholic church.

In 1883, Bloch won a special parliamentary election to replace Simon Schreiber, the deceased president of the traditional Orthodox party Makhzikey ha-Das, in the heavily Jewish Buczacz-Kołomyja-Śniatyn district. Bloch defeated Emil Byk (1845–1906) for the first of three times, despite the latter’s financial resources and support from powerful figures in the Jewish community (Byk, president of the Shomer Yisra’el association, became a leading advocate of Jewish Polonization in Galicia as well as one of the most important opponents of the Jewish nationalist movement). In parliament, Bloch joined the dominant Polish faction known as the Polish Club, as he had pledged, but unlike his predecessor he persistently used this platform to defend Jews from antisemitic attacks.

In each of his reelection bids, Bloch campaigned as a populist candidate—for example, he was one of the first to deliver speeches in Yiddish—opposed by a corrupt establishment. Although he officially severed his ties to the nascent Zionist movement in 1886, Jewish nationalists in Galicia continued to rally behind him during his reelection bids in 1885 and especially in 1891, when nationalists launched three of the province’s first Yiddish newspapers, which served as platforms for his campaign. Pressured by the Polish Club to resign in 1895, Bloch unsuccessfully sought reelection that year as well as in 1897 (against Byk, who finally defeated him in a landslide) and in 1907, when he ran as an independent “national-Jewish and democratic” candidate in the urban Galician district of Żólkiew.

Bloch is most remembered for his outspoken defense of an Austrian civic identity, which recognized Jews as constituting an ethnic group, or Stamm, while denying that Jews constituted a modern nation. After briefly flirting with Jewish nationalism, he came to support a multilayered identity that combined ethnic and religious pride with Austrian patriotism, arguing that Jews ought to become Austrians sans phrase (that is, “unhyphenated”). In addition to his parliamentary activities, in 1884 Bloch launched the Österreichische Wochenschrift, a strongly pro-Habsburg paper that he published and edited until 1920. In 1886, he also cofounded the Austrian-Israelite Union, a civic organization charged with the mission of fighting antisemitism and defending the civil rights of Jews.

During and after World War I, Bloch worked on behalf of the masses of Galician Jewish refugees who fled to the Austrian capital. His memoirs, first published in 1922 in German, were translated and published in English in 1923, the year of his death.

Suggested Reading

Ian Reifowitz, Imagining an Austrian Nation: Joseph Samuel Bloch and the Search for a Multiethnic Austrian Identity, 1846–1919 (New York, 2003); Joshua Shanes, “National Regeneration in the Diaspora: Zionism, Politics and Jewish Identity in Late Habsburg Galicia 1883–1907” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2002); Robert Wistrich, The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph (Oxford and New York, 1989).