Commentary Magazine


On Modern Jewish Politics, by Ezra Mendelsohn

The Art of the Possible

On Modern Jewish Politics.
by Ezra Mendelsohn.
Oxford. 184 pp. $39.95; $14.95 (paper).

Ezra Mendelsohn, who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, approaches the study of modern Jewish history with sober intelligence. Although his writing is always informed—one might say, haunted—by the knowledge that in the end nothing worked for the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, in his books and monographs Mendelsohn has clarified in nuanced detail the many initiatives and adaptive measures European Jews undertook on their own behalf prior to 1939, as well as the reasons for their failure. Now, in On Modern Jewish Politics, Mendelsohn moves from particular cases toward an overarching explanation of how modern Jews functioned politically in the period between the two world wars, not only in Europe but also in the United States.

The task of explanation is complicated, Mendelsohn shows, by the inutility of the usual terms of political typology: Right vs. Left, secular vs. religious, nationalist vs. socialist, and so forth (not that such divisions did not exist in the Jewish community). Take the example of the Bund, an avowedly Marxist organization founded in 1897. Expelled by Lenin from the Communist International because of its insistence on such “chauvinistic” principles as the championship of Yiddish and Jewish national self-defense, the Bund enjoyed its only major success in the late 1930’s, becoming the strongest Jewish political party in Poland by leading the struggle against anti-Semitism in that country.

How did that happen? According to Mendelsohn, although Zionism had dominated Jewish politics in Poland in the 1920’s, it began to lose its appeal after large-scale relocation to Palestine proved impractical. Among the organizations that might have profited from Zionism’s failures, the religious bloc was tainted by its former association with the Polish regime and insufficiently activist to match the urgency of the times, while others who championed political cooperation with Poles were obviously discredited out-of-hand by the growing anti-Jewish violence.

This left the Bund best placed to fill the resulting power vacuum. But if the political strength of the Bund came about through its defense of Jewish nationalism, what sense does it make to classify the Bund simply as a party of the Left?

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Rather than fitting the roiling actuality of Jewish politics into preexisting categories, Mendelsohn proposes a set of questions to locate political movements in terms of how they treated the crucial issues: where in Jewish history did they find their inspiration?; what political allies did they seek in the non-Jewish world?; what tactics did they favor?; to what degree were they optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Jews in the Diaspora?

He finds that responses fall into three main categories. These he names integrationist—the desire to become part of the majority society without being swallowed up by it; nationalist—the idea of the Jews as primarily a nation, without prejudice to their position as a religious group; and Orthodox—faithfulness to the religiously prescribed Jewish way of life. Once the platforms of vying camps are described in these terms, it becomes easier to tease out the internal logic of Jewish politics across geographic boundaries, and to recognize the relative success of one or another set of coordinates under any given circumstance.

Mendelsohn’s comparison of Poland and the United States in the interwar period reveals a study in opposites. Jewish immigrants to America, wishing to take full advantage of the opportunity their new polity provided, quickly gravitated to the integrationist mode, joining the mainstream parties. Jewish socialism, meanwhile, doubly marginalized through its use of the Yiddish language and its emphasis on class conflict, lost appeal. By contrast, American Zionism grew stronger during this period, gradually breaking down the resistance of both the anti-Zionist Reform movement and integrationists like Louis Marshall. The reason was not simply that Jewish suffering in Europe spoke to the Jewish conscience, but that American Zionism, unlike the East European variety, demanded neither Jewish settlement in Palestine nor the “nationalization” of American Jewry.

In Poland, by contrast, growing right-wing extremism and the anti-Semitic cast of Polish nationalism left the Jews little choice but to organize their counterpolitics as Jewish nationalists. Furthermore, while Jewish politics in America followed the local trend of drifting toward the Center, Jewish politics in Poland was dramatically divided, mirroring the sharp divisions in Polish politics at large.

Repeatedly throughout this book Mendelsohn emphasizes the witticism of Heinrich Heine: “As the Gentiles go, so go the Jews.” This is another way of saying that, like politics in general, Jewish politics, too, is best understood as the art of the possible. Being a dependent minority, Jews invariably adapted their politics to local conditions, and everywhere those parties fared best that answered the perceived dangers and opportunities of the moment.

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The value of such an approach goes far beyond the insight it offers into past history. Turning to the contemporary scene, and following Mendelsohn’s thesis that Jewish politics will always adapt to its surroundings, one is tempted to predict an ever-widening gap between Jewish priorities in Israel and those in Diaspora communities. Israel’s development as a nation-state among anti-liberal and still powerfully autocratic countries has already generated a very different set of political priorities from those, say, of American Jews, whose integrationism seems to be resulting in a progressive loss of national consciousness. Russia, on the other hand, falling back into the nationalist politics of prerevolutionary times, may soon regenerate a self-conscious Jewish minority seeking not only increased cultural identification and modes of religious worship but political parties, too, as in bygone days.

Mendelsohn himself, it is interesting to note, does not see things quite this way. In fact, he ends his book with an appreciation of the “much simpler” state of today’s Jewish politics, brought about, as he views it, by the triumph of Zionism:

The cosmopolitan, culturally and religiously divided Jewish people is united today in support of the Hebrew-speaking Jewish nation-state where an ever-growing number of Jews actually lives, and where many more visit in order to gain inspiration. Who would have believed this possible in 1918?

The relief expressed here is so genuine and hard-won that one is loath to counter its cheerfulness. But the relief comes at the expense of a missing part of the analysis, which has to do with the one area—the dynamics of anti-Semitism—in which Jewish politics does not, and cannot, go “as the Gentiles go.”

As an ideology, anti-Semitism asks of its adherents not only “what are you for?” but the much more potent political question, “whom are you against?” In its extreme form, it not only fixates on the Jews as the explanation for all that is politically amiss, but demands their elimination. How—by what political means adapted from Gentile models—are Jews to counter that?

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Unlike Christians and Muslims, Jews have never defined themselves or their historical mission in opposition to any particular people; even the ancient idea of Jewish chosenness resulted in a culture of such punishing self-discipline that it discouraged many (including many Jews) from wanting to join forces with the “chosen people.” Whether or not one wishes to take the idea of Jewish “uniqueness,” or particularism, into account in any analysis of Jewish politics, one cannot ignore the political ideology that has singled them out for aggression.

Of course, Mendelsohn hardly overlooks the effects of anti-Semitism on the Jews of Europe, but he does not factor those effects into his analysis of how Jewish politics works, and specifically the way in which they distort and severely limit Jewish options. The omission affects his reading of the contemporary scene in both America and Israel. For example, his brief and enlightening historical comparison of the politics of American Jews and blacks does not explain how it is that the latter, like so many abused and disaffected minorities before them, have been able to develop a politics of blaming the Jews that provides a relatively safe (and politically useful) outlet for aggression, and how this development then complicates the normal expression of Jewish political interests.

In the same way, Mendelsohn’s reading of Israel’s options does not take into account the pressure of extended siege by encircling Arab peoples who define their nationalism and organize their unity around opposition to the Jews. The uncommon triumph of Jewish politics in having established the state of Israel does not yet mean that Zionism has succeeded in achieving the second part of its project—the establishment of unexceptional relations between Jews and their neighbors.

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Ezra Mendelsohn’s dissection of modern Jewish politics is immensely informative and clear, and it is enriched with abundant supportive examples from the spheres of literature, art, and music. Although political history is one of the most developed areas in the study of other European peoples, only lately has Jewish political behavior begun to be analyzed in analogous terms, and in this field Mendelsohn is one of a small number of pioneering scholars. One might only wish that, having done so much to explain the “normal” workings of Jewish politics, he had enlarged his focus to discuss the ways in which it remains, perforce and unfortunately, unique.

About the Author

Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author most recently of Jews and Power (Nextbook/Schocken).




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