Jews and Communism: in the 1980's, this is a pairing with diminishing resonance, yet one that does continue to quicken…
Jews and Communism: in the 1980’s, this is a pairing with diminishing resonance, yet one that does continue to quicken images, however disparate, in the collective memory. Two decades ago, New Leftists in search of exemplars set about reviving the reputations of some who had embraced the revolutionary Communist ideal before it became saddled with the odium of post-revolutionary Communist reality. In doing so they turned primarily to intellectuals who had participated in the great wave of revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe in the years from 1917 to 1919—not a few of them Jews.
Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, and even more exotic revolutionaries such as the Hungarian Leninist aesthetician Georg Lukács were accorded a place of honor in the pantheon of the New Left. The involvement of some American Jews with the Communist party was reinterpreted, in the idiom of the 60’s, as “a powerful human experience.” “It was the party,” Vivian Gornick wrote in The Romance of American Communism, “that brought to astonishing life the kind of comradeship that makes swell in men and women the deepest sense of their own humanness, allowing them to love themselves through the act of loving each other.”
Few American Jews today would subscribe to so benign a view of the Communist movement. The handful who give much thought to the issue are more likely to regard the involvement of Jews with American Communism as a minor detour from the highway of integration into American democracy: a dead end perhaps, but in any case not an avenue of great consequence in the history of the United States or of American Jewry. And indeed it was not, for the party never came to power in the United States, not in a single state, not even in a single city. The image of the Jew in the mind of America was never that of a “Judeo-Bolshevik,” even during the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, when the Communist movement tried to play upon Jewish fears by portraying anti-Communism as a form of anti-Semitism. In the collective memory of American Jewry, the entanglement of Jews and Communism merits hardly a footnote.
In Eastern and Central Europe, by contrast, the link between Jews and Communism loomed large for much of the 20th century. There Jewish experience was played out against a background of deeply ingrained anti-Semitic sentiment. In the Russian empire and in Rumania, that sentiment was expressed on the official level by the denial of citizenship rights, by restrictions on residency, and by limited access to educational institutions, and on the popular level by pogroms. In the relatively more liberal empires of Germany and Austria-Hungary, anti-Semitism was more subtle and less onerous. But in both Eastern and Central Europe the nature of anti-Semitism—its intensity, focus, and vigor—was soon to be influenced and sometimes transformed by Jewish revolutionaries, whose actions would be interpreted through a filter of existing anti-Semitic prejudice and taken as representative of Jewry as a whole.
The myth of the Jew as Bolshevik emerged from the wave of revolutions at the close of World War I. The notion became central to the Nazi program of ideological anti-Semitism, and helped inspire the collaboration of non-Germans throughout Eastern Europe in that program’s murderous execution during World War II. After the war, the dialectic of anti-Semitism and Jewish involvement in Communism continued to influence the history of Eastern Europe, as the conspicuous role played by men and women of Jewish origin in the Sovietization of Eastern Europe once again transformed anti-Semitism, this time into an adjunct of popular opposition to Stalinism. And then, in a final twist, the Soviets and the Communists of Eastern Europe endeavored to use this new anti-Semitism for their own ends.
The pernicious interaction of right-wing anti-Semitism and Jewish support for revolutionary Communism has not gone unnoticed, but few have appreciated its significance for the history of modern Europe. My purpose here is to sketch the contours of the tale, focusing not, as most scholars have done, on questions of motivation, but on consequences, intended and unintended.
Any such exploration faces the dilemma of defining who is to be considered a Jew. Is the historian to include those (such as Karl Marx, converted by his apostate parents to Lutheranism at the age of four) who deliberately and explicitly dissociated themselves from Judaism and Jewry? To regard such people as Jewish might appear to accept the racist categories imposed upon Jews by their enemies. Were one to accept solely the definitions of anti-Semites, one might end up counting even those with no historical link to Jewry, such as Joseph Stalin, whose real surname of Dzhugashvili, according to an expatriate Ukrainian anti-Semite, is Georgian for “son of a Jew.” In considering the historical relationship of Jews, Communism, and anti-Semitism, it would seem most useful to regard as Jews those who were so regarded by others and who were actually of Jewish origin.
An article in the London Illustrated Sunday Herald from February 1920, entitled “Zionism versus Bolshevism—A Struggle for the Soul of the Jewish People,” describes Bolshevism as “the schemes of International Jews. . . . Now at last this band of extraordinary personalities from the underworld of the great cities of Europe and America have gripped the Russian people by the hair of their heads, and have become practically the undisputed masters of that enormous empire.”
The author of this article, Winston Churchill, was expressing a view shared by many opponents of Bolshevism in Russia and abroad, to whom the prominence of men of Jewish origin in the Bolshevik leadership was unmistakable. Leon Trotsky, commissar for foreign affairs in Lenin’s first cabinet, had organized the coup within the Petrograd Soviet in 1917 which set off the October Revolution and overthrew the liberal government of Alexander Kerensky. Other prominent Bolsheviks of Jewish origin included the president of the Supreme Soviet, Yakov Sverdlov; the deputy chairman of the Council of Peoples’ Commissars and chairman of the Moscow Soviet, Lev Kamenev (born Rosenfeld); the president of the Petrograd Soviet and leader of the Communist International, Grigori Zinoviev (born Radomyslski); the head of the Petrograd Cheka (secret police), Moisei Uritsky; and Karl Radek (born Sobelsohn), who was a leading figure in the Russian and German Communist parties.
With so many Bolsheviks of Jewish origin in positions of leadership, it was easy to consider Bolshevism a “Jewish” phenomenon. And if Winston Churchill, who was personally remote from anti-Semitism, could regard Bolshevism as a disease of the Jewish body politic, those who had long conceived of Jews as the enemies of Christian civilization quickly concluded that Bolshevism was little more than a transmutation of the essence of the Jewish soul.
By almost any logic, however, the identification of Bolshevism with the Jews was mistaken. To be sure, most Russian Jews welcomed the fall of the czarist regime, which had abetted anti-Semitism, confined most Jews to the “Pale of Settlement,” and radically restricted their access to higher education. Within living memory, the czarist government had expelled the Jews from Moscow (1891); tolerated and even encouraged pogroms against hundreds of Jewish settlements in the wake of the revolutions of 1905; tried and convicted Mendel Beilis in 1911 on the charge of murdering a Gentile boy to use his blood for Jewish ritual purposes; and, after blaming the defeats of the Russian army in 1914 on the Jews, deported hundreds of thousands of them to inner Russia.
But after the revolution of February 1917, Jewish legal disabilities were ended by the Kerensky government. Moreover, governmental anti-Semitism, despite its severity, had not driven most Jews to the radical Left. In czarist Russia, most politically active Jews were not socialists. In the first Russian Duma of 1906, there were twelve Jews, nine of whom were associated with the liberal Constitutional Democrats. Of those who were socialists, most identified with the Yiddishist Bund, a smaller number with the Zionist Poalei Zion, a smaller number yet with the Mensheviks, and the tiniest minority with the Bolsheviks.
The reason most Russian Jews did not support Bolshevism in 1917 was that its atheism contradicted Jewish religious belief, and its economic policy threatened the many Jewish merchants, traders, and shopkeepers. In 1918 the rabbis of Odessa anathematized the Jewish Bolsheviks. The chief rabbi of Moscow told Trotsky (born Bronstein), “The Trotskys make the revolutions, and the Bronsteins pay the bills.” This was a theme voiced time and again as the official Jewish community beheld with apprehension the prominence of Jews in the revolutionary wave.
Only once the civil war was under way did Jews begin to swing toward the Bolsheviks, and then not out of intrinsic attraction to the Reds but rather out of an instinct of self-preservation against the massive pogroms which accompanied the fighting. In 1919, the Red Army, with Trotsky at its head, moved into the Ukraine; the Ukrainian nationalist commander Hryhoriiv, in his appeal for help against the Bolsheviks, claimed that “the people who crucified Christ rule the Ukraine,” while other partisan bands adopted the slogan “Death to Jews! For the Orthodox faith!”
In fact, in the confused circumstances in Byelorussia and the Ukraine, murderous attacks on Jews were a matter less of high policy than of popular peasant sentiment. The directory of the Ukrainian National Republic and the White leader Denikin tried in vain to control local commanders for whom the breakdown of order afforded an opportunity to plunder and murder. As the battle turned, some of these commanders switched sides, and continued their pogroms under Bolshevik auspices. Some 70,000 Jews were murdered in the Ukraine, and another 50,000 by the Whites of Denikin’s Russian Volunteer Army. The effect was to drive Jews into the arms of the Reds; they had concluded that for better or worse, their very lives now depended on the defeat of the counterrevolution.
In the years following, the pattern of Jewish engagement with Bolshevism became dangerously skewed. Jews were somewhat overrepresented in the Bolshevik party, as were other ethnic groups which had suffered from discrimination. But since Jews were more highly urbanized and more highly educated than the other groups, they were more likely to be activists, and once within the party were more likely to rise. From 1917 to 1922, between one-sixth and one-fifth of the delegates to the Bolshevik party congresses were of Jewish origin. In the 1920’s Jews comprised about 5 percent of the membership of the Communist party of the USSR, or about twice their proportion in the population.
Since most of the prerevolutionary civil service and intelligentsia refused to collaborate with the Bolsheviks or remained suspect in Bolshevik eyes, educated Jews moved into important and especially sensitive positions in the bureaucracy and administration of the new regime. As a result, for many Russians, their first encounter with the new regime was likely to be with a commissar, tax officer, or secret-police official of Jewish origin. To these people, the sociology of the Communist movement was a matter of little interest. Their anti-Semitism confirmed, they now conflated the Jew-as-commissar with their age-old image of the Jew-as-deicide.
In Central Europe, and especially in Germany, the story differed somewhat. By 1918, most German Jews had already moved into the middle and even upper classes, and so there was no goad of poverty driving them toward socialism. On the contrary, in their voting and in their political activism, German Jews, largely reflecting their social and economic status as members of the middle class, identified as far to the Right as the political spectrum allowed. That, however, was not very far. As in most of Europe, the doors to the political Right were slammed in Jewish faces by parties which regarded Christianity as integral to national identity. (In Italy, where the Right was least prone to anti-Semitism, bourgeois Jews joined the Fascist party and some rose to positions of prominence.)
And so most German Jews voted for the liberals in the decades before World War I. On the other hand, most German Jewish political activists were to be found in the ranks of the socialists. Some of them were led to the socialist camp by their quest for greater political and social equality. For while German Jews had already been guaranteed their civil and political rights, as they moved up the social and educational ladder they often found their path to governmental posts blocked and their opportunities for academic advance limited not by law but by prejudice. But other Jews were drawn to a more apocalyptic conception of socialist revolution.
The high culture of the educated classes of Western and Central Europe in the decade before 1914 was marked by a disaffection from liberal, bourgeois “society” and a search for new sources of “community.” In time, this disaffection would lead many young intellectuals to the radical Right, to a new nationalism which promised a sense of collective purpose based on a purportedly shared past. For those Jewish intellectuals steeped in the anti-liberal ethos but by definition excluded from movements seeking a return to Germanic roots, the alternatives were a turn to Zionism (which only a few embraced before 1918) or toward a visionary socialism which promised to replace the supposedly atomizing civilization of liberal capitalism with a new culture of shared purpose that would unite all men regardless of origin.
With the collapse of the German monarchy in November 1918, Jews moved into positions of government responsibility and saliency for the first time. Like their non-Jewish counterparts, most Jewish socialists in Germany welcomed the breakthrough to full parliamentary democracy produced by the mass demonstrations of the working class at the close of the war. Real power was temporarily shared between a provisional government made up of parliamentary representatives of the socialist and liberal parties on the one hand and the councils of workers and soldiers on the other. The Left thus confronted a political choice. The Social Democrats favored parliamentary sovereignty, to be decided by democratic elections among the entire populace. To their Left were the Spartacists, who formed the new Communist party, devoted to the sovereignty of the councils (the German equivalent of the Soviets). Between them were the Independent Socialists, who vacillated on the question of parliamentary versus council control.
In the fateful months after 1918, the parliamentary democratic aspirations of the Social Democrats were challenged by a series of revolutions in Berlin and Munich. Ultimately the Social Democratic leaders chose to call upon elements of the old imperial army and the newly formed Free Corps to combat the threat from the radical Left. The decision was ominous, for young veterans of the counterrevolutionary corps later became the backbone of National Socialism. That the leaders of the suppressed revolutions were so often Jews was a crucial factor in the recrudescence of political anti-Semitism in Germany.
The involvement of Jews in the new Communist party of Germany displayed the same inverted pyramid pattern found elsewhere. Among the Jewish population as a whole, support for the Communists was insignificant. Jews were somewhat overrepresented, however, among party activists, comprising about 7 percent of the participants at the party’s founding convention. As for the eleven-person central committee, it included four Communists of Jewish origin: Rosa Luxemburg, Leo Jogiches, Paul Levi, and August Thalheimer, all of them university-educated.
Born in Poland and long active as a theorist and agitator in the Polish and German socialist movements, Rosa Luxemburg had spurned parliamentary democracy as a “petty-bourgeois illusion” and referred to the German Social Democrats as the “Schabbesgoyim” (Gentiles engaged to perform work not permitted to religious Jews on the Sabbath) of the German capitalists. The theorist of “revolutionary spontaneity,” Luxemburg had long spurred the German proletariat to revolutionary action. In her editorials for the party newspaper, The Red Flag, she wrote in December 1918, “In this, the ultimate class struggle of world history and for the sake of the highest goals of humanity, the slogan in regard to our enemies must be ‘Thumbs in their eyes, knees to their chest.’” So when the leadership of the Communists called for an armed rising in January 1919, Luxemburg felt duty-bound to support it, even though it enjoyed little popular backing. She was brutally murdered by soldiers of the Free Corps whom the Social Democratic government had called in to suppress the revolt.
In Bavaria, the apex of the revolutionary turmoil was occupied by a coterie of Jewish intellectuals almost totally lacking in political experience. The revolution in Bavaria was planned and headed by Kurt Eisner of the Independent Socialists, who on November 7, 1918 declared the end of the monarchy and the rise of a Bavarian republic. The Munich working classes were swept by a wave of revulsion against the monarchy, which had led the country into the war. It was this disgust with the old regime which allowed Eisner, a bearded, bohemian Jewish theater critic, to come to power in conservative, Catholic, rural, anti-Semitic Bavaria. When the Jewish citizens of Munich wrote begging Eisner to resign in favor of a non-Jew, he responded that the question of origins belonged to “an age that has now been overcome,” and remained at the helm.
Massive unemployment and food shortages soon became the order of the day in the new Bavarian Republic, which faced staggering problems of demobilization and the threat of government insolvency due to unrealistic new social-welfare policies. Eisner was a man of high ideals but poor judgment, whose rhetorical radicalism and tactical inconsistency managed to alienate almost all political factions. In January 1919 his party received 2.5 percent of the vote; while on his way to tender his resignation, he was assassinated by a young aristocrat.
After a confused transitional period, a new government, made up in good part of leftist intellectuals of Jewish origin, came to power in Munich on April 7, and declared a Soviet republic. The short-lived regime included the anarchist Gustav Landauer; the playwright Ernst Toller, who announced that the coming of socialism would mean “the liberation of man from all capitalist and spiritual oppression”; the radical orator Erich Mühsam, whose politics were characterized by a friend as the constant attempt to stand to the Left of himself; and Otto Neurath, a socialist theorist who became commissar for socialization. His plans for socialization of almost everything did not get beyond the stage of proclamations, but he was in office long enough to terrify the Bavarian middle and upper classes.
After a week, the first Bavarian Socialist Republic was replaced by a more radical group affiliated with the Communist International, which proclaimed the Second Bavarian Soviet Republic. It was headed by Eugen Leviné-Nissen, a Russian-born follower of Rosa Luxemburg who had been dispatched to Munich by the Communist party. The Social Democrats, the largest party in the elected Bavarian parliament, looked to Berlin for help in repressing the Communists. Troops were duly dispatched by the central government and joined by Free Corps from northern Bavaria. They marched into Munich in May, overturning the Bavarian Soviet Republic in a wave of terror.
Among those who lived through the trauma of the soviet republics was the recently demobilized Adolf Hitler. His anti-Semitism predated the trauma, but it was in its aftermath that he hit upon one of his most seductive themes: the “Jewish-Marxist world conspiracy.”
Most German Jews felt no enthusiasm for the events of November 1918, which they, like many of their fellow Germans, regarded as a national disaster. Moreover, Jewish newspapers in Munich and elsewhere warned that the prominence of revolutionary Jews would lead to increased anti-Semitism. In this, they were correct. When Kurt Eisner was murdered in February 1919, the Kreuzzeitung, the venerable organ of Prussian conservatism, opined that he “was among the most evil representatives of the Jews, who in recent months have played so marked a role in German history. In the most prominent way, he combined two characteristics of his race, its historical internationalism—for Eisner too is a foreigner by birth [sic]—and its racially based idle fancy, in contrast to German realism.” Here, then, was another element in the emerging dialectic of disaster: the new image of the Jew implanted in the mind of the German public was derived from the activities of those Jews who were most removed from Judaism or a concern with the fate of Jewry.
The anti-Semites of the German Right did not, of course, restrict their hatred to the Jewish advocates of a Soviet Germany. Their antipathy extended to social democrats and liberal democrats as well. But it was the chance to associate social democrats and liberals with Jewish Communists that made the image of the Jewish Communist revolutionary so useful to the German Right. A Nationalist party poster of 1919 listed, under the heading “Varieties of Cohens,” the Communist, social democratic, independent socialist, and democratic parties alongside portraits of leading Jewish politicians in each party.
If Jews were highly visible in the revolutions in Russia and Germany, in Hungary they seemed omnipresent.
Virtually forgotten today but widely resonant in its time was the Hungarian Soviet Republic. It began with the collapse of the liberal government in March 1919 and lasted for 133 days until, weakened by inner disintegration, it succumbed to foreign troops. Of the government’s 49 commissars, 31 were of Jewish origin.
Among the key members of the Hungarian Soviet Republic were Béla Kun, the foreign secretary and actual head of the regime; Tibor Szamuely, the deputy commissar for war, charged with suppressing the counterrevolution; and Otto Korvin (Klein), the chief of the secret police. Others included Georg Lukács, the aesthetic philosopher turned Bolshevik, and Mátyás Rákosi (Roth), who three decades later was to become dictator of Hungary. As chairman of the revolutionary governing council they elected Sándor Garbai, a Gentile. Rákosi later joked that Garbai was chosen for his post in order “to have someone who could sign the death sentences on Saturday.”
The prominence of Jews in the Hungarian Soviet Republic is all the more striking when one considers that the Jews of Hungary were richer than their co-religionists in Eastern Europe and remarkably successful in attaining positions of status. In the 19th century, Jews had been the major agents of capitalist development in a traditional, rural society comprised of aristocrats, gentry, and peasantry. In the latter part of the century, the children of these Jewish entrepreneurs often entered the universities and moved into professions. Though only 5 percent of the population, on the eve of World War I Jews made up almost half the doctors, lawyers, and journalists in Hungary.
Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, the Magyar upper classes welcomed Jewish assimilation into Hungarian culture, since this added weight to claims of Magyar hegemony in the ethnic balance within the Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Accomplished Jews intermarried with the nobility, were themselves ennobled, and attained positions of high prestige. On the eve of the war the government of Hungary included six or eight ministers of Jewish origin.
The term “of Jewish origin” is especially important in the case of Hungary. For peculiar historical reasons, access to the higher ranks of society and government was largely conditional upon conversion to Christianity. Thus the agnostic, secularized, educated children of the Jewish bourgeoisie were confronted with the bizarre fact that their entry into the rather liberal, even anticlerical Hungarian establishment required that they undergo the ritual of baptism. Some declined the offer as a hypocritical farce. Others decided that Budapest was worth a mass, only to find themselves confronted by an acute crisis of identity.
In either case, the secularized Jewish intelligentsia of Hungary was naturally attracted to the ideology of radical internationalist socialism, which promised a political community based on universalism rather than on religious or national particularism. The literature of prerevolutionary Hungarian radicalism is rife with attacks on Judaism and the Jews—attacks often penned by intellectuals of Jewish origin.
When they seized power in 1919 the revolutionaries acted in accordance with their principles. Statues of Hungarian kings and national heroes were torn down, the national anthem was banned, and the display of the national colors was made a punishable offense. Nor did the revolutionaries forget their antipathy to Jewish particularism: traditionalist Jews became the targets of their campaigns of terror.
Radical agitators were dispatched to the countryside, where they ridiculed the institution of the family and threatened to turn churches into movie theaters. More thoroughgoing than Lenin, the Hungarian revolutionaries socialized all estates over one hundred acres in size, rather than distributing land to the peasants. Nationalized too were business establishments with over ten employees, all apartments, all furniture “superfluous for everyday life,” gold, jewelry, coin and stamp collections. The principles of egalitarianism were strenuously applied. All wages were made uniform. All graves in Budapest were to be identical, and the sale of double plots forbidden. Much of the bourgeois press was first censored, then closed down.
The regime’s policies soon alienated most Hungarians. Uniform wages combined with a government guarantee of employment led to a radical decline of productivity. The regime attempted to set all prices, with little regard to production costs. Goods were soon scarce and prices on the black market were highly inflated. Peasants chose to withhold agricultural goods, rather than exchange them for currency with which they could buy little.
Antipathy soon enough focused on Jews. Young revolutionary intellectuals of Jewish origin had been sent to the countryside to administer the newly collectivized agricultural estates; their radicalism was exceeded only by their incompetence, reinforcing peasant anti-Semitism. The Jesuits, for their part, interpreted the revolution as Jewish and anti-Christian in essence, though the regime’s anti-religious campaign was in fact headed by a defrocked priest. Rumors abounded that the revolutionaries were everywhere desecrating the host. In Budapest as in the countryside, opposition to the regime, defense of the Church, and anti-Semitism went hand in hand.
The Kun regime fell in 1919, overwhelmed by political and economic difficulties and ultimately crushed by Rumanian troops acting with the encouragement of Hungarian opponents of the regime. When the Rumanians withdrew from Budapest, they turned over power to Admiral Horthy and the Magyar ruling class. After the Red terror—some 600 executions in 133 days in a country of eight million—came the White terror of the counterrevolution, aimed not only at officials and sympathizers of the fallen Red regime but at the Jewish community as such.
The Magyar ruling class, which before the war would not have tolerated such behavior, accepted the excesses as a necessary reaction to the terror which had preceded it. Though the situation of the Jews improved in the 1920’s under the rather liberal regime of Count Bethlen, the Hungarian ruling class came under ever greater pressure from the radical Right which had been forged in the counterrevolution and had made political anti-Semitism the core of its program.
Political anti-Semitism was itself a recent development on the European scene. Until the 19th century, European anti-Semitism had been predominantly religious in nature, grounded in the antipathy of the Christian churches to those who willingly spurned the ideas of the gospels. But with the development of industrial capitalism in the 19th century, the focus changed: it was now the Jew as capitalist who was attacked as the destroyer and despoiler of traditional society. For the new political anti-Semites, the Rothschilds and Bleichroeders were “rois de l’époque,” the kings of the age.
In Western and Central Europe, anti-Semitism of this stripe reached its height in the last decades of the 19th century, and seemed on the wane by 1914. But the conspicuous role of Jews in the revolutions of 1917-19 gave anti-Semitism a new impetus. Now the Jew as revolutionary took his place alongside the Jew as deicide and the Jew as capitalist; the image of Trotsky, Luxemburg, and Kun was superimposed upon those of Rothschild and Ahasverus, the wandering Jew of medieval Christian myth, rootless and eternally cursed for having spurned Christ.
Among the books which spread the image of the Jew as Communist revolutionary was Quand Israël est roi (“When Israel Is King”), an eyewitness account of the Hungarian Soviet Republic published in 1921 by Jean and Jérôme Tharaud. The authors, long identified with the French radical Right, were former winners of the Prix Goncourt and well known for a series of travel books merging reportage with poetic evocation. Their new book portrayed the Hungarian revolution as a Jewish conspiracy, with some non-Jews thrown in as figureheads. “After the dynasty of the Arpád, after St. Stephen and his sons, after the Anjous and the Hunyadis and the Hapsburgs, there was a King of Israel in Hungary today,” the brothers reported, and went on to describe in lurid and somewhat fanciful detail the terror of the “Lenin Boys” (the Red Guard) and the torture employed by the political-investigation department under Ottó Korvin. Interspersed with accounts of the confiscation of wealth by the revolutionaries and the replacement of Christian professors by young Jewish intellectuals were reflections such as this: “A New Jerusalem was growing up on the banks of the Danube. It emanated from Karl Marx’s Jewish brain, and was built by Jews upon a foundation of very ancient ideas.” The book sold 55,000 copies in France, went through scores of editions, and was translated into other languages, including English and German. (In 1933 the Tharauds would entitle their book on the new Nazi regime Quand Israël n’est plus roi—“When Israel Is No Longer King.”)
The image of Jew as Bolshevik became the center of the new mythos of the Right. In its most radical and racist form, this mythos was read backward into history, as in the title of a pamphlet published in 1923 by Hitler’s intellectual mentor, Dietrich Eckart, Bolshevism from Moses to Lenin: A Dialogue Between Adolf Hitler and Myself.
A clear-eyed analyst would have concluded that few Jews were, in fact, Communists, and that most Communists were not Jews. But Jewish Communists were viewed through a lens colored by previous anti-Semitic stereotypes. To conclude that the Jewish revolutionary and the Jewish capitalist were actually partners working both sides of the street on their road to the conquest of Christian civilization may have required a skewed vision, but this in fact was how the interwar Right viewed the Jewish question.
As for the depth, extent, and nature of anti-Semitism in the various European countries, that depended in large measure upon the social, political, and cultural roles of the Jews in general, and in particular upon the relative significance of the Jewish Communists. Where there had been no attempted revolutions, or where Jews played no conspicuous role in them, the myth of Judeo-Communism did not become predominant on the Right. This was the case in Western Europe, which was spared both the revolutionary wave and the threat of Soviet conquest. (Although Italy did experience revolutionary seizures of land and industrial property in 1920 and 1921, few of the leaders of the radical Left had been Jews. In Italy, where the nationalist Right had long been open to those of Jewish origin, Jews were more likely to be found among the supporters of the Fascists than among the revolutionaries of the Left.)
By contrast, the identification of Jews with Communism was especially potent in those areas which had encountered Jewish revolutionaries at first hand in the postwar era: in Germany, Hungary, Poland, the Ukraine, and later Lithuania.
We have already looked at the cases of Germany and Hungary. In Poland, the image of the Jew as Bolshevik was exacerbated by the fact that during the Soviet attack on the country in 1919, the Russians had set up a four-man Provisional Revolutionary Committee, two members of which were Jewish. In Rumania, the Communist party was headed by a rabbi’s daughter, Ana Pauker, and many posts in its upper echelons were filled by Jews. Finally, when Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, the Soviets, following a pattern which they were to repeat throughout Eastern Europe, looked to the small and disproportionately Jewish band of Lithuanian Communists to assist them in establishing Soviet hegemony.
In no nation of Eastern Europe did the Communist party have a broad popular base. (Czechoslovakia, where at its peak the party obtained 13 percent of the vote, was a partial exception.) This meant that even if a tiny proportion of Jews was attracted to Communism, the party would appear “Jewish.” From among the 3.3 million Jews in interwar Poland, the Communist party garnered 5,000 members, but since the party’s membership totaled only 20,000, this minuscule number of Jews made up a quarter of its membership. In Lithuania, one-third of the Communist party was made up of Jews in 1940—but there were only 2,000 Lithuanian Communists in all. Out of a Jewish population of 150,000, fewer than 700 were Communists, but in such cases it did not take very many Jewish Communists to make the party appear “Jewish” to outsiders.
To be sure, in much of Eastern Europe anti-Semitism long antedated the Bolshevik Revolution, and would have been a substantial factor in interwar politics even without the prominence of Jews in the Communist movement. In the new nations which emerged from the disintegration of the old Romanov and Hapsburg empires, Jews were suspect for having identified with German, Russian, or Hungarian culture, rather than that of the new nationalities. In Hungary, Poland, and Rumania, where Jews had long formed the bulk of the commercial and professional middle classes, their role was now challenged by the newly emerging middle classes, whose opportunities for advancing were limited by the relatively constricted economy of the region. For these new aspiring middle classes, it was economically rewarding to regard the Jews as “outsiders.” At the same time, Jews active in the commercialization of the rural economy were often resented by the peasantry, who blamed the Jews for their economic woes. The hatred of the Jew as Communist was thus just one more ingredient in the anti-Semitic stew, flavoring it to various degrees of intensity from nation to nation.
In Germany, where political anti-Semitism had been on the wane before 1914, the role of Jews in the postwar revolutions was the key element in the revival of anti-Semitism on the Right. With Hitler’s consolidation of his control over Germany, a coterie of ideologically radical anti-Semites stood at the head of the most powerful nation in Europe. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, this new anti-Semitism, fused with the pseudo-scientific ideology of racism, guided the actions of Hitler’s army and the SS. It soon developed into a campaign of extermination, a campaign in which the Germans were aided by indigenous accomplices throughout Eastern Europe.
The Nazis and their collaborators managed within a few years to murder six out of every seven Jews in Eastern and Central Europe. Yet in the years after Hitler’s defeat, Jews appeared once again on the stage of East European politics. With the conquest of much of Eastern and Central Europe by the Red Army in 1944 and 1945, the dialectic of disaster took a new turn.
At the close of the war there were some 700,000 Jews in Eastern Europe. Some had managed to hide, others to survive the concentration camps. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from the region of Poland occupied by the Germans in 1939 had fled to the Soviet zone, whence they were deported by the Russians deep into the Soviet Union. Later, they were joined by Jewish refugees from Eastern Poland, conquered by the Germans in 1941.
Those who survived the years in Siberia or the kolkhozes of Central Asia returned to Poland after the war. Their firsthand experience of Communism in the USSR made them among the most eager to leave Soviet-occupied Poland for Palestine or the West. For the rest of the Jews of Eastern and Central Europe, however, the march of the Red Army literally saved their lives, and many welcomed the Russians with open arms.
When they returned to their homes, the survivors often found them occupied by strangers. Their businesses, furniture, and even clothing had been claimed by others, who were appalled to witness the unanticipated return of these Jewish survivors, and engaged in threats and violence to keep them from reclaiming their property. This new confiscatory middle class had its own reasons for wanting to see the Jews vanish again, and played a role in the wave of pogroms that swept over Eastern Europe in 1945 and 1946, the best known of which took place in Kielce in July 1946 at a cost of 41 Jewish lives.
Yet these outbursts had another cause as well. Among the leading agents of Soviet control in Poland, Hungary, Rumania, and Czechoslovakia were a handful of veteran Communists who had spent years in the Soviet Union while their parties had been outlawed and their homelands suffered under German occupation. Some of those who had returned with the Red Army were survivors of the Great Purge; their survival was itself evidence of their loyalty to Stalin.
Many of the returning Communists—subsequently known as “Muscovites”—were Jews. In Hungary, as we shall see in greater detail below, the top leaders of the Communist party were Jewish Muscovites. In Czechoslovakia, the general secretary of the Communist party, Rudolf Slansky, was a Jew. Among the Muscovite Jewish leaders of postwar Poland were Jakub Berman, who headed the secret police; Hilary Minc, who was in charge of the economy; Roman Zambrowski (born Rubin Nussbaum), the secretary of the party’s central committee; and Jacek Rozanski (born Goldberg), the NKVD-trained head of the investigative department of the ministry of public security, a psychopath known for torturing his victims. In Rumania, the real head of the regime was Ana Pauker, secretary of the party central committee, first deputy prime minister, and foreign minister. (Pauker is said to have denounced her husband Marcel, a leading Comintern official, as a Trotskyite. He was arrested in Russia in 1936, and liquidated in 1937.) Other pillars of the Rumanian regime included Iosif Chisinevski, Leonte Rautu, and Mihail Roller—all Jewish Muscovites.
There were few Jewish Muscovites in the leadership of the East German regime, but this was because many of the German Jewish Communist exiles in the USSR who had managed to survive the Great Purge were handed over to the Gestapo in 1939 after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. One exception was Markus Wolf, the son of a Jewish Communist doctor from Stuttgart, who had spent his adolescence and young adulthood in Moscow and returned to Germany as an officer of the Red Army. Active at first in the propaganda apparatus of the regime, Wolf later built the East German military espionage service, which he headed until 1987.
In addition to Wolf, there was also a small but significant trickle of Communist-oriented intellectuals of Jewish origin who had spent the war years in the West, and now returned to help create a Communist regime in Germany which would do away with what they regarded as the capitalist roots of National Socialism. Most conspicuous was Gerhard Eisler, a veteran functionary of the Comintern who vanished from the United States after he was subpoenaed by the House Commitee on Un-American Activities in 1949. Eisler emerged in East Germany as the head of the new Office of Information, the propaganda ministry of the new regime. His brother Hanns Eisler left the United States under “voluntary deportation” in 1948, moved to East Germany, and wrote the music for the national anthem of the new German Democratic Republic.
The utilization of Jews in prominent positions in the Soviet-sponsored regimes was, to use an apposite phrase, “no accident.” In the newly conquered nations of Eastern and Central Europe, the Soviets had few reliable supporters. Suspicion of Russian imperialism was old and well-founded, and anti-Communism almost a national religion. The tiny native Communist parties had been decimated during the war. The Muscovite Jews, tried and tested in the Stalinist crucible, were among the very few natives whom the Soviets could trust to carry out their plans.
These veteran Communists were joined by younger Jews, disillusioned with the failed bourgeois assimilationism of their parents, having little knowledge of the Soviet Union, and attracted to an ideology which promised to do away with ethnic hatreds once and for all. Because they were familiar with local conditions and fanatically anti-fascist, Jews were often chosen for the security police. Because of their high level of education, they were particularly active in the fields of propaganda and education. Those who spoke foreign languages staffed the ministries of foreign affairs and departments of foreign trade.
Thus, members of a people who had recently been deported or murdered amid the general indifference or active complicity of their neighbors now appeared as high officials of the government and the police. They did so under the auspices of the Red Army, and as the executors of the will of the Soviet Union. To much of the population of Poland, Rumania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, these Jewish Communists appeared as aliens, imposing an alien system in the service of an alien power.
The upshot was a renewal of anti-Semitism. The local populace took no notice of the fact that the new Soviet-backed regimes subverted and then liquidated Jewish communal and religious institutions, or of the fact that most local Jews, far from supporting the Communists, voted with their feet by emigrating westward. Hostility was focused on the collaborators of Jewish descent, rather than on the many non-Jews who staffed the new regime.
The Jews who tossed in their lot with the new regime quickly recognized that they had to rely entirely on the Soviets not only for their positions but for their very lives. Whether out of necessity or design, Stalin had created a class of people wholly dependent on him, hence extraordinarily pliable. It was partly for this reason that, while Stalin launched an anti-Semitic campaign inside the Soviet Union in 1948, in Eastern Europe he maintained his support for his Jewish pawns, at least for a few years. His motives for doing so were linked to the specter of Titoism which gripped the Kremlin in the late 1940’s: the Communists of Jewish origin seemed the least likely to form an alliance with the local populace against the hegemony of the Soviets.
In the early 1950’s, however, the Titoist scare passed, and the Soviets were in a position to sacrifice their Eastern European Jewish pawns. In an attempt to broaden their own popular support, even some local Communist leaders of Jewish origin tried to use the Soviet-generated renewal of anti-Semitism for their own purposes. Ultimately, it was far more potent as a weapon when turned against them.
The pattern common to Eastern Europe manifested itself with particular force in Hungary. Nowhere were Jews more prominent in the Sovietization of the nation. At the core of the process was the handful of Muscovites who had spent years and even decades in the Soviet Union. During the interwar period the Hungarian Communist party had been banned and unpopular; its membership was tiny; and its leadership was disproportionately Jewish. In postwar Hungary, the key post of general secretary was once again occupied by a Jew, Mátyás Rákosi.
A veteran Communist who, as we have seen, had been active in the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, Rákosi was subsequently betrayed by a fellow Communist and imprisoned for years by the Horthy regime. Traded to the Soviet Union in 1940, Rákosi spent the war years in Moscow and learned the requisite skills for survival in Stalinist Russia. He billed himself as “Stalin’s best pupil,” and was at the side of the “sun of the peoples” during the celebrations marking the dictator’s seventieth birthday in 1949. It was this pupil of Stalin who coined the term “salami tactics” to describe the way in which the Communists with the backing of the Red Army sliced away all competing parties on their path to exclusive control.
The next three major slots in the Communist hierarchy were also filled by men of Jewish birth. Ernö Gerö (Singer), a Muscovite and veteran of the Spanish Civil War, became minister of state; Mihály Farkas (Wolf), another Muscovite, became minister of defense; and József Révai was the party’s chief ideologist and minister of culture. The chief of the Hungarian economy was Zoltán Vas (Weinberger), also of Jewish origin and a Muscovite.
As was the case in every other country, only a minority of Hungarian Jews were Communists. Obviously, those who valued their Jewishness the most were the least inclined toward the party, and many Hungarian Jews feared that it was they who would pay for the popular hatred of the regime.
Yet the core of Muscovites was also joined by a larger number of Hungarian Jews. Some, who had returned from concentration camps or who survived the war in Budapest, owed to the Soviets their escape from death at the hands of the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators of the Arrow Cross. For them, at least, the Soviets were “liberators,” even if few of their countrymen regarded them as such, and the Red Army remained the only real guarantor of their safety.
Alongside this motive of physical preservation there was among some young Jews a burning desire for vengeance against the Hungarians who had murdered their families or aided the Germans in doing so. These young men and women joined the new Soviet-dominated security apparatus, for which they were suited by their knowledge of Hungarian conditions and their allegiance to the Soviet cause. It is estimated that 30 percent or more of higher police officials in the postwar years were of Jewish origin, and many departments of the security apparatus were headed by Jews. At the pinnacle of the Hungarian political police, the AVO, was a Jew, Major General Gábor Péter (born Benö Auspitz). By moving into the army, the police, and the security apparatus, these young Jewish survivors put themselves in a position to settle accounts with the men of the Arrow Cross.
The attractions of Marxist ideology also drew some of the more idealistic young Jewish survivors. The universalism of Marxism, its promise to end all distinctions based upon ethnic or religious origin, was almost irresistible to some young Jews who could recall only the irredentist nationalism of the interwar era, the growth of Hungarian fascism and official anti-Semitism, the deadly “labor battalions” into which the Horthy regime had consigned all Jewish males from sixteen to sixty-five, and finally the systematic murder of the Jews under German auspices but with Hungarian collaboration.
Other Jews who decided to remain in Hungary reconciled themselves to the inevitability of Soviet domination and hoped to make the best of it. Though the socialization measures of the Communist regime destroyed the remnants of the Jewish commercial middle class, some Jews continued to play an important economic role in Hungarian life as heads of newly nationalized industries. And though university admissions were now to favor the offspring of workers and peasants, young Jews active in the Communist party were permitted to enroll.
Hungary was a small country with a small educated elite. Because in Soviet eyes most educated non-Jews were tainted by their ties to the former regime, Jews were catapulted into positions of authority. For a brief moment after the war, Jews seemed to become a privileged class in Hungary. Suddenly, reality seemed to bear out the old stereotype identifying Jews as such with Communism. As a contemporary joke had it, if a factory employed three Jews, one was the manager, a second the accountant, and the third the secretary of the party cell. For those so inclined, it was easier than ever to believe that all Jews were Communists, and since Jews were apparently in prominent positions everywhere, it was even possible to give credence to the anti-Semitic claim that more Jews had returned from the concentration camps than had been deported in 1944. The recrudescence of anti-Semitism erupted in two anti-Jewish riots during the summer of 1946. The fact that the rioters included some Communists was covered up by the local Communist commander, who was himself Jewish.
The Communists’ favorable attitude toward the offspring of Jewish victims of fascism began to change in late 1947, when Rákosi decided to end the admission of Jews to official posts. After the elimination of all competing parties in 1948, there followed an era of increasing anti-Jewish repression, initiated and headed by men who were themselves of Jewish origin. In 1949 the representative of the American Jewish Joint Relief Organization in Budapest was arrested and expelled. A ban was placed on Zionist activity, and Hungarian Zionist leaders were imprisoned and forced to appear in show trials. The security services set up a division to deal with Zionism; it was headed by Major János Komlós, who at one time had been a student in the Budapest rabbinical seminary.
Like their counterparts throughout Eastern Europe, the leaders of the Hungarian Communist party set out to emulate the purported successes of the Soviet path of economic development and began a program of rapid industrialization and collectivization of agriculture. As in the Soviet case, the growth of heavy industry was to occur at the expense of the agricultural and consumer sectors—that is, through the increased exploitation of the workers and peasants. The result was a decline of living standards for most Hungarians, coupled with increased governmental repression to prevent protest and revolt. Soon the prisons were filled, and forced-labor camps sprang up around the country, especially near mining and industrial centers. From 1952 through 1955 the police opened files on over a million Hungarians, 45 percent of whom were penalized. In four years, 7 percent of Hungarians over the age of eighteen were convicted and punished.
Together with increased repression went the purge of the party. Most of the members of the erstwhile Communist underground who had remained in Hungary during the war were purged as potential “Titoists,” including László Rajk, who was tried and executed on trumped-up charges in 1949. In a few years, the Communist regime of Rákosi killed more Communists than had the anti-Communist regime of Admiral Horthy.
Jews were very salient in the apparatus of repression, including Mihaly Farkas, the minister of defense and chief of internal security, and Gábor Péter of the AVO. Many of Péter’s immediate deputies were also Jews who had been trained by the Soviets at the Dzerzhinsky Institute in the USSR. As this apparatus of repression expanded, it recruited those with the most experience at brutal methods of interrogation, namely, former Horthyites and members of the Arrow Cross. Thus, former Jewish victims of fascism and former fascists worked side by side in the creation of a Communist Hungary.
The next act in the drama of Hungarian Jewry was more absurd still. Late in 1952, “Stalin’s brightest pupil” learned of the plans for the upcoming “Doctors’ Trial” in the homeland of socialism, in which seven of the nine defendants were to be Jews, and in which anti-Semitic themes were to be more blatant than ever. Fearing for their own necks, Rákosi and the Hungarian leadership initiated their own anti-Semitic crusade. The head of the Jewish community, Lajos Stöckier, was arrested. So was the chief of the former Jewish Hospital, László Benedek (though he was a loyal Communist), and a number of Jewish doctors. Like their counterparts in Moscow, the Hungarian Jewish physicians were to be charged with medical crimes.
The leaders of the Jewish central committee of social affairs, the brothers Szücs, were driven to suicide in this campaign, while the Jewish Muscovites rewrote their biographies and recast their style of life to appear more Magyar than the Magyars. Rákosi’s official biography now claimed he was descended from the lower Magyar gentry; at the same time, Rákosi spread the false rumor that his leading rival within the party leadership, Imre Nagy, was a Jew.
There now began a clear policy of eliminating Jews from positions of leadership and from the lower cadres of the party. Vas, the chairman of central planning, was purged. Jews were eliminated as officers of the police and the AVO; in January 1953, Gábor Péter himself was imprisoned. Plans were made for an anti-cosmopolitan, anti-Zionist show trial, at which Péter would be a star defendant. Only the death of Stalin prevented the anti-Semitic trial, which would have been presided over by Jewish Communists.
The end of the Titoist specter and the revolt of the East Berliners against Soviet domination in June 1953 gave Stalin’s successors second thoughts about Soviet policy in Eastern Europe. Rákosi was summoned to Moscow and chastised before the Presidium—though he had merely carried out faithfully the policy of his Russian model, including the cult of personality. Beria addressed Rákosi in words which echoed the Tharauds’ Quand Israël est roi of three decades before: “We know that there have been in Hungary, apart from its own rulers, Turkish sultans, Austrian emperors, Tartar khans, and Polish princes. But, as far as we know, Hungary has never had a Jewish king. Apparently this is what you have become. Well, you can be sure we won’t allow it.”
Rákosi was replaced as premier by the non-Jewish Imre Nagy. But the Soviets, who considered Rákosi and Gerö the most slavishly reliable of the Hungarian Communists, soon put Rákosi back in the saddle (in April 1955). Rákosi then had Nagy expelled from the party. On both sides of the struggle between the Stalinists and the more reformist Communists around Nagy, Jews were well-represented.
As the threat of popular revolution grew in Hungary, the Soviet leadership reluctantly decided to sacrifice the Jewish Muscovites. In July 1956, Rákosi was removed from office by the Soviets and spirited away to Moscow in disgrace. His successor, Gerö, proved no more popular but less crafty; in October, with revolution under way in the streets of Budapest, it was his turn for the flight to Moscow, as the Russians offered their support to Nagy.
When the spontaneous revolution threatened the overthrow of the Communist regime, even non-Communist Hungarian Jews (especially outside the capital) came to fear for their lives, on the grounds that Jews as such were identified with Communism in the public mind. During the “Hungarian October” and its aftermath, over 20,000 of the 120,000 Jews remaining in Hungary departed for the West. In November, Nagy’s bold attempt to form a multiparty government and withdraw from the Warsaw Pact led to Soviet intervention and the brutal repression of the Hungarian revolution.
János Kádáar, a Communist who had himself been tortured by the secret police during the Rákosi era, was installed by the Soviets as their new man in Budapest. Desperate for public support, some members of the Kádár regime tried to “play the national card.” One of Kádár’s ministers, György Márosan—whose wife was of Jewish origin—emphasized in his speeches that the new leadership was not made up of Jews. Many of the Jews who remained in Hungary, afraid that popular loathing of the former Muscovite leadership would result in an outbreak of overt anti-Semitism, rallied to Kádár nevertheless. While he was in power, Jews were not excluded from positions of prestige and responsibility. With the transfer of leadership to Károly Grósz in May of this year, their future in Hungary remains an open question.
Events elsewhere in the postwar Soviet bloc followed a similar pattern, often with more disastrous results for the Jews. The consolidation of Communist hegemony under Muscovite leadership was regularly followed by the subversion of the organized Jewish community, with Zionists singled out for especially harsh treatment. As the masses increasingly showed themselves ready to engage in open revolt against the hated system imposed by the USSR, the Soviets everywhere tried to sacrifice the Jewish Muscovites and replace them with less unpopular “native” Communist leaders. These in turn often found it convenient to divert anti-Communist sentiment into the channels of anti-Semitism.
In Czechoslovakia, where the Communists established their dictatorship in 1948, the general secretary of the party was Rudolf Slansky, a veteran Communist of Jewish origin, and a Muscovite. With Communist hegemony secure, a purge aimed at non-Moscow Communists was set in motion in 1950. Jews were conspicuous objects of a second wave of purges in 1951, which included among its victims the deputy general secretary of the party, Josef Frank, and Jewish deputy ministers of foreign affairs, foreign trade, and finance. Finally, in November 1951, Slansky—who less than two years earlier had offered the official tribute to Stalin on the occasion of the latter’s seventieth birthday—was arrested.
Slansky became the focus of the most infamous show trial of the postwar era, organized with the close cooperation of agents of the Soviet ministry of state security. Of the fourteen leading party members placed on trial for crimes against the state in 1952, twelve were Jews. In the official indictment, their names were followed by the words “of Jewish origin.” The charges against them included “Zionism,” “Titoism,” “Trotskyism,” and collaboration with “Western imperialist espionage.” All of the defendants were convicted, and eleven were sentenced to death.
All this happened in a country where most Jews had reacted to the coming of Communism by getting up and going. By 1950, three-quarters of the Jews of Czechoslovakia had emigrated, leaving fewer than 20,000, or one-fifteenth of 1 percent of the population. Just as this did not prevent Slansky and the others from being tried and convicted as Jews, it did not prevent the Czech government from launching a vehement anti-Zionist campaign in 1968.
In Rumania, the old Muscovite leadership in which minorities in general and Jews in particular loomed so large was replaced in a deliberate policy of “Rumanianization.” The process began with the purge of Ana Pauker in 1952, and continued under Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. Under Pauker an intensive anti-Zionist campaign had been launched in 1949. The arrest and imprisonment of Zionists continued through the 1950’s. (In Rumania, too, Jews did their best to depart. Of the 385,000 Jews in the country at war’s end, 256,000 remained in 1949; by 1955, there were fewer than 200,000.)
In East Germany, where there were few Jews and almost no Jewish Muscovites, the process occurred in miniature and with variations. Early in 1953, Gerhard Eisler was dropped from the Office of Information. Paul Merker, a former member of the Politburo known for his philo-Semitism, was arrested and plans were made to put him on trial for his contacts with “agents of Western imperialism.” Jews were arrested by the security police and imprisoned. After the announcement of the “Doctors’ Plot” in Pravda on January 13, 1953, the leaders of the Jewish communities of East Berlin, Dresden, Erfurt, and Leipzig escaped to the West. In the weeks that followed they were joined by hundreds of other East German Jews. Stalin’s death brought an end to the threat against the few Jews remaining in East Germany.
In Poland the pattern was the same, but the results more dramatic. There the regime was headed by a Communist of Catholic origin, Boles-law Bierut, but as we have seen, the head of the security service, Jakub Berman, the chief of the economic planning commission, Hilary Minc, and one of the party’s leading ideologists, Roman Werfel, were all of Jewish origin. Minc presided over the raising of work norms and shrinkage of the standard of living entailed by the Soviet Union’s demands upon the Polish economy, while Werfel toed the stultifying Zhdanovist line in the cultural realm. The pattern of Jewish over-representation in the party and especially in the security services made the highly unpopular regime less popular still.
In 1954, on orders from the Soviet embassy, leading Jewish members of the Polish regime were demoted. After popular revolt against Stalinism reached its peak in October 1956, the Muscovite leadership was replaced by the “nativist” Wladyslaw Gomulka, and Berman and the other Jewish Muscovites were blamed for the “errors” of the past. Those few Jews who elected to remain in Poland—Jewish institutions had been liquidated in 1949-50, and by 1953 fewer than 40,000 Jews were left in the country—were largely purged in the anti-Semitic campaign of 1968. The last remnants of the Communist Jewish intelligentsia were dropped, to the satisfaction of the younger generation of cadres born and raised in the new Poland.
The history of Jews and Communism in Central and Eastern Europe deserves a fuller chronicle and more detailed analysis. Historians who have focused on the utopian ideals espoused by revolutionary Jews have diverted attention from the fact that these Communists of Jewish origin, no less than their non-Jewish counterparts, were led by their ideals to take part in heinous crimes—against Jews and non-Jews alike. Moreover, the conspicuous role played by Jews in the Communist movement, though rarely the primary cause of anti-Jewish sentiment, nevertheless fanned the flames of anti-Semitism. The prediction of the chief rabbi of Moscow proved tragically prophetic: “The Trotskys make the revolutions, and the Bronsteins pay the bills.”
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
Communism, Anti-Semitism & the Jews
Must-Reads from Magazine
Progressives can’t remodel the country through politics—and it’s making them miserable.
The liberal malaise that has followed Trump’s shocking victory is a by-product of the left’s unreasonable expectations. Many liberals and progressives were encouraged to see Barack Obama as messianic and to understand his politics as emancipatory, and they fell for it. But political shifts in America just aren’t that radical, and never have been—even though that’s what the flimflam men who run American politics always promise.
Delusions about what big election victories can achieve are nurtured by the politicians who stand to benefit from the passion of those who are swayed by their portentous prognostications. (“This is the most important election of our lifetime,” says the party that needs to win to come back from defeat.) And they are husbanded by the commercial enterprises—paid consultants, super PACs, single-issue peddlers, cable networks—that profit from them. But the vows they make—primary among them the vanquishing for eternity of the bad guys on the other side—cannot be fulfilled, or cannot be fulfilled enough to satisfy the voters who are seduced by them. This is a problem for both sides of the ideological divide.
At the moment, what we’re living through is disillusion on the part of progressives, and on a grand scale. A consensus has begun to form on the politically engaged left that the day-to-day work of American politics—meaning what happens in government and in public service—is simply unequal to the challenges that plague our country. This follows, in turn, the same sort of consensus that rose among conservative voters in 2015 and 2016 that led to the rise of the insurgent Trump candidacy.
Fewer and fewer Americans see the grinding work of passing legislation and formulating policy as anything other than a sham, an act, a Washington con. This view encourages frustration and, eventually, fatalism. The conviction that the political process cannot address the most relevant issues of the day is paralyzing and radicalizing both parties. It is also wrong.
THE LIBERAL SOUNDTRACK OF DAILY LIFE
People on the american left have reason to be happy these days. Boilerplate liberalism has become the soundtrack to daily American life. But they’re not happy; far from it.
Superstar athletes don’t stand for the National Anthem. Awards shows have become primetime pep rallies where progressive celebrities address the nation on matters of social justice, diversity, and the plague of inequality. This year’s Academy Awards even featured the actress Ashley Judd’s endorsement of “intersectionality,” a once-abstruse pseudo-academic term meant to convey that every kind of prejudice against every victimized minority is connected to every other kind of prejudice against every other victimized minority. These are the outwardly observable signs of a crisis facing the liberal mission. The realization that the promise of the Obama era had failed predated Donald Trump’s election, but it has only recently become a source of palpable trauma across the liberal spectrum.
These high-profile examples are just the most visible signs of a broader trend. At the noncelebrity level, polls confirm a turning away from conservative social mores altogether. In 2017, Gallup’s annual values-and-beliefs survey found a record number of Americans approving of doctor-assisted suicide, same-sex relations, pornography, both sex and childbirth out of wedlock, polygamy, and divorce.
Then there’s the ascension of supposedly advanced attitudes about religion, or rather, the lack of religion. In 2017, Gallup pollsters asked Americans: “How important would you say religion is in your own life?” A record low of 51 percent answered “very important,” while a record high of 25 percent said “not very important.” San Diego State University researcher Jean M. Twenge found that twice as many Americans said they did not believe in God in 2014 than was the case in the early 1980s. And a 2015 Pew poll revealed that “younger Millennials” (those born between 1990 and 1996) were less likely to claim religious affiliation than any previous generation.
Finally, a 2016 Harvard University survey found that, among adults between ages 18 and 29, 51 percent did not support capitalism. Positive views of socialism have been rising almost inexorably, even as a 2016 CBS/New York Times survey found that only 16 percent of Millennials could accurately define socialism.
But today’s progressive activist isn’t content with cultural domination; he’s after something grander. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a memorandum dated March 2003:
“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change the culture and save it from itself.”
The election of Obama seemed the moment at which the central liberal truth could finally be given shape and form and body. It didn’t quite work out as progressives hoped.
The first bill President Obama signed into law in 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, was sold to progressives as a visionary effort to root out workplace discrimination. In fact, all it did was relax the statute of limitation on holding firms liable for discriminating on the basis of sex and race—a fine-tuning of one part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Yet the “pay gap” persisted, and Obama and his administration spent the next seven years hectoring the private sector over it. They claimed that the figures showing that women in aggregate earned less than men in aggregate demonstrated that the entire society was somehow in violation of the spirit of the law. But the real source of this gap—as Obama’s own Bureau of Labor Statistics confessed—was individual behavior patterns that led women, on average, to work fewer hours than men over the course of their lives. “Among women and men with similar ‘human capital’ characteristics,” BLS economist Lawrence H. Leith wrote in 2012, “the earnings gap narrows substantially and in some cases nearly disappears.”
Similarly, in 2013, Obama credited his Violence Against Women Act with steep declines in rates of reported sexual assault. “It changed our culture,” he said. “It empowered people to start speaking out.” But this legislation did not change the culture. Many women continued to endure abuse at their places of work, with that abuse treated as just a consequence of doing business. The behaviors revealed by the #MeToo movement in the national outing of abusive men in positions of power had been addressed in law long ago, and long before Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act. The stroke of his pen did nothing to change the culture.
ObamaCare is another example of an exercise in cultural engineering that has failed to take. The Affordable Care Act wasn’t only a health-care law; it was an effort to transform society. The law’s true goal was a “culture of coverage” that would foster a new “norm” in which health coverage was an “expected” part of the social contract, according to California Health Benefit Exchange board member Kim Belshe. But once again, the political process failed to match the transformative ambitions of the progressive activist class. A late 2016 survey conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians found that tighter doctor networks as well as higher deductibles and co-payments meant people were cutting back on doctor visits—the precise opposite of the law’s philosophical objectives.
Donald Trump and his GOP majorities in Congress could not overturn the ACA (though they did manage to get rid of its mandatory aspect). But ObamaCare’s preservation has not prevented the health-care left from sinking into gloom. This is because the politicians who pursued these reforms set unrealistic expectations for what they could achieve. These are not blinkered ideologues, but they are in thrall to a grandiose idea of what politics should be and out of touch with what politics actually is: a messy, narrow, often unsatisfying project of compromise and incrementalism.
Some left-of-center thinkers have addressed this penchant for overreach and its consequences. “Our belief in ‘progress’ has increased our expectations,” lamented the clinical psychologist Bruce Levine in 2013. “The result is mass disappointment.” He reasoned that social isolation was a product of American institutions because, when those institutions resist reform, “we rebel.” That rebellion, he claimed, manifests itself in depression, aggression, self-medication, suicide, or even homelessness and psychosis. What can you expect when the problem is the system itself?
Progressives have come to believe that America is beset with difficulties that must be addressed if the country is to survive—but they recognize that the difficulties they diagnose are extraordinarily hard to deal with in conventional political terms. Income disparities. Sexual and racial inequities. The privileges and disadvantages associated with accidents of birth. Such matters increasingly dominate the agenda of leftist politicians because they preoccupy the minds of their voters and donors. But what can be done about them? Great Society legislation in the 1960s—the farthest-reaching effort to reorder and reframe our country along social-justice principles—was designed to extirpate these evils. It is clear that today’s progressives are convinced we have not progressed very far from those days, if at all. This can lead to only one devastating conclusion, which is that the United States is a structurally oppressive nation. The system is the problem.
For the left, no problem is more hopelessly systemic than racism. It is powerfully attractive to believe that because some American institutions were forged in racial bias, the country is forever soiled by discrimination and white supremacy. Economics, politics, education, criminal justice—all are soiled by what Harvard professor Derrick Bell has said was an indelible stain on American life. Bell’s theories have been amplified by celebrated literary figures such as Ta-Nehisi Coates. “White supremacy is neither a trick, nor a device, but one of the most powerful shared interests in American history,” he recently wrote. You can understand why exasperated activists might conclude that devoting themselves to a Sisyphean torment is not the best use of their time. “I cannot continue to emotionally exhaust myself,” wrote the British journalist and feminist speaker Reni Eddo-Lodge in 2014. In a 2016 Washington Post op-ed, Zack Linly concurred. “I’ve grown too disillusioned to be relieved and too numb to be frustrated. I’m just tired.”
Violence, too, is seen as systemic. Acts of small-scale and mass violence are the result of many factors in American life. The individual who commits those heinous acts is often a secondary concern to activists on the left. For them, the problem rests in our militaristic national character, which is foremost exemplified by a pathological devotion to guns. As a recent headline at the New Republic put it: “America’s Gun Sickness Goes Way Beyond Guns.”
What about substance abuse? “It became clear to us that there is something systemic going on,” said Steven Woolf, director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health, on the issue of substance-abuse-related deaths in America. And poverty? “Poverty is systemic, rooted in economics, politics and discrimination,” reads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guideline for elementary-school teachers. Its lesson plan is explicitly designed to convey to students that “poverty is caused by systemic factors, not individual shortcomings.” Corruption? According to Fordham University Law School professor Zephyr Teachout, when the courts find that corporate entities have much the same free-speech rights as individuals, “corruption becomes democratic responsiveness.” Obesity and diabetes are systemic too, according to TakePart magazine’s Sophia Lepore, because they stem from the industrial world’s “increasingly commercialized food supply.”
When faced with this constellation of systemic challenges, progressives are left with a grim conclusion: We are impotent; change on the scale that is necessary is out of reach. Instead of practicing “the art of the possible,” they have made a totem of the impossible. The activists who are consumed by these phenomena have come (or are coming) to the conclusion that the political process cannot resolve them precisely because the oppression is a feature, not a bug, of the system. It is logical, therefore, for them to determine that engagement in traditional forms of politics is an exercise in naiveté.
Indeed, under this set of beliefs, legislative incrementalism and compromise seem like detestable half measures. Mistaking deep-rooted and immensely complex social and cultural circumstances for problems government can solve blinds participants in the political process to the unambiguous victories they’ve actually secured through compromise. This is a recipe for despair—a despair to which certain segments of the right are not immune.
LIBERAL DESPAIR TRUMPS CONSERVATIVE DESPAIR
By the time donald trump’s presidential candidacy sprang to life, dejected voices on the right had concluded that the country’s leftward drift constituted an existential emergency.
In late 2015, the author and radio host Dennis Prager devoted most of his time to mourning the “decay” of absolute moral categories, the blurring of gender distinctions, the corruption of education, and the dissolution of the family, all while blaming these conditions on a wrecker’s program. In the fall of 2016, the Claremont Institute published a piece by Republican speechwriter Michael Anton (under a pseudonym) in which he postulated that the United States was all but doomed. He compared the republic to United Airlines Flight 93, the plane that went down in a Pennsylvania field on 9/11, and its political and bureaucratic leadership to the suicidal Islamist hijackers who killed everyone on board. Four days before the 2016 election, the Heritage Foundation’s Chuck Donovan declared America in decline in almost every way and blamed a “dominant elite who thrive on the dissolution of civil society.” These catastrophists agreed on one thing: The time for modesty and gradualism was over.
The issues that most animate these conservatives are significant, but they are only indirectly related to conventional political matters. Disrespect for authority figures in law enforcement, the accessibility of pornography, assimilation rates among immigrant groups, the bewildering exploits on college campuses, and the ill-defined plague of “cultural Marxism”—these are widespread social trends that resist remedy from the inherently circumspect political process.
Also like those on the left, some conservatives have come to embrace their own forms of fatalism about the American system. “We need a king,” wrote the Hoover Institution’s Michael Auslin in 2014, “or something like one.” Auslin theorized that such a figure would liberate the presidency from weighing in on polarizing social issues, thereby lubricating the gears of government. Reflecting on the disillusionment and pessimism of his big-thinking peers in the middle of the Great Recession, the libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel declared, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Patrick J. Buchanan devotes at least one column a month to the virtues of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism. Why? Because, as he wrote in January 2018, “Nationalism trumps democratism.”
Intellectuals like Buchanan and Anton have a profound weakness for extremism; it is one of the grave dangers posed by the life of the mind. William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound found much to admire in how nationalists detested moderation. For Yeats, the “love of force” was a visionary trait. Pound, of course, literally became a fascist and rooted for America’s destruction. These perverse judgments on the right were nothing next to the seductive power of leftist totalitarianism. George Bernard Shaw was a Stalinist convinced of the virtue of eugenics and murderous purges. Theodore Dreiser became infatuated with the Soviets’ brutal adaptation of social Darwinism. Stuart Chase’s 1932 book A New Deal, predating FDR’s governing program of the same name, heaped praise on the nascent Soviet state. The book famously concluded, “Why should the Soviets have all the fun remaking the world?” Chase later became a member of Roosevelt’s inner circle of advisers.
When the political process fails to perform as they would like, activists and ideologues become disillusioned and embittered. They also become convinced not of the unreasonableness of their position but of the incompetence of their representatives. Thus conservative activists hate the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the House, even though both Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan work tirelessly to advance conservative ideas through the bodies they help manage. Leftists have turned on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is among the most effective legislative players in recent American history and easily the most progressive Democratic leadership figure of our time. McConnell and Ryan and Pelosi know from bitter experience that the Constitution places obstacles in the path of anyone who wants to use America’s political institutions to remake the culture wholesale. These marvelous obstacles are designed to thwart the human impulse for radical change.
The tragedy here is how this dynamic has convinced tens of millions of Americans that the political system is broken. Pull back from the granular view of events and try to examine America over the past decade and you see something else. You see American voters responding in complex ways to complex events. Obama overreaches and the voters elect a Republican House. Mitt Romney says 47 percent of Americans are losers, and he loses an election. Hillary Clinton says people who don’t care for her are “deplorables,” and she loses an election, too. The GOP appears to be on a path to electoral disaster in November 2018 because Trump may be bringing about a counterattack against the way he does business. Democratic overreach inspires conservative backlash. Republican overreach inspires liberal backlash. The electoral system is responsive to the views of the people. The system works. It works by restraining excessive ambition.
Those restraints annoy people who think change should just happen because they will it. In 2009, for example, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was so annoyed by Congress’s failure to devise a bipartisan environmental bill that he lamented the fact that America did not have China’s political system. The People’s Republic, he wrote, was demonstrating the great “advantages” of a “one-party autocracy” led by “reasonably enlightened people.” Amazing how Chinese Communism had the ability to circumvent public opinion—the same ability also leads to the construction of well-populated labor camps.
You don’t need a one-party autocracy to effect change. Sometimes, when change is needed and needed urgently, government can rally to address the change—when voters make it clear that it must happen and when the change is preceded by rich experimentation and vital spadework. For example, New York City is no longer the crime-ridden, pornography-addled, graffiti-marred archipelago of needle parks that it once was. There has been a generation now of civil peace in the city, notwithstanding the act of war against it on 9/11.
But the change wasn’t the culmination of a grand governmental scheme. It was in part the product of work done by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation in the early 1980s, which developed a model followed by the Rockefeller Center Complex, the Grand Central Partnership, and more than 30 other business-improvement districts. These parties engaged in a block-by-block effort to restore streets and relocate the homeless. The NYPD and the transit police could not focus on “quality of life” policing without hyper-local input that shaped what that campaign should entail and without an intellectual framework provided by the “broken windows” theory promulgated by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. The zoning reforms that cleaned up Times Square began as an initiative submitted by the City Council member representing the porn-plagued blocks under the Queensboro Bridge, with input from the Manhattan Institute. By the time Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993, a quiet consensus had been building for years about the nature of the problems afflicting New York City and how to solve them.
BETTER THAN WE WERE
Moynihan’s famous quote is usually cut off before the end. After identifying the divergent liberal and conservative truths about the junction of politics and culture, he observed: “Thanks to this interaction, we’re a better society in nearly all respects than we were.”
His insight into the American political equilibrium was not a lamentation or a diagnosis. It was a reflection on why America is forever reinventing and refining itself. But as partisan actors and media outlets confuse the practice of politics with exhilarating bouts of cultural warfare, this equilibrium begins to come apart.
The quotidian, custodial duties that typify public service are neither dramatic nor entertaining. Zoning laws are boring. Police reforms are boring. Business-improvement districts are boring. Functional governance in the United States is unexciting governance.
Unexciting governance is limited governance. And the fatalists are driven mad by the limits our system imposes on them because they don’t want governance to be limited. That is exactly why those limits are so necessary and why, rather than getting dirty fighting inch by inch for the things they believe in, fatalists write themselves out of our political life. The danger the fatalists pose is that they are convincing tens of millions more that our system doesn’t work when it most certainly does, just in a fashion they wish it wouldn’t. In doing so, they are encouraging mass despair—and that is an entirely self-imposed affliction.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
Seventy years after Israel’s founding, we need it more than ever.
Hertzberg understood how helping the Jews over there in the Middle East had helped Jews over here in North America. After decades of American Jewish ambivalence about Jewish nationalism, the Holocaust had created an instant consensus for a Jewish state. The fight to create that state galvanized the community, rousing it from depression—and shielding it from guilt. By doing the right thing in the late 1940s, American Jews atoned for their failure to save more of their doomed brothers and sisters.
Hertzberg’s fear that Zionism was “a movement in search of a program” in 1949 proved wildly premature, because Israel would continue to call on and depend on the support of American Jews for its survival. The nation’s creation was followed by a host of new problems and opportunities that kept the global Jewish community engaged with Israel and kept alive the American Jewish connection to “peoplehood”—even as many American Jews abandoned religious practice entirely.
In 1959, Hertzberg published a seminal anthology, The Zionist Idea, for the purpose of establishing the movement’s intellectual and ideological roots. At the time, Israel was fragile and the Zionist conversation was robust. Today, Israel is robust and the Zionist conversation has turned fragile. Israel’s 70th anniversary offers an opportunity to reframe the Zionist conversation—asking not what American Jews can do for Israel, but what Zionism can do for American Jews. Hertzberg understood that Zionism wasn’t only about saving Jewish bodies but saving Jewish souls. As the celebrations of Israel’s 70th birthday begin, Zionism’s capacity to save our souls remains vital.
Many American Jews in the 1950s helped their fellow Jews settle in the new land. The fundraising short from 1954, “The Big Moment,” featuring Hollywood stars including Donna Reed and Robert Young, celebrated the secular miracle. “When you support the United Jewish Appeal, you make it possible for the United Israel Appeal to help the people of Israel,” the short told its viewers. They could help “rush completion of new settlements, new housing for the homeless, the irrigation of wasteland acres…. Israel’s people who stand for freedom must not stand alone.”
Four years later, Leon Uris mythologized the Zionist revolution in his mammoth bestseller, Exodus. “As a literary work it isn’t much,” David Ben-Gurion admitted. “But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best thing ever written about Israel.” In Uris’s Zionist paradise, New Jews lived noble ideas and heroic lives. Exodus captured the texture of the Jewish return: the trauma of the Holocaust, the joys of the kibbutz, the thrill of rebuilding, the anguish of the Arab fight, the sweetness of idealism, the wonder of mass migration. In the 1960 movie version, Exodus even tackled serious ideological issues within Zionism. As Ari Ben Canaan escorts his non-Jewish love interest, Kitty Fremont, around Israel, the two look over the Valley of Jezreel. They marvel at seeing the “same paving stones that Joshua walked on when he conquered” the land, along with “every clump of trees” Ari’s father planted.
Thrilled that the valley is becoming Jewish once again, Ari proclaims: “I’m a Jew. This is my country.” Kitty dismisses differences between people as artificial. Ari makes the particularist case against universalism: “People are different. They have a right to be different.” They suspend the debate, Hollywood-style, with their first kiss.
In print, on screen, and in song, Exodus cast Zionism in such glowing terms that it condemned Israel to the inevitable comedown. Decades later, Thomas Friedman, trying to justify his anger at the Jewish state as its popularity flagged, would define this mythic place he missed as “your grandfather’s Israel.” Actually, Israel today—Friedman’s Israel—is more compassionate, just, equitable, and democratic than his grandfather’s.
As Exodus climbed the bestseller lists, Hertzberg’s Zionist Idea showed how a series of abstract debates spawned an actual state in mere decades. The texts, Hertzberg’s editor Emanuel Neumann wrote, illustrate “the internal moral and intellectual forces in Jewish life” that shaped this “idea which galvanized a people, forged a nation, and made history…. Behind the miracle of the Restoration lies more than a century of spiritual and intellectual ferment which produced a crystallized Zionist philosophy and a powerful Zionist movement.”
Recalling this period, Abraham Joshua Heschel would say American Jews took that miracle for granted. We became so used to the Tel Aviv Hilton, he said, that we forgot Tel Hai, where the one-armed Zionist warrior Josef Trumpeldor sacrificed his life for his country. Heschel was chiding American Jews for failing to use Israel to find greater meaning, to revitalize their Jewish identities, to launch “an ongoing spiritual revolution.”
Several political shocks in the 1960s upstaged the cultural and spiritual conversation that Heschel, Hertzberg, and others sought. Having grown up feeling secure as Americans, some Baby Boomers questioned American Jewish silence during the Holocaust. Frustrations at their parents’ passivity “while 6 million died” altered the community’s course—triggering a move toward activism. Cries of “Never again” shaped the Zionist, peoplehood-centered fight that ultimately brought 1.2 million Soviet Jews to Israel even as it nurtured and brought to adulthood two generations of new American Jewish leaders and activists.
The biggest shock was the Six-Day War. Both their fear of losing Israel in May 1967 and their euphoria when Israel won that June surprised American Jews. Many discovered that they were more passionate about Israel than they had realized. This “extraordinary response” led Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and others toward “a strategy of making Israel central in religious and Jewish educational life—if only because thereby we can tap strong loyalties and deep feelings.” The Holocaust and Israel’s founding partially Zionized American Jewry, showing how to live with a Jewish state while living happily ever after; 1967 showed most American Jews that they couldn’t live without the Jewish state.
Zionism became American Jewry’s glue. Israel reinforced a sense of peoplehood and renewed Jewish pride. It inspired the teaching of Hebrew, revitalized summer camps, and invigorated the Conservative and Reform movements. The community learned how to mobilize politically and raise money prodigiously. Indeed, writing in the 1970s, as periodic terrorist massacres kept returning Jews to the traumatic 1973 Yom Kippur War, Hertzberg declared that Zionism had become the only sacred commitment all American Jews shared. “Intermarriage, ignorance in the Jewish heritage, or lack of faith do not keep anyone from leadership in the American Jewish community today.” Hertzberg complained. “Being against Israel or apathetic in its support does.”
But while it was succeeding politically in America, Zionism was failing culturally and spiritually, Hertzberg charged. “Today there is no Zionist education in the U.S., no schools, no teaching seminaries, no commitment by Zionists” to cultivating “a Zionist kind of Jewish personality”—Ben-Gurion’s New Jew. Instead of stirring charges of dual loyalty, instead of adding “to the discomfort of the Jews in the Diaspora,” Hertzberg noted, Zionism contributed to Jews’ “acceptance of themselves and their acceptance by others.”
Today, it seems, personal concerns predominate. Now we wonder how having a Jewish state helps Jews navigate what Birthright Israel calls “their own Jewish journeys” and their quests for meaning. That could seem to be a chaotic souk, an oriental bazaar resulting in a gay Zionism and a Mizrahi Zionism, an Orthodox Zionism and a Reform Zionism, a feminist Zionism and an environmental Zionism. This is not entirely new. Early Zionists also fused their secular, Western agendas with the Jewish agenda—creating the kibbutz and the Histadrut Labor union, among other hybrids of hyphenate Zionism. In fact, a thoughtful Zionism might cure what ails us by focusing on what Israel means “to me, to us.” Which brings us to the greatest contradiction of our age: Succeeding as Americans individually poses a threat to Jews communally. Building careers usually trumps the labor of deepening traditions, morals, or communal commitments. Increasingly, many American Jews are happy being Jew-ish, reducing a profound cultural, intellectual, religious heritage to props, a smattering of superficial symbols to make us stand out just enough to be interesting—and not too much to be threatening.
Academic postmodernism validates that professionally driven Jewish laziness. After slaving away to perfect the CV and GPA, to get into the best college possible, Jewish students arrive on campuses that often caricature Judaism—like all religions—as a repressive system while slamming Zionism as particularly oppressive, privileged, and aggressive. This postmodernist updating of Marxist universalism loathes the kinds of red lines Jews traditionally drew around multiple behaviors and beliefs—among them, intermarrying, denouncing Israel, or indulging in self-indulgent behaviors from tattooing your skin to blowing your mind with drugs or alcohol. But a community cannot exist without any boundaries—it’s as useless as a house with no walls.
More powerful than these ideological issues is the simple fascism of the clock. Few high-achieving American Jews devote much time in their week to being Jewish. The demands of work and the lures of leisure leave little room in the schedule for much else—especially such unhip, pre-modern, and un-postmodern activities.
Then, perhaps most devastating, once American Jews carve out the time and overcome the static, what awaits them in most synagogues is a stale stew of warmed-over nostalgia. Judaism must be more than gefilte fish and lox, more than some colorful Yiddish exclamations and shtetl tales. The superficiality of so many Jewish experiences inside the walls of the large Semitic cathedrals that fill up just three times a year is so dispiriting that it takes most Jews another year to screw up the courage to return.
No comprehensive cures exist, of course. And Zionism, which is in many ways a conservative cultural initiative despite Israel’s liberal democracy, faces a hostile environment. American Jews, whose parents and grandparents were once more culturally conservative than the rest of American society, tend now to be far more liberal. Moreover, the systematic campaign to delegitimize Zionism has done great damage, just as conservative dominance of Israel has tarnished Israel’s luster among America’s passionately liberal Jews.
Nevertheless, Israel and Zionism still have a magic, illustrated by the great counterforce that most lamentations about the Israel-Diaspora relationship overlook: Birthright Israel. Young American Jews on those 10-day trips are thrilled by the experience. The enthusiasm comes from tasting a thick, dynamic, 24/7 Jewish experience that is qualitatively different from their thin, static, fragmented American Judaism. The impact comes from what Jonathan Sacks has aptly called turning Israel into world Jewry’s classroom, its living laboratory demonstrating vibrant, thriving Judaisms in sync with the environment. Seeing Jewish garbage men and police officers normalizes Jewish society, broadening the range of Jewish career paths and class stances, reducing the implicit pressure wherever American Jews look to be the next Zuckerberg, Spielberg, or Sandberg.
Swimming in a pool of Jewish symbols, traditions, values, and stories, Jewish pilgrims to Israel encounter an alternate universe that reveres the past, that seeks meaning beyond the material, that is more communal than individual and is more eternal than last week’s most forwarded YouTube video of cats frolicking. Israel proves Theodor Herzl right: Fitting in, not standing out, because you’re Jewish is liberating.
Even more surprising, unlike the media’s dystopic portrayal, Israelis are happy and fun-loving. Israel’s recent score of 11th on the world happiness index comes on the heels of reports about American mass unhappiness, especially in the upper-middle-class neighborhoods where American Jews live. The findings that half of Yale’s undergraduates at some point in their four years will experience severe psychological distress goes far beyond the anxiety produced by the crazy process of getting in. It suggests a specific sort of soul sickness that an elite life increasingly stripped of community, tradition, nationalism, God, group responsibility, and virtue produces. As the occasionally embattled Jewish state in an old-new land, Israel remains a Republic of Something, even as America risks degenerating into a Republic of Nothing. The shared past, purpose, and principles produce happier, more grounded, people.
Israeli normalcy risks its own laziness. But it’s the laziness of an instinctive, normalized Judaism in all dimensions rather than a Judaism you need to carve out time for, picking and choosing just what to do and when to do it—while often looking over your shoulder because you don’t want to look like a weirdo or a fanatic.
Beyond that, Zionism answers some core ideological conundrums many American Jews don’t even know how to formulate. Zionism resolves the confusion whereby the Judeo-Christian connection in America makes many nonreligious Jews feel Jewish even while calling Judaism their “religion.” Zionism welcomes Jews through the peoplehood portal—remembering that Judaism is this unique mix of nation and religion, of peoplehood and faith. Zionism celebrates nationalism as a force for good, cherishes religion and tradition as valuable anchors, providing meaningful “software” of values and beliefs running on the “hardware” of belonging. And Zionism celebrates the virtues of having red lines to respect, as well as blue-and-white lines to affirm. It “rewards togetherness,” in Anne Roiphe’s lovely phrase, and demands loyalty in many ways—especially considering Israel’s military situation.
With Judaism providing the background music to so much that is Israeli, with Israel instilling a strong sense of belonging in visitors, let alone citizens, American Jews encounter new ways of being Jewish. They see total Judaism, immersive Judaism, public Judaism. And, often without realizing it, they see a startling contrast, even with secular Israeli Jews who have figured out how to keep their kids and grandkids Jewish without being religious.
Finally, Israel helps American Jews shift from Anatevka to Jerusalem, from what Irving Howe called “the world of our fathers” to the lives of our brothers and sisters. Israeli Jewish identity is about speaking Hebrew and eating cheesecake on the holiday, often overlooked in North America, of Shavuot. It’s also, unfortunately, about fighting and defending the state. The need for American Jews as allies in that fight continues to offer nonreligious American Jews a passionate Jewish cause, a defining Jewish mission in their lives. And judging by the fact that AIPAC’s Policy Conference is the rare mass event that parents often attend with their teenage and twenty-something children, Zionism offers something one generation can pass on to the next.
Beyond that, the excitement—and, to be sure, the frustrations—of working out Jewish dilemmas and governing problems in real time with high stakes to keep this grand Jewish national project alive and thriving, is a lot more compelling than humming “Sunrise Sunset” as you enter your synagogue.
When done right and understood properly, Zionism can offer an important clarification to all Americans, especially in the age of Trump. In the 2016 campaign, whenever the word “nationalism” appeared in the media, it often came poisoned by words like “white” or “extremist” or “xenophobic.” The reaction against Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Brexit, neo-Nazis, and other manifestations of populist nationalism has soured too many Americans on any form of nationalism.
At its best, what might be called “liberal nationalism” infuses democratic ideals into the natural tendency for people to clump together with those like them. In the 1950s, Isaiah Berlin described this constructive nationalism as “awareness of oneself as a community possessing certain internal bonds which are neither superior nor inferior but simply different in some respects from similar bonds which unite other nations.” Many Enlightenment thinkers, following the 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, compared this communal impulse with other human “desires” for “food, shelter, procreation, and a minimum degree of liberty.”
Today, this nationalist vision goes against the prevailing cultural tide. Amid what the sociologist Robert Bellah calls “radical individualism,” young Americans experience a “negative” process of “giving birth to oneself” by “breaking free from family, community, and inherited ideas.” By contrast, commemoration of the bar and bat mitzvah defines maturation as accepting communal responsibilities rather than shirking them. The Zionist reality demanding that young Israelis enlist in the army also roots them in communal commitments. In this view, national service is the defining step toward adulthood.
A resurrected, refreshed, Zionist conversation, one that focuses on what Israel does for us, might help Jews see liberal nationalism as a neutral tool that can unite a divided community and make us more determined, more purposeful, and more fulfilled than we can be individually—precisely what the young Arthur Hertzberg proposed seven decades ago.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
The last remnant of Oslo crumbles
The whirlwind changes left Clinton unprepared for the meeting. Perhaps that accounts for the momentous mistake he made that day. “Rabin can’t make further concessions until he can prove to his people that the agreement he just made with you can work,” he told Arafat. “So the more quickly we can move on your track, the more quickly we’ll be able to move on the Syrian track.” Clinton thus tipped his hand: The U.S. saw an Israeli–Syrian peace deal as the real goal, and the president needed Arafat to make it happen. “Now that Arafat had used that deal to open up a relationship with Washington, he did not want to let Clinton shift his attention back to Syria,” reports Clinton foreign-policy hand Martin Indyk in his memoir. “And the more he managed to involve us in the details of his agreement with the Israelis, the less we would be able to do that. In his good-hearted innocence, Clinton had revealed his preferences. Arafat would not forget them.”
Indeed he would not. No foreign official would be invited to the Clinton White House more than Arafat. The Israeli–Palestinian peace process would not be a mere sideshow to the wider Arab–Israeli conflict. It would be a tapeworm inside U.S. foreign policy, diverting and consuming resources. Arafat had made the Palestinian Authority the center of the world.
Twenty-five years of violence, corruption, and incompetence later, the PA lies in ruins, with the Palestinian national project right behind it. Arafat controlled the PLO for a half-century before assuming control of the new PA. Thus his death in 2004 was the first moment of serious potential change in the character of Palestinian institutions. Mahmoud Abbas, far less enamored of violence than the blood-soaked Arafat, was his successor. Rather than reform Palestinian institutions, Abbas has presided over their terminal decline. As Abbas’s own health fades and as the world again turns its attention to Gaza, the part of the Palestinian territories not controlled by him, it’s worth wondering if there is a future at all for the Palestinian Authority.
The PLO was created at an Arab League summit in Cairo in 1964 to serve as an umbrella group for Palestinian organizations seeking Israel’s destruction. It was paralyzed by intra-Arab rivalries until various factions figured out how to wag the dog and draw the Arab states into war with Israel. “Palestinian guerrilla action was insufficient to achieve liberation, and so it needed to overturn reactionary Arab governments and assist Arab unity in order to provide the power necessary to attain the ultimate objective of liberation,” writes Palestinian intellectual and historian Yezid Sayigh, describing how some within the PLO saw it. Arafat’s Fatah faction, which delayed in joining the PLO but influenced it from the outside, was more explicit in a 1965 memorandum: Arab national armies would “intervene to decide the conflict, and to bring it to an end after the revolutionary masses had prepared the way for them.”
Palestinian provocations played a part in helping to fan the flames that exploded into the Six-Day War in June 1967. Yet rather than destroy Israel, the Arab armies lost territory to the Jewish state, including the West Bank of the Jordan River. The following year, Fatah—which had by now joined the PLO—provoked a costly battle with Israeli forces in the West Bank town of Karama. Fatah lost nearly 100 fighters, but Arafat’s mad gamble paid off: The Palestinians survived a face-off with the Israeli military and demonstrated their independence from Jordan. Arafat used this failure-as-success to complete Fatah’s takeover of the PLO in 1969 and become the undisputed public face of the Palestinian guerrillas. Documents captured by Israeli forces in southern Lebanon in 1982 showed extensive training and sponsorship of Palestinian guerrillas across the Communist bloc—the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Hungary, Soviet-aligned Pakistan—in addition to PLO support from Arab states. After its expulsion from Lebanon in the wake of the Israeli incursion, the PLO went into exile in Tunisia.
The first intifada broke out in 1987, and even as it publicized Palestinian resistance, it gave the West a chance to consign Arafat and the PLO to irrelevance. Foreign Minister Moshe Arens proposed allowing the major Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza to hold mayoral elections, after which Israel would recognize the winners as official Palestinian interlocutors. Rabin, then the defense minister, opposed the Arens plan, fearing it would undermine Israel Defense Forces’ control of the West Bank. A compromise plan was for the Palestinians in the territories to hold elections for negotiators, not officeholders. In his memoir, Arens explains that the idea “was meant to begin a process of negotiations with the Palestinians while bypassing the Palestine Liberation Organization.”
Before Arens or Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir could present the plan to the George H.W. Bush administration, Bush and Secretary of State James Baker preempted the Israelis by leaking to reporters their preference for the PLO and their belief that talks with Arafat should broach the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state. Shamir’s right-of-center Likud party revolted, and the government eventually collapsed. Bush had succeeded not only in throwing Israeli politics into chaos in the midst of the intifada, but also in effectively legitimizing Arafat as the rightful representative of Palestinian nationalism. This put the PLO and Israel on the glide path to that September 1993 breakthrough and the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
All this history taught Arafat one unmistakable lesson: Violence works. And so, after the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, violence continued. Some of it was ordered by Arafat; some tacitly encouraged by him; some his security services merely allowed to happen. More than 250 people were killed by Palestinian terrorists in the five years after the signing ceremony. Arafat’s political rivals in Hamas pioneered the use of suicide bombings as a regular feature of terrorism. This served Arafat well: He could crack down on Hamas if and when he needed to but could also keep his fingerprints off some of the most heinous violence against Israeli civilians.
A perfect example of this double game occurred in February 1996. The Norwegian diplomat and UN envoy Terje Rod-Larsen met regularly with Arafat at the Palestinian leader’s Gaza home throughout the Oslo period. On February 24, 1996—a Saturday—Arafat asked his guest his plans for the next day. Rod-Larsen said he was thinking about spending the day in Jerusalem. According to the journalist Michael Kelly, Arafat cryptically said: “Why don’t you stay away from Jerusalem on Sunday.” The next day, Hamas blew up a bus in Jerusalem and another in Ashkelon, killing 26. “Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who thought he had persuaded Palestinian radicals to refrain from attacks on Israelis, condemned the bombings, saying they threatened the peace process,” reported CNN that day.
Violence wasn’t the only way Arafat hindered the cause of Palestinian statehood. Corruption tore through nascent Palestinian institutions. The numbers are staggering. After Arafat’s death, David Samuels surveyed the damage for the Atlantic:
The International Monetary Fund has conservatively estimated that from 1995 to 2000 Arafat diverted $900 million from Palestinian Authority coffers, an amount that did not include the money that he and his family siphoned off through such secondary means as no-bid contracts, kickbacks, and rake-offs…. In 1996 alone, $326 million, or 43 percent of the state budget, had been embezzled, and…another $94 million, or 12.5 percent of the budget, went to the president’s office…. A total of $73 million, or 9.5 percent of the budget, [was] spent on the needs of the population of the West Bank and Gaza.… Arafat hid his personal stash, estimated at $1 billion to $3 billion, in more than 200 separate bank accounts around the world, the majority of which have been uncovered since his death.
Why didn’t the creation of the PA result in Arafat’s transition from guerrilla leader to civilian state-builder? Three problems kept cropping up. The first was that his lack of accountability was enabled by both Israel and the United States, out of the naive belief that it didn’t matter how Arafat built his state and abided by agreements just so long as he did so. Arafat exploited this—he never built his state, in part because nobody was willing to make him.
The second problem was that the PA only added a layer of opacity to Arafat’s power structure. As the analyst Jonathan Schanzer notes in State of Failure: “Was he the chairman of the PLO, the president of the PA, or the leader of Fatah? These varying roles made it difficult to firmly establish his accountability.”
The third problem was more fundamental: Arafat shaped the PLO, and thus the Palestinian national movement, for a quarter-century before the PA was established. The only thing that changed was that nothing changed. Arafat’s predilection for violence, secrecy, and authoritarianism would be deeply corrosive to the institutions of an existing state; to a nonstate tasked with creating those institutions, they were fatal.
Not until Arafat died did the full extent of the PA’s failure become clear to all. Arafat’s absence was supposed to be cause for hope; instead, it revealed the bankruptcy of the PA’s model. Mahmoud Abbas inherited not a state but an illusion.
There is no doubt that Abbas was an improvement over Arafat. As Arafat’s deputy, he tried in vain to convince his boss to halt the second intifada (2000–2003), a bloody campaign of violence instigated by Arafat after he turned down Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state at Camp David in 2000. The intifada sapped Israelis’ faith in the PA as a negotiating partner and delivered Likud’s Ariel Sharon—the godfather of Israel’s settlement movement and a man who, as defense minister, had been instrumental in driving the PLO out of Lebanon two decades earlier—to the prime minister’s office.
Abbas’s ascension left policymakers in Jerusalem and Washington playing Weekend at Bernie’s with the corpse of the Palestinian Authority, waving its arms and propping it up in public. Both wanted to show the Palestinians they could get more with honey than with vinegar. But by 2004, it didn’t really matter. With President George W. Bush’s backing, Sharon went forward with plans to pull Israel completely out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank. The “Disengagement” of 2005 was a political earthquake: Israel’s great champion of the settlers uprooted thousands with no concessions from the Palestinians. More important, perhaps, was the fact that it was unilateral. How much did the PA even matter anymore?
Abbas’s legitimacy was another nagging problem. Though he won a presidential election in 2005, the PA was haunted by the ghosts of Arafat’s corruption. In 2006, Abbas called for legislative elections. Confident of victory, he permitted Hamas to participate in the elections, and the U.S. didn’t object. Had his Fatah party won, its legitimacy would have been undeniable. But in a shock, Hamas won. Fatah was hobbled not only by the perception of Arafat’s venality but also by the consequences of his one-man rule. In their biography of Abbas, Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon write: “Palestinian legislative elections are essentially a local election, in which every ‘district’ chooses its own members of parliament from the different political lists. While Hamas’s candidates ran under one banner, Fatah showed disastrous disunity by having splinter lists in multiple camps, towns, and villages.” Civil war engulfed the Palestinian territories. Hamas took control of Gaza and was booted from the government in the West Bank. Abbas is now in the 14th year of his four-year term.
His legitimacy in tatters, Abbas went about consolidating power and cracking down on dissent. But it wasn’t just the democratic deficit that made Abbas’s reign resemble his predecessor’s. The courts, legislative institutions, education, civil society—Palestinian state-building simply wasn’t happening. In 2010, the Carnegie Endowment’s Nathan Brown studied Palestinian government and society under Abbas’s Western-educated prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and he came to a dispiriting conclusion: “There was far more building of institutions under Yasser Arafat than there has been under Fayyad. It is true that many institutions were built in spite of Arafat and that Fayyad’s behavior suggests a greater respect for rules and institutions. But that is consolation only for those who mistake personalities for politics.”
Yet in one way Abbas is arguably more dangerous even than his predecessor. Arafat was notoriously defensive about possible successors because he had created an entire system centered on his role as the Indispensable Man. Nonetheless, PLO bylaws made Abbas the rightful successor, and he remained the consensus choice.
But to say Abbas has failed to claw back any control over Gaza would be an understatement. With a bevy of foreign benefactors—among them Turkey, Iran, and Qatar—no pretense of democracy, and no easy way in or out, the strip has become a Philadelphia-sized Islamist police state. Every few years, Hamas instigates a war with Israel to remind the world that no degree of physical isolation can make it irrelevant. On March 30, the group organized the first so-called “March of Return,” a day of protest and mischief at the border with Israel in which 20 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops. A top Hamas official said the marches will continue until they succeed in overrunning the border and driving the Jews out of the land. For this, the protests were rewarded with absurd media devotionals; the New York Times hyped a Palestinian analyst’s comparison of the border rushes to the civil-rights protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Hamas displays the organizational control Abbas can only dream of, and the ability to have its propaganda amplified by the Times, CNN, and other major media across the globe. Abbas is reduced to gritting his teeth, and lately seems ready to just give up, telling Egyptian interlocutors in early April that unless Hamas turns over “everything, all institutions and ministries, including security and weapons,” the Palestinian Authority “will not be responsible for what happens there.”
The 82-year-old Abbas is in deteriorating health—yet he has dragged his feet on succession. He now indicates he’ll designate deputy chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul his next in line. But “anyone who thinks Aloul’s appointment will find smooth sailing within Fatah is wrong,” warns Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor. The largest challenge could come from Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah’s former Gaza security chief, whom Abbas sent into exile in 2011 and who has been cultivating Sunni allies abroad. Jibril Rajoub is the party’s secretary general and believes he’s the rightful heir. Hamas could leap into the vacuum to try to take the West Bank by force, or it could play havoc by supporting someone like Dahlan. If the succession battle becomes a proxy fight among Arab states, it could get bloody fast. The PA as an institution survived Arafat’s death. It may not survive Abbas’s.
There is, of course, one remaining way for Abbas to distinguish himself from Arafat and ensure that he leaves something tangible behind: He could take yes for an answer and actually seek a negotiated settlement. Sadly, his track record here isn’t any better. In 2007, he walked away from a generous Israeli offer by Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert. The 2008 U.S. election briefly appeared to vindicate him—Barack Obama was elected president and proceeded to browbeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into giving away the store. But Abbas made a fool of Obama, too. At first, he sat back and played for time. Then, seeing how difficult Obama was making life for Netanyahu, he thought he could wait for Netanyahu’s government to crumble. When Obama left office in 2017, Netanyahu was still prime minister. The one time negotiations got anywhere, in 2014, Abbas blew them up by abruptly agreeing to bring Hamas into the government, a move that cannot be countenanced by the U.S. or Israel as long as Hamas remains committed to terrorism and refuses to abide by existing agreements.
Obama did two other things that backfired on the Palestinian Authority. One was the Iran nuclear deal, which gave tacit American support to Tehran’s expansionism in the Middle East, scaring Sunni regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt into strategic alignment with Israel. The other was more subtle but just as consequential: He helped orchestrate the passage of a UN Security Council resolution that deemed East Jerusalem, home to Judaism’s holy sites, occupied Palestinian territory.
The UN resolution at first seemed to be a clear gift to Abbas. But in reality, it was a ham-handed attempt to tie the hands of President-elect Donald Trump, who would be taking office just a month later. Trump wouldn’t have it. In the first year of his presidency, he publicly declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel and announced that his administration would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (While a new embassy compound is being built, the White House plans to officially designate the existing consulate in Jerusalem as the embassy in time for Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations on May 14.)
The Jerusalem moves have been an unmitigated humiliation for the PA. They undid the damage to the U.S.–Israel relationship inflicted by Obama. Worse for the PA, Trump called the Palestinian bluff. Contrary to the fears of Western observers, and the ill-disguised morbid hopes of some in the media, the region did not go up in flames. The “terrorist’s veto” did. And the coordination that such a move required between the United States and its Arab allies made crystal clear just how isolated the Palestinian Authority has become—how vulnerable it is to the politics of the Arab world, and how impervious to Palestinian politics the Arab world has become.
It took four decades, but the dog is once again wagging the tail.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The covert and overt sins of a celebrated scholar
Kristeva categorically denies the charges. Her critics argue that it is unlikely that the Bulgarian government would fabricate an 80-page dossier for the purpose of embarrassing a 76-year-old academic who is of no particular contemporary political importance. Professor Richard Wolin of the CUNY Graduate Center, who has written extensively about Kristeva, says flatly: “She’s lying.” And he adds that the Bulgarian government’s claims about her did not materialize ex nihilo: Kristeva recently began writing for a Bulgarian journal, and Bulgarian policy is to publish the dossiers of public figures who had served the state intelligence agencies during the Communist era. That policy is carried out by “ComDos,” the Committee for Disclosure of Documents and Announcement of Affiliation of Bulgarian Citizens to the State Security and the Intelligence Services of the Bulgarian National Army.
But what Kristeva did or did not do in secret is if anything less troubling than what she did in public. For decades, she lent her intellectual prestige and her powers as a writer (and propagandist) to some of the most repressive and vicious regimes of the second half of the 20th century. And she did so as someone who had first-person experience with real-world socialism as it was practiced in what was arguably the single most suffocating regime in Eastern Europe.
Once inescapable on college campuses (I was assigned readings from her work in at least four different classes in the 1990s), Kristeva has faded a little: She has authored a number of novels that have not been generally well-regarded, and she has got on the wrong side of her fellow feminists by criticizing the subjection of the individual identity to the demands of identity politics. She belongs, with Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes and a few others of that kidney, to an era of postmodernist excess during which American academics aped the jargon-heavy (and famously unreadable) prose style of their Continental idols, especially the French ones. Discipline and Punish took on the totemic status later enjoyed by Capital in the 21st Century—which is to say, a book with many more owners than readers, A Brief History of Time for Reagan-era graduate students. Revolution in Poetic Language might not have generated quite as much awe as Foucault’s famous lump, but The Kristeva Reader ornamented a great many coffee tables—and who could resist “Experiencing the Phallus as Extraneous”?
Kristeva arrived in France in 1965 on a research fellowship. She soon moved from the École normale to the Sorbonne, and she studied under Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan, taking in the intellectual fashions of her time: psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, semiotics, feminism, and, of course, radical left-wing politics. Indicting midcentury French intellectuals for covert or overt support of Communist dictatorships around the world is like writing speeding tickets at the Daytona 500, but Kristeva’s political history and that of the journal with which she was long affiliated, Tel Quel, is a remarkable testament to the weakness of Western intellectuals for totalitarianism—provided it is dressed in sufficiently exotic trappings—careering from Marxist-Leninist to Stalinist to Maoist. Kristeva was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Communist Party, arguably the most servile of all of the Western European Communist parties, indulging Adolf Hitler when it suited Moscow and later justifying the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as a necessary prophylactic against “counterrevolution.” There was no Communist outrage too great for Tel Quel, whose editor, Philippe Sollers (Kristeva married him in 1967), declared in the familiar language of the period his opposition to all things “counterrevolutionary” and advertised his allegiance to “Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time.” V. I. Lenin was later displaced from the Tel Quel intellectual pantheon by Mao Zedong. Professor Wolin, an intellectual historian, tells the story in his 2017 book Wind from the East:
As a result of the May  events and their contact with the Maoists, French intellectuals bade adieu to the Jacobin-Leninist authoritarian political model of which they had formerly been so enamored. They ceased behaving like mandarins and internalized the virtues of democratic humility. In May’s aftermath, they attuned themselves to new forms and modes of social struggle. Their post-May awareness concerning the injustices of top-down politics alerted them to the virtues of “society” and political struggle from below. In consequence, French intellectual life was wholly transformed. The Sartrean model of the engaged intellectual was upheld, but its content was totally reconfigured. Insight into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holders of power by flaunting timeless moral truth…. The Maoists started out as political dogmatists and true believers. But they soon found it impossible to reconcile their pro-Chinese ideological blinders with the emancipatory spirit of May. Once they ceased deluding themselves with revolutionary slogans, they began to understand politics in an entirely new light. The idea of cultural revolution was thereby wholly transformed. It ceased to be an exclusively Chinese point of reference. Instead it came to stand for an entirely new approach to thinking about politics: an approach that abandoned the goal of seizing political power and instead sought to initiate a democratic revolution in mores, habitudes, sexuality, gender roles, and human sociability in general.
There was a substantial intellectual component to the Maoism of the Kristeva-Sollers set, but there was also a superficial one: Sollers began affecting the Maoist mode of dress, and Kristeva, one of the most important feminist thinkers of her time, dutifully authored articles in defense of Chinese foot-binding, which she described as a form of feminine emancipation. Calling to mind Senator Elizabeth Warren and her fictitious “Cherokee princess” ancestor, Kristeva boasted that she is a woman who “owes my cheekbones to some Asian ancestor.” Despite having almost no facility with the Chinese language and very little knowledge of its culture, she authored a widely read and translated book, About Chinese Women, in which she made unsupported claims about the “matrilineal” character of classical Chinese culture. Tel Quel adopted an editorial line that was uniformly and cravenly pro-Mao, even going so far as to argue that the absence of professional psychiatric practice from China resulted from the fact that Maoism had delivered the Chinese people from “alienation,” the traditional Marxist diagnosis for what ails the capitalist soul, rendering professional mental-health care unnecessary.
“I don’t fault her” for serving the Committee for State Security, Professor Wolin says. “It was the most repressive dictatorship in Eastern Europe.” Signing on to inform for the Bulgarian government might well have been a condition for Kristeva’s being permitted to study in France in the first place, and she had vulnerable family members still living under the Bulgarian police state. “I don’t know why she doesn’t come clean,” he says.
But that is not the end of her story. “What I do fault her for is jumping on the Communist bandwagon,” Wolin adds. First she served the interests of Moscow and then those of Chairman Mao. Unlike most of her French colleagues, the Bulgarian expatriate was in a position to know better from direct experience. Nonetheless, Kristeva and the Tel Quel set undertook a pilgrimage to Maoist China in the middle 1970s, where they saw the usual Potemkin villages and came home to write fulsome encomia to the wisdom and efficacy of the Great Helmsman. “By ’74, everybody knew that the Cultural Revolution was a power play and a debacle on every level,” Wolin says, an excuse for the Chinese authorities to purge their rivals. “People who had been sent down wrote memoirs, and those were published in French in 1971 and 1972…. Kristeva knew how repressive these regimes were. She didn’t have to celebrate Communism. No one compelled her to do that.”
If this were only a question about a Bulgarian-French intellectual who is obscure beyond academic and feminist circles, then it would be of limited interest, one of those French intellectual scandals that give Anglophone writers and academics a twinge of envy. (When was the last time there was a truly national controversy in the United States over a book? The Bell Curve?)
But Kristeva’s advocacy of what was in terms of gross numbers the most murderous regime of the 20th century is only one tessera in the great mosaic of Western intellectuals’ seduction by totalitarian systems, especially those that come wearing exotic costumes. (Jeremy Jennings, writing in Standpoint, describes Kristeva’s Maoism as “part radical chic, part revolutionary tourism, part orientalism.”) Sometimes, that seduction has come from the right, as with Italian Fascism’s ensorcelling of Ezra Pound and F. A. Hayek’s embarrassing admiration for the government of Augusto Pinochet, a political crush that earned him a private rebuke from no less a figure than Margaret Thatcher. But, more often, that seduction has come from the left: Lincoln Steffens returning from the Soviet Union to declare, “I have seen the future, and it works.” Walter Duranty’s embarrassing misreportage in the New York Times, which still proudly displays the Pulitzer prize earned thereby. The moral equivalence and outright giddy enthusiasm with which Western intellectuals ranging from the left-wing to the merely liberal treated Lenin and Stalin. The New Republic’s footsie-playing with Communists under Henry Wallace. Noam Chomsky’s dismissal of the Cambodian genocide as an American propaganda invention. The reverence for Fidel Castro. The embrace of Hugo Chávez by everyone from Hollywood progressives to Democratic elected officials. Chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh / The NLF is going to win!” on the streets of New York in 1968. Ten million Che T-shirts.
“There are Western intellectuals who don’t succumb,” Professor Wolin says. “The George Orwells, Susan Sontags, and others who learn the lesson. Among the French leftists in the late 1960s who swooned for the Cultural Revolution, many of them came to their senses in the ’70s.” But what about those who are seduced? “Often, they’re naive about politics, and they project holistic and idealistic solutions—totalizing solutions—onto events that don’t admit of those kinds of solutions.”
Political ideologies tend to define themselves in two important ways: first, in opposition to the most important and prominent of their direct ideological competitors; second, in an effort to distinguish themselves from immediately adjacent ideologies and factions. In the case of 20th-century radicals such as Julia Kristeva, the enemy was capitalism, and the most prominent alternative to capitalism was Communism. Whether the pursuit of the idealized new man and his utopian new society took the form of old-fashioned bureaucratic Soviet socialism or the more rambunctious and anarchic mode of the Cultural Revolution was a dispute between adjacent factions, something that may seem almost immaterial from the outside but that is the source of all-consuming passions—and rage—inside the radical milieu.
The West is perversely fortunate that its hedonism and materialism have inoculated it against the premier radicalism of the early 21st century—jihadism, which has gained very little purchase in the West outside of poorly assimilated immigrant communities, mostly in Europe. But Islamic radicalism is not the only rival to democratic liberalism on the world stage: As Xi Jinping consolidates his position in Beijing (a project that goes far beyond the recent removal of the term limits that would have ended his rule at the conclusion of his second term), where are the Western intellectuals with the moral authority and political acumen to articulate a meaningful critique of what he represents? The left in Europe and in the English-speaking world has never been obliged to make an accounting—or a reckoning—for its indulgence of a far more dramatically violent expression of Chinese nationalism, and even liberal technocrats such as Thomas Friedman dream of turning America into “China for a day,” begrudgingly admiring the Chinese government’s raw ability to simply act, unencumbered by democratic gridlock.
And if the left and the center-left are ill-equipped to mount an intellectual defense of democratic liberalism, the right is even less prepared, having mired itself deeply in the very kind of authoritarian nationalism practiced by Beijing. Like the 20th-century left, the 21st-century right has gone looking for allies and inspiration abroad, and has settled upon Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, the fascist Le Pen political dynasty in France, Alternative für Deutschland, neo-nationalism, neo-mercantilism, and ethnic-identity politics. The right-wing populists of Europe do not have Mao’s practically unbounded scope of action (or his body count), but they play for intellectuals on the radical right the same role that Maoism once played for intellectuals on the radical left.
It is not clear that Kristeva has learned very much from her political errors, or even indeed that she ever has come to understand them genuinely as errors. Her alleged collaboration with the Bulgarian secret police, tawdry as it might have been, would not constitute the greatest of those errors. But it is that allegation, and not the plain facts of her long career of advocacy on behalf of inhumane political enterprises, that embarrasses her. In that, she is typical of the radical tendency, a spiritual cousin to the Western progressives who once winked at Stalinists as “liberals in a hurry.” But radical chic is not an exclusively progressive fashion. Xi Jinping is in a hurry, and so is Marine Le Pen, and both have their attention set on matters of more consequence than “intersectionality,” the matter of who uses which pronouns, and the other voguish obsessions of our contemporary intellectuals.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
It was Ben-Gurion himself who proposed a compromise: Israel’s Declaration of Independence would conclude by asserting that each signer placed his trust in the “Rock of Israel,” the Tzur Yisrael, a phrase from the Jewish liturgy inspired by the biblical reference to God as tzuri ve-go’ali, my Rock and my Redeemer.
By referring to the “Rock of Israel,” but refraining from any explicit mention of divine redemption, Israel’s declaration was one that both devout and atheistic Zionists could affirm. For believers in the Bible, the phrase could refer to the divine defender of the Jewish people; for the secular socialist signers of the document, the words could instead make reference to the flint-like resolution of the Israeli army. The compromise was accepted, and the modern Jewish state was born by eliding the issue of the existence of God.
For myself, a religious Zionist and American-history aficionado, the story is doubly painful. Thomas Jefferson, the deistic drafter of the Declaration in Philadelphia, produced a first version without any reference to the divine designs of history. The continental Congress, however, representing an America obsessed with the Bible, edited the dramatic closing of the original draft so that it made clear that the revolution was being launched with “a firm reliance on divine providence.”
The irony is difficult to miss. America, inspired by the Israelite commonwealth in the Hebrew Bible, ordered that a reference to a providential God be added to its Declaration of Independence. But in the 20th century, the restored Israelite commonwealth went out of its way to remove any such reference.
For religious Zionists, however, removing God from a document did not do away with God’s role in the divinely directed drama that is Jewish history; in fact, the contrary is true. Sidney Morgenbesser, the kibitzing Columbia philosopher, once inquired of a colleague at the end of his life: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?” Morgenbesser’s droll dialectic captures, for people of faith, something profound: It is those agnostic of God’s existence who can at times reify that very same existence. In a much more profound sense, the events that preceded and followed Israel’s declaration of statehood are so staggering that providence alone explains them.
Harry Truman, the former member of the Missouri political machine whom no one had ever expected to become president of the United States, overrode his hero, General George C. Marshall, in supporting and recognizing the birth of a Jewish state. And he did so, in part, because of his relationship with a Jew named Eddie Jacobson, with whom Truman had run a haberdashery business decades before.
Joseph Stalin, whose anti-Semitism rivaled Hitler’s, ordered the Soviet bloc at the United Nations to support partition, and then he allowed Czechoslovakia to sell airplanes and arms to the nascent state. The Jews of the IDF, fighting against overwhelming odds, did indeed illustrate flint-like toughness in their heroic victory; but the honest student of history can see that this is only part of the story.
Seventy years after May 14, 1948, religious Zionists still smart at the words with which Israel came into being. At the same time, they take comfort in the fact that what followed that extraordinary day vindicates their own interpretation of the words Tzur Yisrael. In his memoir, former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the youngest survivor of Buchenwald, describes the moment when the concentration camp was liberated by Patton’s Third Army. Many inmates, having longed for release, ran to the gates—and as they did so, the Nazis, in a final attempt at murdering the prisoners, opened fire from the guard tower. Lau was in the line of fire; suddenly, someone jumped on him and held him down until the shooting had stopped. Having no idea who had saved his life, Lau made his way to Palestine, attended yeshiva, and entered the rabbinate. The first position for which he interviewed was chief rabbi of Netanya. Interviewing for the job with city officials, he encountered hours of question from the mayor of Netanya and his staff. The deputy mayor of Netanya, a man by the name of David Anilevitch, who ought to have been deeply involved in the interview, sat on the side and oddly said nothing. As the interview came to a close, Anilevitch stood up and said:
Friends, honored rabbi, before we disperse, please allow me to say my piece…. I have been reliving 11 April 1945. I was deported from my hometown to Buchenwald. On April 11, American airplanes circled in the skies above the camp. The prisoners, myself among them, were first out of the barracks. As we ran, a hail of bullets passed us. Among those running toward the gate was a little boy.…I jumped on top of him, threw him to the ground, and lay over him to protect him from the bullets. And today I see him before me alive and well. Now I declare this to all of you: I, David Anilevitch, was saved from that horror, fought in the Palmach, and today serve as deputy mayor of an Israeli city.
Anilevitch, Lau concludes, then banged on the table so that all the glasses shook and said: “If I have the merit of seeing this child, whom I protected with my body, become my spiritual leader, then I say to you that there is a God.”
The definition of a miracle is an event that should not naturally have occurred. For us, this tends to mean the splitting of the sea, the stopping of the sun, the opening of the earth. Yet, by the very same definition, it is a miracle that Israel was born, and endured in the way that it did. It is a miracle that after a generation in which many Jewish children grew up without parents, let alone grandparents, we have experienced the fulfillment of Zachariah’s prophecy that grandparents will watch their grandchildren play in the streets of Jerusalem. It is a miracle that after so many civilizations have disappeared, Jewish children continue to be born. It is a miracle that as anti-Semitism continues to haunt the nations of Europe that persecuted the Jews for so long, religious Judaism flourishes in Israel even as a now secular Europe demographically declines.
More than any other event in the last 70 years, the state that was born in avoidance of any explicit affirmation of Israel’s God now stands as the greatest argument for the existence of that very same God. And that is why many Jews, on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, will recite with renewed fervor prayers in the daily traditional liturgy that 70 years ago had been at least partially fulfilled:
O Rock of Israel,
Arise in defense of Israel,
And redeem, as you have promised,
Judah and Israel.
Our redeemer, the Lord of Hosts is your Name, the Sacred One of Israel
Blessed are you, O Lord, Who redeemed Israel.