It is easy to forget that Mandela was not a man of peace. Or more accurately, he believed that we need to fight for justice and therefore, peace. Many of his comrades were Jewish, as this article explores. Note that the author has underestimated the percentage of white people living in South Africa. It was more like 19%, about the same percentage of people who voted for Bjelke-Petersen’s own unique brand of apartheid in Queensland.
On Jewish Revolutionary Internationalism
I. The Prisoner in the Dock
THE JEWISH REVOLUTIONARY Internationalist commitment to the indivisibility of justice was on full display in palpable if muted form on April 26, 1964. That day, in Pretoria, South Africa, a tall, handsome man stood boldly in the prisoner’s dock of the Supreme Court.
Well built, and photogenic with a majestic bearing and nicely groomed hair parted in the middle, this regal-looking fellow was also identifiable as a revolutionary anti-apartheid activist. Accused of the crime of sabotage against the state on the grounds of his preparation of explosives, he was almost certain to receive a guilty verdict and the expected penalty would be death.
Even so, in defiant words that the London Observer reported under the headline, “Why I am Prepared to Die,” the dignified militant, whose frequent use of disguises provoked the Guardian to label him “The black pimpernel of South Africa,” commenced to deliver what the Observer described as “the historic speech which could be his last.”
Sitting behind this 44-year-old “Black Pimpernel” who was, of course, none other than Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), and facing the same charges and the same fate, sat nine comrades and codefendants. All had agreed that Mandela should deliver a four-hour speech explaining their cause and defending the use of violence. His oration ended as follows:
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
While speaking these haunting words, Mandela stared directly into the eyes of the white judge.
This passage from Mandela is critical to the reconstruction that the following essay will offer of several select aspects of the history of Jewish Revolutionary Internationalism. It is composed in the hope of persuading others to think through the germaneness of this tradition for the present moment of Black Lives Matter, BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions for Palestinian rights against the State of Israel), and other social movements demanding interracial and interethnic solidarity.
II. The Jewish Presence
A year before Mandela’s speech, in 1963, a group of anti-apartheid activists was arrested in Rivonia, a suburb of Johannesburg, and accused of launching the guerrilla warfare that would be the basis of the trial in Pretoria.
Five or six of the 13 originally apprehended were Jews. However, two of the Jews quickly managed a dare-devil escape from prison and South Africa disguised as priests — Arthur Goldreich (1929-2011), the famous abstract expressionist painter (probably the ringleader), and Harold Wolpe (1926-96), the sociologist and political economist. Both would die in exile — in Israel and England.
Among the Jews indicted in the ensuing trial were Denis Theodor Goldberg (1933-2020), the son of Lithuanian Jews, who joined the South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1957; Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein (1920-2002), an orphan child of European Jews who was a SACP member and architect; James Kantor (1927-74), a Jewish lawyer arrested only because Wolpe was his brother-in-law; and Bob Hepple (1934-2015), a student activist of English descent on his father’s side and Dutch and Jewish on his mother’s.
Those ultimately convicted were sentenced to life imprisonment, Mandela himself at hard labor in a lime quarry on Robben Island.
At that time in 1964, Jews in South Africa had full political rights and comprised possibly 1.4% of the white population; whites were perhaps 4.75% of the total inhabitants. Accordingly, Jewish representation among the “saboteurs,” risking their freedom and lives for Black liberation, was noticeably disproportionate.
Even more Jews were coupled with this “Rivonia Trial” in other essential capacities: Bram (Abram) Fischer (1908-75), from an elite Jewish Afrikaner family, was the lead attorney, and immediately after the trial was arrested for “supporting Communism.” Fischer was sentenced to life imprisonment and only released after 11 years due to a terminal cancer that killed him two weeks later.
Then there was the novelist Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014), daughter of immigrant Jews from Lithuania and England, who assisted Mandela in writing his memorable speech. In 1979, Gordimer, who voted Communist and supported the armed struggle, published the novel Burger’s Daughter, with the protagonist Lionel Burger modeled on the Communist Party member Fischer. Predictably, her book was straightaway banned although it proved noteworthy in Gordimer’s winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991.
Mandela was also supported throughout the ordeal by two of his closest friends from school days in the 1940s, a married couple: the SACP leaders Ruth First (1925-82) and Joe Slovo (born Yossel Mashel Slovo, 1926-95), of Latvian and Lithuanian Jewish families.
Slovo became commander of “The Spear of the Nation,” the armed wing (founded by Mandela) of the African National Congress; First was assassinated in 1982 by the South African police while she was teaching in exile in Mozambique, apparently because they couldn’t get to Slovo himself.
The solidarity of this couple with the African Liberation Struggle has stood as a model for generations. The November 2013 issue of Tablet magazine reprinted a well-known and telling story about Slovo:
“After seeing a photo of Black activist Khosian X [Benny Alexander] and Slovo together, a young friend of Khosian X’s son asked, ‘Why is your father shaking hands with a white man?’ Khosian X’s son answered: ‘That’s no white man. That’s Joe Slovo.’”
Mandela surely had Slovo and First in mind, among others, when he wrote in his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom: “I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.”
These names hardly exhaust the list of Jews who acted as heroic comrades in the anti-apartheid struggle, including several who were politically at odds with the SACP, which was considered controversial in its theories and practices due to its close alignment with the Soviet Union. One example of the latter is Baruch Hirson (1921-1999), founder of the critical Marxist journal Searchlight South Africa in 1988, who was jailed for nine years for carrying out sabotage in connection with the pro-Trotskyist African Resistance Movement (ARM).
Born near Johannesburg to Russian Jewish émigrés, Hirson evolved from the radical Zionist Hashomer Hatzair to Marxism. His daring activities while held in Pretoria Central Prison included assistance in the famous escape of several radical inmates recently dramatized in the thriller film Escape from Pretoria (2020). A postage stamp in Hirson’s honor was issued by Sierra Leone.
Hirson was eventually a collaborator of Hillel Ticktin (b. 1937), who also fled South Africa to avoid political persecution. In 1973 Ticktin founded the journal Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory, and later became an advisory editor of Against the Current.
III. The War of Narratives
The facts reported above are not in dispute, yet few pieces of information produce more cognitive dissonance than the war of different narratives about the “moral universe” of Jewish Revolutionary Internationalists. A short list of its defining constituents would include the Jews arrested at Rivonia; their predecessors in the anti-Fascist struggles of the 1930s and 1940s; and the originators of the 20th century Marxist tradition such as Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky.
Moving forward in time, we have those Jewish anti-racist and anti-colonialist activists who emerged in the 1960s New Left, as well as young people today. While these are two different generations rebelling in distinct circumstances, the common denominator is that they found it in their own self-interest to act in concert with anti-racist and anti-colonial movements, including those for Palestinian human rights and self-determination.
Politically, all in this tradition share with Marxism an understanding of capitalism as a world system that requires that discrete challenges against exploitation locally must of necessity work in harmony internationally. Culturally, this tradition is animated by a feeling of an elective affinity with a heritage animated by a global, supra-national identity.
Whatever the nature of their Jewish backgrounds, and their differing emotions about their experiences, all have dreamed and taken action on behalf of a socialism without borders.
Still, even as the Rivonia Trial, Spain, and other episodes are shared moments of the political past that countless historians have addressed, the experiences and individuals customarily function as Rorschach Tests as soon as it comes to interpretation and assessment.
To be brief, the degree of rigidity or complexity with which one thinks about communism, Jewish Identity, distinctions between oppressed and oppressor nationalities, assimilation, and Zionism — what one includes and what one ignores — plays a critical role in one’s stance toward this Jewish Revolutionary Internationalist tradition.
After World War II, variants of just one viewpoint came to carry the day in the West: the doctrine that communism produces Stalinism which is totalitarianism; and that an ethnically-privileged Israeli national state in at least half of historic Palestine is the legitimate, necessary, and historically logical manifestation of Jewish national self-determination.
This was consolidated as an early Cold War optic that has lived on and on. Although recent outrageous activities of the Israeli state are now undermining the latter belief, it is a perspective that continues to prevail in the U.S. mainstream press as well as academe. It not only charts the dominant political terrain but establishes much of what is judged to be permissible to be debated.
If one is firmly locked into such an outlook, there may not be a lot to discuss even when unearthing new research. Moreover, the “naturalization” of the status quo can make a progression look predictable in hindsight. To many, the military victories and expansion of a Jewish ethno-state appear to be an inexorable evolution rather than the results of an asymmetrical conflict between competing forces and visions. One might even conclude that there never was and still isn’t a future for a Revolutionary Internationalist past that failed to produce viable alternatives to a USSR without despotism, or a homeland for Jews without Zionism.
From this perspective, the Marxist ships that sailed in 1917, 1936 and 1968 must have been iceberg-seeking ones from the get-go, and the world of the Jewish Revolutionary Internationalists was and is at best marginal, most likely lost.
There are also willful efforts to promote historical amnesia that impinge on this legacy. Among the most egregious was the one that provoked me to formulate the title of this essay, “The Past That Must Not Pass.” On June 6, 1986 in the prestigious German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the German historian and philosopher Ernest Nolte (1923-2016) published an alarming short piece called “The Past That Will Not Pass Away.”
Nolte’s notorious argument was that the current generation of Germans, then 40 years after the end of the Second World War, should be allowed to embrace Germany’s national past without a “permanent sense of guilt.” All the notice bestowed on the Final Solution simply “diverts our attention from important facts about the National Socialist period…Earlier histories should be subject to revision.”
It is indeed true that a fixation on certain events can become a distorting prism that impoverishes our understanding of the full scope and complexity of the past, resulting in a mutilated historical hermeneutic. Nonetheless, for us, in a 21st century of rising nationalisms, right-wing terrorism, mass incarceration, desperate refugees rejected by advanced economic states, a growing technological alt-right fascosphere and Trump, the Nazi record is not one of those events to be scaled down.
Never would I detract from German fascism’s malign focus on the Jewish people; any form of Holocaust trivialization is unacceptable. However, the reason for this stress is not to enshrine Jewish exclusivity as the unmatched target of an eternal hatred in some sort of Olympics competition of victimhood; it is because the Final Solution crystalizes, summarizes, and draws our attention to the racist barbarism of a modernity that we continue to see before our eyes.
The industrial extermination of the Jews — after taking away their citizenship rights on the grounds that they were alien; dispossessing them; and relocating them to barbed wire camps — was a pure distillation of the culture of imperialism, biological racism, European/white chauvinism, and colonialism.
Nazism was not merely a throwback to medieval or pre-Enlightenment mystical obscurantism. It was a brutality and exploitation made possible by developed industrial society and its abuse of technology, from the mass media to weapons of terror. Our grasp of this aspect of modernity, and the forms of internationalist resistance carried out by Jews and other targets, cannot and must not pass because they remain both palpable threats and exemplars of defiance.
Yet this consideration of the past in the present cannot occur as the tracing of a straight line but only as a shadowing of the contours of a slow spiral; Jewish Revolutionary Internationalism is not explained by abstract formulae and pre-ordained verdicts, but apprehended as lived experience, a textured view not exempt from opacities. It is a past that must not pass because it once carved deep and distinctive tracks across the political and cultural landscape of the struggle for socialism.
IV. Internationalism and National Oppression
When I use the phrase “Jewish Revolutionary Internationalists,” I am not referring to a phenomenon that was crystal clear and consistent, or an identity devoid of those paradoxes that are always intrinsic to specific situations. I mean, simply, women and men who were born, educated, and lived lives as Jews in countless ways, even if their degree of awareness about the molding power of this personal story varied.
Among the most vexing elements of this history is that the dispossessed Arabs of Palestine after 1948 were for the most part the victims of arriving Jews who were themselves indisputably victims of immeasurable violence; yet the Zionist rulers of Israel today are of a very different generation and have become straight-out victimizers.
Certainly, there is no agreement that Jews can be defined as Jews simply by accessing ancestors’ DNA or the articulation of certain convictions about ancient theological tenets. There was and remains no consensus as to whether being Jewish is mainly a religious, cultural, ethnic or national identity.
What is pertinent to our own inquiry is that, apprehending that they were Jewish in some sense (for me, Jewishness is a treasured cultural legacy), individuals then made a choice in political outlook and behavior that is known as Revolutionary Internationalism.
The politics of this stance amount to the basic creed underlying Nelson Mandela’s 1964 Rivonia speech. In fact, if one alters a few of his words, they could have been uttered, in unison, by his Jewish comrades Goldreich, Wolpe, Gordimer, Fischer, First and Slovo:
“During our lifetimes we have dedicated ourselves to this struggle of oppressed people. Born Jews, we have united with others to fight against Ayran, Christian, or any other racial or religious domination, and we will fight even against Jewish domination. We have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which we hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which we are prepared to die.”
In sum, without repudiating or denying one’s birthright connections to what was historically an oppressed or pariah group, one even so remains pledged to fight for a shared utopia. One’s commitment, then, is not to one’s ethnicity alone but, if appropriate, for communal homelands, ensuring rights and dignity for all residents.
Without a doubt, such a politics is something of an imagined answer to knotty and vexing problems, which are at all times to be realized imperfectly. Moreover, there will always be stages and stepping-stones, transitional phases, en route to the ultimate end, especially in a multifaceted situation like Israel/Palestine where a one-time oppressed group has come to assume a different role as the comparatively privileged population in what can best be understood within the framework of a type of settler colonial state that practices forms of apartheid.
Nonetheless, even as one debates out the complexities of what equalitarian co-existence looks like and the most effective strategies to achieve this, one is striding forward, joining a new world of class-conscious social rebellion against the old.
V. The Illusion of Security
The Revolutionary Internationalist sees one’s Jewish emancipation bound up with the emancipation of others, much as Mandela clarified his own commitment in the Rivonia trial. Long-term safety is found not in retreat into a Fort Apache but in stronger, more just communities, where everyone has full citizenship without exceptions.
Ending anti-Semitism is not a competing cause but part of the same struggle as ending Islamophobia, and racism against people of color in the United States, as well as supporting state structures that guarantee full Palestinian rights in Israel/Palestine. A world divided among hardened national identities, fixed national states, and exclusive homelands is likely to offer only an illusion of security in a globalized world.
If humanity continues laboring to assist the long arc of the moral universe in bending toward justice, citadel states of the apartheid type that exists in Israel are putting their populations in peril.
This understanding is taking hold and explains why so many pro-Israel scholarly rationalizers are arriving on the scene like the U.S. cavalry with guns blazing. These academic and journalistic hit squads seem capable of performing endless mental contortions to justify the defense of an ethno-supremacist state against the demand for a pluralistic democracy appropriate to this new millennium.
Nevertheless, this projection of high-mindedness while kicking people in the teeth is not going to work forever. Whatever ideals may have been present at the beginning, the logic of Zionism in the post-World War II world has become that of an ethno-nationalism favoring one group over another in a manner that stinks of white supremacism.
There is an unstoppable growing recognition among even liberal Zionists such as Peter Beinart that the conjoining of Jewish privilege with democracy is simply a political oxymoron.(14) If cosmopolitanism and human rights are to thrive, the world will increasingly unite against the Israeli state form unless it changes.
The most frightening scenario is an even greater increase of Israeli dependence on becoming still more of a watchdog for U.S. imperialism. Inasmuch as all the leading political parties in Israel share a deep commitment to U.S. dominance in the Middle East, the stage will then be set for the ultimate act of anti-Semitism, which is when the Jewish people are used as pawns in power plays by elites.(15)
The moral universe of Jewish Revolutionary Internationalism is exemplified by the Botwin Brigade, an all-Jewish contingent of combatants in the Spanish Civil War.
Viewing the future not as nationalism but internationalism was at root in the defense of the Spanish Republic in 1936, in which 1000 Jewish American members of the Lincoln Brigade were combatants;(16) the Voter Registration Drive in Mississippi called Freedom Summer in 1964, when two Jewish-Americans from Leftist families were martyred along with their African-American comrade, James Chaney; or even in the obviously doomed but inspirational effort that resulted in the death of 13,000 Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.
This last was a rebellion planned and prepared by young Jewish radicals, including veterans of Spain, whose banner in the Z.O.B. (Jewish Fighting Organization) was anti-racist internationalism.
Such constructions of solidarities across geographic and ethnic borders — an “imagined community” reaching beyond practicality into the realm of the symbolically emboldening — promotes a “utopia” in the sense used by German sociologist Karl Mannheim: yanking social institutions, including states, out of the present framework and restructuring them around new rules and norms.
Indispensable to this vision is a search for global solutions to unending inequities of capitalist modernity that were once called “The Negro Problem,” after the 1903 collection of writings to which W. E. B Du Bois contributed, and “The Jewish Question,” after the theologian Bruno Bauer’s 1843 book. (Bauer’s essay, of course, was a highly controversial interpretation that Karl Marx answered in 1843 with his equally controversial “On the Jewish Question.”)(17)
That’s why the moral universe of Jewish Revolutionary Internationalists over many decades lies in a worldview briefly summed up by Mandela’s Rivonia speech. It also lies in a method that starts with a political evaluation constructed around a primary division of exploited and exploiters — not between Jew and Gentile, or the European West and non-European East or South, or, later, the Cold War binary of the “Iron Curtain” versus the “Free World.”
Rather, diverse liberation movements are to be enfolded into a unified world social revolution based on what humanity holds in common. Exploited classes are viewed as the strategic center of insurrection against societies ruled by economic and racial privilege; the reason is that their experiences of inequality and subjugation are conjoined with the collective strength to transform social arrangements.
VI. Easy Answers to Hard Questions
Nevertheless, even among the Left there are multiple, competing accounts of the Jewish Revolutionary Internationalist tradition, some rooted in varieties of socialism, communism and anarchism, as well as the fact that all Jewish experience is not homogenous. The versions are confounded by shifting grounds for evaluation due to the disastrous historical regression of Stalinism and the 1948 founding of a Jewish national state with the ensuing Palestinian Nakba (disaster). Such complications have surely shattered any basis for believing that there is only one version of how it was.
Hostile academic books of the last decade such as Robert Wistrich’s From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel (2011) and Stephen Norwood’s Anti-Semitism and the American Far Left (2013) are among the many writings claiming that the Jewish Revolutionary Internationalist tradition is in point of fact one of illusions nested within more illusions.
We are talking here of a disputation of this legacy that is advanced not only by conservatives, but also by assorted liberals. Regrettably, by the time these guys are done characterizing those of us on the far Left, one can barely recognize oneself.
This genre of writings variously holds that the tradition of the far Left was corrupt from the outset, or became corrupted. They maintain that Jewish Revolutionary Internationalists were really mere “assimilationists,” and that their universalism was a cover for Jewish self-hatred. They further argue that the exhortation for “class struggle” was just one more example of a “will to power,” and that demands to give “power to the people” were nothing less than a means to obtain power for themselves.
Since most Jewish Revolutionary Internationalists identified with Communism, they were allegedly exploiting Jewish issues as a method of recruitment, and so would episodically affirm identification as Jews only to mask their authentic intent. Moreover, when Jews served in Spain, in the anti-fascist Resistance, allied with the African National Congress, and so on, it was primarily because, as soldiers of Stalin, they were ordered to do so — an act of duty to one’s party and ideology, not to the Jewish, Spanish or Black African people.
In this view, some Jewish Revolutionary Internationalists may have been well-meaning but were duped; others seduced; and still others warped by ambition or resentment. In sum, the authors are adamant that Jewish Revolutionary Internationalists of the far Left provide no moral compass for today, and probably never did. To claim otherwise is allegedly to promote nostalgia for a tradition that contained the seeds of its own destruction and has now led to a full-blown Left anti-Semitism.
The statement on Wistrich’s book jacket seeks to transport the kind of polarized politics we associate with Trump culture to this particular topic:
“From Ambivalence to Betrayal …reveals a striking continuity in negative stereotypes of Jews, contempt for Judaism, and negation of Jewish national self-determination from the days of Karl Marx to the current left-wing intellectual assault on Israel.”(18)
Stephen Norwood’s book also rams home a similar self-promotional message in an operatic overstatement:
“Norwood discusses the far left’s use of long-standing theological and economic stereotypes that the far right has also embraced. This study analyzes the far left’s antipathy to Jewish culture, as well as its occasional efforts to promote it. He considers how early Marxist and Bolshevik paradigms continued to shape American far left views of Jewish identity, Israel, and anti-Semitism.”(19)
The final paragraph of Norwood’s book, written with all the subtlety of a club-wielding thug, adds an even more sinister accusation: “Decades after its demise, the far left’s outlook on Jews and Zionism has entered the mainstream…American colleges and universities are ensuring the transmission of anti-Semitism to the next generation.”(20)
VII. Curiosity and Candor
Mostly I find the above to be a myth that has staying power because it offers easy answers to very hard questions. Unquestionably, such books and essays contain disturbing facts interwoven with false interpretations; one should not turn a blind eye to unflattering episodes in Left history, even as one cannot let them be enshrined in collective memory as a series of caricatures.
Revolutionary Internationalists need both curiosity and candor. For instance, one is certainly able to cite crudely simplistic remarks by Luxemburg and the young Trotsky dismissing or trivializing a positive Jewish identity.
More troubling to many is the inaccurate analysis by Karl Marx in his pre-Marxist 1843 essay “On the Jewish Question” — importantly defending full rights for Jews (against Bruno Bauer’s essay), but identifying Judaism with “the huckstering spirit” of capitalism — and nasty offhand anti-Jewish insults, all too characteristic of the time, that appear in private correspondence. (For a discussion of this episode, see Hal Draper’s extended note, “Marx and the Economic-Jew Stereotype” referenced in endnote 17.)
Then there is the indefensible record of the Soviet Communist movement on so many questions, including the fact that Communists did not support anti-fascist resistance from 1939 to 1941 — from the advent of the appalling Pact with Hitler to the surprise attack on the USSR itself.
Finally, there were shrill, simplistic, statements made in the 1960s by various New Leftists — some that were hyper-revolutionary at best and oblivious to the toxicity of using language and drawings that associate Jews and money. It is obligatory to speak the truth, and anger is sometimes justified; but serious revolutionaries try to figure out a strategy that can reach new people beyond one’s base and not merely demonstrate one’s self-righteous rage.
Does anyone really think that calling all liberal Zionists racists or Nazis is the way to win them over to the Palestinian rights movement? And why use political formulae that can easily be twisted to suggest the advocacy of violence by a foreign power against civilians (as in calling for the “destruction of Israel”) when one’s goal is the revolutionary transformation of a state form by implementing genuine democracy?
At the same time, one must be vigilant about accepting depictions and construals of the record of the far Left when a hostile author’s passions are inflamed, even if the publisher is the prestigious Cambridge University Press. Here is how Norwood summarizes his material on Trotsky and anti-Semitism:
“Even after the horrifying wave of pogroms that began at Kishinev in April 1903, Trotsky saw no reason for socialists to concentrate on eradicating anti-Semitism or protecting Jewish communities, unlike the Zionist and Bundist groups, which organized armed self-defense forces.”(21)
In contrast, here is what Joshua Rubenstein (far more qualified as a specialist in the Soviet Union than Norwood, whose field is U.S. history) says in Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary Life (2011) on the same subject:
“Led by Trotsky, the [1905 Petrograd Soviet] also recognized the need to defend Jews from pogroms….In October the Soviet learned of plans to stage a pogrom in the capital itself…[Under his leadership the Soviet] organized armed units to defend Jews living in Saint Petersburg….as many as twelve thousand men, armed with revolvers, or with wooden or metal clubs, were mobilized to fight the Black Hundreds….[Trotsky’s] trial began on September 19, 1906….he detested pogroms…and never abided physical attacks on Jews, and often intervened to denounce such violence and organize a defense….No non-Jewish revolutionary had ever confronted tsarist officials with such defiant words about their violent anti-Semitic animosity.”(22)
Books such as Norwood’s are of a genre that arranges history to conform to the author’s prejudices; primary and secondary sources require fact checking, and Norwood himself may deserve a “Pants on Fire!” rating.
Nelson Mandela and Nadine Gordimer, comrades for life.
VIII. They Came From Yiddishland
When disquieting episodes emerge, they are not to be ignored or excused but understood. The history we have inherited of the Jewish Revolutionary Internationalist presence is often fragmentary, occasionally becoming visible as uncertain and questioning phantoms of a yesteryear.
Persistently, events from the past — the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the German Spartacist Revolt, the International Brigades, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Rudolf Slánský Trial, the execution of the Rosenbergs, the murder of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney — step through the scrim of history. These memories are linked — but in what way? Some have features that certainly trouble the political landscape — such as accusations of espionage and political treachery still under dispute.
Then again, enigmas of the past are likely to torment the minds of all those who look back on the multifaceted histories of fascism, nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, Stalinism, imperialism and colonialism without succumbing to the temptation to twist the world around one occlusive theory or another.
For the dogmatic Left, such theories can be grand narratives of history, ones that teleologically promise social redemption at some future date if one stays loyal to one faction or another’s “revolutionary program” or putative “socialist fatherland.” Toward the Right, we find adherence to a certainty of belief in eternal ethnic hatreds, “clashes of civilizations,” and undying religious animosities that often mask exploitative class structures and legacies of colonialism that the ideologue prefers to keep hidden.
In searching out the roots of 19th century Jewish Revolutionary Internationalism, it’s natural to think about starting an inquiry with a quest for political documents, the dead past found in historical records. Yet documents easily give rise to cherry-picked and decontextualized quotes that are of dubious service in constructing an accurate narrative from highly charged historical materials.
It is the human activity that is the main interest of social history, not only what people wrote but what they thought and dreamed. The tradition we are mapping arises from individuals who are well known. Not all, but many of them typically came from 19th century Yiddishland — the Jewish world of mostly Eastern Europe, where there was a concentration of about eleven million people and the common language was Yiddish.(23)
We are not talking of a territory in the strict meaning of borders, but of social and cultural space found mainly in parts of Russia, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine. As industrialization and urbanization was pulling Jews out of shtetls and into towns and cities in this region, traditional communities were broken up.
Jewish workers (mostly in handicrafts) entered factories where they found socialism, communism and anarchism in the air, and discovered a common project in the organization of unions. Thus they were drawn to the Bund (the Jewish General Workers Union), Poale Zion (Workers of Zion), the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, and more.
What is vital to understand is that many of these political trends were pulled to the far Left before and after the October 1917 Russian Revolution; they would unite, split, reunite, and leaders and rank-and-file members would pass back and forth among them.
This means that official Soviet Communism is far from the full story. Communism may have been an essential ingredient, but Jewish Revolutionary Internationalism was always something more — and sometimes at odds with official Communism.
A range of denizens of Yiddishland, as well as Jews in Central and Western Europe, and the United States and the Middle East, felt a great need and desire to identify with the Russian Revolution broadly, as a historical phenomenon. The event had an electrifying — dare I say near-religious? — import as a beacon of justice signaling that hierarchies were to be leveled on behalf of a unified, liberated humanity.
Then again, from the outset many Marxist activists and intellectuals found themselves disagreeing at times with the policies and leaders of the reigning Bolshevik Party. Notwithstanding, such distinctions did not prevent a pro-Revolution stance sweeping the Left.
During the Soviet Civil War (1918-22), for Jewish radicals and beyond, broad sentiment was very much on the side of the Red Army, commanded by a Jew — Leon Trotsky. The counter-revolutionaries, the Whites, were seen as openly anti-Semitic. A considerable portion of the Jewish intelligentsia was recruited to the Soviet state apparatus at this time.
Moreover, the early Bolshevik stand against anti-Semitism was unimpeachable. Further, as the post-revolutionary attitude toward Jewish culture — especially in Yiddish education and the arts — was fully supportive, even as independent Jewish political organization was opposed.
For Jewish Revolutionary Internationalists, there was a heartfelt intellectual wrestling over what it meant to be a nationality without a nation — and one without land. This debate would remain part of the tradition.
Should one find land — where and how? Zionism made no sense to most Jewish revolutionaries because it meant leaving Europe, where one’s culture was based, and where one had every right to be.
They also saw the proposed new homeland in Palestine as one that was usurping an already-occupied territory by collaborating with a horrific colonial power (the British Empire). Besides, Soviet policy was that of trying to create a truly multinational state by promoting cultures of many minorities.
In Yiddish, there were numerous publications in the USSR and some famous achievements in theater throughout much of the 1920s. Jewish-American philosopher Horace Kallen (1882-1974) was hardly the only visitor to declare the Russian Jewish world far more Jewish than anything in the United States. Moscow was hailed as the Yiddish World Republic of Letters, outshining Warsaw and New York.
In Manhattan, basking in reflective glory, the Jewish Communist Freiheit newspaper attracted a cadre of poets such as Menachem Boreisha (1888-1949), Moyshe-Leyb Halpern (1886-1932), H. Leivick (1888-1962), and Avrom Reisen (1876-1963), as well as the classic prose humorist Moyshe Nadir (1885-1943) and the “poetic novelist” Isaac Raboy (1882-1944).
Abruptly, this renaissance in the USSR was mostly shut down under Stalin’s ever-tightening state control. Even then, in the mid-1920s and 1930s, Jewish regional autonomy was inaugurated through agricultural settlements in the Crimea and a promised homeland in Birobidzan (close to the border with China).
Such turn-abouts in policy continued right up until the post World War II period, which partially explains why Jews were both enticed toward and repelled by the Soviet Communist dream. As late as 1935, for example, the Soviet Union was the only country in the world to openly condemn Nazi anti-Semitism. This is why tracking the progress of pro-Communist Revolutionary Internationalism, which is conspicuously problematic, is not the pursuit of a straight-line trajectory from illusion to disillusion. There were reasons why a waning faith might be renewed.
Moreover, not all revolutionary Jewish Internationalists were Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews who had originated in Western Germany and Northern France in the Middle Ages but moved Eastward. Sephardic (originating from the Iberian Peninsula) and Mizrahi (residing in North Africa and the Middle East) Jews make up perhaps 25 to 35% of the population.
Far less research is currently available in English on the relationship of these two smaller yet crucial components of what can be seen as a global revolutionary tradition that overlap even as they have divergences. Nevertheless, one can readily point to historical figures such as Avraam Benaroya (1887-1979), the Bulgarian-born Jewish socialist author of The Jewish Question and Social Democracy (1908), and Abraham Serfaty (1926-2018), the anti-Zionist Moroccan Jew, who was in the Moroccan Communist Party until 1970.
A prominent revolutionary figure of the 1968 generation in France was Daniel Bensaïd (1946-2010), the son of a Sephardic Jew from Algeria,24 and a somewhat younger author and activist on behalf of Palestinian rights is Ella Shohat (b. 1959), a New York University professor who is the daughter of Iraqi Jews born in Israel. The Israeli Black Panthers (founded 1971), modeled themselves on the U.S. Black Panther Party and the organization was comprised of Jewish immigrants from North Africa and Middle Eastern countries. Today, in the U.S. Left there is growing consciousness of the situation of “Jews of Color,” which includes offspring of mixed marriages as well as some Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews.(25)
IX. Political Seesawing
To be sure, Jews on the Left were pole-axed by the 18-month Pact of Stalin with Hitler, and the joint Gestapo-NKVD (Soviet secret police) conferences to crush Polish resistance, all rooted back in the policy of “Socialism in One Country” and the bureaucratization of the Soviet party apparatus. Then, in contrast, the Soviet Union relocated a million-and-a-half Jewish refugees from occupied Poland, saving them from Nazi slaughter.
The USSR carried the brunt of the war that defeated Hitler with half a million Jews fighting in the ranks of the Red Army. (Personal disclosure: This included my great uncle and his wife, both military doctors, who were killed on the front lines in the initial onslaught of the Nazis’ Operation Barbarossa.)
During and right after the war, Jewish/Yiddish culture was once more promoted in the USSR, and the resurrected Popular Front directed Communists to link arms with Zionists in New York City to sing the ultra-nationalist anthem “Hatikvah.”
When the United Nations in 1948 voted for partition of Palestine into two states, the USSR was a strong supporter, even though this contravened its immediately preceding stance that advocated the establishment of one democratic state of Arabs and Jews. In the war that followed, arms from newly-Communist Czechoslovakia were vital to the Israeli military victory in defeating the Arab armies and enabling Jewish expansion into the area earmarked for Palestinians.
At the same time, many of those Jews deported from occupied Poland died in Siberian Gulags, and in 1948-49 the leading Soviet Yiddish cultural figures were arrested and in 1952 shot as “cosmopolitans.” The presence of a Jewish state fueled Stalin’s paranoia that Jewish Communists might feel a dual loyalty. This was part of the reason for the postwar anti-Semitic trials launched against Jewish Communists in Eastern Europe.
In these prosecutions, many one-time Communist heroes of Spain and the Resistance were denounced as Zionists and put to death. The finale of this anti-Semitic purge was the infamous 1952-53 Doctors Plot, in which prominent Moscow Jewish medical men were accused of conspiring to assassinate Soviet leaders — their pending execution halted only by Stalin’s lucky death.
The political seesawing of the USSR over the decades is largely explained by swerves in Soviet policy aimed at Stalin’s maintaining power over the state. But threats from the West that provided pretexts for Stalin’s dictatorial rule didn’t help. As might be expected, a similar record of Communist oscillation was mirrored in regard to the Palestine Left.
In the 1930s, the local Palestine Communists were first ordered to swing to uncritical support of the Arab nationalist movement, one led by feudalists often in league with the British. Next, Communists were commanded to abandon Palestinians by allying with the British colonialists during the Second World War. Zionist politics were backed, although never the ideology.
Subsequently Communists supported the formation of the Israeli state in 1948. This alteration in loyalty was changed only in 1956, when Israel led France and England in invading Egypt, attempting to seize the Suez Canal and depose President Nasser.
In the United States, Communist policy shifts regarding Jewish and Arab matters were also imitated, most scandalously, in 1929. Arab riots were initially denounced as pogroms, next defended as anti-imperialist. Then came the 1935 switch from a Communist Party Yiddish Bureau, which attempted to organize Jewish workers and promote Yiddishkeit, to a Jewish Bureau urging Communists to move from outsiders of the Jewish-American community to Popular Front insiders.
In the 1940s, the leadership of the Communist Party (CP-USA) was purged and a Left turn commenced. This persisted into the Cold War era when, once again, Communists were forced to defend the indefensible — the 1948 coup in Czechoslovakia, then the Rudolf Slánský trial.(26)
X. A History of Misunderstanding
What is striking is how much of the confusion of the Jewish Revolutionary Internationalist tradition, and what this means for a Jewish identity in the modern world, was facilitated by ambiguities and uncertainties in the original discourse of Marxist positions on “The Jewish Question.” The Italian scholar Enzo Traverso aptly observed: “The history of the Marxist debate on the Jewish question is a history of misunderstanding.”(27)
To clarify this we need to back up a bit to Marx’s youthful political errors. Thankfully, his initial identification of Jews with mercantile capitalism was dropped completely as he developed his economic critique around production. Nonetheless Marx remained beholden to a mistaken Enlightenment vision of assimilation: Like similarly advanced thinkers, he held that the linguistic and cultural features that made Jews different were a product of their exclusion, and that such alterity would dissipate with full political and civil rights, as it also would with other peoples.
Definitely, this socialist internationalist viewpoint on assimilation was not the belief that a minority would simply become like the majority; for example, that Jews would convert to the dominant Christian, often anti-Semitic culture. This is what would later be called “bourgeois assimilation.”
The alternative prediction as well as the mistaken program of 19th century Marxism was that capitalist industrialization would progressively require all discrete groups to relinquish distinct national cohesion to form something new from elements of the old. As Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto: “The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property.”(28)
Perhaps we would say today that they expected a future social order in which “assimilation” would be irrelevant because we would live in some sort of universal gemeinschaft (a community of reciprocal bonds). Marx and Engels thought that, with full rights, modernization and secularization, Jews would voluntarily overcome Jewish “otherness.” They saw this “otherness,” as did other Enlightenment thinkers, as archaic theology, language and customs.
The first problem is: Archaic or not, for what would this “otherness” be given up? Calling for an international, universal culture is simply an algebraic abstraction without content; what exactly were the 19th century models Marx and Engels had in mind for such a culture?
If we look at the work of the icons of the 20th century historic internationalist cultural Left — Paul Robeson, Pablo Neruda, Frida Kahlo, Pablo Picasso, Mahmoud Darwish — we find that specific national and ethnic cultures are very much present in internationalist culture, not cast off but augmented by a blending with other elements. This is because one still has to reach individuals through a local starting point — African American for Robeson, Palestinian for Darwish, Spanish and French for Picasso.
Reaching people starts with languages and includes symbols and references to what is familiar and understandable, even if thought to be “premodern” or “archaic.” Otherwise, without any grounding in local or subaltern culture, “universalist internationalism” could easily become a euphemism for the imposition of the interest of the most powerful dominant group — especially that of white Christian, elite males, as we have already seen in the history of the Western canon.
One reason that national and ethnic elements remain very present in internationalist culture is that the advances of capitalism did not abolish nations as Marx and Engels predicted. Instead of the more technologically advanced countries absorbing the economically weaker ones, they competed to invade and exploit them, exacerbating nationalist tensions and religious differences.
XI. Toward a Multicultural Society
For Jews, the traditional Jewish world of the 19th century did break up, yet Jews as Jews did not fade. In Western Europe, it is true, a kind of structural assimilation of Jews began; but even those Jews who changed names, and declared themselves not Jewish but French, or German, or socialist, continued to be perceived as Jews. Alterity was detected and Jews continued to suffer marginalization and discrimination. Even those with considerable wealth did not necessarily escape the horrors of anti-Semitism culminating in genocide.
In the East, capitalist development never even led toward assimilation. Whatever the Bolsheviks believed, and opinions varied, a living Jewish nationality existed, evolving into a more modern type as Jews moved into the city, experienced a cultural renaissance in Yiddish, and expressed a group consciousness.
Thus there emerged from these European developments theories that tried to harmonize Jewish nationality and universalism in the workers’ movement. Some Jewish Marxists “on principle” did not champion a Jewish identity, believing that it only made sense in reference to theology and that it stood for a limiting way of life. Others declined to use their Jewish names in political work so as not to reinforce myths about socialism as a “Jewish conspiracy.”
Yet the term “Jewish Marxism” emerged, as in the writing of the Bund’s Vladimir Medem (1879-1923). Bolshevik leaders tended toward an assimilationist ideal; but Lenin at times referred to a Jewish nation and the mature Trotsky favored a Jewish homeland/territory for reasons of security.
Those Jewish Revolutionary Internationalists who came afterwards, including those arrested with Mandela at Rivonia, continued to fall all over the map on these matters, especially as World War II unfolded and a Jewish state was created.
In the 1940s, Communist publications in the United States aggressively critiqued what they called “the ideology of assimilation”; they counterpoised what they called “a progressive Jewish life” — which seemed to be a Jewishness identified with political values promoted by the CP-USA at that moment, including pro-Sovietism.(29)
Today, most of us hold the view that different groups should be able to retain their identities and institutions to whatever extent they wish, within a multicultural society.
Unfortunately, in the post-World War II period Jewish Revolutionary Internationalism fell to a low point. The sickening outburst of Soviet anti-Semitism was denied by Stalinists and fellow travelers; at the same time there were major illusions on the Left about Israel, even among Communists, former Communists, and other radicals.
Many now saw Israel as socialist, or at least anti-colonial, and perhaps independent from imperialist powers such as the United States. Conceivably this was because Israel, due to World War II, was now populated by a new immigration — disinherited, homeless, desperate refugees, excluded by racism from more desirable destinations in the West.
Also, the Left was learning for the first time about the scope of the Nazi Holocaust and rightly taken aback by its extent and horror. So the plight of Arab Palestinians fell into the background as a concern of the Left.
After the 1956 invasion of Suez, however, a handful of anti-imperialists among a burgeoning New Left in Europe became more disapproving of the Israeli state; for many more, the change would occur only in the aftermath of the 1967 war with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
One exception to this pattern in the 1950s and early 1960s was the tiny Trotskyist movement, which however had splintered into ever more warring factions as their guiding predictions — that World War II would lead directly to social revolution in the West and a rebellion against Stalinist regimes — seemed ever more distant.
Leaders such as Tony Cliff (born Yigael Glückstein, 1917-2000) in England and Hal Draper (born Harold Dubinsky, 1914-1990) in the USA wrote pointedly about the mistreatment of the Palestinian population, and the far better known Isaac Deutscher (1907-67) published essays predicting disaster if an equitable solution to the disputed territory in Palestine was not found.(30)
In this material young activists of today may find elements of a usable and meaningful Jewish Revolutionary Internationalist identity, albeit it must surely be interrogated in light of a deep dive into the latest thinking about heteropatriarchy and the relationship between Ashkenazi Jews to Jews of Color.
XII. The Precarity of History
The thought-provoking history of Jewish Revolutionary Internationalism, most numerical and gathering steam in Yiddishland, and unfolding in its most rousing yet puzzling form in the era of Hitler and Stalin, shadows us into the present. How promising is it for us to tackle, once more, such a vexed topic as reconfiguring Jewish identity in a Revolutionary Internationalist context in 2020?
After all, many features of the historical terrain have changed. The material basis of the moral universe of Jewish Revolutionary Internationalism was once integral to the broader working-class movement and parties that promoted its interests. In the late 1950s and 1960s, however, it was mainly an international youth radicalization that opened up socialist anti-Zionist vistas for young Jews. Yet those inspired remained considerably marginalized, making no headway at all in either the Jewish community or Democratic Party.
Today, the blatant racism of Israel has changed the situation, registering very promisingly in pro-Palestinian sentiment growing in the Democratic Socialists of America (of a kind impermissible in that same organization a few years ago), as well as in groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Open Hillel, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.
It is true that a certain proportion of the present-day youthful rebellion against Israeli state policy is expressed by sets of ideas different from explicit revolutionary Marxism. Some promote “allyship,” which is an encouraging development if not quite the same as a common agreement with Palestinians and others on the need for an international anticapitalist struggle. Then there is philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler’s specifically Jewish critique that Zionism is profoundly “un-Jewish.”(31)
Without disparaging her efforts, as well as those of Daniel Boyarin, a historian of religion, and Jonathan Boyarin, his anthropologist brother, who hold that Zionists should support Palestinian national liberation,(32) I still must pose the question: Does there remain in the Jewish Revolutionary Internationalist tradition an untapped potential, a reactivation of the unexpected, in what might otherwise be an eclipsed and buried past?
Stephen Norwood’s Anti-Semitism and the Far Left claims that this tradition met its “demise” decades ago; I would only grant its defeat as a major force in the mainstream politics of the day. A new generation, which resembles the old in not wanting to be trapped in any narrow Jewish identity that is established by others, may well be able to mend this past and not allow it to pass.
Undeniably, Jewish Revolutionary Internationalism has not regained the foothold it once possessed since the Cold War, and an updated version of the solidarity once demonstrated by a variety of South African Jewish Leftists is needed more than ever at present. This is due to the dangerous trajectory of the Israeli state but also because of the current rise of a truly threatening, far-Right anti-Semitism, in Europe and to a lesser extent here in the USA.
What Jewish Revolutionary Internationalism teaches us is that, in fact, anti-Semitism was never fully exorcized in the West despite the defeat of fascism; in the United States anti-Semitism was simply displaced by myths that were intended to shroud many brutal aspects of our nation’s past.
Above all, for the moral universe of Jewish Revolutionary Internationalism to be fully reclaimed, we must understand that any new U.S. fascist-like movements will never be solely anti-Semitic; they will surely be built on a groundwork of anti-Black racism and will incorporate a hatred of Muslims and other people of color. That is why the inspiring social movement of Black Lives Matter demands decisive support from Jews who should take inspiration from our political ancestors once standing with Mandela in the prisoner’s dock.
Jewish Revolutionary Internationalism is simply incompatible with the view that the present state of Israel is the guarantor of Jewish safety or the lodestar of Jewish identity. Even the liberal Zionists, who air personal misgivings about particular Israeli policies but refuse to acknowledge the systemic nature of the problem, are going to have to face the truth about the state that acts in their name: It cavorts with European despots and Holocaust deniers while fanning racism in the territory it rules and denouncing advocates of democracy for Israel/Palestine as “Left anti-Semites.”
This smear, too often taken up by U.S. liberal apologists for Zionism, is nothing but a desperate attempt to bullwhip young Jews into line. (We gray-haired Jews have been dealing with this by-now stale slander since the 1960s.) In truth, the young Jews in groups such as JVP are threatening to the pro-Israel establishment not because they are hateful anti-Semites but precisely because they aren’t.(33)
Auspiciously, many young people, and some not so young, will “not stand idly by” in the face of police killings and the criminalization of African Americans, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant prejudice, mass incarceration, as well as the long-standing abuse of Palestinian human rights.
A 2.0 version of Jewish Revolutionary Internationalism must be rescued from the netherworld to which the Wistrichs, Norwoods and others are trying to consign it. Inquiry into the real, existing heritage of Jewish Revolutionary Internationalism could recover anticipatory, guiding ideas — alternatives to the self-defeating limits of liberalism.
Research combined with practice will also help us come to terms with realms of modernity that are a nexus of inexpressible pain and anger — such as how the Judeocide happened and the social causes of Soviet deceit — not through suppression or evasion but by means of reasoning and a superior command of the subject.
On the other hand, to follow the view that the Jewish Revolutionary Internationalist tradition is exhausted or doomed to certain failure is to assume the stance that what did not happen could not happen. Such a choice, to thereby replace the contingency of history with the certainty of hindsight, is one that will surely close off alternative futures.
If we have learned nothing else, it is that sometimes an apparently closed road must nonetheless be reopened. In this sense, with our actions today driven by the precarity of history, our awareness must be that frozen visions of the past are the errors we are forever correcting.
Against the Current No. 209, November/December 2020
November-December 2020, ATC 209