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Colin Shindler on The Occult Power of Political Messianism

21st February 2012

Arthur Koestler is the 5th from the right. The photo was taken in 1945 at the Kibbbutz Ein HaShofet.

Professor Colin Shindler is the founding chairman of the European Association of Israel Studies and the UK's first professor of Israel Studies.This month his newest book entitled ‘Israel and the European Left: Between Solidarity and Delegitimization’ was released. It attempts to answer the question, why has the European Left become so antagonistic towards Israel? To answer this, Shindler explores the struggle between Marxism-Leninism and Zionism from the October Revolution to today. The following article is an excerpt from the book.

Stalin’s last years were ones which were pervaded by Jewish conspiracies and Zionist plots. The first show trial in Hungary of László Rajk in 1949 was also the first in which ‘international Zionism’ was invoked for crimes committed. Three out of the six of Rajk’s six co-defendants were Jews. Local Communists in Western Europe parroted the official explanations. It was a principled anti-Zionism, it was stated, a stand which should not be confused with anti-Semitism. There was similarly never any doubt about Rudolf Slansky’s guilt in Czechoslovakia or that a group of mainly Jewish doctors had been accused of poisoning Stalin’s comrades-in-arms. The French Stalinist academic, Maxime Rodinson ardently attacked those who asked difficult questions during the period in which the Doctors’ Plot was unfolding. He later related how difficult it was to come to terms with the reality that his ideological opponents including the Zionists had actually been right in their accusations – and he had been wrong.

For the most part, however, the deeper reason is the delay in registering disillusionment is simply the visceral need not to renounce a commitment that has illuminated one’s life, given it meaning, and for which many sacrificies have often been made. Hence the reluctance to recognise the most obvious facts, the desperate para-logical guile to which one resorts in an effort to avoid the required conclusions, the passionate and obstinate blindness with which the idea of any change is rejected, the refusal even to examine any document, any argument, that could imperil the delicate balance one has achieved in one’s inner being.

Jews like Rodinson had begun to desert the Communist parties in Europe since the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939. To this was added the invasion of Hungary in 1956, the expulsion of the remnant of Polish Jewry after 1967 and the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. In January 1953, an Israeli friend wrote an open letter to his friend ‘Max’, a Jewish Communist in Britain.

 This is what twenty years of devoted service to revolutionary socialism has led to: a regime in which wives are terrorised into demanding the deaths of their husbands and children the deaths of their fathers; a regime which in pursuit of its political and military strategy, deliberately releases one of the foulest forms of mass psychosis against your own people.

Are you prepared, like some of the revolutionaries of a generation ago, to see Jewish blood used to grease the wheels of the Revolution? Do you really believe that, if by some extraordinary combination of events, a Communist regime were to be victorious in the United Kingdom, you yourself would escape the fate of Slansky and the rest?

 

 

 

Every Jewish Communist who remains in the party today adds his grain of weight to the consideration which will influence the Kremlin to continue on the course on which it has embarked. Every Jewish Communist who leaves the party will be doing his little bit towards saving Jewish lives. You cannot escape your personal share of responsibility at this moment. Think it over, Max. Think it over.

 Arthur Koestler compared his time in the Communist party to the deception practised on the patriarch Jacob in sleeping with ‘the ugly Leah’ rather than the lovely Rachel. He subsequently remarked that the USSR was not a socialist country. ‘So let us bear in mind that ‘East is east’ and ‘Left is left’ and if the twain sometimes still meet, the meeting is purely coincidental’.

For many Jews, ‘the occult power of political messianism’ had lost its potency. Yet Marxism, Communism, Trotskyism – socialism and social democracy – had always exhibited a magnetic attraction for Jews. Perhaps at the root of this was a desire to repair and perfect the world, consciously and subconsciously in accordance with both Judaic teachings and Jewish experience. A desire to imitate the prophets who rebelled rather than the kings who ruled.

Yet the European Left ever since the French Revolution had preferred their Jews to be assimilated and acculturated rather than separated by national self-definition. As Clermont –Tonnerre famously exclaimed in 1789: ‘We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals’.

Indeed not all liberals favoured looked with favour upon the Jews. Thus the Rumanian statesman, Ion Brătianu, the follower of Mazzini and Garibaldi, promulgated anti-Jewish legislation before World War I.

Yet the opening up of the ghettos and the emancipation of the Jews in the wake of the Revolution allowed Jews to become members of the societies in which they lived.

Marxist Jews were heavily involved in three movements which were all founded at virtually the same point in history – the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the Bund and the World Zionist Organisation. The latter two were specifically Jewish movements while the Russian party tended to cater for Russified Jews. Yet at Lenin’s behest, it was these non-Jewish Jews who purported to speak for Jewish workers against the Bund’s delegates at the London conference in 1903 which also gave birth to the Bolsheviks.

In part, the Jewish question was used by Lenin to transform the party and shape it according to his ideological wishes. In part, it was a reflection of Lenin’s faulty understanding of the situation in which the Jewish masses found themselves in at the turn of the century. Lenin repeated the error of his predecessors in trying to bend the Jewish reality to fit political theory.

Yet the tradition of Jewish involvement in the European Left was a long and honourable one. While non-Jewish Jews were at the forefront of revolutionary uprisings after the end of World War I, many former Zionists and Bundists flowed into the ranks of the Soviet Communist party and then proceeded to act with a vindictive zeal against their former comrades. This came as a revelation to Lenin and many non-Jewish Bolshevik leaders.

Whilst the Shoah, the rise of Israel and Stalin’s misdeeds persuaded many Jews that only Zionism had passed the political and survivalist test, the belief remained amongst a miniscule minority that Zionism was impure ideologically and a dangerous distraction. Jews were natural internationalists and should devote their energies to class solidarity.

Yet this was often caught up in the politics of identity. Isaac Deutscher, the Marxist writer, pointed out that when Jewish intellectuals are placed at ‘the concatenation of various cultures’, they struggle. Moreover, the alignment of a majority of Jews with Israel after 1948 often proved to be the stage upon which such questions of identity were played out. Even as late as the twenty first century, national identity and nationalism was problematic for some Jews.

Blackmail on the grounds of community solidarity, in order to legitimate the politics of national unity of Israeli governments, is also intolerable to us...it is not in spite of being Jewish that we oppose this suicidal logic of identity-based panic. We reject the deadly spiral of ethnicisation of the conflict and its transformation into a war of religions. We refuse to be nailed to the wall of communal identity.

The desire to be ‘just Jewish’, non-institutionalised, non-communal, non-religious and distant from the bourgeois lifestyle of their parents sometimes governed attitudes towards Israel. In response, there were often emotional accusations of ‘jüdischer Selbsthass’ (Jewish self-hatred) which polarised relations even further. 

Deutscher projected himself as a non-Jewish Jew. He had left the closeted world of his Polish yeshiva for the attraction of world revolution. Deutscher never forgot his background. Even though an admirer of Trotsky, he occasionally recalled his puzzlement by the midrashic story of Elisha ben Abuya and his close friend, Rabbi Meir Baal Hanas. Ben Abuya was the classic heretic in Talmudic literature such that he was known as ‘akher ‘ – the other. While his actual misdemeanours were never revealed, he was at pains to warn his close friend, Rabbi Meir not to transgress the Sabbath when he was unwittingly in danger of doing so. Why did Elisha do this if he was the advocate of heresy? Why did Rabbi Meir maintain his friendship with Elisha when the entire Jewish community had deserted him?  Such questions perplexed Deutscher who identified with ben Abuya and regarded him as the model for contemporary revolutionaries such as Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky. Yet this story and its mystery did point to the convoluted issues that faced non-Jewish Jews who had travelled outside the community yet culturally remained within. Indeed if God was the universal god, then how could he be solely the god of the Jews? Such issues of national identity and internationalism affected many Jews on the European Left who were often marooned between identities. 

Some argued that they had found a place for Jewishness within socialism. The socialist intellectual, Ralph Miliband, exclaimed that his kind of socialism did not exclude Jewishness, but his kind of Jewishness did exclude that sort of Jewishness which regarded all non-Jews as enemies.

Although Deutscher welcomed the existence of the state of Israel, he regarded the nation state as an anachronism. In a lecture in Jewish Book Week in February 1958, he pleaded with his audience ‘Do you not see this yet?’ Many Jews did not.

The Zionists argued that the existence of Israel has increased the sense of security amongst European Jews. Anti-Zionists argued the exact opposite – that Israel was in reality a source of insecurity since it was a source of contemporary misfortune, accompanied by an awakening of the anti-Semitic monster.

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