by Sai Englert
A continent with moving borders now disappeared, a culture buried under the ashes and so many struggles for the emancipation of humankind hidden by the defenders of a victimising history.
I was sold. ‘This collection aims to make the multiple voices of the Yiddishland resonate and to share its living memory.’ The book’s title, Revolutionary Yiddishland, had already caught my attention.
It was the late noughties, and French publisher Syllepse had reprinted the book as part of its Yiddishland series, edited by David Forest. Its impact on me was immense. I devoured it and the following volumes; my political horizons radically expanded. Not only, I came to realise, was there no contradiction between Judaism, socialism and internationalism, but, until the Nazi genocide, they existed in a profoundly interrelated way. Not only was it possible to be a Jewish anti-Zionist without being a ‘self-hater’, but until the rise of fascism in Europe, anti-Zionism was the default position of the majority of the Ashkenazi Jewish masses. And not only had the Jews not been passive victims of history, they had in many instances been at the forefront of the struggle for its radical transformation.
I was ecstatic.
I was a young activist, pulled between the internationalism and socialism of my family, and the Zionism and particularism with which I was surrounded at the synagogue and at Jewish community events. I grew up in a communist family, surrounded with the writings of Marx, Che, Mao, Fidel. My parents had been involved in solidarity movements with the Sandinistas in Latin America. My grandparents, hidden during the war, supported the Soviets from the victory at Stalingrad onwards, without any doubts or hesitations that might have been brought on by later betrayals and revelations. In their world, Zionism was an aberration; a colonial movement that needed to be defeated by the revolutionary struggle of the Palestinian people.
At the same time, as in so many post-Nazi genocide Jewish families, Judaism was a taboo. After the war my grandparents changed their names, gave their children Christian ones, and never talked about the war or Judaism again. As a teenager, then, as if on cue, I developed a thirst for the history, culture, and religion, which was both mine and collective, which felt both incredibly familiar and indescribably out of reach. I started attending shul, reading about the holocaust, taking Judaism classes at school, and I discovered a world which was never talked about in the family home. I was also given unfamiliar political lessons.
Now I was taught the importance of the Jewish state and the bravery of its soldiers. It was stressed to me how, during the Nazi genocide, our forefathers were led to the slaughter without fighting back, and that if only we’d had a state, we could have fought back, and saved so many. In these new circles, the fact that antisemitism was a historical constant was undeniable, unchallengeable. In this new world there was no Judaism without Zionism. In my family there was no internationalism without anti-Zionism. How was I to be Jewish, yet an internationalist? In Revolutionary Yiddishland I found a tradition that answered that question.
In this book I discovered a history that was, more profoundly than any before, mine. I learned that the Polish and Lithuanian shtetls and cities from which my grandparents had come were part of an area called the Pale of Settlements, that stretched from Poland to White Russia, from Lithuania to the Black Sea. That Yiddish was more than the few words muttered under the breath of old people around me, but had been a language at the centre of a huge cultural and political upheaval at the turn of the last century. I read about the Bund, the Jewish party that organised tens of thousands of workers, championed Yiddish, rejected the colonial logic of Zionism, and played a central role in the 1905 Russian revolution. I could barely believe that the socialist tradition of Lenin, which had been so central to my upbringing, was deeply connected to the revolutionary Jewish workers’ movement in the Pale.
What struck me most was the discovery of Jewish resistance during the war: at the doors of annihilation, when, in Victor Serge’s words, ‘it was Midnight in the century’, Jews did not march sheepishly to the slaughter as I had been taught. They revolted. They struggled against their oppressors. They fought in the ghettos, with the partisans and the resistance. They even rose up in the camps.
The history of the Yiddishland was a revolutionary history. It was the history of ordinary heroes, a collective, who challenged the world as it was and organised against oppression and exploitation until their dying days. In a sense, this revolutionary tradition was a direct consequence of the world that created it. The concentration of the majority of the world’s Jews in the confines of the Pale of Settlements was the outcome of successive Tsarist antisemitic decrees. Jews were forbidden to cultivate land outside of its confines, their numbers were limited in universities, and their participation in different trades was highly restricted. This reality generated a highly urbanised – and poor – Jewish population with a shared language, a shared culture, shared musical and literary traditions, shared religious and secular traditions. When, towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Jews of the empire were confronted with the combined influence of rapid industrialisation and growing antisemitic pogroms, the Yiddishland rose up.
Revolutionary Yiddishland recaptured these struggles through a ‘history from below’ made up of interviews, conducted in the early 1980s, with participants in the momentous movements of the first half of the twentieth century. It ran through the formation of the Jewish workers movement in Eastern Europe, the struggle against antisemitic pogroms and exploitative bosses in interwar Poland, the Yiddish participation in the Spanish Civil War, the resistance during the Second World War, the role of Jewish officials in the machinery of the Soviet bloc. And it finished with Jewish opposition to Zionism in Palestine, before the creation of the state of Israel. Each chapter, built around the testimonies of these Yiddishland militants who spent their lives fighting, gives the book the strength of the participants’ convictions and the beauty of their struggles.
It is a peculiarity – a weakness – of the book that the interviewees are limited to those who ended up living in Israel, despite their early convictions. One cannot help but wonder about those who lived and live in Europe or North America, or who decided to stay in Eastern Europe after the war. The contrast between the internationalist convictions of those who fought to change the world, and the resignation of their later defeated selves, living in the state many of them abhorred – and which some still do – is laid bare. It is clear that the terrible defeat of the revolutionary project under the boot of fascism on the one hand, and Stalinism on the other, left these men and women feeling as if they had no choice but to settle in the so-called Jewish state. The authors, Sylvia Klingberg and Alain Brossat, explain that ‘the particular situation of our informants brings out one essential factor: the gaping, radical break between the world that they lost and the arrogant new Sparta within whose walls they have chosen to live’.
Indeed, the book deals continuously with the confrontation of worlds, such as I had encountered. The confrontation runs throughout the debates about Jewish history, and has today been decisively – ‘officially’ – resolved in favour of those who hold the keys to mainstream history. This now established ‘common sense’, in the Gramscian sense, makes Revolutionary Yiddishland seem, at times, simply like the relic of a bygone age, a commemoration of a land long forgotten and today submerged by history. In their preface, Klingberg and Brossat write:
The history of the victors has done the rest, by imposing its retrospective certainties: if all those whose testimonies are gathered in this book belong to the camp of the vanquished, this is because, in the common sense of a certain ‘historicism’ referred to by Walter Benjamin, they were politically misled; they had linked their fate to the grand narrative of working-class emancipation, fraternity between peoples, socialist egalitarianism – rather than to that of a Jewish state solidly established on its ethnic foundations, territorial conquests and realpolitik alliances.
The process of discovering the near-forgotten history of the Yiddishland reminds this reader of the Ewe-Mina proverb, which tells us that ‘as long as the lion has no storytellers, the hunter will always have the best part of the story’.Jewish history as told today is lachrymose, a long series of defeats and disasters leading inexorably to the creation of the state of Israel, and justifying all violent means and colonial methods necessary for its creation. The heroic struggles for the emancipation of humanity conducted by Jewish revolutionaries alongside their comrades in Poland and Russia, in Spain and in France, in Yugoslavia and Romania – and even in Palestine – are today either ignored, ridiculed as useless, or dismissed as at least dramatically misguided. This movement – which at its height shook the rich and powerful across the globe – that promised to do away with exploitation and oppression, is depicted as a naïve side story to the heroic project of the Zionist state builders. Today, the heroes of the Yiddishland are undesirables.
Klingberg and Brossat write:
Thus official history as written in Israel divides these undesirables into two categories: those who did not exist, whose epic will always be a blank page for the children of this country, and the renegades, the Jews who went over to the other camp, ‘self-hating Jews’ as the English expression has it. The Bundists and territorialists belong to the former category, the unrepentant Communists, Trotskyists and anarchists to the latter.
In this defeat of the Yiddishland against Zionism, in the battle of European Judaisms, lies the reason for the closing down of the universalist lessons of Jewish History. In a process that has been brilliantly described by Ivan Segre in Judaisme Revolutionnaire, contradiction in interpreting Jewish history and thought, between a particularistic focus and a universalist one, as to whether its lessons tell us something exclusively about Jews or about the human condition as a whole, is long-standing. It is a question resolved newly every generation, depending on context, in one direction or another. If the first half of the twentieth century in Eastern Europe represented the universalism of Jewish thought and action, the second half has undoubtedly been dominated by a narrow particularism. We might call this a sort of ‘Judeo-Jewish’ interpretation of history, in which Jews only act for Jews, and others act against them.
Klingberg and Brossat write:
The Jewish specificity is no longer a springboard from which it is possible to reach the universality and infinity of a world in fusion; it has become a search for what distinguishes and divides, a never-ending confirmation of the tragic fate of the Jews. Narcissistic contemplation of the ‘little difference’ swells to the dimensions of an essential and irreducible alterity. As in the preachings of rabbis, the non-Jewish world, the universe of the goyim, tends once more to become a perpetually threatening other and elsewhere.
Yet despite this insightful – inspiring – analysis, at times one cannot help but feel that the authors themselves fall into this very trap. It may seem peculiar to criticise this book, given its subject matter, for the overly Jewish focus of the narrative. But in answer, the critic could cite the Bundist doctrine of Doykayt. Literally translated as here-ness, Doykayt was the Bundists’ way of describing the importance of fighting where one is, alongside the people alongside whom one lives. It was conceived as a rejection of both Zionism and separatism. The Bund mobilised this slogan to argue with Jews about the importance of changing the world, their current world, together with their Polish, Russian, or Ukrainian neighbours. The Bund’s message: there is no Jewish history, and no Jewish movement, separate and distinct from the histories and movements of the societies in which they lived. This doctrine has important ramifications for those who want to discuss Jewish politics, or – for that matter – politics at all. The lesson of the Doykayt is that the starting point of a political analysis is not a random act. It is not one that we choose because of personal affinity or preference, one chosen for the sake of an academic endeavour or a current intellectual fancy. The starting point of politics for the Bund was that of the oppressed and the exploited, the victim of history, the wretched of the earth. The starting point of revolutionary theory and action, Doykayt tells us, are those who possess both the ability and the burning desire to rip the current order asunder. It was therefore not enough for them to organise the Jewish victims of the Tsarist Empire, one had to fight alongside all other oppressed minorities. It was not enough to simply fight against racist persecution, but one had to revolt against exploitation and the system as a whole, whether its gatekeepers were Jews, Russians, Ukranians, or Western Europeans. In Doykayt lies the fundamentally universal lesson of the Yiddishland’s history. It is Jewish in as much as this is the world that it aimed to transcend and expand. It is a revolutionary commitment to the breaking of the many particulars and the realisation of the universal, through collective struggle and victory, always from below.
When the book fails to apply this doctrine it slips into dangerous places. This is most obvious in the sixth chapter: ‘I am Tired of Defeats’. Here, the authors discuss the life of (for the most part) anti-Zionist Jews who, through various tribulations, ended up in Palestine, while still opposing the Zionist mainstream. Here the narrative is extremely Jewish-centric: the Palestinian movement is a side-actor to the lives of these protagonists. Yes, this is a story constructed around interviews with Eastern European Jews; but this is no excuse for the fact that, hampered by insufficient Doykayt, Klingberg and Brossat never address the nature of Zionism as such.
Zionism is only ever discussed as an internal Jewish argument. Whether or not this is adequate when dealing with the political struggles in Eastern Europe, it becomes a major problem when discussing the Jewish presence in Palestine. Without addressing the nature of the Zionist project as a settler-colonial one, which aims at the destruction of Palestinian society in order to build an ethnically pure Jewish state on its ruins, one’s political scope is catastrophically limited.
This is not a problem that is limited to the page of this book, or the era in which the interviews were taking place. It is one that current activists involved in the solidarity movement with the struggle for liberation of the people of Palestine must also come to terms with. The way in which Israeli and European state officials mobilise the Jewish populations around the world in order to justify the ongoing ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the so-called Jewish state, triggers many to fall into the same trap. The movement needs to demonstrate that it is not antisemitic, the argument goes, by showing its Jewish participants and promoting a Jewish voice against Zionism. This approach contains many problems.
Firstly, it accepts the rules set by the enemy. Tackling the Israeli claims of Jewish universal representation by collecting as many Jewish voices to oppose it – and they are legion – is accepting to play the game on a Jewish terrain. It is, indirectly, acknowledging that we are, when all is set and done, dealing with a Jewish question. This, while trying to do exactly the opposite, obscures the fact that we are not faced with a Jewish project for national rights. We are faced with a colonial project, hell-bent on the full elimination of the Palestinian people, which operates with the full economic, political, and military backing of Western states, who see in its continued existence an asset to defend its interests in a strategically central region for the global supply lines of capitalism. This is neither a Jewish problem, nor does it take Jewish voices to clarify this. Jews will often be part of the efforts to expose this reality, of course, as will Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, atheists, and none of the above, but this shouldn’t be as representatives of an imagined ‘authentic’ Jewish voice. Rather, this should be, amongst others, taking a principled anticolonial, anti-imperialist position.
Secondly, the focus on Jewish opposition to Zionism carries within it another, and perhaps more sinister, unsaid assumption: that of a particular Jewish ability to resolve the situation. ‘Jews in the United States are rapidly changing their mind about Israel’, we are often told. If this is positive, as is the fact that around the world people of all creeds, religions, and backgrounds are taking up the struggle to delegitimise Israeli Apartheid, it raises real questions as to why this is repeatedly discussed. Do the Jews have an ability to influence Israeli lawmakers that could be mobilised? Are Western powers supporting Israel because of the opinion of the Jewish people? The answer to these questions is undoubtedly no, and there is no doubt whatsoever in this author’s mind that the activists, organisations and groups that fight for concrete solidarity with the Palestinians are more than aware of the absolute nonsense of these implications. However, a lack of challenges to the Israeli narrative of its Jewish rather than colonial nature leads inexorably to these political dead ends. It is Israeli propaganda that represents the world’s Jews as its natural allies. And it is Western governments who relay these positions in a cynical attempt to deflect attention from their geo-political interests in supporting Zionism, towards their Jewish populations and their defense. It is therefore crucial to reject these approaches and focus our energy on collective, principled anti-Zionist action, which focuses on our governments’ responsibilities and actions, rather than the behaviour of particular communities.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the focus on Jewish opposition to Zionism fails to recognise, the crucial political question, which the Bund identified as always being the first one: that of the agent for change. The victims of Zionism are not Jewish. They are the Palestinians in the lands occupied in 1948, treated as third-rate citizens and victims of over fifty laws targeted specifically at limiting their civil rights. They are the nearly 2 million Palestinians stuck in the death trap that is Gaza, in which they are left to starve between regular military massacres. They are the Palestinians of Jerusalem, unilaterally annexed to the Israeli state in 1967, stripped of any citizenship and fighting the continued expansion of state-built settlements. They are the Palestinians of the West Bank, fighting both the expansion of Israeli infrastructure – roads, settlements, military zones, and so-called security installations – which condemns them to a bantustanised existence, and the corrupt power of their Authority to which the colonisers have subcontracted the occupation. They are the millions of refugees, internally and externally displaced, stuck in camps, harassed by the different regimes under which they are forced to live, impatiently waiting – in Bensaïd’s words – to return. Not only are they Palestinian, they are also the masses of the region, whose regimes are propped up by Washington or Moscow, to facilitate their political control over labour supplies, natural resources, and strategic areas. American, European, or Russian governments’ continued support for these regimes goes to the heart of Israel’s reason d’être for them: a bulwark for their interests, a guardian for their rule. It is these voices of the masses that we need to amplify. It is those people that we need to ask for leadership. It is their organisations that in the end, might achieve freedom. Could we imagine the movements in support for Algerian, South African, or Vietnamese liberation without the voices of their resistance movements and their populations? Without celebrating their political and military resistance? Without a focus on their lives, their experiences, and their rage? Of course not, and the Palestinian movement should be no different. The question is not a Jewish one. It is an anticolonial one, an anti-imperialist one, a revolutionary one. In that sense the movement for Palestinian liberation is a truly universal one, but one which starts from the particularism of Palestinan life and its struggle to transcend its current existence.
It is these universal political implications of Zionism and Palestinian liberation that Klingberg and Brossat miss. For example, in discussing the presence of these Yiddishland revolutionaries in Palestine in early 1980s, they write:
But, in contrast to the apostles of conquering Zionism, they continue to believe in history and not mythology. For them, this reality in no way implies the undivided domination of a Jewish state to the detriment of the other people that has a legitimate right to the land that they seek to assert. Precisely because they do not despair of history, do not believe that the present forward flight of the Zionist leaders (which does not open a radiant future for the Jews of Israel, but rather the perspective of an endless state of war, an interminable suicide) is the only perspective for the community of which they feel themselves full members. And since hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrated in summer 1982 against the war in Lebanon, they feel far less alone.
Here, the problem of the Zionist project is limited to one between the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ in Israel, and a ‘state of constant war’, which is a ‘suicide’. The problem here is the suicide of Israeli society – a society of which the former heroes of the Yiddishland ‘feel themselves full members’. Palestinians remain absent from these pages.
This kind of description impermissibly obscures two things. Firstly, and most importantly, it obscures the process through which the presence of settlers in a settler-colonial polity in Palestine laid the foundation for the full destruction of Palestinian society, a politicidal process which is still taking place today. And this is a reality the presence of anti-war demonstrators in 1982 – or in 2014 – does nothing to alleviate. The fundamental problem is not war as such, nor the inadequate numbers of anti-war protestors. The problem, rather, is Israel as such, the construction of a society on top of the ruins and bodies of another. This process has been an ongoing one, well beyond the limits of particular wars or occupation. Of that process, all those Israeli demonstrators and our protagonists who are ‘full members of this society’, are, precisely, part. The vast majority of whom do not even stand against it, limiting themselves to opposing some of the violence it cannot but throw up.
Secondly, by avoiding an honest description of the horrors of Zionism, the sheer defeat of the revolutionaries of the Yiddishland is necessarily underplayed. The current reality is not, after all, only one in which the vast majority of the Yiddishland was destroyed by the Nazi genocide, and one in which Zionism has become the dominant ideological force in Jewish life: it is also one in which many of those who fought to change the world, survived the horrors of the genocide, and ended up for various reasons in Palestine, became part of a new oppressive structure.
The book describes beautifully how that process took place, how such fighters often felt that they had no choice. It explains how it was the resignation of a defeated Left, without a home or a people, that led them there. It examines the cases of those who fought against the colonial project initially, before later being effectively integrated within it. But by focusing on the internal argument as opposed to the overall situation, it ends up sidestepping the scale of the final defeat of the revolutionary Yiddishland. In the words of Edward Said, in a piece for the New York Times in 1999, the Palestinians ‘are the victims of the victims’ of the Nazi genocide, and the heroes of Revolutionary Yiddishland were, despite their criticisms, often part of that process.
Such slippages into ‘particularism’ work against what is the most important lessons of the Yiddishland, a universalism to which the book itself draws attention. The rupture in historical comprehension which the authors identify as key to the obscuring of the revolutionary Yiddish tradition is not only evident in the triumph of Zionism as an answer to the Jewish question. As Klingberg and Brossat point out, we are in fact faced today with a much more general – universal – challenge to the ideas of revolutionary change.
We have entered the age of the supposed universality and eternity of the democratic paradigm, in such a way that any notion of a sidestep decided outside of the conditions of present historicity now appears as a promise of inevitable disaster and unreasonable exposure to multifarious risks. An ideal of ‘immunitarian’ democracy has replaced the perspective of that social refoundation which, for those who attached themselves to it, implied full exposure to the winds of history. It is not simply because the collapse of the Soviet bloc created a wide gulf between our present and the historical sequence that was the very milieu in which our characters acted, the twentieth century of sound and fury, that their ‘world’ has become enigmatic in the eyes of the great majority of our contemporaries. It is, more radically, and in a manner less reducible to ‘particular circumstances’, because the horizon on which their rebellion against the existing order was inscribed has grown misty, with the effect that the signifier ‘communism’ has lost all its power and shrunk to the dimensions of a pejorative signifier, synonym of everything that, in the past era now rejected, bears the mark of the unreasonable and monstrous.
This is the reality that the ideological successors of the heroes of the Yiddishland are faced with today. After decades of triumphant capitalist order, how can we rebuild a political movement not only to fight for the amelioration of the conditions under which we live, but to strive for a fundamental break with the old world? In the process of rehabilitation of this history of struggle, led by ordinary workers whose belief in the capacity of humankind to live and organise itself differently remained unshakable – in the face of Tsarist repression, rising fascism, even impending extermination – Klingberg and Brossat participate in the ideological challenge to the contemporary cult of TINA – There Is No Alternative.
Not only this. They point to the longevity of struggle. With its narrative starting in the Pale and continuing for nearly half a century across a continent, Revolutionary Yiddishland points to the importance of the development of institutions and organisations of struggle which can carry its participants from moment to moment, from victory to defeat and back again. The women and men who, in the middle of the Second World War, decided to organise and revolt, had served in the Spanish Civil War. They had organised migrant workers and refugees in France through the Main D’Oeuvre Immigree (MOI). They had fought back against antisemitic pogroms in Poland, and struggled for a different world in the ranks of the Bund. Those who found it within themselves to rise up in the camps, despite starvation and the omnipresence of death, were Communists, Bundists, and Anarchists, or even so-called left-Zionists.
It was the collective forms of organisation, the collective processes of understanding and struggling against the current order of things, which they had built up for decades, that allowed them to face the impossible and continue the fight in the face of impossible odds – those who did. Nor is this stress on that history of revolt to imply that those who did not fight back failed us: to imply, through a hero-worshipping sympathy restricted to the – genuine – heroes of the resistance, that only the radicals deserve solidarity, that because they were brave the others were cowardly, is grotesque. It would be a Red inverse of Zionism’s argument about quiescent Yiddishland, while accepting its premises. But of those who found it within them to rise, it was the knowledge that it is the system itself which creates the necessary contradictions for ever renewed struggle that helped them leave a message and – yes – an example to the generations to come. It was their conviction that humanity was capable of more, better, that enabled them to rise in battle, even at the century’s midnight.
The passage from Revolutionary Yiddishland extracted here in the pages of Salvage brings this out clearly. The heroes of the resistance were not born out of nowhere, suddenly, when faced with the Nazi menace. On the contrary, it was the existence of networks, of rooted activists, of ideologically solid organisers that allowed them to respond to the horrors of the war. They were the ones who could set up the necessary infrastructure and offer the needed direction to take up a new, and seemingly impossible task. It was not the broadcasts of an old aristocratic general, hiding in London, which gave the resistance in France its needed impetus; it was communist militants and their allies – often foreigners, often Jews – who brought their revolutionary traditions with them, who organised and fought the Nazi regime. They fought not to save the nation, not even only to close the‘terrifying abyss open[ed] in the immense pool of human tears marked by a flow of blood’, as the Bundist anthem had it, but for a more fundamental and permanent condition of human liberation.
Of course we do not face occupation and extermination camps. What we face is the consequences of thirty years of destruction and disorganisation of our organisations and political traditions. What we call neoliberalism has represented a radical transfer of wealth to capital, made possible across the world by the destruction of revolutionary movements, the disorganisation of labour, and the breaking-up of collective forms of organisation. What is most striking if we compare the world of today to that of our parents – or in the case of Revolutionary Yiddishland, of our grandparentsand their parents – is the way in which our organisational capacity is barely existent. We can revolt, of course, but we cannot – yet? – carry that revolt over a long period of time.
Whether it be trade unions, neighbourhood groups, political parties, or revolutionary organisations, our side in the ongoing clash of the classes is weak, and lacking ideological coherence. Our leaders are either stuck, like Benjamin’s angel, staring at the past, witnessing and unable to stop the tide of destruction; or frantically forced in a forward flight, unaware of the past, continuously reinventing its tools. I am surprised and delighted that Revolutionary Yiddishland is at last being translated into English. Yes, it can fall into the pits of Judeo-solipsism – but it also presents the tools to rise above that, to honour its prophets. At its best, it is a calm reminder both of the importance of the lessons of previous struggles, and of the necessity of solid contemporary organisation. Like the heroes of this workers’ epic did, we face racist and oppressive states – their vindictiveness never so clear than in the face of the refugee movement. Just like the Yiddishland fighters, we are witnesses to crushed revolutions, and the influx of displaced people that they create. They challenge us from the past, to build political and organisational strength. To honour Doykayt. To succeed. Because heroism is not enough. They were heroes, and they were defeated.If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.