On the Yevsektsia

The fringe pro-Corbyn group Jewish Voice for Labour has many antecedents in Jewish history — representing, as they do, the few and not the many, and eagerly embraced by a ruling elite.

Some have been ideologically opposed to Zionism, such as the Bundists and the Charedim, others have been disillusioned socialist Zionists. Some have been accidental Jews whose Jewishness was never at the centre of their identity while still others are — in Howard Jacobson’s phrase — members of “ASHamed Jews”.

The Marxist historian and biographer of Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher, gave a talk at Jewish Book Week in 1958 entitled ‘The Non-Jewish Jew’. Mr Deutscher argued that Jewish revolutionaries symbolised “the highest ideals of mankind” as they existed on the margins of different civilisations, religions and cultures. From such vantage positions, Mr Deutscher believed that such non-Jewish Jews were able to see clearly, to scientifically fashion the future and thereby guide the dispossessed and disadvantaged.

The seminal episode which shaped such Jews was the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in 1917. Remarkably, the Balfour Declaration and the October revolution occurred within days of each other. Both events resonated within Jewish tradition. One to re-establish a Jewish commonwealth after two millennia, the other to break the chains of slavery and repair the world.

Which path to follow posed a tremendous dilemma for the many Jews who had rejoiced at the overthrow of the antisemitic Tsar.

As the Bolsheviks came to be seen as a permanent feature, many Zionists turned to Communism. Why build Zion in Palestine when the here and now of redemption was taking place in Moscow?

Vladimir Lenin, a minor Russian nobleman, had little understanding of the toiling Jewish masses. He never considered the Marxist Zionism of Ber Borokhov, but instead preached assimilation because he was surrounded by Jews whose Jewishness was defined by escaping from Jewishness.

The upper echelons of the Communist party were composed of highly assimilated Jews — Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Sverdlov, Radek — whereas the Jewish masses turned to the socialist Mensheviks.

Yet a price had to be paid for such a switch. Theodor Herzl wanted the Jew to become a different type of Jew. Lenin wanted the Jew to become a different type of non-Jew.

In January 1918, Semyon Diamanshtein, the Commissar for Jewish Affairs and a graduate of the Telz, Slobodka and Lubavitch yeshivot, established the Yevsektsia, the Jewish section of the Communist party. He wished to unravel the fabric of conventional Jewish life and “to carry out the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Jewish street”.

However the elections for the Constituent Assembly in November 1917 returned a vote for its Jewish sections of 88 per cent for the Zionists and the religious.

But the Bolsheviks abolished the Constituent Assembly and by 1919, the Yevsektsia had used its influence and authority to close down Zionist offices and periodicals. In April 1920, a Zionist conference was halted by the Cheka (the forerunner of the KGB) and its participants temporarily incarcerated.

The Yevsektsia then turned its attention to closing Hebrew schools and banning a blossoming Hebrew literature. Yiddish, it was proclaimed, was the language of the Jewish working class and Hebrew the language of the clerics and the bourgeoisie.

While the Yevsektsia painted Zionism with an anti-Communist veneer, the Soviet authorities were not so sure. The all-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets, issued a decree in July 1919 which stated that the Zionist organisation was not counter-revolutionary and that its activities should not be disrupted. The Yevsektsia were uninterested.

There were several examples of leading Soviet figures who were perplexed at the virulence demonstrated by the Yevsektsia. This included Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of the Cheka, who questioned his subordinates whether Zionist organisations actually challenged the Kremlin’s control.

Twelve major Hebrew writers and poets including Chaim Nachman Bialik and Shaul Tchernikovsky, chose emigration to Palestine. The Commissar for Education and Culture, Anatoly Lunacharsky, agreed to speak at Bialik’s farewell banquet in Moscow, but was opposed by the Yevsektsia. The banquet was cancelled for fear that the Yevsektsiya would be successful in having Mr Bialik’s visa revoked.

The Yevsektsia also attempted to use its influence to cut off state funds to the Hebrew theatrical group, Habimah. It was only the intervention of the writer Maxim Gorky that prevented its liquidation.

As the Yevsektsia became entrenched, they enthusiastically turned on their former comrades. In September 1924 the arrest and exile of 3,000 Zionists took place — most perished in the Gulag; a few managed to survive until a mass-emigration movement of Soviet Jews arose after 1967.

The revolution eventually devoured its Jewish children. On August 20, 1938 Stalin signed Mr Diamanshtein’s death warrant and a decade later a series of show trials found loyal Jewish communists guilty of “Zionism” — and they too met their end in an execution cellar.

During the last 100 years, the epithet ‘Yevsektsia’ has become a derogatory label for peripheral Jewish groups on the far left. Always miniscule, but politically useful, they are a continuing product of history and identity. Most Jews retain their ideals but have tempered their dreams with lessons learned from the past. It is the coming of the messiah that counts, not his actual arrival.

Jewish Chronicle 5 April 2019

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