The Jewish Left (Still) Exists


Jews and the Left::The Rise and Fall of a Political Alliance

by Philip Mendes



As an accidental Jew, Will Self first ‘resigned as a Jew’ during the Second Lebanon war in 2006. In Self’s recent Guardian review of Shlomo Sand’s How I stopped being a Jew, he again resigned his Jewishness. In doing so, he confirmed an age-old practice that escaping from one’s Jewishness is also a sign of Jewishness.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Naftali Bennett, the leader of the far Right HaBayit Hayehudi party in Israel, expounded his view at the Saban Forum in Washington last December that “anyone who boycotts Israel is an antisemite.”

This dynamic duo, Self and Bennett, clearly have little idea about either the multiplicity of Jewish identities or how Jewish history has moulded them—issues that Philip Mendes’ latest book explores in depth. Jews and the Left: The Rise and Fall of a Political Alliance is an intelligent, comprehensive and analytical dissection of the complex relationship between Jews and the Left.

Mendes argues that this relationship first emerged during the European revolutions of 1830 and 1848—although there is evidence of Jewish radicals during the French Revolution itself, and in the earliest Polish revolts against Tsarist oppression. Moreover, the legacies of Maimonides, Spinoza and the European Enlightenment introduced rationalism in place of supernaturalism, and the central idea of building heaven right here on earth.

The orthodox rabbi, Dov Berush ben Yitzhak Meisels, who was also a Polish nationalist, aligned himself with the Left in the Austrian parliament because “the Jews have no rights.”  Well-to-do Jews were often driven to the Left because they felt discriminated against by accusations that Jews dominated the economy—and that each and every Jew was filthy rich. Yet, as Mendes illustrates, the vast majority of Jews lived beneath the poverty line. An 1898 study stated that each year around 5000 Jews in Galicia and Bukovina died of starvation. In the 186os, between a quarter and a half of all London Jews relied on poor relief. Moreover, pogroms were visited upon the Jewish poor from Algiers to Salonika—and justified because they were seen as either Christ-killers or bloated capitalists. In Rome, Pope Pius IX demanded that the Jews return to their ghetto and not pollute the holiness of the holy city with their heresy. In January 1919, during Semana Tragica (Tragic Week) in far way Buenos Aires, woo Jews were killed and s000 injured. No wonder socialism was seen internationally as the path to messianic salvation.

Jews, from the assimilated to the observant, embraced the cause of revolutionary change. Some struggled with their Jewishness; others were oblivious of it. Some hid it; others proclaimed it. As one of the founders of the French Communist party, Charles Rappoport, once remarked, “I speak 10 languages—all of them in Yiddish.”

Isaac Steinberg, a religious Jew, was the Commissar for Justice in Lenin’s first government in 1918. Steinberg would periodically step out of the intense discussions amongst the Bolsheviks in order to daven minchah—and then return to the task of how to export the Revolution. In contrast, a former Lubavitcher hassid, Semyon Dimanshtein, left Judaism behind to become Lenin’s first Commissar for Jewish Affairs.

The Balfour Declaration and the October Revolution occurred within days of each other in 1917. Both could be interpreted in terms of Jewish tradition, and they presented different pathways to the Jewish future. The here-and-now of Bolshevism was much more seductive in its universalism and mission to repair the world than the utopian dreams of the Zionist pioneers in Palestine. Zionism was seen as narrow, nationalist and particularist. Communism was undoubtedly the future, and many former Zionists-turned-devout Bolsheviks proved themselves by turning on their former comrades—much to the bewilderment of non-Jews in the party. Like Will Self, almost a century later, Bella Kun, the leader of the Hungarian Soviet in 1919, similarly proclaimed “I am no longer a Jew,” before expelling 5000 impoverished Polish Jews who had sought refuge in Hungary.

Jews were thus founders of Communist and socialist parties wherever injustice existed. Gaston Cremieux was executed for supporting the Paris Commune in 1871. Jews marched with Che Guevara in Cuba, while the number of Jews who fought against Franco during the Spanish Civil War was proportionately greater than any other national group that served in the International Brigades. Mendes offers the fact that the very first and the very last brigaders to be killed in action were both Jews. Some also fought with Mao—who was responsible for the deaths of reputedly 45 million people. Others assisted in creating the Stalinist Gulag. Matvei Berman and Naftali Frenkel supervised the use of slave labour, while Genrikh Yagoda headed the NKVD—the forerunner of the KGB—in the 1930s.

Some idealistic Jews believed they served the cause of socialism by engaging in espionage on behalf of the Kremlin.The British spy, George Blake, sentenced to 42 years in 1961, was born George Behar, nephew of the well- known Egyptian Jewish socialist, Henri Curie!. Although the Cambridge spies were not Jewish, many Jews provided the infrastructure that allowed them to function. Indeed, Burgess, MacLean and Philby were all recruited by the NKVD general, Alexander Orlov, who was Jewish. And then, of course, there was the tragic case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the 1950s, who the McCarthyites electrocuted.

Mendes’ book truly conveys the deep desire of many Jewish and non-Jewish Jews to change the world. Its geographical sweep is breathtaking. Yet Mendes does not avoid describing the anti-Semitism of some of the Left’s heroes. Marx described Ferdinand Lassalle as ‘a negroid’, according to the shape of his head and the style of his hair. According to Marx, all this pointed to the fact that Lassalle was actually descended from the blacks, who associated with the Jews at the time of the exodus from Egypt.

Bakunin, Fourier, Keir Hardie and the Webbs were similarly not averse to anti-Jewish commentary. Edmond Picard, the Belgium socialist, even developed a theory of ‘scientific and humanitarian anti-Semitism’. In contrast, Eleanor Marx, Robert Owen, and the Chartists were noted for their philo-Semitism.

Communist parties were also quite willing to ditch their Jews if it served the advance of the dawn of humanity. The Egyptian CP specifically excluded Jews from membership after 1957, while Beria told Matyas Rakosi why  he was being removed from his post as general- secretary of the party: “As far as we know, Hungary has never had a Jewish king.”

Mendes deals with the complexity of relating to the vexed question of the state of Israel. While most socialist critics would opt for a two-state solution, a fundamentalist minority on the Left wish for Israel’s disappearance. Its purpose, Mendes argues, is to overcome “the ideological barrier posed by the Left’s historical opposition to racism.” He regards them as living in “a subjective fantasy world in which Israel is detached from its Jewish roots and then miraculously destroyed by remote control—free of any violence or bloodshed under the banner of anti-racism.” But then again, there are also vociferous critics on the Left of Netanyahu’s policies who strongly support the right of the Jews to national self-determination in Israel—and these have included Marcuse, Foucault, Derrida and Zizek.

After 1948, many Jews, as they became embourgeoised, often moved from their respective national Lefts to their national Right, but many also embraced a specifically Jewish Left. The twentieth century demonstrated that friends could be unreliable, and internationalism had not brought them joy. But in contrast to the past, a republic with a Jewish majority could now defend their interests and protect them if necessary. In this sense, identification with the state of Israel—as opposed to its government—evolved as a cornerstone of identity for a majority of Diaspora Jews. Such pragmatism—the triumph of reality over theory—did not mean a deserting of the Left, as the disproportionate Jewish participation in the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement demonstrated in 2011.

Philip Mendes has written an important book in untangling the ideological and psychological knots in this complex question. It will set the standard for years to come. Both Self and Bennett would do well to read it.

Jewish Quarterly Spring 2015



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