The October Revolution and the Jews


SIXTY years ago, one of the most momentous events to influence the destiny of the Jewish people took place in Petrograd. The Russian Revolution occurred within a few days of the Balfour Declaration, and both events have, in hindsight, deeply permeated Jewish consciousness and caused many to flock to either one of the utopian standards raised in those few weeks.

The Russian coup d’etat had been decided by a vote of the Bolshevik Committee a fortnight previously. A politburo of seven was entrusted with the task of carrying it out. Four of the seven—Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Sokolnikov — were Jews. Indeed, the success of the coup and the support generated has often been attributed to the brilliance of Trotsky’s military prowess and political acumen.

Yet the revolution was not specifically a Jewish affair. As enemies of the Bolsheviks tried to label it later on. There was certainly a preponderance of Jews in the upper echeIons of the party, but on the whole they were not attracted to the obscurantism of the Bolsheviks. If anything, revolutionary Jews tended to favour democratic socialist parties on the West European scale.

The Jewish community which had welcomed the overthrow of Tsarism saw the coup as one more step down the road to destruction of old Mother Russia. In July 1917, they had even staged a meeting in Petrograd to dissociate the community from “the anarchist campaign of few converted Jews”.

On the platform, Jewish members of the Russian Parliament spoke out forcibly, as did the historian, Simon Dubnov. The first Jewish naval officer, Isaacson, was present. A man called Tcherkass, a somewhat elderly Knight of the Order of St. George, fiercely called on the Jews in the audience to follow him into the trenches to fight the Germans. Outside, the starving      masses, including Jews, cried out for peace and bread.

The Zionists who had been organising at a feverish rate were already sending people to Palestine. The Bolshevik coup d’etat appeared-to be a passing irrelevance. Indeed, in the Zionist stronghold of Odessa, all Jewish businesses dosed for a day on hearing the news of the Balfour Declaration. One hundred thousand Jews marched to the British Consulate to hear Menachem Usishkin publicly give thanks in Hebrew to Lady Muriel Paget, the representative of the British Government in the city.

Not all Russian Zionists accepted the Declaration. Poale Zion, which had been sympathetic to the ideals of the Bolshevik revolution referred to the Declaration at its conference in Kiev as “one of the attempts of world imperialism to exploit liberation movements for its own ends”.

Since the downfall of Tsarism, both the provisional government and Jewish self-defence groups had been making attempts to contain the violent anti-Semitism of groups such as the Black Hundreds The new Bolshevik alarmed the Zionists in trying               to disband such self-defence groups. The Bolsheviks preferred the gentle methods of persuasion to stop the pogroms.

Jewish Observer November 1977

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