Western Communists and Soviet Jewry

Ever since Krushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, western Communists have been uneasy continued abuse of human rights in the Soviet Union.

Earlier this year, the former secretary general of the British Communist Party, John Gollan, indirectly criticised Soviet anti-Semitism. Yet that same person nearly a quarter of a century ago condemned international Zionism for instigating the “Doctors’ Plot”.

Today, the praises of Stalin have given way to a realisation that the Stalinist connection is ruining any possibility of building socialism through the ballot box. To be fair, men who had devoted their lives to building Communism were traumatised by the revelations of the Gulag epoch and reacted strongly against any further denigration of Communist morality. But they also reacted sharply to cries of “We told you so” from non-Communist quarters.

Gross discrimination

It is between these two barriers that the attitude of western Communist parties to human rights in the USSR and to the Jewish question in particular has developed in the last 20 years.

After the 20th party conference in 1956, wide-ranging discussions were conducted by the national committee of the British Communist Party. One of the leading figures in this debate was the Jewish Communist, Alec Waterman, who was shocked by the enormity of the Jewish tragedy in the USSR.

Waterman’s courageous and persistent efforts resulted in two resolutions on the subject of Soviet Jewry submitted by the Prestwich and Oxford University student branches at the party’s 29th congress in November 1965.

He later submitted a memorandum on the Jewish problem to the executive of the party, listing the national, cultural and religious discriminations against the Jewish minority and called on the party leadership to make a clear statement on their approach. Unfortunately, he died before the publication of the memorandum in Tribune in July, 1966.

Professor Hyman Levy, however, was expelled from the party when he tried to raise the question of Soviet Jewry following a visit to Moscow in 1957 to study the problem.

It was the Italian Communist leader, Palmira Togliatti, who first pioneered the idea of “national communism” working within democratic norms. The Communists and the Marxist Left in Italy adopted the Jewish problem in the USSR as a cause célèbre in the mid-1960s. L’Unita, the party’s newspaper, wrote in 1966: “A Jewish problem does exist in the USSR. Anti-Semitism, in addition to being an old tradition, had been the official policy of the Tsarist regime and it has left its traces”.

Enrico Berlinguer, the present Italian Communist Party secretary and the key figure in Sunday’s elections, criticises such aspects of Soviet policy which are known to be unpopular in the west yet still maintains that the Soviet Union is a ‘humane society”.

One of the most outspoken members of the party a few years ago .was the Jewish Communist senator, Umberto Terracini, whose views on the Jewish issue were respected. He, too, is standing for re-election on Sunday.

After the dramatic twists and turns of international Communism, as well as the Holocaust, Jewish Marxists became painfully aware of their heritage. The Six-Day War in particular had a devastating effect on them.

Then came the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Soviet influence during the “normalisation” of that country precipitated the introduction of anti-Semitism into the press, pointing out that many reformists had been Jews.

After the Italians, the French Communist Party is the most powerful in Europe. Its former secretaries, Maurice Thorez and Waldeck Rochet, were known to be hard-liners, yet even they tried to intervene quietly at the highest level with the Soviet leadership on the Jewish question.

L’Humanité, organ of the French Communist Party, declared boldly after the first Leningrad Trial: “It is almost unnecessary to say that French Communists, who respect a German Jew named Karl Marx, are resolutely against anti-Semitism, which is a stupidity and degradation”.

The dissidence of western Communists at the recent 25th congress of the Soviet Communist Party was largely a result of French influence.

The major western Communist Parties—the French, the Spanish and the Italian—have tried to show the human face of socialism. Regardless of the reasons behind such moves, it is an encouraging sign for those who have been fighting for both human rights in the USSR and emigration to Israel.

Yet still the suspicion remains as to whether the Italian Communists would continue to speak out if they were to gain power. A number of Soviet Jews tried to approach an Italian delegate at the recent Moscow congress. The Italian rebuffed them.

Jewish Observer 18 June 1976

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