The Left’s Advice to Jews—Assimilate and Stop Being Jewish
Running parallel with, and sometimes overlapping, the Left’s infection by anti-semitism as an ideology is a chauvinistic attitude towards Jewish culture. The content of Jewish culture is never actually discussed by the Left. Jews are viewed as one-dimensional people. We are defined in terms of any combination of four variables: from one point of view we are defined in terms of religion or zionism, an irreligious, anti-zionist Jew is simply deemed not to exist; from another point of view our existence is reduced to being either aggressors through zionism or, less frequently, victims through anti-semitism.
Genuine questions which should be of concern to socialists—such as the class content of Jewish culture, or the effects of imperialism on that culture, or whether it is possible to talk of a single Jewish culture, or what is positive, and why, about that culture—are hardly ever mentioned. Instead there is the assumption that Jews should forget their culture and assimilate. This chauvinistic and reactionary attitude is also one that has long been held by the Western European diaspora leadership, which believes that assimilation is the route to ‘acceptance’. It also accords with the practice of imperialism of which the British is probably the best and most successful example. Thus British imperialism, following its Christian tradition, is an expert at engulfing, invalidating and then destroying all ‘alien’ forms. When confronted by a socialist tradition, which in practice advocates the same process, it is no wonder that progressive Jews find it hard to assert an identity that is both Jewish and socialist.
Assimilationism has today reached the status of a tenet of faith on the Left. Like most faiths this ‘gospel’ is simply assumed and is normally made explicit only when challenged, when it is then stated as dogma. Thus the editor of Socialist Challenge, Geoff Sheridan, made the stark statement in relation to Jews that “assimilation is not a process socialists would wish to halt” (13.11.80). This immediately begs the question—assimilation into what? The only culture that Jews can assimilate into in this country is a racist, sexist, capitalist and anti-semitic one. If the revolutionary Left exists to promote this then it need not bother—British imperialism is possessed of far greater resources and experience. Support for assimilation is support for British chauvinism. In reality, socialist practice in the U.K. is simply to ignore, and therefore be complicit in, the fact that this is a WASP¹ country. Christian culture is somehow assumed dead and is in any event believed to stop at the church door. It is considered unremarkable that the leading ‘revolutionary’ press should have seasonal Christmas editions whilst the festivals of non-Christian cultures are ignored or regarded as opiates. Indeed, it is a spurious and peculiarly Christian atheism which allows British socialists to welcome public holidays (holydays) within the Christian tradition, but tolerates a system where members of other religions are compelled to work or take unpaid leave during their own festivities.
Within the Left there is the rhetoric of ‘support’ for national and cultural minority rights. However, the idea that there may be anything positive within Jewish culture is simply dismissed. Socialist practice extends only as far as liberal patronage. Lenin is the most obvious example. His writings on these matters are collected in Lenin on the Jewish Question edited by Hyrnan Lumer and where all subsequent quotations can be found. Lenin wrote:
“It is the Marxist’s bounded duty to stand for the most resolute and consistent democraticism on all aspects of the national question” (Critical Remarks on the National Question).
However, he immediately followed this by stating, “This task is largely a negative one”. In other words, Lenin seemed to regard the substance of most minority cultures as being either reactionary or non-existent. For instance, in referring to the Jews of Russia and Galicia (half the Jews in the world), he said that “Jewish national culture is the slogan of the rabbis and the bourgeoisie” (On the National Question). For Lenin the only alternative to ghettoisation was assimilation. A proper socialist position on these matters would permit and encourage a struggle within minority cultures against their own oppressive elements, whilst simultaneously waging a struggle against the chauvinism of the host culture. Lenin, however, established Left orthodoxy by his advocacy of assimilationism combined with patronising toleration of Jewish culture. Thus John Nolan in a letter to Socialist Challenge talks about the existence of sexual oppression within ‘Judaism’ and states that:
“This is not incompatible with our defence of oppressed groups—even if they hold views incompatible with our views of socialism” (1.1.81).
There is no recognition of anything beneficial within Jewish life—which is merely reduced to a matter of religion. In particular, there is no acknowledgement that there may be elements within Jewish culture which are in opposition to oppressive attitudes. It is interesting to know why John Nolan wants to ‘defend’ Jews—as he believes everything we stand for is incompatible with his views of socialism. Actually all he is willing to defend (if anything) is, apparently, the physical existence of Jews—our identity he will let rot.
To be specific, socialist practice disparages virtually everything to do with Jewish culture. Karl Kautsky, the leading Marxist theoretician of his period, wrote in 1914 of Polish Jewry that:
“They have preserved to this day a peculiar language, the so-called Yiddish, a corrupt German—the only Jewish population in the world that has not assimilated the language of its environment” (Are the Jews a Race?, all further quotations from Kautsky can be found in this book).
Such a statement revealed a profound ignorance of other Jewish communities who had preserved their own languages. Most prominent were the Ladino-speaking Jews of the Mediterranean, whose great centre until the 2nd World War was Salonika. Ladino is still in use today in areas of the Balkans.
Moreover, completely lacking from Kautsky’s observation was the fact that for several hundred years prior to the holocaust, Yiddish was the autonomous and rich language of daily communication for virtually all of East European Jewry. It was a wonderful vehicle for the expression of Jewish imagination—through poetry, prose and drama. Fundamentally, Yiddish was not simply a language. It was the basis of a whole cultural life—Yiddishkeit. Kautsky reduces all such vital manifestations of communal life—a life split as in every community by class conflict—to German dialect.
Lenin—who likewise seemed to think that Jews lived only in Europe—was even more pernicious. In Critical Remarks on the National Question he divided Jewry into two groups—those from the East of Europe who were ‘rabbis’ and those from the ‘civilised world’ of Western Europe where:
“The great world-progressive features of Jewish culture stand clearly revealed, its internationalism, its identification with the advanced movements of the epoch”.
This is glib and patronising. Not only was the Marxist movement in Eastern Europe itself heavily composed of many Jews, not only is it left unexplained how ‘rabbis’ migrating West suddenly became proletarian internationalists, but Lenin displays complete ignorance in defining progressive elements within a culture exclusively in terms of its overt political expression. There is more to European Jewish culture than socialist thought—though this was certainly one of its achievements.
Assimilation As An Answer to Anti-Semitism?
Throughout most socialist literature about Jews there is a judgemental attitude which suggests that Jewish people should assimilate in order to avoid anti-semitism. For instance, Lenin quoted Kautsky with approval, in relation to Russian Jews:
“Hostility towards non-native sections of the population can only be eliminated when the non-native sections cease to be alien and blend with the general mass of the population. This is the only possible solution to the Jewish question” (The Position of the Bund in the Party).
The modern Left crudely repeats this. Nigel Ward in an article in Socialist Challenge gave as one explanation for the holocaust the fact that Jews in Western Europe were not “assimilated into the fabric of Western society” (2.10.82). Big Flame took this one step further when it claimed that Jews were attacked as they were “visibly different” (September 1982).
This advice that Jews should assimilate in order to avoid ‘pogroms’ is startlingly reactionary for various reasons, some of which are examined later. For the time being, it is merely necessary to point out that the Left echoes the Jewish establishment, which also advocates assimilation as a way of avoiding political struggles against anti-semitism. Indeed, the Left is articulating a position which is almost identical to the ‘aspects’ of zionism that it attacks with the most vehemence. Thus zionism is seen as an avoidance of the necessity to fight against anti-semitism—but this is precisely what assimilationism is. Furthermore zionism is criticised for presupposing an ‘eternal anti-semite’ who cannot be confronted but must be by-passed through the creation of some form of national ghetto. In a sense, Lenin’s position is even more extreme. He seems to believe in the eternal anti-semite whom Jews can neither confront nor avoid but can only satisfy by unbecoming Jewish.
Jewish Survival Through Anti-Semitism?
The Left has a completely contradictory position on the relationship between Jewish survival and assimilation. It argues that assimilation is necessary for some form of survival, and simultaneously argues that Jewish culture and identity have only survived because of anti-semitism. Whereas all other groups exist in spite of, and in opposition to, their oppression, Jews exist as a result of it! Amongst the classic Marxist writers, the clearest exponent of this view was Kautsky who wrote that:
“Judaism draws its strength-as a specific group segregated from its environment-from anti-semitism alone. In the absence of the latter it would have been absorbed long ago … When the Jews shall have ceased to be persecuted and outlawed the Jews themselves will cease to exist”.
Similarly Geoff Sheridan wrote in his letter to Socialist Challenge
“Jewish identity has been undermined in those societies where anti-semitism has become relatively dormant”.
Two examples will suffice to show that this view is not only politically suspect, but also obviously historically incorrect. In both Moorish Spain and immediate post-revolutionary Russia, Jewish culture flourished in relatively favourable circumstances. It is an anti-semitic myth that Jewish people have a ‘victim mentality’, but too much reading of certain ‘Marxists’ might make such a mentality appear necessary for the survival of Jewish identity.
Determinism and Fatalism
Behind Left orthodoxy there is a crude historical determinism which is not only chauvinistic but also quite defeatist. This is the determinism which claims not only that assimilation is necessary to avoid anti-semitism, but that it is in any case historically inevitable. It was with specific reference to Jews that Lenin talked about:
“Capitalism’s world historical tendency to … assimilate nations… which is one of the greatest driving forces transforming capitalism into socialism” (Critical Remarks on the National Question).
In similar vein, a Stalinist soviet scholar, Iosef Braginsky, has written that:
“The Marxist cannot view assimilation from the narrow standpoint of ‘dos pintele yid’. One has to realise that assimilation is a natural historical process” (quoted by Lumer in his introduction to Lenin’s writings).
The political consequences of this are predictable—namely a complete fatalism and defeatism in the face of the projected disappearance of Jewish culture. What is the point of struggling for something which some pre-determined historical law has deemed to be doomed? In fact, Otto Bauer, the Austrian Marxist active at the turn of the century, stated this explicitly when he wrote:
“Where a whole nation are doomed to extinction by economic development it is petty-bourgeois, reactionary, utopian to oppose this inevitable course of events” (quoted in Robert Wistrich—Socialism and the Jews).
A central feature of Lenin’s writings is his hopelessness and defeatism about the survival, let alone development, of Jewish culture. As a renowned revolutionary activist, he nevertheless exhibited a passive acceptance of the status quo as he saw it—namely the disappearance of Jewish culture. It is scarcely believable that he was, in the last resort, prepared to allow ‘market forces’ to determine cultural progress. This was most evident in his attitude towards the survival of Yiddish as a language. In Critical Remarks on the National Question he argued, correctly, that revolutionaries in pre-revolutionary Russia should be exposing the privileged status of the Russian language as chauvinistic, since it was the language of all official state documents and transactions. He suggested that Russia should have several official languages on the model of Switzerland. Beyond that, he was prepared to leave everything to capitalist anarchy. He wrote that:
“The requirements of economic exchange will themselves decide which language of the given country is to the advantage of the majority to know in the interests of commercial relations. This decision will be the firmer because it is adopted voluntarily by a population of various nationalities and its adoption will be the more rapid and extensive the more consistent the democracy and as a consequence of it the more rapid the development of capitalism”.
This shows a touching faith in capitalist ‘democracy’ and its economic system. Completely lacking from this schema is any notion of struggle to preserve, popularise and validate a minority culture amongst the majority. There is no recognition of the fact that, for example, the disappearance of Yiddish within a generation in this country (capitalist ‘democracy’ par excellence) was not to be the result of any ‘natural process’, but was, rather, a political victory for cultural imperialism.
Finally, Lenin does not even consider the political option of members of a cultural and economic majority taking the initiative and learning about the cultures of other people—not as an academic exercise but in order to enrich themselves and communicate with others. In the absence of this, the struggle against anti-black racism by white people and against anti-semitism by gentiles, can never be more than a liberal and patronising platitude. The only sort of assimilation that socialists should be campaigning for is the assimilation of the majority into the minority, and not the other way around.
Are the Jews a People-Class?
The most articulate expression of this determinism is to be found in Abram Leon’s book—The Jewish Question. Leon was a Jew and a Trotskyist who perished in Auschwitz at the age of twenty six. His book is a major attempt at a Marxist study of the history of world Jewry and, incidentally, of anti-semitism. It purports to provide a materialist explanation to both the existence and the ‘inevitable’ disappearance of Jewry. Its central thesis is, however, untenable. Leon addressed himself to the question of “the miracle of the Jew,” that is the question why Jewry had survived so long in spite of persecution and martyrdom. His answer was that Jews had survived because of their economic role as traders and usurers and will disappear with the disappearance of those functions. As he said:
“Above all, Jews constitute historically a social group with a specific economic function. They are a class, or more precisely a people-class”.
There are many basic flaws in Leon’s argument which have been pointed out by Maxine Rodinson in his preface to the French edition and by David Reuben (Socialist Register, 1982). Firstly, it is extremely Euro-centric As Reuben points out, Leon fails to consider Jewish communities where trade was not a significant feature, such as Jewry
“…in the Byzantine Empire, the Yemen, the Falashim of Ethiopia, the Jewish farming communities of Daghesten and Kurdistan, the Jews in Babylon under Persian rule who were an agriculturally based community and the Jews of Cochin in India”.
Even assuming that Leon was correct, at least with respect to Europe, and that he could prove his assertion that “the overwhelming majority of Jews in the diaspora engaged in trade”, this would still leave unexplained the social situation of Jews which confined them to mercantile enterprise.
Moreover, Leon was historically incorrect even about Europe. European Jewry throughout its history seems to have been involved in occupations shared by the surrounding populations. For instance (at least at the start of the Middle Ages) land ownership was widespread amongst Jews in Western Europe. A further argument against the people-class theory is that even if some Jews were traders or usurers it is fantastic to reduce the survival of Jewry, as an identifiable grouping, to the role of a miniscule minority amongst them. Finally, Reuben emphasises that the idea of the survival of a people-class owing to its economic function only makes sense if that function was unique to it, and to no other group. In no sense, however, was either trade or usury a particularly Jewish preserve. The Church’s opposition to usury was never strong enough to control it effectively amongst Christians, who were far more important economically than Jews. James Parkes has written (The Jew in the Medieval Community) that:
“Compared with the effectiveness and ubiquity of Italian credit that of the Jews appears a very small affair and the part which they played in the Middle Ages has been much exaggerated”.
“Throughout the period the chief moneylenders were Christian and apart from short periods and particular localities the Jews never played more than a subordinate role”.
In fact the only historical period—and this is debatable—when some Jews performed any unique economic function was that of international traders between 700-1100 A.D. These merchants (Radanites) may have had a particular advantage, being neither Christian nor Muslim, during a period in which the Moorish control of the Mediterranean cut off normal trade routes between Western Europe and Asia. It was also in this period that there developed the vast Jewish empire of the Khazar Kingdom, stretching from the Volga delta to Kiev—the strategic importance of which was that it separated Christianity and Islam. In any event, the trading activities of the Radanites is hardly a persuasive explanation for the existence of world Jewry.
The excessive determinism of Leon’s thesis can be appreciated when it is understood that it was an attempt to refine an even cruder version of the people-class found in Kautsky’s Are the Jews a Race? Kautsky took the notion of ‘survival of Jewry as a result of economic function’ to its inevitable conclusion by arguing that Jews had become ‘genetic’ traders. He wrote:
“They must have developed emphatically those abilities needed by merchants and this great capacity must, in the course of many generations of such activities within the same families, have produced hereditary aptitudes and traits”.
So this is the view of a ‘leading Marxist’: Jewish culture has survived because of Jewish genes!
The conclusion that Leon draws from his thesis is as deterministic as its premise. He views assimilation as inevitable, precisely because the transition from feudalism to capitalism caused the alleged people-class to lose their functional role. He argues that:
“Capitalism destroyed feudal society and with it the function of the Jewish people-class. History doomed the people-class to disappearance”.
According to Leon the only reason Jewry remains a distinct entity is because of anti-semitism (which was also Lenin’s position). Leon sees anti-semitism as a pre-capitalist caricature of Jews as usurers, which has survived into capitalism, in spite of the fact that Jews are ‘no longer’ usurers. He states that:
“Historically the success of racism means that capitalism has managed to channelise the anti-capitalist consciousness of the masses into a form that antedates capitalism and which no longer exists except in a vestigal state; this vestige is nevertheless still sufficiently great to give a certain appearance of reality to the myth”.
What Leon is saying here is that the existence today of some Jewish financiers is sufficient to evoke folk-memories of a time when the world was overrun by Jewish loan merchants—a time which, in fact, has never existed. According to his analysis, capitalist society needs a ‘diversion’ from the class struggle and this is provided by anti-semitism which, as well as facilitating assimilation, also needs to ‘resurrect’ the Jews. This is seen in his telling phrase, “The Jewish masses find themselves wedged between the anvil of decaying feudalism and the hammer of rotting capitalism”.
Abram Leon, as a Jew and a Trotskyist, had an absolute feeling for anti-semitism. He paid the highest price in the struggle against it when most of Europe had given up that struggle. But the deterministic conclusions in his book are just as erroneous as the deterministic premise on which they are based. We shall see later that anti-semitism cannot be viewed merely as a ‘diversion’ from capitalist crisis—rather it is a constant in daily life. Nor can it be viewed in any way as emanating from Jewish behaviour, if only retrospectively, as Leon suggests. It emanates from anti-semites. It does no justice to the richness and diversity of Jewish culture to suggest that it has continued and developed only as a result of anti-semitism.
The fundamental difficulty with Leon’s work is that the original question he sets out to answer—what is the reason for the ‘miracle’ of Jewish survival?—is a strange one. A similar interrogative is not normally asked about any other people or group. No-one usually asks why the English, who have state power, or the Irish, who live in an occupied state, or the Romany gypsies, who have no territorial state, have survived. These could well be important and interesting questions, but why is the question asked only of Jews? The fact is that it is usually only religious Jews who ask Leon’s question, and they naturally arrive at a theological solution—namely it was a miracle. It was to avoid such a conclusion that Leon appears to have adopted an ultra-materialist and deterministic analysis.
However, a materialist understanding of the world does not need to deny the intrinsic value of particular cultures. A proper study of Jewish survival would examine those aspects of Jewish culture which act as a positive and sustaining force, the very diversity of such culture being one main element. Indeed the diaspora—which many Jews understandably view as a negative experience—was in this respect a powerful force for expansive development. Hopefully, such a study would show that Jewish culture (or rather its progressive aspects) far from being doomed, has a role to play in socialist reconstruction. Unfortunately, the final conclusion of Leon’s thesis is that socialism will have no place for Jewry or its culture, since its two supposed pillars—its economic function and anti-semitism—will have disappeared.
Marx—The Assimilated Jew
It is ironic that Marx, in particular, is frequently paraded as an example of the way Jews should assimilate. John Nolan in his letter to Socialist Challenge writes that:
“We will be happy to persuade people to ‘assimilate’ along the road that Marx and Trotsky took away from their Jewish traditions towards the socialist revolution”.
It is significant that John Nolan counterposes the ‘Jewish tradition’ and ‘socialist revolution’. It is as though Jewish revolutionaries and Jewish revolutionary organisations spring out of nowhere. Moreover Marx himself is a most disreputable example of where assimilation leads. He is a classic case of the self-hating Jew who has internalised his own oppression—albeit at a generation removed as Marx’s father actually converted to Christianity. This is not to make the reactionary claim that Marxism as a philosophy is anti-semitic, rather it is to show that as an individual he had assimilated anti-semitism—the clearest example of which comes from his essay On the Jewish Question. This includes the following observations:
“What is the secular cult of the Jew? Haggling”.
“What is his secular god? Money”.
“Exchange is the true god of the Jew”.
“The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant”.
“The emancipation of the Jew is, in the last analysis, the emancipation of mankind from Judaism”.
Various apologies have been given for this diatribe. One is that the essay in question was actually written in favour of Jewish emancipation. However, as such, it was based on the worst form of liberal tolerance, as Marx obviously hated everything Jewish. Secondly, it is argued that Marx was not referring to any actual Jewish community but, in common with the language of his time, used ‘Judaism’ in an abstract sense to equate it with capitalist exchange values. For instance Nathan Weinstock has written that:
“Marx uses Judaism as an abstract category and does not seem to refer to any actual Jewish communities” (see Appendix to Zionism the False Messiah).
However, even if Marx was using the term abstractly, then his language would be no less anti-semitic. Besides, Marx equated Jews and capitalism in very concrete, not abstract, imagery. Thus in the same essay he says of a Jew “When he travels it is as if he carried his shop and his office on his back and spoke of nothing but interest and profit”. Quite contrary to Nathan Weinstock, Isaac Deutscher tries to justify this article on the grounds that Marx, far from writing abstractly, was simply making “a factual statement about the Jews’ particular function in Christian society” (see ‘Who is a Jew?’ in the collected essays The Non-Jewish Jew).
Apart from On the Jewish Question, Marx made countless other anti-semitic remarks in his writings. In his Theses on Feuerbach, he says that the German philosopher did not grasp the significance of revolutionary activity because practice is conceived by him “Only in its dirty-Jewish manifestations”. Furthermore, in a personal letter to Engels, he gave a description of Ferdinand Lassalle, a contemporary socialist, which managed to combine both anti-semitism and anti-black racism. He wrote:
“I see clearly that he is descended, as the shape of his head and hair indicate, from the negroes who were joined to the Jews at the time of the exodus from Egypt (unless it was his mother or paternal grandmother who mated with a negro). But his mixture of Judaism and Germanism with a negro substance as a base was bound to yield a most curious product. The importunity of the man is also negroid” (Quoted by Silbemer in an article on Marx in Historia Judaica 1949).
Paradoxically, Lassalle himself fits into the category of the assimilated Jewish socialist who eventually renounced everything in the Jewish heritage.
In what must be one of the most extraordinary love letters in human history he wrote to Sophie Sonstev:
“I do not like the Jews at all. I even detest them in general … During the past centuries of slavery these men acquired the characteristics of slaves and this is why I am unfavourably disposed towards them”.
Elsewhere he wrote that “There are two classes of men I cannot bear, men of letters and Jews—and unfortunately I belong to both” (Silberner’s article on Lassalle in the 1952-53 Hebrew Union College Annual). The epithet ‘self-hating Jew’ is an unpleasant one, but it is difficult to avoid its use in the case of both Marx and Lassalle. Neither are great advertisements for a liberated identity.
Left assimilationism takes an organisational form in the frequent attacks on the notion of independent Jewish self-organisation Whereas Kautsky’s main reason for writing about Jews was to attack zionism, Lenin was mainly concerned with attacking the autonomous existence of the Bund—the revolutionary union of Jewish workers in Russia and Poland. Both used almost identical arguments. In fact, it is extraordinary that while Kautsky’s criticism of zionism was in part based on a perception of the need for Jews to fight oppression, in whatever country they were living, when Jews did organise through the Bund to fight such oppression they were denounced as separatists. The Bund was an anti-zionist organisation, but their advocacy of autonomous Jewish socialist organisation led Lenin to denounce them for zionism (see The Position of the Bund in the Party).
Lenin launched a vast polemic against the Bund, superficially on the question of whether there was a ‘Jewish culture’ or a Jewish ‘nation’—both of which he denied. Some of his positions were quite obscurantist: he went to exceptional lengths to ‘prove’ the Jews were not a ‘nation’. In the Position of the Bund he quoted Kautsky’s statement with approval: “The Jews have ceased to be a nation, for a nation without a territory is unthinkable”, This is sheer scholasticism. The ultimate logic of such an argument is that all diaspora Jews suddenly became a nation when Israel was established. In fact the whole debate is a complete abstraction. The political questions—for or against zionism of for or against self-organisation—cannot be ‘solved’ through a semantic debate about whether Jews have achieved the status of something which, like ‘race’ is completely metaphysical—namely ‘nationhood’. To the extent that Bundists as well as Leninists—and as well as zionists—dealt in these abstractions they were all dealing in myths.
Nevertheless, behind all this obscurantism, Lenin was attacking the very idea of the autonomy of Jewish political organisation. Some of his writings are very similar to criticisms made by sections of the Left today of independent black and women’s organisations. This is perhaps most evident in his article Does the Jewish Proletariat Need an Independent Political Party? He attacked separatism on the grounds that:
“we must not weaken the force of our offensive by breaking up into numerous political parties, we must not introduce estrangement and isolation”.
This is precisely what is argued today against autonomous organisations, that they somehow weaken class struggle by initiating divisions. There is a reluctance to acknowledge that class struggle is already fragmented through, for example, sexism, racism—and anti-semitism. Independent organisations of the oppressed are a way of combatting this. In fact, Lenin specifically objected to the Bund for daring to suggest that anti-semitism was not only found amongst the bourgeoisie, but “had struck roots in the mass of the workers.” Finally, Lenin attacked the Bund for apparently referring to the Bolsheviks as a “Christian working-class organisation”—just as some modern Left groups object to being designated the ‘white Left’ or the ‘male Left’. What determines the categorisation of a political organisation is not simple its aspirations, or its sociological membership, but also its attitude towards present oppression—and in this sense it was understandable that the Bolsheviks should have been considered ‘Christian’ by many Jewish revolutionaries.
Assimilation and The Jewish Establishment
Lenin wrote that “the best Jews have never clamoured against assimilation” (Critical Remarks). For Lenin, Jewry consisted of only two groups—the ‘rabbis’ who advocated a cultural ghettoisation, and the ‘progressives’ who urged assimilation. He saw no third way. He seemed ignorant of the fact that, particularly in Western Europe, it was actually the anti-Communist Jewish leadership which was trying to force the masses into assimilation. A correspondent to the Jewish Chronicle wrote:
“To anglicise the Russian immigrant is a paramount duty … his children are in excellent hands at the Jews Free School but it is hard for the teachers of that institution to have to find their efforts partly neutralised by the fearful patois which their children have to hear, and often speak, at home … what is needed is some systematic apparatus for teaching English to adults and indeed for teaching them everything that is needed to make Englishmen of them” (31.7.1891).
The drive towards assimilationism, from within the community, was a product of two interlinked motives which determine all actions of an elite within an oppressed community. Firstly, assimilationism was an exercise in class power by the establishment. It was an attempt to tame the Jewish masses and as such the establishment were acting as pawns for the British bourgeoisie. Indeed, the elite had highly personal motives for this as some of them owned factories—particularly in the garment making industry—where their own Jewish employees had achieved high levels of militancy and socialist consciousness. A classic illustration of this was the attitude of the elite towards the development of a radical Jewish political forum. The Jewish Chronicle spoke disparagingly of the opening of an autonomous Jewish Socialist Club in Manchester where:
“A number of men and children were interspersed with a few women. A lecturer standing on a slightly raised platform held forth in “Yiddish” on the wrongs of the proletariat” (3.7.1891).
This was one of several such clubs that sprung up in Manchester, Leeds and London. The response of the communal establishment was to sponsor alternative venues for Jewish workers where collaboration, not conflict, was the theme. The Manchester City News (7.2.1891) reported the opening of a Jewish Working Men’s Club where the mayor and “leading Jewish families” were seated on a platform flanked by a banner with a portrait of the Queen and the motto “God bless England, the land of freedom”. In describing the club’s activities the President noted that “the only subject excluded was politics”.
There was an additional motivation, as well as naked class interest, which led the elite to advocate assimilation. This was a direct consequence of anti-semitism. The fear this engendered lent the elite a self-perceived altruism—they saw themselves as responsible for the protection of the entire community. Protection, they believed, would come through assimilation. Assimilation did not mean a haphazard merger into the host community, but a conscious merging to avoid persecution. This consciousness has been a constant feature of the world view of the Western European Jewish establishment.
As early as 1888 the Jewish Chronicle was arguing that:
“If poor Jews will persist in appropriating whole streets to themselves in the same district, if they will persevere in the seemingly harmless practice of congregating in a body at prominent points in a great public thoroughfare, like Whitechapel or the Commercial Road, drawing to their peculiarities of dress, of language, of manner, the attention which they might otherwise escape, can there by any wonder that the vulgar prejudices of which they are the objects should be kept alive and strengthened?” (28.8. 1888).
Perhaps the most extreme example of the drive towards assimilation can be found in the pocket book Helpful Information and Guidance for every Refugee issued In 1938 by the “German Jewish Aid Committee in conjunction with the Jewish Board of Deputies”, This was given to the few Jewish refugees who managed to pass through U.K. immigration control. It spoke of “the traditional tolerance and sympathy of Britain towards the Jews”, and then immediately went on to provide the refugees with a list of “duties to which you are honour bound” in order to avoid intolerance, including:
“Spend your time immediately in learning the English language and its correct pronunciation”,
“Do not talk in a loud voice”,
“Do not criticise any government regulation or the way things are done over here”,
“Do not make yourself conspicuous by your manner or dress”,
“Do not join any political organisation or take part in any political activities”,
“Do not spread the poison of ‘It’s bound to come to this country’, The British Jew greatly objects to the planting of this craven thought”.
The above attitudes only just stop short of advocating forced conversion for Jews! The impression gained from such material is that the elite had to stop short at some point if only to retain its own power base. In essence, they were calling for the abolition of the public expression of Jewish identity. From this perspective an analogy with the Marranos of Spain and Portugal, who though baptized, remained secret Jews, is not inappropriate.
It may well be that this combination of class interest and perceived altruism is what has historically defined the position of the Jewish establishment. Thus it also explains its support for immigration control at the turn of the century, which was seen as a way of both controlling and protecting those Jews already in this country. In any event, such a combination is absolutely prejudicial to the interests of the Jewish masses in that its whole thrust is to attempt to remove them, as far as possible, from progressive political struggle. In this country the Jewish bourgeoisie attempted to depoliticise the struggle against the Aliens Act, and then the struggle against fascism in the 1930s. An example of this is the attitude of the Jewish Chronicle towards the fascist march through Cable Street. Under the heading “Urgent Warning” the paper said:
“It is understood that a large Blackshirt demonstration will be held in East London on Sunday afternoon … Jews are urgently warned to keep away from the route of the Blackshirt march and from their meetings. Jews who, however innocently, become involved in any possible disorders will be actively helping anti-semitism and Jew-baiting. Unless you want to help the Jew-baiters keep away” (2.10.36).
The attitude of the Board of Deputies, as expressed by its President Nathan Laski at a public meeting in Shoreditch, was to rely on the police and the Home Office (Jewish Chronicle 18.9.36). In answer some Jewish militants replied in a letter aptly headed “Did Judas Maccabeus² Stay at Home?” (Jewish Chronicle 23.10.36).
All historical experience has shown that assimilation is never an answer to anti-semitism. It can actually provoke further anti-semitism. The habit of Jewish immigrants of anglicising their East European names was, at the turn of the century, frequently pointed to as an example of how Jews wanted to remain powerful but ‘hidden’. Even conversion is no defence—the Inquisition in Spain was launched precisely to persecute the Marranos. Moreover, the drive towards assimilation by the Western European and U.S.A. elite in the last hundred years has itself had a disastrous historical consequence: the Jewish masses are left confused about their Jewish identity, apart from whatever relationship they have with zionism. One reaction has been for sections of the Jewish youth of the last decade to hark back to the past. There has been a mini-revival both of interest in Yiddish and in Hasidic religious movements. However, all this is essentially recidivist and based exclusively on either nostalgia or obscuranticism. Especially within Hasidism, there is a rejection of progressive movement for social change.
Matters of culture and the struggle against organised fascism are equally ‘political’. It is a pernicious form of liberalism which relegates culture to the domain of the ‘personal’. The truth of the feminist axiom the personal is political’ is no more vividly obvious than in a response to anti-semitism which calls for the abolition of Jewish cultural identity. One of the most startling realisations in reading the historical and modern documents is how closely the assimilationism of the Jewish elite resembles that of Lenin. Both expressly saw assimilation as an answer’ to anti-semitism. Both were, and are, wrong.
Chauvinism or Anti-Semitism?
Assimilationism is undoubtedly reactionary. A generous interpretation of its acceptance by the Left is simply that it is an inadequate resolution of the ‘national question’ under socialism. Being less generous, however, assimilationism is a classic case of national chauvinism. It is based on the assumption that minority cultures have only a transient historical validity and inevitably have to disappear into the ‘mainstream’. For example, Lenin saw only the Yiddish and not the Russian language as being an historical remnant.
Nevertheless, it is true to say there is a real problem in determining the relationship between the classic anti-semitism of the conspiracy theory and assimilationism directed by the ‘host’ community at Jews. Assimilation, unlike classic anti-semitism is not necessarily derived from Jewish conspiracy theories of history. It can be more frequently traced to the essential nationalism and chauvinism of the nation state. This is usually the case with the Left—which is capable of manifesting chauvinism to any minority, not just Jews. It would be ludicrous to see, for example, Bolshevik opposition to Bundist separatism as being motivated by conspiracy theories. The point is that the Bolsheviks were explicitly against separatism by any group! Indeed Lenin complained of the accusation of singling Jews out and said:
“This is disseminating an outright falsehood for we have advocated denying representation not only to the Jews but also to the Armenians, the Georgians and so on” (The Position of the Bund in the Party).
There is, nonetheless, a living relationship between national chauvinism against Jews and anti-semitism as an ideology. This exists on various levels. In the most general, but profound, sense both are firmly rooted in Christian perceptions. This is as true of the conspiracy theory as it is of the development of what was a European (and therefore Christian) phenomenon—the growth of the nation state. Significantly, Isaac Deutscher spoke not of European civilisation but of ‘Christian-European civilisation’ (‘Who is a Jew’ in The Non-Jewish Jew). Indeed, dependent on its period of social, economic and ideological development, the state was able to advocate either ghettoisation or assimilation as a way of ‘dealing with’ its Jewish population.
Even on the Left there is a ruthlessness and explicitness about advocating Jewish assimilation that takes it beyond the ‘normal’ bounds of chauvinism. The vocabulary used to describe the daily life of Jews—’doomed’, ‘extinct’—reads like a post mortem. In fact, it is correct to say that the policy of Jewish assimilation becomes part of anti-semitism; ideology precisely at the point were conspiracy theories are used. to justify it. A classic case is the forced conversions of Marranos in Spain and Portugal as part of the relentless battle against Jewish devil-power. Nothing like this has occurred within Left anti-semitism, except perhaps the closing down of Soviet synagogues which is a step in this direction.
However, even in non-Stalinist sources, the conspiracy theory does sometimes raise its head in advocating assimilation. Occasionally this takes the form of crude anti-semitic imagery and analogy. Lenin could relapse into evoking the image of usury. He correctly criticised the Bund when they adopted two different constitutions—a minimum and a maximum programme (essay Maximum Brazenness and Minimum Logic). However, he expressed himself as follows to the Bund:
“This is the positive last price not ‘last word’. Only is it really your last, gentlemen? Perhaps you’ve got a minimal minimum in another pocket? .. We very much fear that the Bundists do not quite realise all the ‘beauty’ of this maximum and minimum. Why, how else can you haggle than by asking an exorbitant price, then knocking off 75 per cent and declaring ‘That’s my last price’? Why, is there any difference between haggling and politics?”
He could hardly have been unaware of the anti-semitic stereotyping in this—echoing Marx’s remarks “What is the secular cult of the Jew? Haggling”.
There is, though, a more consistent way in which anti-semitic theory is used to justify assimilationism. There is a repeated reference to the notion that Jews are pleading a ‘special case’ in trying to retain their own autonomy—either cultural or organisational. This is the ‘uppity-Jew’ syndrome. For black people the equivalent abuse means going above their status as slaves. For Jews it means trying to gain an ascendancy over others. We see in the next chapter that the idea that Jews are trying to gain special privileges is a recurring theme of the Left.
In particular, it is alleged that Jews believe they are life’s only victims. However, those Jews who oppose assimilationism are also branded as arguing a ‘special case’. In Socialist Challenge John Nolan says, apropos of nothing, “in the fight against oppression there are no special cases”. Likewise, Lenin accused the Bund of ‘exceptionalism’ for advocating the maintenance and development of Yiddish and other aspects of cultural life. (The Position of the Bund).
Perhaps the clearest practical illustration of this accusation occurred in the Austrian Social Democratic Party. Its 1899 Brun conference contained a resolution suggesting that legislative power should be given to national minorities on a non-territorial basis. By this scheme, minorities were to be given power to legislate on their own cultural affairs, run their own schools and decide their own language. Irrespective of the merits of this attempt to resolve the national question—it was never passed—it is interesting that Jews were excluded despite the fact the Galicia was one of the world’s largest centres for Jewry. Hence “there are no special Jewish traits worth preserving. All retention of Jewish uniqueness is deleterious” and:
“We cannot accept the separation of the Jewish proletariat in the realm of social life, which far exceeds the limits of ordinary national differences and finds its basis in religious and social conflicts” (quoted in Wistrich—Socialism and Jews).
The idea that Jews who claim organisational and cultural autonomy are somehow claiming a special privilege, is a typical example of how Jews are put in a double-bind by the Left. Austrian social democracy shows that on the one hand the Left frequently does treat Jews differently from other groups, but on the other hand, when Jews dare point this out, they are accused of arguing a special case—that is they are accused of wanting different treatment! Indeed Lenin came close to asserting that in some ways the Bund’s separatism was based on the belief that Jews were intrinsically superior to all other people—a classic anti-semitic jibe. He expressly accused the Bund of considering that “The Jewish nation … occupies a special position amongst the nations” (The Position of the Bund).
Jewish Behaviour Seen as Responsible for Anti-Semitism
There is another relationship between the ideologies of anti-semitism and assimilationism. Assimilationism itself has various facets: it can refer to the categorisation of Jewish culture as inferior and even doomed; it can refer to condemnation of Jewish self-organisation. These attitudes are obviously also directed at other minority groups. However, Lenin has a particular argument that seems almost uniquely directed towards Jews—namely that we should assimilate as a political gesture in order to avoid persecution.
Lenin may have been sincere in his opposition to Jewish oppression, nonetheless his argument is, paradoxically, based on assumptions that are found in anti-semitism. If not anti-semitic itself it is still a capitulation to anti-semitism, as it locates the source of Jewish persecution not in the persecutor but within some perceived behaviour by Jewry—which Lenin himself described as “non-native” and “alien”. Such a description reads in terms very similar to those of the anti-semite Arnold White who attacked Jews for “clinging to a community that prefers to remain aloof from the mainstream of modern life” (The Modern Jew). Of course it is central to the conspiracy theory that it is a response to some ‘real’ Jewish behaviour. The analogy with sexism is powerful. How would a ‘socialist’ analysis be received if it argued that to understand sexism it is necessary to examine, not the attitudes of men, but the behaviour of women? According to Lenin, Jewry must literally obliterate its identity not to be oppressed. In fact this sort of logic would have to tell women that the only way of dealing with sexism is to become men.
Unfortunately, a similar concession to the enemy occurs in the writings of Abram Leon. He treats anti-semitism as being a reaction to what he perceives as the Jewish historical role—namely trade and usury. Moreover, he views this as persisting even though Jews no longer perform such functions. In any event, he still locates the source of anti-semitism as being in some way linked to actual Jewish behaviour. Again, it is as though sexism were analysed as a reaction against the supposed behaviour of all women, or of some witches several centuries ago. Quite clearly, Leon’s own personal and political practice—his revolutionary struggle to death against fascism and anti-semitism—was inevitably at odds with his theoretical model.
However, the crudity of such a model can be found in the statement made by Tony Greenstein, writing as chairperson of the Labour Committee on Palestine, that Nazism was built on “the memory of the peasants regarding their relations with Jewish money lenders/tax collectors in feudal times” (Letters Page Big Flame December 1982). This attributes an extraordinary memory to the German peasantry—it is as though there were no intervening anti-semitic ideology. It fails also to ask why the activities of Christian money lenders did not lead to the annihilation of most of Christendom several centuries later.
In fact, there has arisen a whole school of liberal historiography which acts as an apologia for anti-semitism precisely by arguing that it is somehow a reaction against real Jewish behaviour. A recent example is the book Anti-Semitism in British Society by Colin Holmes. Holmes explicitly acknowledges that he is engaged in an “interactionist approach” by which he means that “in order to understand anti-semitic hostility we need to recognise the characteristics of the Jewish minority”. In other words Holmes is saying that to understand anti-semitism we have to look at behaviour within Jewry.
The fundamental error of both revolutionaries such as Lenin, and liberals such as Holmes, is the belief that it is possible to discover a ‘rational’ source for anti-semitism. All such beliefs are premised on the assumption that there is some material conduct by Jews to which anti-semitism is a form of reaction, however perverse. Any genuine socialist understanding of anti-semitism requires not an examination of Jewish behaviour, but of the material behaviour of the anti-semite and of false consciousness. This is because, in spite of all its claims to the contrary, anti-semitism as an ideology has nothing to do with the behaviour of even one single Jew, let alone of all Jews. It is a view of the world based on myths and fantasies. To attempt to locate the source of such myths in Jewish life is ultimately a major concession to that ideology.
The Politics of Terminology
It would, in the last resort, be dangerous to be rigid in reserving the terminology of ‘anti-semitism’ exclusively for a definition of the ideology of the Jewish conspiracy, and to use the language of ‘chauvinism’ to describe assimilationism by the host community. This is not just because the two may be conceptually linked, as has been seen. Rather they are also, as far as Jewish people are concerned, linked in daily life. To put it at its most basic, Jewish people feel trapped within their oppression. There often seems no way out. It is the totality of this oppression that is felt to be anti-semitic, irrespective of the theoretical origins of its components.
The historical periods detailed in this book are a good example of the mechanism of anti-semitism. Jewish people who, at the turn of the century, came to this country fleeing from pogroms, were met with conspiracy views on the Left. Such views have re-emerged today in the guise of anti-zionism, at a time when more and more Jews are beginning to find this racist country intolerable. Linking these two historical periods has been the constant propaganda of Left ideologues saying that Jewish culture is dead and urging Jews to assimilate on the grounds that this is the only way to resist oppression. This succession of traps have in themselves gradually helped deter the Jewish masses from socialism as an answer to their problems. The most vivid illustration of this is that whereas zionism is attacked in part as avoiding the struggle against anti-semitism, Jewish self-organisation, such as the Bund, is attacked as being separatist and a concession to zionism!
These traps are just a faithful reflection of everyday reality as felt by Jewish people, where social life in gentile society is seen as one big double bind. There are many good Yiddish jokes about how we regard the slightest criticism as a form of anti-semitism, but these must be seen as a response to the way anti-semitism often seems to be a closed circle, with no exit. It is not for the oppressor to deny the reality of the oppressed. It is not for Christian society to deny the potency of anti-semitism as an ideology, to deny the power of the theory of the world Jewish conspiracy. The historic effects of this theory have been dramatic. Not least it is the mechanism which starts and closes the circle of oppression around Jewish people: its inherent irrationality provides it with infinite elasticity.
Nothing can be understood about the Jewish predicament without understanding that what defines it as a unique category of racism is the existence of anti-semitism as ideology. It is this ideology that needs to be destroyed in order to give hope for Jewish liberation. This requires a serious political struggle-and one which is able to distinguish friend from foe. Assimilation is not the answer. It is part of the problem.
¹WASP—White Anglo-Saxon Protestant
²Judah the Maccabee led the Jewish revolt against Syrian occupation in about 160 B.C.E. He exploited ambush, night movement and rapid attack, in what was essentially a guerrilla Campaign.
< previous back to contents next >