by Colin Shindler
TODAY’S ANTIPATHY TOWARDS THE JEWISH STATE UNITES LIBERALS, MARXISTS AND ISLAMISTS.
Lenin was only interested in Jewish nationalism in so far as it related to the Russian workers’ movement
Since the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000, an important feature in the debate on the Israel-Palestine imbroglio has been a questioning of the legitimacy of
Such opinion has moved from passionately supporting the right of the Jews to self-determination in 1948 (by figures such as Aneurin Bevan, Bertrand Russell and Tony Benn) to questioning that right over 60 years later.
This disillusionment with
Whereas the Old Left had fought Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the East End with the Jews, and lived through the Holocaust and the rise of
In 2009, a state with a Jewish majority in the
Together, they reaffirm the contention that “Everything must be refused to the Jews as a nation; everything must be granted to them as individuals.” Herzl’s chief associate, Max Nordau, understood this well when he remarked at the first Zionist Congress in 1897 that the great men of the French Revolution emancipated the Jews, not through a fraternal feeling for the Jews, but because logic demanded it.
It was not that Jews did not believe in social change or indeed in revolution; it was that they believed that the theory of emancipation did not reflect their own reality. Many regarded themselves as a nation with a culture, a literature, a history, a plethora of languages and a religion.
Much of current progressive thinking can be traced back to the success of the October Revolution in 1917. Lenin, of course, would have no truck with Jewish nationalism since it would divert Jewish workers from the primary task of class struggle and recommended the choice of assimilation for the Jewish future. The Jews had skipped the national stage in their historical development and became the pioneers of socialism by moving directly to assimilation.
On the one hand, the Jews were a national minority in the transitional process of assimilating which deserved protection against antisemitism, on the other they had to be denied the right to national recognition.
Moreover, Lenin wrote about the Jews in 1903 and 1913 when the question of Jewish nationality was related to larger issues confronting the Russian workers’ movement. He noticed only Jews under the control of Baron de Rothschild and not the Marxist Zionism of Ben-Gurion and Tabenkin of the second aliyah. Lenin’s analysis of Zionism was selective, partial and outdated. He never produced a general analysis of the Jewish question and never discussed the socialist Zionist experiment in
He clearly knew little about Jews and Jewishness. Most of the Jews with whom he was acquainted in the revolutionary movement were assimilated and Russified. Their Jewishness was often defined by transcending Jewishness. The workers’ movement in capitalist
There is a belief in this country that the Left has never been susceptible to antisemitic stereotypes. The spectacle of the wealth of the Rothschilds in the 19th century, however, merged with traditional anti-Jewish imagery, propagated by centuries of the Church’s teachings. JA Hobson, the well-known liberal economist, argued that the Boer war had been instigated by international Jewish bankers and East End Jews made good, such as Barney Barnato. Jews hiding behind English names were the true manipulators of the Boer War. The revered founder of the Social Democratic Federation, HM Hyndman, spoke of an “Imperialist Judaism in
This imagery was further embellished by Jews who wished to demonstrate that their prime allegiance was to the cause of the revolution.
Many Jews fervently embraced the possibilities of destroying the old and building the new in
The Jewish section of the party began to play on the suspicion and confusion about Zionism within the Bolshevik party. It argued that Zionism was one of the branches of the imperialist counter-revolution; that it was linked to the antisemitic Whites.
The Bolsheviks believed that world revolution depended on revolution in the industrialised countries of the West. Yet this socialist internationalism was balanced by an opposing quasi-nationalist aim. A Bolshevik interest after 1917 was to stabilise the Soviet regime. Extending the appeal of revolution beyond
The utilisation of the Arab world’s resentment of the British therefore assisted the early Bolshevik state in its war of survival. Thus in 1926 the coming to power of Ibn Saud and Wahhabi Islam in
The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was, in Lenin’s eyes, one of the most important parties. It could promote the anti-imperialist struggle from the heart of the empire and assist by undermining
Lenin’s dream attracted many from the colonies and especially from the Indian subcontinent. Like many British Jews, they found in the Communist party a home free of racism and colonial paternalism. Rajani Palme Dutt, the son of a middle-class Indian doctor and a Swedish mother, joined the newly founded CPGB and was regarded as the foremost ideologist of the party for the next half century. He was regarded by the Kremlin as the safest pair of hands in
Dutt was the party’s foremost expert on the colonial question. His view of Jewish nationalism was conditioned by the vested interests of the
However, the rise of Hitler to power in January 1933 and the threatening presence of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists introduced a new ingredient into the CPGB’s approach.
The CPGB wanted a solid base within a working-class community — the Jews offered this because they appreciated the party’s principled stand against antisemitism and were deeply drawn to the idea of creating a better world. The influx of Jews into the party created a situation whereby Jews were now disproportionately represented and particularly in the party’s hierarchy and leadership.
In the spring of 1936, the CPGB demanded a halt to Jewish immigration into
The Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 was a bombshell for the Communist Party of Great Britain. For its Jewish members, it was a challenge to their faith in the cause of revolution.
Did Stalin sign to buy time? Was the annexation of the Baltic states and half of
Large amounts of war material was shipped to
In the Labour party rank and file and within the unions, there was a real anti-war sentiment, a stop the war sentiment. There was a deep fear of a repetition of the carnage of the First World War when ordinary people perished in their millions in a futile war between empires. The Communist Party’s stand attracted the attention of many on the British Left when no one else was opposing the war.
This line of argument opened the way to the belief that there could be an “understanding” for national liberation movements in the developing world to working with the Nazis if it ousted the British imperialists and secured independence. After all, “the enemy of my enemy” is my friend.
The former president of the Indian National Congress, Subhas Chandra Bose, arrived in
If Mussolini’s forces had been successful in September 1940 and entered
There was therefore a profound difference of choice for Jews and for anti-colonial freedom fighters. In both cases, vested interest overcame other considerations. For the Jews, it was often a matter of life and death, an escape from systematic extermination.
Trotsky had become sensitised to the prevalence and use of antisemitism in the
Rising antisemitism in
While Trotsky had predicted the Nazi-Soviet pact and condemned fascism, he also understood Stalin’s rationale for keeping the
There was little to choose in 1940 between the views of the Stalinist ideologue Rajani Palme Dutt and the sophisticated intellectual Leon Trotsky. This was the political dysfunction on the Left which faced the Jews on the eve of their greatest tragedy.
In the West, saving the Jews came to be seen as a consequence of winning the war. The question of what happens if there were no more Jews to save was addressed only marginally. In the East, saving the
Soviet national interests ultimately trumped all other concerns including the meaning of socialism. Stalin’s desire to oust the British from the
Yet Soviet Jews who applied to emigrate to
The Road to Utopia is paved with good intentions, but is accompanied by unexpected consequences. Today the
Yet its legacy about Zionism lives on. These errors of history are carried on high while marching valiantly towards the new dawn of humanity. While the politics of virtue still attracts, many Jews remain idealists without illusions. It is this contradiction which both draws them near to and at the same time distances them from the British Left. The Road to Utopia remains open, everyone wishes to move forward, but the 20th century has taught that we do not all face in the same direction.
This article was based on Colin Shindler’s inaugural lecture at SOAS as the
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