Cover of the original 1983 French edition of Revolutionary Yiddishland
The Pale of Settlement
The Revolutionary Yiddishland of the book’s title refers to the former Pale of Settlement which was comprised of twenty-six governorships in Eastern Europe where Jews were allowed to live, but only in cities and towns. Out of the eleven million Jews in the world in the early twentieth century, Russia held more than five million, and of these, four and a half million resided in the cities and towns of the Pale. For the authors, this “Yiddishland” was not just a geographical territory, but a “social and cultural space, a linguistic and religious world.”[i] According to historian John Klier, he much-maligned Pale of Settlement was the only response the tsarist authorities could come up with when faced with how to deal with the “fanaticism of ultra-Orthodox Jewry” which was “unassimilable to official purposes.”
The social hierarchy of Jews in the Pale was, according to Brossat and Klingberg, made up of a wealthy financial bourgeoisie, a middling bourgeoisie which was “intellectual and commercial,” and “an immense Jewish proletariat.”[ii] The use of the term “proletariat” to describe poorer Jews in the Pale is questionable given that they typically operated as petty traders rather than industrial employees. Jewish peddlers were notorious throughout the Pale as smugglers of contraband (as referenced in Gogol’s Dead Souls). This large number of poorer Jews was the direct result of the Jewish population explosion in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century when their numbers grew from about 1.5 million at the beginning of the century to almost eight million by 1913.
This Jewish “proletariat,” a hotbed of radicalism characterized by “powerful organization,” played a “decisive part” in the “strikes and insurrections that broke out right across the Pale in the course of the 1905 Revolution.” Regarding revolutionary agitators at this time, Tsar Nicholas II claimed that “nine-tenths of the troublemakers are Jews” who also dominated the newspapers where “some Jew or another sits … making it his business to stir up passions of people against each other.”[iii]
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw millions of these poorer Jews migrate to destinations as diverse as North and South America, France, South Africa, Australia and Palestine. The ideological zealotry of these Jewish migrants directly influenced American immigration policy around this time, with Muller noting:
The image of the Jew as Communist played an often overlooked role in the history not only of Jews in America, but of the millions of Jews in Eastern Europe who would have liked to emigrate to the United States after World War I, but who were prevented from doing so by the immigration restrictions enacted in the early 1920s, culminating in the Reed-Johnson Act of 1924. For those restrictions were motivated in part by the identification of Jews with political radicalism.’[iv]
The prominent Jewish intellectual and writer Chaim Bermant observed that “To many minds, at the beginning of this [twentieth] century, the very words ‘radical’ and ‘Jew’ were almost one, and many a left-wing thinker or politician was taken to be Jewish through the very fact of his radicalism.”[v]
From the 1860s the effects of the Enlightenment and the rise of capitalism throughout the Pale overturned the traditional structures of Jewish life. The Jewish population became increasingly concentrated in urban centers as Jews migrated from the shtetl to the cities. This geographical shift was accompanied by an intellectual shift involving “a break with the rigidity of the traditional Jewish life that invaded every sphere of existence.” This break caused tensions and conflicts in Jewish families across and beyond the Pale — mainly between traditionalist parents and their children who abandoned traditional Judaism to embrace Marxism. Brossat and Klingberg note how “the theme of generational conflict, the clash between the old and the new within the family structure, returns like a leitmotiv in the statements of many of our witnesses.”[vi]
The progression of young Jews from religious fanaticism to political fanaticism was often a psychologically seamless process, with the Messianic creed of Marxism being grafted, without much difficulty, onto traditional Jewish paradigms. All the various branches of Jewish radicalism, the Bund (a Jewish socialist party), Poale Zion (a socialist Zionist party), and communism “sprang from the same root: the great utopia of a new world, the New Covenant that was prefigured by the writings of the socialist thinkers of the second half of the nineteenth century.”[vii] The European left was in large measure a Jewish creation. In Germany in the mid-nineteenth century Marx, Hess, and Lassalle, all three of Jewish origin, founded and shaped the socialist movement.
Interviewee Max Technitchek recalled how his traditionalist father, through exposure to radical literature, became convinced “that socialism was a good thing, that a day would come when everybody would be happy. Of course the good Lord still had a hand in it — the Messiah, socialism, the vision of future happiness for the Jews and all humanity — all this tended to melt together in his convictions.”[viii] Here we see the conception of Judaism as a self-perceived universalist, morally superior movement — the “light unto the nations” theme that has recurrently emerged as an important aspect of Jewish self-identity since antiquity and especially since the Enlightenment. This despite the fact that Jews have frequently served oppressive ruling elites in traditional societies throughout history.
The religious father of communist militant David Szarfharc expressed sympathy for communism because, for him, “the prophets were precursors of Marx.”[ix] It was thus not uncommon for the Marxist sympathies of traditionalist parents to “beat the path to radicalism and revolutionary commitment for their children.”[x] Another attraction of Marxism was “its replication of Judaic traditions of book-learning, exegesis and prediction.”[xi] Sachar notes how “its intellectual sophistication appealed to Jews,” though its chief allure lay in the fact it “rejected all forms of chauvinism and nationalist xenophobia. In short, it rejected anti-Semitism.”[xii]
For many in the younger generation, communism was seen not a rejection of Judaism but its logical extension. For the vast majority of Jewish communists, “their commitment to the movement was not a sign of forgetting or denying their identity; they participated in it as Jews, drawing Jewish workers into the great movement of universal emancipation.” Brossat and Klingberg’s informants’ accounts of their transition from the closed world of religion to the open world of modernity was “not expressed in terms of violent rupture, rather of evolution, reconciliation” between Judaism and Marxism. For the authors, the testimony of their informants revealed “the plasticity, capacity for evolution and basic internal dynamism of the Jewish world of Eastern Europe.”[xiii]
Jewish support for the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917
Jews naturally welcomed the February Revolution of 1917 which led to the abolition of all legal restrictions on Jews starting with the Pale of Settlement. At this time, most Jews did not support the Bolsheviks, but other more overtly pro-Jewish groups like the Bund, Poale Zion, and the Mensheviks. This changed after the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917 and launched a campaign to wipe out all traces of anti-Semitism in the former Russian Empire. Brossat and Klingberg note how “the Bolsheviks equated anti-Semitism with counterrevolution” and applied the rigors of martial law to “pogromists.” This attracted huge numbers of Jews into the ranks of the new Bolshevik regime, who “provided very many cadres to both the provincial administrations of the new regime and the army.” The prevalence of Jews in the new administration was such that the “Soviet government [effectively] made anti-Semitism a proxy for anti-Bolshevism.”[xiv]
Jewish Bolshevik supporters during the October Revolution
Once the Civil War began, Jewish support for the new regime became even more pronounced. By March 1919 a large majority of the members of the Jewish Bund “pronounced in favor of the Soviet dictatorship.” Key to this support was the fact the Bolsheviks had
proclaimed the definitive abolition of all forms of national discrimination; the Soviet government waged an effective struggle against anti-Semitism. The abolition of the Pale of Settlement enabled Jews to move freely across the whole Russian territory; the proclamation of the equality of all citizens opened the doors of the new administration to them; the proclaimed desire of the new power to contribute to the rehabilitation of all cultures and nationalities oppressed by Great Russian chauvinism under the tsarist regime gave them hope for the yiddische gass, the “Jewish street,” of Russia. Was not the presence of so many Jews in leading positions in the new state apparatus a tangible guarantee, a deposit in the future?[xv]
Solomon Fishkowski, a Poale Zion militant in Kolno, Poland, enthusiastically welcomed the revolution. After being briefly imprisoned for distributing propaganda leaflets in 1918, he enlisted in the Polish army. When the Polish-Soviet war broke out he deserted and joined the Red Army “to rally to this revolution that had proclaimed the end to all discrimination against Jews.”[xvi] Haim Babic, a faithful activist of the Bund in Poland, claimed that Polish Jews like him “demanded immediate and radical solutions, which pressed us to turn towards the east, the USSR.”[xvii] Babic became convinced that “Polish Jews would never escape from their misery without a worldwide overthrow.”[xviii]
When, after the chaos of World War I, revolutions erupted all over Europe, Jews were everywhere at the helm. The old order in Hungary was overthrown by the Hungarian Soviet Republic of Bela Kun (Cohen) who seized power in March 1919 and lasted for only 133 days before succumbing to invading Romanian troops. Of the government’s forty-nine commissars, thirty-one were Jews.[xix] After seizing power they acted in enthusiastic accord with their radical political principles:
Statues of Hungarian kings and national heroes were torn down, the national anthem was banned, and the display of the national colors was made a punishable offense. … Radical agitators were dispatched to the countryside, where they ridiculed the institution of the family and threatened to turn churches into movie theatres. … Antipathy soon enough focused on the Jews. Young revolutionaries of Jewish origin had been sent to the countryside to administer the newly collectivized agricultural estates; their radicalism was exceeded only by their incompetence, reinforcing peasant anti-Semitism. The Jesuits, for their part, interpreted the revolution as Jewish and anti-Christian in essence. … Rumors abounded that the revolutionaries were everywhere desecrating the Host. In Budapest as in the countryside, opposition to the regime, defense of the church, and anti-Semitism went hand in hand.[xx]
An eyewitness account of the Hungarian Soviet Republic was published in 1921 by the visiting French brothers Jean and Jérôme Tharaud entitled When Israel is King. Interspersed with accounts of the confiscation of wealth by the revolutionaries, and the replacement of Hungarian professors with young Jewish intellectuals, were reflections like: “A New Jerusalem was growing up on the banks of the Danube. It emanated from Karl Marx’s Jewish brain, and was built by Jews upon a foundation of very ancient ideas.”’[xxi]
Bela Kun in 1919
Reflecting on this history, Zsolt Bayer, co-founder of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz Party, last year posed the question in an op-ed: “Why are we surprised that the simple peasant whose determinant experience was that the Jews broke into his village, beat his priest to death, threatened to convert his church into a movie theater — why do we find it shocking that twenty years later he watched without pity as the gendarmes dragged the Jews away from his village?”
A Jewish cultural renaissance in the USSR
After the Bolshevik Revolution the national rights of the Jewish population were fully recognized. This was manifested in the opening of Yiddish-language schools, the publication of books and periodicals in that language, and the creation, in January 1918, of a sub-commissariat of Jewish affairs.[xxii] Brossat and Klingberg claim a “Jewish cultural renaissance” occurred in the USSR in the 1920s, which was associated with a “remarkable flourishing of Jewish theater in this period, by an intense and varied production of Yiddish literature, the establishment of Jewish schools etc.” The sudden changes introduced by the revolution “precipitated the eruption of these communities into modernity, bringing to birth the features of a new Jewish identity in the USSR.” Synagogues were rebranded “cultural circles” where meetings were held on the dates of religious festivals which “denounced outdated beliefs and celebrated the cult of the revolution.”[xxiii]
It is a testament to Judaism’s tenacity as a group evolutionary strategy that Jewish ethnic continuity was unaffected by the official assimilationist ideology of the new regime. The rejection of religious traditionalism was instead “accompanied by a ‘self-affirmation,’ a ‘rejection of assimilation’ by the new public that recognized itself in this original cultural production.”[xxiv] Accordingly, the “massive revolutionary commitment” of Jewish youth in the early twentieth century “cannot be equated with a flight from the Jewish world, an unqualified rejection of this world.” Their commitment was “not a sign of forgetting or denying their identity; they participated in it as Jews” and Marxism-Leninism only “consolidated them in their Jewish identity.”[xxv]
Pre-revolutionary Jewish schools were almost entirely traditional heder that taught the Bible and Talmud: the post-revolutionary schools were secular institutions impregnated with communist ideology. Despite this, instruction was in Yiddish and the new schools continued to segregate Jewish children from the surrounding goyische society. Here was clear evidence that the Jewish advocacy of radical, universalist ideologies like communism was compatible with Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy. Kevin MacDonald notes in Culture of Critique how the Bolsheviks “aggressively attempted to destroy all vestiges of Christianity as a socially unifying force within the Soviet Union while at the same time it established a secular Jewish subculture so that Judaism would not lose its group continuity or its unifying mechanisms such as the Yiddish language.”[xxvi]
It took opponents of the Bolsheviks little time to notice the overwhelmingly Jewish nature of the new regime. Jews were a primary target of tsarist loyalists who “mobilized under the banner ‘For Holy Russia, against the Jews!’”[xxvii] Jews were attracted to communism in the 1920s to an extraordinary extent and their prominence, not only in the Bolshevik political leadership in the period from 1917 to 1922 but especially in the secret police, only “nourished anti-Semitism.”[xxviii] Soviet propaganda demonized Ukrainian nationalist leaders like Petliura as an “anti-Semite” and “linked Ukrainian nationalism to looting, killing and above all pogroms.” Petliura was murdered in Paris in 1926 by a Russian Jew, Sholom Schwatzbard, who, “inspired by Soviet propaganda” claimed to be “taking revenge for the pogroms.”[xxix] Schwatzbard was hailed as a hero by Jews around the world.
The sudden appearance of large numbers of Jews in leadership positions throughout the ranks of the new Soviet regime, a “revolution in the revolution,” had an electrifying effect on Jewish youth throughout Eastern Europe. Esther Rosenthal-Schneidermann, a Jewish communist from Poland who arrived in Moscow in 1926 to take part in the first congress of activists specializing in the field of education, recalled her emotional reaction to discovering this new reality:
Up till then, I had never seen a Jew in the role of high official, not to say an official speaking our everyday mamelosh [mother tongue], Yiddish. And here on the podium in the congress hall of the People’s Commissariat for Education there were top officials speaking Yiddish, in the name of the colossal Soviet power, of Jewish education that the party placed on a footing of equality with the cultural assets of other peoples.[xxx]
Rubenstein notes how “In a country where Jews had been persecuted and marginalized for so long, it must have been unnerving for millions of people to see Jews among those in charge of the country.”[xxxi] After the revolution, Jews quickly moved into “important and especially sensitive positions in the bureaucracy and administration of the new regime,” and, as a result, the first encounter with the new regime for many Russians “was likely to be with a commissar, tax officer, or secret police official of Jewish origin.” Muller notes that:
with so many Bolsheviks of Jewish origin in positions of leadership, it was easy to consider Bolshevism a “Jewish” phenomenon. And if Winston Churchill, who was personally remote from anti-Semitism, could regard Bolshevism as a disease of the Jewish body politic, those who had long conceived of Jews as the enemies of Christian civilization quickly concluded that Bolshevism was little more than a transmutation of the essence of the Jewish soul.[xxxii]
Or, as Kevin MacDonald has conceptualized it, a post-enlightenment manifestation of Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy. Following the dramatic reversal of fortune for Russian Jewry under the Bolsheviks, many Jews who had left tsarist Russia to migrate to North America or Western Europe returned to witness the “unbelievable.” It was “a topsy-turvy world” said one such onlooker, A.S. Sachs, where “the despised had come to sit on the throne and those who had been the least were now the mightiest.” He noted with jubilation that “The Jewish Bolsheviks demonstrate before the entire world that the Jewish people are not yet degenerate, and that this ancient people is still alive and full of vigor. If a people can produce men who can undermine the foundations of the world and strike terror into the hearts of countries and governments, then it is a good omen for itself, a clear sign of its youthfulness, its vitality and stamina.”[xxxiii]
Jewish power in Stalin’s Soviet Union
Brossat and Klingberg note how the situation of Jews in the early decades of the Soviet Union is often framed in terms of their victimhood at the hands of Stalinist “totalitarianism” — emphasizing the social and political repression that struck individual Jewish intellectuals, artists and activists. With the purges of the mid-1930s and Stalin’s rejection of “cosmopolitan internationalism” in favor of socialism in one country, the political landscape did change significantly for Jews. Their confidence “in the dialectic of history” was shaken by Stalin’s “restoration of the Great Russian chauvinism.” Stalin was, according to the authors, “a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semite” who
had never completely settled accounts with the national obscurantism that had poisoned the social atmosphere under the old regime [i.e. tsarist anti-Semitism] — in contrast to Lenin, who had a horror of racism and denounced national prejudices throughout his life. In 1907, Stalin was highly amused by the joke of a certain comrade Alexinski who, noting that Jews were particularly numerous among the Mensheviks, suggested that it would perhaps be time to “conduct a pogrom in the party.” When the factional struggle broke out in the mid-1920s, opposing Stalin and Bukharin to the left led by Trotsky and Radek, soon joined by Zinoviev and Kamenev, the latter were amazed to discover that Stalin and his clique had no hesitation, in the heat of the battle, in coming out with sly allusions to their enemies’ “exotic” origins and drawing on chauvinist prejudices that remained anchored in the consciousness of Soviet workers.[xxxiv]
Despite pointing out and condemning Stalin’s hostility to Jews, the authors erect a moral firewall between Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Third Reich. Doubtless with Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism in mind, they lament that the “prevailing discourse on ‘totalitarianism’ generally assimilates Nazi and Stalinist anti-Semitism, viewing them as equivalent and basically sharing the same features.” Such a stance, they insist, fails to appreciate how “anti-Semitism fulfilled different functions in the Nazi and Stalinist systems” and only leads to “error” because “even in the worst days of Stalinist repression, under Yezhov in the late 1930s or under Beria in the early 1950s, Stalin did not “practice the kind of racial discrimination and repression that the Nazis had made a precept, the very pivot of their system” — a view that ignores the interests of non-Jewish Russians who were the main victims of Bolshevik horrors, entirely. They note how attempts to frame Jews as wholesale victims of Stalin’s anti-Semitism also ignores the fact that most Jews in the 1930s remained loyal to the Soviet Union and “the idealism and messianism of their actions [was] still just as great.”[xxxv] Furthermore, Jews remained an elite group in the USSR during this period, and most of the women around Stalin and many of his closest collaborators, from Yagoda to Mekhlis, were Jewish.
For the authors of Revolutionary Yiddishland, it is “impossible to understand the scope of subsequent disappointments without stressing how strongly the majority of the Jewish population rallied to the Soviet regime in the course of the Civil War, and the attraction that the ‘utopia’ of the new state power continued to exert on several generations of Jewish socialist militants of Eastern Europe.”[xxxvi] Jews like Bronia Zelmanovicz continued to avidly propagandize for communism in Poland in 1937 (the highpoint of Stalin’s purges in the USSR). Talking to fellow Jews she “explained to them that there was no more anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.” She rapidly came to the attention of the Polish police and was ultimately imprisoned. She noted how “I found myself together with thirteen other young women — militants or communist sympathizers — twelve of whom were Jewish.”[xxxvii]
Brossat and Klingberg use the term “revolutionary heroism,” to describe the “militant courage” of these Jewish communists in Poland. The Polish Communist Party was perceived by most Poles as the party of the foreigner, of Poland’s hereditary enemy, “the ‘fifth column’ that had supported the Red Army’s advance on Warsaw in 1920.”[xxxviii] This was when the concept of “Judaeo-Bolshevism” (zydeokommuna) was coined by the nationalist right. Jewish membership of the Polish Communist Party fluctuated between 22 and 35 percent of the total. Jews were even more heavily represented in the party leadership: in 1935 they constituted 54 percent of the field leadership and 75 percent of the technika (responsible for propaganda).[xxxix] According to militant Yaakov Greenstein, “The worse misery, anti-Semitism and political repression grew in the 1930s, the more convinced I was that socialism was the only possible solution for us. The communist movement was a fountain at that time for the Jewish youth in Poland.”[xl]
The unswerving commitment of Galician Jew, Shlomo Szlein, to Stalin was grounded in his identification of Soviet communism with philo-Semitism:
We were on the border of the USSR, and the way in which the national question had been solved in Soviet Russia or Byelorussia, especially the Jewish question, struck us as extraordinarily positive. Younger Jews, in the late 1920s, had joined the communist movement in eastern Galicia on a massive scale. The movement’s power of attraction was that it seemed to promise to resolve both the social question and national question in a short space of time. There was such a high proportion of Jewish youth in the communist movement here that you could almost say it was a Jewish national movement. In any case, the question of stifling or denial of Jewish national identity absolutely didn’t arise. The majority of Jewish young people joined it with a Jewish national consciousness.[xli]
Accusations of “anti-Semitism” directed at Stalin by Trotskyists were indignantly dismissed by leading American Jews in the 1930s. The journalist B.Z. Goldberg responded with anger, claiming “In order to beat Stalin, Trotsky considers it right to make Soviet Russia anti-Semitic. … For us this is a very serious matter. … We are accustomed to look to the Soviet Union as our sole consolation as far as anti-Semitism is concerned.” Even Rabbi Stephen Wise, the most famous rabbi of his generation, regarded Trotsky’s claim of anti-Semitism against Stalin as a “cowardly device.”[xlii] During the 1920s and throughout the 1930s, the Soviet Union accepted aid for Soviet Jews from foreign Jewish organizations, especially the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee which was funded by wealthy American Jews like Warburg, Schiff, Kuhn, Loeb, Lehman, and Marshall.[xliii] During the 1930s, when millions of Soviet citizens were being murdered by the Soviet government, the Communist Party USA took great pains to appeal to specific Jewish interests, and glorified the development of Jewish life in the Soviet Union which was seen as “living proof that under socialism the Jewish question could be solved. Communism was perceived as good for Jews.”[xliv]
End of Part 2 of 3.
[i] Alain Brossat & Sylvie Klingberg, Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism (London; Verso, 2016), 29.
[ii] Ibid., 1.
[iii] Anne Applebaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (New York NY: Doubleday, 2017) 114.
[iv] Jerry Z. Muller, J.Z. (2010) Capitalism and the Jews (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 161-62.
[v] Chaim Bermant, Jews (London; Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1977), 160.
[vi] Brossat & Klingberg, Revolutionary Yiddishland, 37.
[vii] Ibid., 56.
[viii] Ibid., 47.
[xi] Robert Service, Comrades! A History of World Communism (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2010) 123.
[xii] Howard M. Sachar, A History of the Jews in the Modern World (New York NY: Knopf, 2005) 151.
[xiii] Brossat & Klingberg, Revolutionary Yiddishland, 46.
[xiv] Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Cornell University Press, 2001), 43.
[xv] Brossat & Klingberg, Revolutionary Yiddishland, 183.
[xvi] Ibid., 192.
[xvii] Ibid., 66.
[xviii] Ibid., 67.
[xix] Ibid., 153.
[xx] Muller, Capitalism and the Jews, 156-57.
[xxi] Ibid. p. 160
[xxii] Brossat & Klingberg, Revolutionary Yiddishland, 189.
[xxiii] Ibid., 199.
[xxiv] Ibid., 194.
[xxv] Ibid., 51.
[xxvi] Kevin MacDonald, The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth‑Century Intellectual and Political Movements, (Westport, CT: Praeger, Revised Paperback edition, 2001), 58.
[xxvii] Brossat & Klingberg, Revolutionary Yiddishland, 184.
[xxviii] Robert Wistrich, Revolutionary Jews from Marx to Trotsky (London: George G. Harrap & Co Ltd, 1976), 199.
[xxix] Applebaum, Red Famine, 188.
[xxx] Brossat & Klingberg, Revolutionary Yiddishland, 186.
[xxxi] Joshua Rubenstein, Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary’s Life (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 113-14.
[xxxii] Bermant, Jews, 139.
[xxxiii] Ibid. 171-72.
[xxxiv] Brossat & Klingberg, Revolutionary Yiddishland, 211.
[xxxv] Ibid., 61.
[xxxvi] Ibid., 191.
[xxxvii] Ibid., 72.
[xxxviii] Ibid., 71.
[xxxix] Bernard Wasserstein, On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War (Profile Books, 2012), 64.
[xl] Brossat & Klingberg, Revolutionary Yiddishland, 62.
[xli] Ibid., 61.
[xlii] Rubenstein, Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary’s Life, 176.
[xliii] MacDonald, Culture of Critique, xxxix.
[xliv] Ibid., xl.