Our Jewish Communist past

By David Aaronovitch, September 23, 2011

While I was in a coma recently, one of the emails that tumbled into my untended inbox was from a Polish friend with whom I'd had a mild falling out a couple of years ago. The reason for our argument was the controversy following the Conservative Party's alliance with various European forces, including a Polish politician who had campaigned against an apology to Polish Jews for their treatment at the hands of native Poles in the village of Jedwabne in 1941. This politician had suggested that Poles should only apologise once Jews also said sorry for the fact that so many of them had been Communists.

The email from my friend linked to an article on the Economist website from an "EL" who in turn referred readers to a long piece in the Covenant magazine – a magazine catering for Jewish interests. Written by a philosophy professor at the University of Warsaw, Stanislaw Krajewski, also the Jewish co-chair of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, the essay is a slightly tortuous attempt to explore and explain the relationship between Jews and Communism.

The difficulty for Krajewski is the poisonous history of the subject, especially in Eastern Europe. It was long an antisemitic trope (often believed by people who were not themselves notably anti-Jewish) that Bolshevism was essentially a Jewish construct; that Communism was led by, and financed by, Jews. It was a justification, from 1917 onwards, for persecuting and hating Jews at worst, and failing to defend them, at best.

But was there a familiarity between Jewishness and Communism that needs to be accounted for and that, in Krajewski's part of the world, can be part of a truth and reconciliation process? Krajewski's introduction suggests, at the least, a confusion. "There was no such phenomenon as Jewish Communism", he wries, "The number of Jewish Communists was important, but not as large as antisemites asserted". But, "the problem lies in the quasi-religious zeal of Communists who were Jews. The message is that Communism does pose a moral problem to Jews."

Jewishness was not in any way essential to Communism

It isn't easy for everyone to see that the question "why were so many Communists Jewish?" is a very different one to "why were so many Jews attracted to Communism?". As
Krajewski allows, Jewishness was not in any way essential to Communism. It would have happened had all the Jews in the world been living on Madagascar. From Lenin to Gorbachev none of the Soviet Communist Number Ones were Jews. Although Krajewski says he cannot refute estimates from the 1920s that "75 per cent of the leading Bolsheviks are of Jewish origin" (Alfred Jensen), a cursory examination of membership of the top committees shows this figure to be an absurd exaggeration.

According to Krajewski in post-war Poland, at one point, of the 26,000 employees of Stalinist state security, 450 (1.7 per cent) were Jewish, rising to 13 per cent of the top officers. Yet Poles had a specific phrase, "Zydzi w UB", meaning "Jews in the security forces", connoting Jewish control of the organs of repression. I hardly need to point out that even among the top brass, this figure means that 87 per cent were Gentile. Even so, Communist leaders were sensitive to the accusation of Jewish influence, with one writing to Stalin that there was a "necessity to not only stop increasing the percentage of the Jewish element in the state and party apparatus but rather to gradually decrease this percentage".

Given this, how can there be something specific that Jews must account for in East European Communism? Krajewski suggests that there was something "messianic" in Jewish commitment to Communism, that the combination of a deep desire for assimilation and religious background gave an almost mad quality to some Jewish communism. But he provides no evidence for this and, frankly, I don't believe it. The commitment to the cause could be found amongst all kinds of Communists. Consequently I cannot also accept his contention that, as a Jew, he "can be ashamed. Even those Jews who were actively opposed to Communism can feel shame." For "can" read "should" and it makes no sense.

But Kajewski does make one related point that I sometimes wonder about. The community can be very keen on compiling lists of Jewish achievers, from sport to the screen, and taking some kind of pride in what they do (the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding suggests that this is far from being an exclusively Jewish trait). Should it not be – logically - just as candid and revealing when it comes to Jewish miscreants? Maybe the JC should have a Community Criminals page, in which Jews up before the beak are listed and their crimes enumerated, from road rage in Radlett to porn in Prestwich.

It'd be honest, true. It'd be fascinating, of course. But perhaps everyone has enough problems as it is. Even JC employees are people first and Jews second.

    Last updated: 11:18am, September 23 2011