The non-Jewish Jews who became the scholars of an ideological dreamworld

By Colin Shindler, May 10, 2012
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During Jewish Book Week in February 1958, the great Marxist historian, Isaac Deutscher, gave a talk entitled "The Non-Jewish Jew". It was later published and became required reading for the student revolutionaries of the 1960s. Deutscher tried to explain why some Jews embraced the revolutionary imperative and relegated their Jewishness to a secondary level.

As an ilui (child prodigy) of the yeshiva of Chrzanow in Poland, Deutscher supplanted God with Lenin and Trotsky at an early age. Although he moved beyond the Jewish community, he never renounced his Jewishness. He believed that non-Jewish Jews symbolised "the highest ideals of mankind" and that Jewish revolutionaries carried "the message of universal human emancipation". He regarded such figures as optimists. And yet his father, the author of a book in Hebrew on Spinoza, disappeared in the hell of Auschwitz.

Deutscher argued that such Jews existed on the borderlines of various civilisations, religions and cultures. And from there on the margins, they were able to clearly analyse societies and events - and guide humanity into more benevolent channels.

His revolutionary heroes included the Talmudic heretic, Elisha Ben Abuya who was the teacher and friend, according to the midrash, of Rabbi Meir Baal Hanas. While his actual misdemeanours were never revealed, Ben Abuya was at pains to warn his close friend, Rabbi Meir not to transgress the Sabbath when he was unwittingly in danger of doing so. Why did Elisha do this if he was the advocate of heresy? Why did Rabbi Meir maintain his friendship with Elisha when the entire Jewish community had boycotted him? Such questions perplexed Deutscher, who identified with Ben Abuya and regarded him as the model for contemporary revolutionaries such as Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky. Yet this story and its mystery did point to the convoluted issues that faced non-Jewish Jews who had travelled outside the community yet culturally remained within. Such issues of national identity and internationalism affected many Jews on the European Left who were often marooned between identities.

Indeed, the Balfour Declaration and the Bolshevik revolution happened within days of each other in 1917

Indeed the socialist intellectual, and father of David and Ed, Ralph Miliband, exclaimed that his kind of socialism did not exclude Jewishness, but his kind of Jewishness did exclude that sort of Jewishness which regarded all non-Jews as enemies.

Since the French Revolution, Jews found themselves torn between the national interests of the Jews and their desire to repair the world. Both tendencies exist within Jewish tradition. Indeed, the Balfour Declaration and the Bolshevik revolution happened within days of each other in 1917. Which path should Jews with a social conscience follow? Some like Ben-Gurion admired Lenin for his ability to make a revolution with few resources, but kept Communists, both in the Kremlin and locally, at arms' length. Others like the Marxist-Zionist movement, Hashomer Hatzair, regarded itself as the USSR's representative in Israel. Indeed it was argued that if Stalin had not swung the Soviet Union and its satellites behind the UN vote in November 1947, the state of Israel might not have come into existence.

There was, of course, a fair number of Jews in the leadership of the party when the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. But leading revolutionaries like Zinoviev, Sverdlov and Kamenev were highly assimilated Jews. It was only when Communism was seen as no flash in the pan that many former Zionists flooded into the Soviet system to take the place of the apparatchiks that had fled the revolution. In 1920 Palestine was viewed as a far-off land and Zionism no more than a pipe dream. Wasn't the Soviet Union now truly the promised land?

Such former Zionists, now in a position of authority, displayed the zeal of the convert and often instigated the full wrath of the Soviet state against their former colleagues - many of whom were sent into the embryonic Gulag. Many non-Jewish Communists, from Lenin down, were perplexed at the vehemence of these former Zionists.

Antisemitism, it was claimed, had been virtually eliminated and the Soviet experiment was successfully solving the age-old Jewish problem. The dawn of humanity had arrived and Jews should rejoice. And yet, when Trotsky was in the midst of his power struggle with Stalin in the mid-1920s, many of his Jewish supporters complained that antisemitism was being used as a political weapon inside the party to discredit them. This often led to exclusion and exile. It was remarked that Moses may have taken the Jews out of Egypt, but Stalin also took them out of the Communist party.

Following Trotsky's expulsion from the Soviet Union, many European Jews were attracted to his standard. The study of Marxist theory and the intellectual cut and thrust of debate appealed, but real power and state responsibility was the prerogative of the Kremlin. The purity of theory was seductive, but it also led into an other-worldly existence and quite often to bitter schisms about ideological issues that tended to be incomprehensible to the outsider. There were often uncanny resemblances to a Chasidic court with its "rebbe" living in poverty and devoting his waking hours to the study of Marxist texts.

Despite his recognition of the virulence of antisemitism in the 1930s, his growing understanding of Jewish nationalism and his opposition to assimilation as a solution to the Jewish question, Trotsky, like Stalin understood the Second World War as a fight between rival imperialisms. Even if the Soviet Union was a degenerated workers' state under Stalin, it had to survive. Indeed why should workers die – as they had done in their millions in the First world War - for the cause of the capitalists?

Shortly before his assassination, Trotsky wrote: "As victors, Britain and France would be no less fearful for the fate of mankind than Hitler and Mussolini. Bourgeois democracy is not to be saved. Lending aid to its own bourgeoisie against the foreign fascism, the workers would hasten the victory of fascism in their own country. The task set by history is not to support one part of the imperialist system against another but to cast the entire system over the precipice."

Many future leaders of the far Left in Britain followed Trotsky's line. Tony Cliff, founder and mentor of the Socialist Workers Party, was born into the Zionist aristocracy as Ygael Gluckstein in Zichron Yaakov. His father was in business with Chaim Weizmann's brother. His uncle was Chaim Kalvarisky who was involved in the purchase of the Jezreel valley and an advocate of Jewish-Arab reconciliation. In the 1930s, Gluckstein moved from a social democratic Zionist position to a Trotskyist one and along with figures such as Avraham Stern (of the "Stern Gang") was imprisoned by the British on the outbreak of the war.

On his release, he led a small group called Brit Spartakus, which tried to persuade Hebrew University students not to join the British war effort in fighting Nazism. Brit Spartakus argued for "an end to the imperialist war and for a peoples' peace". No one heeded this utopian vision. Millions continued to die at the hands of the Nazis. In 1946 when Jews were attempting to enter Palestine, often illegally from the displaced persons' camps, Gluckstein sailed in the opposite direction to Britain.

Others such as Ted Grant, the mentor of the Militant Tendency of the 1980s, was born Isaac Blank in Johannesburg and was part of a group of Jewish Trotskyists who arrived in Britain in the 1930s.

Like the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm, Cliff, Grant and others tried to make sense of the dire situation in 1940 and guarantee the survival of the USSR. The revolutionary imperative, however, came before any danger to themselves and their families because of their Jewish origin, no matter how insignificant in their eyes. In the larger picture, Jewish national interests were secondary.

Following the revelations of the death camps, there was an identification by most British Jews with the desire to build a state with a Jewish majority within Palestine. Many turned away from the British Left towards the Jewish Left and supported the establishment of a Hebrew socialist republic. The ideals remained, but without illusions. Yet there were also Jewish revolutionaries who did not see salvation in the establishment of a nation-state, but regarded it instead solely as "the consummation of the Jewish tragedy".

Deutscher asked aloud whether Jews generally were able to share together with Jewish revolutionaries a faith in humanity. Deutscher admitted that if this question was answered from a purely Jewish standpoint, then "it would be hard, perhaps impossible to give a positive answer". Moreover Deutscher said that he personally did not approach it from an exclusively Jewish viewpoint. He spoke instead about the "ultimate solidarity of humanity".

T his then is the crucial difference between non-Jewish Jews who regard themselves as following an authentic Jewish tradition and the majority of Jews, composed of non non-Jewish Jews, who define themselves in terms of Jewish national interests. For the latter, the realities of the 20th century intervened. There was no uprising of the workers to stop the mass murder of the Jews. Millions of soldiers did not shed their guns and uniforms to embrace the foe. There was no football match between British and German troops on Christmas Day 1940. The Allies may have won the war, but the Jews certainly lost it.

The critical "as a Jew" proclamations about the state of Israel therefore often follow a century old tradition which rarely endorses Jewish national interests. As Pavel Axelrod, one of the very first Russian Jewish revolutionaries wrote as early as 1872: "What significance could the interests of a handful of Jews have in comparison with the idea of the working class and the all-embracing universal interests of socialism."

How then should an episode as momentous as the Arab Spring be understood? Of course, there should be tremendous admiration for the courageous people who have thrown off the heavy hand of a dictator. Yet what the Google youth of Tahrir Square started, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists were able to finish as they swept to power in the recent series of elections. For most Jews, a central question is: "What does this mean for Israel and for Jews generally?" For others this is unimportant. The idyllic vision of a future that may never arrive supersedes this.

Considering the Jewish national interest is certainly less attractive than working towards universal redemption. It is certainly less wholesome theoretically and far more politically restrictive. Conversely there is the danger that all Jewish endeavours will be reduced to survivalism and the demand that any criticism of Israel government policies should only be uttered in private. Most steer a path between nonchalant non-Jewish Jews and ultra-cautious Jewish Jews. The yardstick for evaluation is the perception of the here and now.

Colin Shindler's latest book 'Israel and the European Left: Between Solidarity and Delegitimisation' (Continuum) has just been published

    Last updated: 6:23pm, May 10 2012