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The Jewish Question: A Marxist Analysis

Abbie Bakan

January 1, 2003

Marxism No. 1, 2003
The Jewish question is back on the agenda for the left. The rise of an international movement in solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada and against Israeli occupation has provoked a sustained left challenge to Zionist ideology. At the same time, far right movements that defend, or attempt to deny, the legacy of the Nazis in Germany, have risen as capitalist crisis deepens. Since September 11, 2001, state led demonization of those of Middle Eastern origin has opened the door to all forms of racism. Synagogues as well as mosques have been the target of arson and vandalism.1 An effective and united left needs to oppose all forms of racism and oppression, including anti-Semitism.2
The main schools of political thought on offer regarding the Jewish question, however, seem singularly unhelpful. Opposition to anti-Semitism is currently dominated by the Zionist right. As Naomi Klein stated in the aftermath of the Nazi Le Pen’s second place standing in the French election3 of 2002,

The hatred of Jews is a potent political tool in the hands of the right in Europe and in Israel. For Mr. Le Pen, anti-Semitism is a windfall, helping spike his support from 10 per cent to 17 per cent in a week. For Ariel Sharon, it is the fear of anti-Semitism, both real and imagined, that is the weapon.4

Today, the general trend in popular sentiment is not towards division and racism, but in a search for solidarity and common cause. But to build a united movement against oppression, it is necessary to understand it. On the left, reliance on the Stalinist period of the former USSR — where victimization of Jews in Russia and the east bloc states was matched by a foreign policy that capitulated to fascist Germany until faced with military attack — has offered no inspiration to those committed to liberation from oppression. The failure of Stalinism to sustain the original perspective developed by the early revolutionary Marxist tradition — as the tribune of the oppressed, in opposition to anti-Semitism and all forms of oppression — has created a vacuum, and weakened the left in its opposition to Zionism. The real Marxist tradition needs to be restored and applied to the new conditions in the west and in the Middle East, with a view to building a united movement against racism and imperialism in all its forms.
Marxism and the Jewish Question
Few questions have been so hotly debated in the socialist tradition as the Jewish question. The French revolution of 1789 provided the first example in Europe of legal emancipation of the Jews. Marx’s first article for publication after he left the Rheinische Zeitung journal was on the issue of the right of religious freedom for the Jews.5 In Germany in the 1840s, where Marx began his intellectual and political work, the Diet, or pre-parliament, had voted for legal emancipation of the Jews. But this was only to be reversed by the rule of the king. Marx argued that the left must support the legal emancipation of the Jews as a democratic right. At the same time, he insisted that real human emancipation was only possible when all humanity, including Jews, Christians, etc., could be free from all oppressive conditions and ideologies. For Marx, genuine “emancipation” meant more than simply limited equality under a repressive state.6
One of the first systematic arguments against anti-Semitism was written in the journal of the Second International by its leader, Karl Kautsky, who became a leading Marxist theorist on the question.7 The period before World War I saw an increase in pogroms (massacres) against the Jews of Eastern Europe. At the 1903 Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) — which saw the founding of the Bolsheviks as the nucleus of the mass party that led the Russian Revolution of 1917 — a major debate revolved around the question of organization of Jewish workers.
The re-emergence of anti-Semitism in the late 1920s in Russia brought the question into the centre of the debates between Joseph Stalin and the most avid defender of the emancipationist tradition of the early Bolsheviks, Leon Trotsky.8 The massive emigration of European Jews to North America in the late 19th century, and the ascendance of fascism in Germany in the 1930s put the question of Jewish oppression into the centre of international politics.
World War II saw the axis powers led by fascist Germany and the enactment of the “final solution”, with the Nazi holocaust, that saw the state authorized mass murder of six million Jews. The reality of the holocaust is one of the formative events that has shaped post-war politics; and it has also shaped the lives of a generation of Jewish families internationally. The establishment of the state of Israel, backed financially and militarily first by Britain and then by the US, combined with the recent memory of Nazi concentration camps, gave unprecedented hegemony to the most reactionary response to Jewish oppression — Zionism and the oppression of the Palestinian people.
Marxist theory starts from an entirely distinct set of premises from Zionism. It places Jewish history in a social and economic context. The question of Jewish oppression through the centuries has to be founded in real history, not in abstract religious beliefs or the ideologies of specific ruling classes. It has to start with, as Marx put it, the “real Jew.”
There are different interpretations within the Marxist tradition, but essentially they all agree that Jewish emancipation must be linked to the emancipation of all peoples, and cannot be achieved within the confines of an oppressive capitalist society.
Abram Leon
By far the most detailed, and the most relied upon, Marxist work concerning the nature of Jewish oppression is Abram Leon’s, The Jewish Question, first published in 1946.9 Leon was 24 years old when he wrote this brilliant analysis of the history and nature of Jewish oppression. To write such an important work at so young an age is remarkable; more so that he wrote it while living under Nazi occupied Belgium, where he was the leader of an underground Trotskyist movement. Leon was arrested and sent to a Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz, during World War II. He was killed in a gas chamber in 1944 at the age of 26.
Leon started from the premises developed by Karl Marx. He developed an analysis that traced the history of the Jews, and of anti-Semitism, in the context of the evolution of classes from antiquity through to capitalism. He started from Marx’s historical materialist approach:

We will not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion but we will look for the secret of the religion in the Jew, in the real Jew.10

The Jews of ancient times were apparently marked by no exceptional characteristics which might differentiate them from the numerous other “tribes” or “peoples” which populated the earth prior to the existence of modern states. Peoples were marked by unique customs, rituals, beliefs, languages, forms of subsistence, methods of productivity, and religious customs and belief system. Peoples merged and divided, were conquered or conquerors, were assimilated or assimilators.
The question for Leon as a Marxist historian, was, why have some sections of the ancient Jewish population preserved their customs and beliefs, to the extent that they retained an identify in modern times, while others assimilated and disappeared? The distinct characteristic of surviving Jews, according to Leon, was that through the centuries of pre-capitalist society, they emerged as a distinct economic group, a class, a “people-class” who were principally involved in trade. They were exchangers in a non-exchange economy, where the wealth of the ruling classes derived from the land, and the vast majority of people subsisted by cultivation and agriculture.
Jews have been recorded to have existed in all corners of the world; in South America, in Surinam, in Arabia, and in Northern Africa where still today Black African Ethiopian Jews survive. In the growing urban areas around Jerusalem, the largest city of the Roman empire, around the rise of Christianity at about the first half of the first century AD, Jews “did not simply survive. They attracted others to them.”11 Further, “By the beginning of the first century AD there were largely Jewish populations in virtually every Roman city, ‘ranging from 10 to 15 percent of the population of a city’.”12
According to Leon, where Jews engaged in agricultural economy — the predominant form of production throughout human history — they tended to migrate and merge with other peoples. The overwhelming pattern in such circumstances was assimilation into other cultures and societies. Only where Jews were engaged in trade, in mercantile exchange, and therefore living off of exchange in a society were products were primarily produced for consumption and use, was there a material basis for the preservation of a distinct set of ideas, beliefs, morés, customs, and a religion. Thus, it has been the practice of Jews which explains their faith, not the faith that explains their practice.
Christianity emerged as “a version of Judaism,” emphasizing the monotheist conception of a single God, but not adhering to the strict rules of dietary control or circumcision that mitigated Judaism’s popularity.13 The pattern of Judaism associated with trading activity is extremely prevalent, not only in the course of Jewish preservation as opposed to conversion, but also in patterns of conversion towards Judaism.
The most notable example of this is the mass conversion to Judaism of the Khazar population, a Mongol tribe of the Caspian Sea region, around the time of the 8th century.14 By this time, the two “super powers” of the world were the Christian and Muslim empires. The Khazars, as a large and prosperous empire, also had a distinct economic function: “They have no slaves to the land because they buy everything by means of money”, recorded one historian.15 Itil, the capitol of the Khazars, was a central trading zone.
It should not be surprising that the lords and peons carried out a mass conversion to a creed which was distinct from Christianity and the Muslim faith, allowed for its own central authoritarian structures, and still allowed for only one God to be known. Judaism not only legitimated but glorified the struggle to attain prosperity in the here and now. (Notably, one thing even the Khazar warlords could not accept was the custom of ritual male circumcision).
The pattern of preservation of the customs of the early traders is not unique to Judaism. Similar patterns can be seen in the histories of the Gypsies, the Chinese merchants of South East Asia, the Indian usurers of Burma and the German communities of the Slavonic areas, for example. Through the centuries, trade in some regions became associated with the phenomenon of simply being Jewish. Those who were of Jewish origin but were involved in agricultural economy ceased to be Jewish, if not through voluntary assimilation then by decree of the lords. Eventually religious and national persecution forbade the Jews from earning a living in any other way.
The Jewish merchants were traders in salt, spices, musk, camphor, cinnamon, fur and slaves. They were highly dependent upon the ruling lords for their living. A relationship of both mutual antagonism and mutual dependence between the Jewish merchants and the gentile lords, marked the nature of ancient “anti-Semitism.” As much as there was persecution and disdain, the lords also protected the Jewish communities and allowed them a greater degree of autonomy than most of the other “heresy” peoples, which were numerous and faced constant persecution.
Palestine, which in ancient times was the major link between the Euphrates and the Nile, is widely recognized as the original land of the Hebrew people. But a nation of traders is also a nation of migrants. Thus, Jews were a scattered people long before the “diaspora” of Babylon. And their scattering was far more the result of migration than of violence. In fact, according to Leon, far from being the root of their near destruction as a people, if the Jews were not a dispersed people they would not have survived at all. Trade was so despised that it was considered acceptable only to those who were “foreigners”, and therefore “below” the dominant kinship group. It was this economic role as a “people-class” which led three-quarters of the world’s Jewish population to live outside of Palestine by as early as the 5th Century.
Empires through this period rose and fell over the centuries — from the Phoenecians, to the Greeks, to the Romans, to the Muslims, etc. By the period of the decline of the Roman empire, it was the poorer Jews who were the most squeezed economically, while the wealthier continued to be prosperous. Jews, though a people-class, were also like all peoples divided by class. This marked the beginning of the long transition to a consolidated feudal economy, based on the relationship of lords and serfs tied to the land. The Jews were more isolated in local communities and ghettoes, and Christianity became a ruling class ideology. For the first ten centuries, official Christianity saw that “a merchant can with difficulty do work pleasing to God.”16 But the ruling lords allowed the Jewish communities a degree of protection and autonomy as long as they paid taxes and indulged in the lowly activity of buying and selling. Moreover, Judaism became increasingly self-conscious of its special economic position. Over the centuries, the word “Jew” became a synonym of the word “merchant.”
Prior to modern nationalism, hostility to the Jews existed but not in the racist form of modern anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism in these ancient times was based on the hostility of the ruling lords — the ruling class who made their living off the labourers on the land — to those who earned on the basis of trade and exchange.
By the 12th century, with the gradual development of cities and an emerging native commercial class, the persecution against the Jews began to increase, and to take on much more violent forms. The Jews were forced increasingly to move from merchant trade, trade of goods for money, to usury, or trade in money for money. While accumulation was not yet the dynamic force of western society, as it would emerge with the rise of capitalism, money was in increasingly greater circulation. The yoke of the usurer could be thrown off by the lords, and the Jews were forced to attempt to earn a living by lending to the poor masses.
What modern historians have learned about this period confirms the thesis developed by Leon. As European feudalism entered a period of severe economic crisis in the 14th century, widespread famine, wars and class struggle intensified. Peasant uprisings and rebellions of the urban classes occurred in Flanders, the Seine Valley, in Paris and in London.
Class struggle was also diverted into millenarian movements, which, according to Chris Harman,

combined popular bitterness against the rich with the religious expectation of the Second Coming of Christ and, often, hatred of outsiders. The Crusades of the popes prompted unofficial Crusades of the masses — the “People’s”, “Children’s” and “Shepherd’s” Crusades. . . . They would direct their bitterness not against the feudal ruling class as such, but against the corrupt priests, and especially, Jews.17

The Jews of feudal Europe were an easy target of mass bitterness. They were the only non-Christian group in a society which was by now pervasively Christian. They were excluded from agriculture by the Church, and as money lenders were on the margins of society. They lacked the power of the wealthy lords, but were a symbol that could be attacked to express the bitterness of the masses against a society that was failing them in every way.
As bloody uprisings against the Jewish money traders increased, the Jews of Western Europe either assimilated or moved east, where feudal relations were more entrenched and capitalism arose much later. If we skip a few more centuries, it becomes obvious why the rise of the western bourgeoisie would be categorically opposed to the special role of the Jewish merchant. The bourgeoisie arose both in competition against, and in imitation of, the ancient Jewish tradition of earning by exchange. Leon writes:

The commercial monopoly of the Jews was one of the greatest obstacles that the nascent bourgeoisie had to surmount. Destruction of the commercial domination of the Jews was the precondition for its development.18

Jewish emigration from western to eastern Europe increased as capitalism developed. Some Jewish traders were able to penetrate the development of a central capitalist market, though these were few because capital was overwhelmingly concentrated in the process of agricultural accumulation where Jews were restricted. Those who did work in agriculture, however, tended to convert to Christianity or become assimilated as to be indistinguishable.
The majority of Jews, however, were defenders of the rule of the lords and monarchs, who, though no less anti-Semitic, represented a form of economy where the Jews held a monopoly in trade. Jews were often the tax collectors of the aristocracy and the peddlers in the cities. Crudely put, if Catholicism was the religious and ideological expression of the feudal lord, Calvinism and Lutheranism were those of the bourgeoisie, and Judaism was the expression of the historic middle man, or the “petty bourgeoisie” of merchant capital.
Eastern Europe
The history of modern Jewry thus stems not from Palestine, but in fact from eastern Europe. Approximately nine-tenths of Jews world wide today trace their ancestry to eastern Europe. The late entry of capitalism to this part of the world allowed Jews to preserve an economic role which had become obsolete in the west.
It was in this sense that Marx described the Jews of Poland as living in the “pores” of the wider society. This was another part of the material reality that Abram Leon sought to explain. As capitalism developed in eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Jewish ghettoes were strangled by the growth of urban manufacture and trade. Class differences among Jews became significant and a Jewish proletariat developed. As the 19th century approached, the reactionary semi-feudal Tsarist regime in Russia was able to channel the traditional hostility against the Jewish merchants into a mass escape valve for the hostility to the brutally repressive state.
The extreme anti-Semitic theory of the conspiracy of the “protocols of the elders of Zion” was consciously spread among the population.19 Violent pogroms, outright massacres of Jewish villages including burning of their homes and mass murders, were organized by Tsarist police with popular participation. This was the message of capitalism in Eastern Europe for the Jewish people. This was the background of the massive waves of emigration from eastern Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries. And this was also why the revolutionary anti-capitalist Marxist party in Russia, the Bolsheviks, were centrally involved in the struggle for Jewish emancipation.
Bolshevism, the Bund and Jewish Emancipation
Lenin claimed that the Jews were clearly “the most oppressed nation” in Tsarist Russia, and that they were “maintained by violence in the situation of a caste.”20 But Jews were not only victims. The combined pressures of proletarianization, and the cultivation of anti-Semitism and repression from the Tsarist rulers, made Jews in Russia and eastern Europe among the most militant, and among the most open to revolutionary ideas.
In 1897, one year before the formation of the RSDLP, the General Union of Jewish Workers of Lithuania, Poland and Russia was formed, commonly known as the “Bund”. At the time, the Bund could claim the largest base of genuine working class support of any socialist organization in Russia. By 1903, its membership stood at 40,000. The defeat of the Russian revolution of 1905 (described by Lenin as the “dress rehearsal” for 1917), combined however with the rise of reaction and anti-Semitic persecution. There was a fall in the membership of the Bund to only 500 by 1908.21 But by the time of the revolution of 1917, the confidence of the working class had recovered and surpassed the earlier period of militancy. The Russian Bund’s membership reached 45,000. The Bund worked so closely with the Bolshevik revolutionary party that they joined en masse.22
This close relationship between the Russian section of the Bund and the Bolsheviks did not develop spontaneously. It was the product of years of debate combined with efforts to unite in practical work against the Tsarist state. The Bund joined the RSDLP at its congress in 1903, where the Bolsheviks emerged for the first time as one faction. But the Bund also parted ways before the congress was over. The division arose over the question of whether the Bund should be the sole representative of the Jewish working class, thereby forbidding the Bolsheviks, or any other members of Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, to recruit workers directly on the basis of class politics.
Neither the Bolsheviks nor any other members of the RSDLP, including the more moderate Mensheviks, could agree to this separatist position of the Bund. Lenin was by far the most vehement. He argued that the Bund leadership displayed a dangerous capitulation to bourgeois nationalism. This was reflected in the claim that it was the anti-Semitism of the Russian non-Jewish workers who were the main opponent of Jewish workers, and of the Bund. Lenin insisted that it was the calculated cultivation of division within the working class on the part of the ruling class that was the main source of Jewish oppression. The draft resolution on the place of the Bund in the party was explicit:

In particular, complete unity between the Jewish and the non-Jewish proletariat is moreover especially necessary for a successful struggle against anti-Semitism. This despicable attempt of the government and the exploiting classes to exacerbate racial particularism and national enmity, the complete amalgamation of the Social-Democratic organizations of the Jewish and non-Jewish proletariat.23

At the same time, the Bolsheviks did not assume unity between Jewish workers and non-Jewish workers could occur simply by declaration. Anti-Semitism was a real and serious force within the Russian working class, and the majority of Russian gentile workers were influenced by this ideology, that now took the form of modern racism. The Bolsheviks categorically defended the right to independent organization of the Jewish workers, both within the party and in public agitation among Jewish workers.
They defended the right to publish a Yiddish newspaper and to conduct propaganda work in that language. But they insisted that anti-Semitism held back not only the Jewish section of the working class, and the oppressed Jewish population in the villages who were isolated from the working class, but non-Jewish workers as well.
Lenin in 1902 defined a worker who had revolutionary consciousness as distinct from one who had ‘trade union consciousness.’ The trade union conscious worker challenged the bosses to protect their economic interests at the workplace. But political, not only economic interests affected the working class as a whole, and motivated the revolutionary worker. The revolutionary worker, for Lenin, was one who defended the Jews against the pogroms.24
Despite these early divisions, both the depth of the Bolsheviks’ commitment, and the clarity of their principles, were revealed to be effective in forging in practice a united working class movement against all forms of oppression. Despite the nationalist arguments of the Bund leadership, local groups and individual members went against official policy and joined up with the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party even after the 1903 split. More importantly, the Bolsheviks won over masses of Jewish workers through their consistent opposition to anti-Semitism at the peak of the revolutionary movement.
The Bolsheviks created a special commissariat for Jewish affairs, and a Jewish section of the party. With the success of the revolution, there was a sustained effort on the part of the new workers’ government in 1917 consciously to cultivate a flourishing of Jewish secular culture. A great network of Jewish schools was established in revolutionary Russia, where the main language was Yiddish. Literature and artistic activity blossomed within the Jewish communities, and 42 Yiddish newspapers and 10 state theatres which performed in Yiddish were established.25 It was this consistent policy of support for Jewish minority rights which led to a massive expansion of the Jewish membership in the Bolsheviks at the time of the revolution.
Trotsky, Stalin and the Jewish Question
But the integration process was not an easy one. Many Jews were declassed petit bourgeois peddlers and small businessmen, and the Jewish workers, late to be integrated into the work force, were often in the weakest and most disorganized sections of the economy.
This condition was even more exaggerated after the civil war and the imperialist assault on Russia that followed the 1917 revolution. There were thus a disproportionate number of Jews concentrated in administrative posts, positions which had been closed to them before the revolution’s success. After the success of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the workers’ state was isolated among capitalist powers determined to see the revolution fail. And the most advanced workers in the Bolsheviks had been killed in the years of civil war. The revolution survived, but the country was like a Third World state in conditions of extreme poverty and starvation.
Leon Trotsky was a leader of the Bolsheviks, a Jew, and, after Lenin’s death, the most aggressive defender of the original liberationist project of the revolution in opposition to the counter-revolutionary path of Joseph Stalin. As the revolution began to lose ground, and the control of the Stalinist bureaucracy came to replace the control of the workers, traditional popular anti-Semitism began to become re-expressed as a form of opposition to bureaucratic authority.
Trotsky was the first to recognize the bureaucracy’s failure to challenge this renewed anti-Semitism. At the same time, the Stalinist bureaucracy did not systematically fuel anti-Semitism for fear of promoting mass opposition to the increasingly repressive regime. Only as Stalin’s control became secure, towards the late 1920s, and all national rights became subordinated to imperialist “russification” under the new state capitalist regime, did outright anti-Semitism become an organic part of the bureaucracy’s ideology.
At first, this took the form of capitulation to the separatist assumption that Jews could not be integrated into the wider society, cloaked in the rhetoric of self-determination. A separate “Jewish territory”, was established within the Soviet Union. This completely bureaucratized solution involved the establishment of the nation of “Biro-Biozhan” in a remote corner of Siberia, from 1927 until 1959 when it was dismantled.26 Though nearly 40,000 Jews migrated to the area throughout the 1930s (still a minority of the Jewish population), few remained there; in 1933 there were only 8,200 permanent inhabitants, and this number continued to decline.
By the 1930s, the policy of anti-Semitism was blatant. Most of the rabbis who still were living and practicing in smaller communities were forced to resign, often after writing a letter that was revised by the Stalinist Communist Party and then published in the government controlled Yiddish press. The two reasons most commonly stated in these coerced letters for resignation mirrored the Stalinist position on the freedom of religion:

(1) ‘There is no further need of our services’; and (2) ‘Our eyes have opened and we see now the stupidity and harm of religious superstitions.’27

By the late 1930s, forced assimilation and charges that all dissident Jews were involved in “Trotskyist plots” were rampant. The Yiddish schools were closed, Yiddish papers suppressed, and in 1939 the leaders of Biro-Bidzhan were shot on charges of sabotage. The leaders of the Bund who had joined the Bolsheviks were killed, and numerous Jewish party members disappeared from public life.28 In 1937, Trotsky, now demonized by the Stalinist bureaucracy, wrote about the Stalinist repression from his exile in Mexico.

The omnipotent bureaucracy stifles the development of national culture just as it does the whole of culture. Worse still, the country of a great proletarian revolution is now passing through a period of profound reaction. . . . To reinforce its domination the bureaucracy does not even hesitate to resort in a scarcely camouflaged manner to chauvinistic tendencies, above all to anti-Semitic ones.29

The history of eastern European Jews reveals not only the depth of Jewish oppression, but also the possibilities for freedom offered by a genuine socialist solution. But the defeat of the Russian revolution and the victory of Stalinism had devastating consequences not only for the Jews of the Soviet Union, but also for the struggle against capitalism and imperialism throughout the world.
Stalinism not only transformed the notion of Jewish emancipation under “socialism” into a cruel caricature. Stalinism also led to a series of the most tragic defeats for the international workers’ movement. The most crushing of these defeats occurred in Germany, punctuated by the victory of Hitler’s “National Socialist Party,” the Nazis.
The rise of fascism in Germany was not inevitable. At no time, even upon Hitler’s election as Chancellor in 1933, did a majority of the German population support fascism. The tragedy was that despite this, there was deep disunity of the left, divided between the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party. The German Communist Party, formed only in the midst of World War I, was inexperienced and sought direction from the Russian led Communist International. Under the direction of Stalin and his supporters, the German Communists did not see fascism and the Nazis as a threat, but instead vented their opposition against the Social Democrats. A statement from the presidium of the Communist International stated outrightly that:

The establishment of an open fascist dictatorship, which is destroying all social democratic illusions among the masses. . . will speed up Germany’s progress towards proletarian revolution.30

The extent of the capitulation of Stalinist Russia to anti-Semitism is also indicated in the signing of the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact in 1939. Stalinist Russia formally recognized fascist Germany, though Germany was later to show no such respect for the borders of Russia. A temporary halt of this outright anti-Semitism in Russia at the time of the Nazi invasion during WW II did not prevent its revival after the war. In 1952-3, a group of Jewish physicians were accused of acting on orders of western Jewish philanthropic organizations to plan the “medical murders” of Soviet leaders.31 The accused were either sentenced to death or sent to jails and labour camps. Various Jewish institutions and publications charged with association with the doctors were shut down.
State capitalism in the USSR continued to be marked by anti-Semitic ideology in the years after Stalin’s death. Shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953, the “Doctors’ Plot” was revealed to be a frame-up, and the accused prisoners were released. However, none of the institutions that had been shut down were re-established.32 In April of 1958, Krushchev was interviewed by a correspondent of the French newspaper Figaro, where he stated that the Biro-Bidzhan settlement had failed because Jews were not capable of collective work; they were individualistic, and the collective agricultural demands of the settlement were, he claimed, beyond their capacities.33
An understanding of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class points to the absolute necessity of working class unity. Unity cannot be won within a class divided by oppression, poisoned by ideas and practices that weaken the class struggle. Stalinism was not a continuation of the revolutionary tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, but a counter-revolution against it. The capitulation to, and then the embrace of, anti-Semitism were consistent with the state capitalist interests of this counter-revolutionary new ruling class. Understanding this legacy is important, not just as a historical footnote, but because of the strategic implications and the nature of the terrain in which the Jewish question emerges today.
Zionism and Imperialism
This brings us to the alternative theoretical school that addresses the Jewish question.
Zionism, presented as a solution to anti-Semitism, only achieved hegemony and mass support within the international Jewish population on the heals of bitter defeat, the combined rise of fascism and Stalinism. The Zionist movement was articulated before the victory of Hitler’s fascism, but from the outset, it was an expression of total despair, a complete capitulation to the inevitable incompatibility of gentile and Jew, and of a conscious acceptance of blatant anti-Semitism.
The state of Israel uses Zionism as an ideology to defend its political interests as a sub-imperialist power, backed economically and militarily by the US, in the oil-rich region of the Middle East. Zionism today,

. . .is a partly religious and partly historical idea that the world’s Jewish population has a claim on a part of that territory of the Middle East that had been occupied by Palestinian Arabs for well over a thousand years. It was an idea of no significance whatsoever, until sustained outbreaks of anti-Semitism (organised anti-Jewish feeling) in Europe in the late nineteenth century.34

Zionism has been presented as a way to address the Jewish question because, in the words of historian Avi Shlaim:

The Jews were dispersed in various countries around the world, and in each country they constituted a minority. The Zionist solution was to end this anomalous existence and dependence on others, to return to Zion, and to attain majority status there and, ultimately, political independence and statehood.35

The term “Zionism” was introduced in 1885, by a Viennese writer, Nathan Birnbaum, referring to “Zion” as one of the Bilblical names for Jerusalem. Early Zionism was essentially based on a messianic interpretation, expressing a spiritual yearning to “return” since the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC and the exile to Babylon. This was a sentiment expressed in Jewish prayers, but it was not a political movement.
Zionism in its modern form, as a political movement, was founded by Theodor Herzl. Unlike early Zionism, this was not a religious but a secular movement with a political orientation to Palestine as a geo-political entity. Modern Zionism was part of the emergence of modern nationalism associated with the formation of a state, a territory, a dominant language, and, inevitably, a capitalist economic system in the context of global imperialism.
Herzl was a Hungarian-born Jew, and a Viennese journalist and playwright. He came to accept the inevitability, and even the legitimacy of anti-Semitism. He went to Paris and covered for the press the extreme anti-Semitism that marked the Dreyfus Affair in the early 1890s. Dreyfus was a Captain in the French army, falsely charged as a German spy, and the subject of a massive anti-Semitic campaign in the German and French press.
In Herzl’s book, The Jewish State, published in 1896, he called for the formation of a separate Jewish state, along the lines of British colonization of Africa. As a great admirer of Cecil Rhodes — the founder of Rhodesia — Herzl built a movement which sought to accommodate the interests of Jews through an arrangement with western imperialism. But the geographic location of the Jewish state was left open to question — Palestine or some vacant land in Argentina were suggested in the book.
On this Herzl speaks for himself:

In Paris. . . I achieved a freer attitude towards anti-Semitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognized the emptiness and futility of trying to “combat” anti-Semitism.

He added “The anti-Semites are right. But let us not be jealous, for we too, will be happy.36
The first congress of Herzl’s movement was held in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland. Occurring at the height of the pogroms, it received substantial support from eastern European Jews. No other mass section of the world’s Jewish population responded to the Zionist appeal, including those of western Europe. Local Zionist circles even challenged the explicit imperialist position adopted by Herzl. Major protest arose from Jewish community leaders and rabbis.37 There was, however, notable support among a number western Jewish corporate executives, who feared that eastern European Jewish emigration to the west would encourage anti-Semitism and be ‘bad for business.’
The reactionary and racist basis upon which the Zionist movement was launched became more pronounced through the years. Herzl sought support for the plan form the Sultan of the Turkish Ottoman empire, from the Pope — to whom he actually once proposed the mass conversion of world Jewry as a possible solution to the Jewish problem — and the British colonial office.38
After the most vicious pogrom in eastern Europe in 1903, Britain began to take interest. The British state was glad to find an alternative settlement for the waves of Jewish immigrants desperate to leave eastern Europe.
After attempting to give a charter for the formation of a Jewish Kenya, and then Cyprus, on November 2, 1917, the Balfour Declaration, named after British Foreign Secretary Arthur J. Balfour, was passed in Britain, promising “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jews.”39 Following World War I, and the decline of the Turkish empire, the opportunity for access to the newly discovered vast oil reserves was one which Britain could not refuse. As the first British governor of Jerusalem put it, it was advantageous to create “a little Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.”40
Balfour understood that the declaration meant nothing short of war against the indigenous Arab population who had lived for centuries on the patch of land called Palestine. The allied powers, he noted,

do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants. . . Zionism being of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.41

In the 1920s, an even more overtly self-conscious imperialist wing of the Zionist movement was led by one Ze’ev Jabotinsky, which became known as the “revisionist movement.” This wing specifically saw the need for a military strategy of domination and control over the indigenous Palestinian population, referred to as the strategy of “The Iron Wall.” Jabotinsky saw no room to assume there could be a peaceful accommodation with the Arab Palestinians. In response to critics, he defended the morality of conquest. In Jabotinsky’s words:

A sacred truth, whose realization requires the use of force, does not cease thereby to be a sacred truth. This is the basis of our stand toward Arab resistance: and we shall talk of a settlement only when they are ready to discuss it.42

Two features marked modern Zionism, in all its various forms: no regard for the presence of an indigenous Palestinian people on the land; and an alliance with a great power to enforce the mandate of the new state. The historic reality of the Nazi holocaust, and the failure of the socialist alternative in its Stalinist form to challenge the rise of fascism, shifted the balance in favour of the creation of an independent Jewish state. By the 1940s, one extreme Zionist military wing, Lehomai Herut Yisrael (Fighters for Freedom of Israel), or the Stern Gang, was even prepared to offer a military alliance with the Axis powers in the interests of increasing pressure for Jewish emigration.43 The head of the Irgun (National Military Organization), the organization from which the Stern Gang originated, was Menachem Begin, who was to become Prime Minister of Israel from 1977-1982.
Britain as the colonial overlord had hesitated in carrying through the Balfour Declaration in the face of Arab resistance. Support from the most aggressive competing and emerging imperialist force, the US, was actively sought by the Zionist settlers. After the brutal war of conquest in 1948, the state of Israel was created on the basis of US aid.
Israel is a country founded on war, on racism, and on explicit terror. It is the furthest thing from a safe homeland from anti-Semitism. Instead, Jews in Israel live in perpetual fear. As a settler state, Israel’s founding and existence are dependent on Jewish emigration. The Israeli state treasury from the outset has sought the financial and political support of the international post holocaust Jewish population throughout America and Europe. The false ideology of the inevitability of anti-Semitism internationally has been used to fuel Jewish support for the state of Israel.
Tribune of the Oppressed
The Jewish question is a political question — central to international politics in the present and historically. For socialists dedicated to building a world free of oppression and exploitation, it remains a central strategic question in the building of a united mass movement for social change. Trotsky presumed that the Jewish question would become a non-issue with the generalization of capitalism. But history forced him to alter his perspective when the most advanced capitalist country of the time, Germany, also generated the most powerful anti-Semitic movement in the form of Hitler’s Nazis.
The Jewish question, to be put in an appropriate perspective, must be placed back in the tradition of the fight against oppression — against all oppression. Oppression serves the interests of a system driven by the quest for profit from a small, wealthy corporate ruling class. Divide and conquer tactics are inherent to the ability of the capitalist class to continue to rule without mass opposition. Alternatively, unity within the working class, whose labour is the sole source of the profits for the capitalist class, is the key to challenging this system and creating a new world of freedom.
A Marxist analysis of the Jewish question in conditions of modern capitalism therefore must include three elements; 1) opposition to anti-Semitism; 2) a clear understanding of the nature of, and opposition to, Zionism; and 3) a commitment to working class unity as a strategic element in the struggle for socialism.
Marxists oppose anti-Semitism. With the emergence of capitalism anti-Semitism has taken on an explicitly racist form. The Nazis maintained that the Aryan race was defined by blood line; and the Jewish race, defined similarly by blood line, was the subject of a mass campaign of genocide. The counting, identifying, forced movement, forced labour, torture, experimentation, mass killing by gas chambers, and sorting of the remains were organized with precision and planning characteristic of advanced capitalism and with a speed unseen before in human history.44
In assigning Jewish bloodline to the genocidal slaughter, the scale and precision of the “final solution” was aided by capitalist technology and the drive for profit. One of the key players in the holocaust was IBM, the multinational corporate giant headquartered in the US, that ensured its German subsidiary was at the centre of the counting and processing of the German Nazi killing machine.45 Fascism is a system that emerges in moments of extreme capitalist crisis, when the goal is to break the working class of all means of resistance and organization. It is capitalism in a barbaric form, without any of the mechanisms or features of bourgeois democracy.46 Scapegoating of minorities is key to maintaining the loyalty of a section of the disenchanted middle class, who become the shock troops for the mass movement that marks the rise of fascism. Anti-Semitism in Germany fit the bill — turning anger against both the Jews in the labour movement and those in the banking centre of finance. Anti-Semitism was a means to an end, the smashing of the working class and all democratic forms of organized opposition within a system ruthlessly driven by the pursuit of profit.
It should be obvious that there is no legitimacy to the claim that criticism of the Israeli state is tantamount to anti-Semitism. This view, so often maintained by defenders of the state of Israel and its colonial racist policies towards the indigenous Palestinians, serves as an ideological justification to silence opposition. It also dangerously distracts those who genuinely wish to oppose anti-Semitism from challenging real advocates.
Today, neo-Nazi movements, particularly in Europe, have attempted to erase the memory of the holocaust by insisting it is a myth created by the ‘international Jewish conspiracy’. This claim plays on a theme developed in the early 1900s associated with the forged document of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and used again by Nazis in Germany in World War II.
Marxists therefore have to understand the specific nature of Zionism and oppose it from the left. Zionism is a political strategy, a reactionary response to anti-Semitism. Zionism became hegemonic in the international Jewish community only in the aftermath of the Nazi holocaust against the Jewish population. Among Palestinians in the occupied territories, in the Arab states, in Europe, in the US, in Canada, and among a minority within Israel itself, a rising movement of solidarity with the Intifada is becoming more vocal and more organized, putting Zionism in a defensive position on a scale not seen before.47 Today the Palestinian Intifada’s resistance to the vicious military assaults by the Israeli state is straining the Zionist ideological stranglehold and compelling a heightened level of public debate.
The starting point for this issue is support for the unconditional right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, including the right of return and the provision of full compensation for past injustices, and full redress for confiscated land. Israel is a colonial settler state, a sub-imperialist power that acts as a watch dog for US imperialist interests in the oil rich Middle East.48 Recognizing the democratic right of an oppressed people living under imperialist occupation in no way binds supporters to the policies or program of any particular organization involved in the movement. The point is that it is up to Palestinians to decide upon such strategies. Only when there is a democratic secular state, with open elections and the right to full freedom of expression for all religions, will Jews and Arabs in the Middle East once again live in peace.
To eliminate the conditions that breed anti-Semitism and all forms of oppression, it is essential to eliminate capitalism, and this means building a genuine socialist alternative. While Marxists must fight unconditionally against all forms of oppression, as long as capitalism exists, various forms of oppression will continue. Socialists are the tribune of the oppressed, the loudest and clearest and most militant opponents of all forms of oppression. Opposing anti-Semitism is not an optional extra for socialists, any more than opposing racism, sexism or anti-gay bigotry. These ideas serve only to weaken and divide the working class, the unity of whom is key to the challenge of all oppression. The age old slogan ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ is not just a moral statement; it is an expression of a strategic orientation to fight and win unity to build a new world free of oppression and exploitation.
Socialism is a society where the motive force of production is the satisfaction of human need, not profit. Socialism can only be won through the self-emancipation of the mass of the working class, not though the dictates of some self-appointed elite. To reach such a society will not be simple, nor is the outcome guaranteed. But the alternative is certain — a barbarous capitalist system driven by corporate greed and bent on war and destruction. A clear understanding of the socialist tradition, what it is and what it is not, is central to understanding the Jewish question today, and it is also a necessary element in the struggle to win liberation of all the oppressed.
1 See Matthew Lauder, “Amnesty International on Hate in Canada: False Perceptions of an Inclusive Society: A Century of Racism and Hate in Canada” <>
2 In this discussion, the term ‘anti-Semitism’ is used to mean anti-Jewish anti-Semitism.
3 There should be no doubt of Le Pen’s Nazi politics and orientation, despite the claim of the National Front to new found respectability. See Anti-Nazi League, “Le Pen and France”, <>
4 Naomi Klein, “Old Hates Fuelled by Fear”, Globe and Mail (April 24, 2002), p. A17
5 Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question”, in Karl Marx, Early Writings, trans. and ed., T. B. Bottomore (Toronto: 1963), pp. 1-40
6 On the context of this writing, see Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 1, State and Bureaucracy (New York: 1977), pp. 109-28.
7 Karl Kautsky, “Are Jews a Race?”, (US: 1926), trans., Ted Crawford for , <>
8 See Leon Trotsky, On the Jewish Question (New York: 1970).
9 Abram Leon, The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation (New York: 1970); also <>
10 Marx as cited in Ann Rogers, “The Jewish Question”, in A Socialist Review, eds., Lindsey German and Rob Hoveman (London: 1998), pp. 279-80.
11 Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World, (London: 1999), p. 91
12 Harman, People’s History, p. 90
13 Harman, People’s History, p. 92
14 Arthur Koestler, The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and its Heritage (New York: 1976)
15 Quoted in Leon, Jewish Question, p. 127
16 Quoted in Leon, Jewish Question, p. 73
17 Harman, People’s History, p. 151
18 Leon, Jewish Question, p. 167
19 Daniel Karen, “Commentary on the Protocols’, FTP Archives of the Nizkor Project <>
20 As cited in Nathan Weinstock, “Introduction” to Leon, Jewish Question, p. 33
21 Nathan Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah (London: 1979), pp. 32-35
22 The Polish section of the Bund, which was much more nationalist, refused to join the Communist International and stayed within the reformist Second International.
23 Hyman Lumer, ed., Lenin on the Jewish Question (New York: 1974), p. 26
24 V.I. Lenin, What is to be Done? (Moscow: 1969), pp. 69-70
25 Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah, pp. 16-17
26 See Chimen Abramsky, “The Biro-Bidzhan Project — 1927-1959″, in The Jews in Soviet Russia Since 1917, ed., Lionel Kochan, 3rd edition (London and New York: 1978), pp. 64-77
27 Joshua Rothenberg, “Jewish Religion in the Soviet Union”, in The Jews in Soviet Russia Since 1917, ed., Lionel Kochan, 3rd edition (London and New York: 1978), p. 178
28 Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah, pp. 19-20
29 Leon Trotsky, “Interview with Jewish Correspondents in Mexico”, January 1937, in Trotsky, On the Jewish Question, p. 21
30 For an analysis of the history of the Communist International, in both its revolutionary and Stalinist counter-revolutionary phases, see Duncan Hallas, The Comintern (London: 1985).
31 Maurice Friedberg, “Jewish Themes in Soviet Russian Literature”, in The Jews in Soviet Russia Since 1917, p. 210
32 Bernard D. Weinryb, “Antisemitism in Soviet Russia”, in The Jews in Soviet Russia Since 1917, p. 321-23
33 Abramsky, “Biro-Bidzhan Project”, p. 76
34 John Rose, Israel: The Hijack State: America’s Watchdog in the Middle East (London: 1986), p. 26
35 Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (New York: 2000), p. 2
36 As cited in Tony Cliff, Israel: A Racist State (London: nd), p. 3; see also Tony Cliff “The Palestine Question”; “Industry and Banking in Egypt”; “The Struggle in the Middle East”; and “The Jews, Israel and the Holocaust”, in Tony Cliff, Selected Writings: International Struggle and the Marxist Tradition, vol. 1, pp. 7-57
37 Opposition to Zionism continues to be held among sections of Jewish Orthodox adherents today. See David Shmauch, “Jewish not Zionist: Interview with Neturai Karta”, Left Turn (Oct./Nov. 2002); Neturai Karta International, Jews United Against Zionism, ; and
38 Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah, p. 38
39 Tony Cliff, Israel: A Racist State, p. 5
40 Tony Cliff, Israel: A Racist State, p. 5
41 Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah, p. 108
42 As cited in Shlaim, The Iron Wall, p. 15
43 Shlaim, The Iron Wall, pp. 24-25
44 Jews were not the only victims of the assault — gypsies, gays, trade unionists, and socialists were no less the victims of the barbarism.
45 Edwin Black, IBM and the Holocaust (New York: 2002)
46 See Donny Gluckstein, The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class (London: 1999).
47 See Anne Alexander, “The Crisis in the Middle East”, International Socialism, series 2, 93 (special issue, Globalisation, the State and War, December 2001).
48 See Rose, Israel: The Hijack State.

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