Marx and Zion

Prophecy and Politics; Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862-1917.
by Jonathan Frankel.
Cambridge, 686 pp. $49.30.

The modern history of European Jews begins with their emancipation in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789. By 1838, in the West, the movement toward equality had already undergone a reversal. In Russia, however, there was the usual historical lag. The liberal reforms of Alexander II, in particular the abolition of serfdom in 1861, were followed by a modest but real improvement in the legal position of the country’s Jews, but at the time of that monarch’s assassination in 1881 the Jews were still very far from being equal citizens of the Russian empire even in the narrowest sense. The ascension to the throne of Alexander III was to wipe out a number of the relatively few gains the Jews had made during the preceding period; the process of deterioration continued during the reign of his successor, Nicholas II. Only after the downfall of the monarchy in March 1917 were the Jews of Russia proclaimed equal citizens by the country’s democratic Provisional Government. Subsequent myth-making notwithstanding, the legal status of Russia’s Jews was not changed by the Communist coup d’état in November of the same year. By that time, the legal emancipation of the Russian Jews was already an accomplished fact.

Jonathan Frankel, a historian who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, describes his book as “a study of the political response to the crisis of Russian Jewry” in the period sketched above. As Frankel writes, that crisis was marked by “a population explosion, chronic underemployment (and unemployment), poverty; by periodic waves of pogroms and government harassment; by a massive emigration which carried the East European Jews in hundreds of thousands—and eventually millions—to new centers all over the world.”

Victims of the twin scourges of ethnic persecution and of grinding poverty, Jewish inhabitants of the czarist Pale of Settlement responded politically by rallying around two banners that would seem mutually exclusive. The first, Jewish nationalism in its many mutations, promised them an escape from anti-Semitic persecution through an escape from Gentile society altogether. The second preached the several strains of the socialist creed. The rhetoric of both was somewhat messianic and all too often quixotic, attributes not unrelated to the urgency of the issues that begot them: the precariousness of the living that millions of Jews eked out in Russia and their immediate physical insecurity. Both of these factors argued against dismissing almost any solution to their predicament, however risky or far-fetched.

Two centuries earlier, a somewhat similar set of circumstances had obtained. Ukrainian-Polish wars, accompanied by bloody pogroms against the Jews, had then, too, evoked two Jewish responses, the emotional religiosity of Hasidism and false messianic movements ultimately leading to apostasy. Now in the late 1800’s, descendants of the victims of those pogroms flocked to contemporary analogues of both movements. There were those who, in the name of a socialist millennium, advocated ethnic suicide by the Jews. Proudly declaring themselves to be not Jews but merely Yiddish-speaking socialists (a fine distinction which, it goes without saying, anti-Semites were unwilling to recognize), the radicals were known to resort to such antics as Yom Kippur dances, with ham-and-cheese sandwiches served. At the opposite end of the spectrum were the other dreamers, the Jewish nationalists. These advocated a return to Zion (though not a few seriously considered the alternative of Uganda or Angola). In a surprisingly short time, elements of these two outwardly disparate movements were to become thoroughly intertwined.

Jonathan Frankel’s study, drawing on a huge body of historical material in Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew, and other languages, records the fortunes of both movements—and, especially, the tensions engendered by the many attempts to reconcile them into one. Thus, Prophets and Politics contains thoroughly documented accounts of the interaction of Zionist and socialist politics in Russia prior to the abortive revolution of 1905 and, on the eve of World War I, in Palestine and the United States. It includes also an exceptionally informative eighty-page exposition of the history of the Bund, the first and most successful Jewish socialist movement, as well as several biographical essays that serve as case studies of the interaction of Jewish social radicalism and Jewish nationalism.

One such essay is devoted to Moses Hess, about whom Frankel has also written before.1 At one time an editor of a German journal which counted among its contributors both Marx and Engels, Hess, the author of Rome and Jerusalem, became one of the founding fathers of modern Zionism. Sharing the essay with Hess is Aron Liberman, who tried, unsuccessfully, to combine Russian and Jewish radical politics; he committed suicide in Syracuse, New York. There is also a biography of the now-forgotten Chaim Zhitlovsky, who died in 1943. Of Zhitlovsky, Frankel writes:

At varying times, he was a sharp opponent of Zionism and a Zionist, an anti-territorialist and a territorialist, a supporter of the Bund and one of its harshest critics, a Social Revolutionary and an apologist for Bolshevism. He was a kind of ideological nomad, forever on the move.

Not a few contradictions could also be found in the political views of Nachman Syrkin, who dreamed of a socialist Jewish state “financed largely by the hated class of Jewish bankers and capitalists.” The final profile is that of Ber Borochov, who aimed at a synthesis of democratic Marxism and Zionism. Borochov alone was to leave some influential political progeny:

Yitzhak Ben Tsvi, the second president of the State of Israel and Zalman Rubashov (Shazar), the third president, had been among Borochov’s closest personal associates in the Russian party [Poale Zion] in its year of foundation, 1906. Three prime ministers of Israel (David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, and Golda Meir) were also veteran party members, although not personally identified with Borochov.

In retrospect, neither the Jewish socialists nor the nationalists provided satisfying answers to the tragically pressing needs of their destitute and physically endangered constituents. The Jewish radicals, themselves frequently assimilated and actively hostile to Jewish traditions, were forced by their ideological allegiances to minimize the specifically Jewish aspects of the tragedy in the Pale of Settlement. Indeed, in Russia some of the Jewish radicals felt compelled to desist from criticizing Gentile populists of the Narodnaya Volya movement who, for tactical reasons, approved of the murderous anti-Jewish pogroms because these contributed to a radicalization of the Russian masses. Conversely, the Zionists, who focused their attention on the eventual return to the Promised Land, tended to forget that the paupers in the shtetlakh of Eastern Europe urgently needed practical assistance in their ongoing struggle for economic subsistence and legal rights.

The “internationalist” socialists believed that, by and large, the impoverished Jewish proletariat faced much the same problems as did non-Jewish workers. (In the United States the counterpart of this doctrinaire internationalism was an obtuse nonsectarianism. Thus, at a fund-raising meeting for victims of the 1905 Kishinev pogrom, Jacob Schiff and Oscar Straus, two leaders of the moneyed establishment, “insisted that the relief funds should be available to ‘Jew and Gentile alike.’”) Traditional Zionists, by contrast, tended to view all Jews as socially and economically rather homogeneous, with needs that were a function of their Jewishness alone, and having little in common with their Gentile neighbors. As it turned out both views were wrong in themselves, though at the same time each provided a corrective to the other.

The politics described in Jonathan Frankel’s book have all but withered away. In Israel, Ber Borochov’s disciples and comrades-in-arms, who were effective politically because of their pragmatism, paid only occasional lip service to the Marxist-Zionist ideologue. And in America—as Frankel shrewdly notes—politics is an activity engaged in by reasonable people only at election time. But that things were once very different in the highly politicized culture of East European Jews—whether in their native habitat, or transplanted to other continents—is demonstrated in great detail in Prophecy and Politics. Jonathan Frankel’s book, an important study of turn-of-the-century radicalism, is a major contribution to Russian and Jewish history.

1 “‘The Communist Rabbi,’” COMMENTARY, June 1966.

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