Left's Love-Hate Relationship With Zionism

Robert Wistrich's Details Long and Strange Path

Forward!: Radicals of the 1930s and 40s mostly agreed that the U.N. should grant Jews a state alongside an Arab one. Things are very different today.
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Forward!: Radicals of the 1930s and 40s mostly agreed that the U.N. should grant Jews a state alongside an Arab one. Things are very different today.

By Tony Michels

Published November 07, 2012, issue of November 09, 2012.
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Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin detested that “unique devouring parasite,” that “bloodsucking people,” the Jews. Victor Adler, a founder of Austrian Social Democracy, denounced “anti-Semitic incitement” but also felt compelled to condemn “philo-Semitic incitement” in a show of misguided evenhandedness. Adler and many of his comrades argued that anti-Semitism would inevitably disappear in the future socialist society “in which the qualities referred to, rightly or wrongly, as Jewish would not ensure influence and power or a life of indulgence.” Into such a society the Jews would completely assimilate, or, in Adler’s words, the “wandering Jew” would wander “into his grave.” And there was the problem of what might be called theoretical discrimination. Austrian Marxists developed an innovative theory recognizing the national rights of small nationalities living within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but denied those rights to Jews. Croats qualified as a genuine nation; the Jews amounted to a moribund caste.

Wistrich establishes a blemished record. Ambivalence, callousness, even prejudice existed within socialist movements dating back to the mid-19th century. Yet how should we evaluate the Socialist record overall? Wistrich fails to say directly. His selection of case studies implies that Socialists generally suffered from a special Jewish problem. Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky receives a scathing portrait for his smelly innuendos about Polish Jews and his embrace of the Palestine Liberation Organization during the 1970s. Fine. Yet Wistrich does not see fit to grant French Socialist leader Leon Blum and Socialist International chairman Emile Vandervelde equal attention for their roles in supporting Zionism during the 1920s and ’30s. A 600-page, “pathbreaking synthesis” ought to cast a reasonably wide net.

“From Ambivalence to Betrayal” misleads in another way: It fails to situate Socialists within the larger political contexts in which they operated. To what extent were Socialist parties better or worse than other parties? Wistrich mentions, here and there, the existence of right-wing parties that agitated against Jews, but he does not adequately underscore their differences from Socialists. A newcomer to the subject could easily conclude from Wistrich’s study that Socialist parties were anti-Semitic parties. In fact, the great social democratic movements of Austria and Germany, for all their flaws, neither agitated against Jews nor proposed restrictions on them. They stood for full civil and political equality. No wonder, then, that Central European Jews, almost entirely, voted for social democratic and liberal parties.

Wistrich profiles several seeming exceptions. French Jewish intellectual Bernard Lazare abandoned “self-hatred” and developed an anarchist brand of Zionism in response to the Dreyfus Affair. German evolutionary Socialist Edward Bernstein never minimized the seriousness of anti-Semitism and even cooperated with Zionists. The theoretical journal with which Bernstein associated, Sozialistische Monatshefte, published numerous pro-Zionist articles. Even the quintessential revolutionary internationalist Leon Trotsky moderated his opposition to Zionism in the 1930s and predicted with remarkable prescience the destruction of European Jewry. In an appeal to American Jews, written in December 1938, Trotsky warned: “It is possible to imagine without difficulty what awaits the Jews at the mere outbreak of the future world war. But even without war, the next development of world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews.”

Wistrich treats Trotsky, Bernstein and Lazare as exceptions. Yet numerous other exceptions, mentioned usually in passing, accumulate over hundreds of pages, and the accumulation suggests a different possible account. The broad outlines of this alternative version might look something like this:


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