Within the Pale

Naomi Shepherd

  • Memoirs of a Jewish Revolutionary by Hersh Mendel, translated by Robert Michaels
    Pluto, 367 pp, £19.50, February 1989, ISBN 0 7453 0264 5
  • Arlosoroff by Shlomo Avineri
    Peter Halban, 126 pp, £10.95, March 1989, ISBN 1 870015 23 1
  • Golda Meir: The Romantic Years by Ralph Martin
    Piatkus, 416 pp, £15.00, April 1989, ISBN 0 86188 864 2

With the virtual disappearance of the Jewish working class in the Diaspora, and the decline of the Labour movement in Israel, Jewish socialism is beginning to look historically limited, rather than an intrinsic part of a cultural heritage. The idea that the Jews are somehow natural radicals by virtue of their internationalism, messianism and inherited ethic of social justice does not stand up to scrutiny. Jews came very late to political activity, almost a century after their emancipation in Western Europe. Their reputation for radicalism is based mainly on the role of the famous theorists of Communism, and the prominence of the Russo-Jewish intelligentsia during the populist, the Social Democrat and Bolshevist phases of the Revolution. By 1905, almost a third of all political prisoners in the Russian Empire were Jews, as were four of the seven members of the 1917 Politburo.

The irony of this situation – apart from the fact that emancipated Jews in Central and Western Europe were generally conservative and loyalist – was that those radical Jews, influenced by secular Russian and German culture, were overwhelmingly assimilationist, reluctant to defend the right of their fellow Jews as an oppressed minority, convinced that the ‘Jewish problem’ would disappear once the class system was abolished. Trotsky took a passing interest in Jewish workers in Palestine in 1934, and by the Second World War favoured a ‘territorial’ solution, but for most radicals the Jews were an annoying anomaly – ostensibly internationalist in their sympathies but obstinately linked to sectarian interests.

In the context of Jewish history the role of Jewish intellectuals in the development of Russian Communism was much less significant than the evolution of specifically Jewish forms of socialism in Eastern Europe – and its offshoots in the Western Diaspora – between the mid-19th century and the Russian Revolution. The Jewish socialist movement, the Bund; the socialist wing of the Zionist movement; and other, much smaller left-wing groups all originated in the Russian Pale of Settlement – the Ukraine, Belorussia, Lithuania, the part of Poland acquired after the Napoleonic wars and parts of the Baltic provinces. Here, where Jews had preserved their own culture and languages (Hebrew for prayer and study, Yiddish in daily life) almost intact for centuries, the Jews made up a distinctive ethnic minority with its own class system. Its ‘workers’ were mainly artisans and small traders, and industrialisation, together with a spiralling birth-rate (in this they were unlike the Jews of Western Europe, whose birth-rate declined even faster than that of the non-Jewish middle class), contributed to their rapid impoverishment.

Political activity began with the evolution of economic self-help schemes organised on a communal basis and was hastened by the Jews’ need to defend themselves against the anti-semitic violence accompanying Tsarist repression of liberalism (which culminated in the pogroms of the early 1880s and those following the 1905 Revolution). While heavily influenced by Marxism, Jewish socialism was primarily separatist: the ideas both of national-cultural autonomy (the Bund) and of territorial nationalism (Zionism) posited a belief that the Jews were a distinct nation. Bundism and socialist Zionism were rivals. The Bund, at the height of its influence between 1906 and 1917, is said to have commanded the allegiance of at least a third of organised Jewish labour and overshadowed Zionism. But although it managed to reconcile a deep internal contradiction between national autonomy and the principles of international socialism, it coexisted uneasily with Russian Communism. Those of its members who were not subsequently eliminated by Stalinism were murdered by the Nazis. Zionist socialism, while vindicated by history as the Bund was not, lost the mass of its potential constituency in the Holocaust.

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