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.

Hersh Mendel’s riveting Memoirs of a Jewish Revolutionary and Shlomo Avineri’s elegant study of the Zionist theorist and pre-state socialist politician, Chaim Arlosoroff, illustrate in their different ways the two faces of Jewish socialism, and their historical background. Mendel and Arlosoroff were born only six years apart, both in the Pale of Settlement: but their origins could hardly have been more different and determined their very different approaches to socialist revolution. Mendel grew up in a poor family of Orthodox Jewish artisans in a slum district of Warsaw. Self-educated, with a smattering of European languages, able – according to Isaac Deutscher, later a comrade – to express himself coherently only in Yiddish, Mendel was in turn a Bundist, an anarchist in Paris before the First World War, a Communist who fought in the Moscow street battles in 1917, a Polish revolutionary opponent of Pilsudski’s invasion of White Russia, a Trotskyite and ultimately, following World War Two, a Zionist. Arlosoroff, son of a wealthy Ukrainian timber merchant, whose family fled to Germany during the 1905 pogroms, was a typical maskil or Jewish secular intellectual. Raised on Russian culture, with a private Hebrew tutor, he was formally educated in Germany and his main theoretical works were written in German.

Mendel came to Marxism through his reading of Plekhanov, and his memoir conveys the impression that, in becoming a socialist revolutionary, he had joined a powerful body of the oppressed, his horizon widening out from the Jewish courtyard his father guarded with an axe to the battlefields and prisons he shared with Polish and Russian peasants and industrial workers. Mendel never lost the sense of his Jewish identity, which made it difficult for him, despite the Bund’s total rejection of Judaism, to ignore appeals to Jewish tradition, whether from the Yiddish writer Peretz or an Orthodox cellmate in a Polish prison. Arlosoroff’s intellectual background, on the other hand, made him something of a maverick among his colleagues in Palestine, whom Avineri refers to dismissively as ‘mostly self-educated Eastern European heder’ – Bible-class – ‘drop-outs from the shtetl’. It was his greater sophistication, Avineri suggests, rather than deep ideological differences, which made him challenge some of the Zionists’ views on orthodox Marxism, Palestinian nationalism and the Jewish community’s relationship with the British mandate: he advocated Jewish participation in the colonial administration, an idea which was anathema to the Labour leadership. His (supremely pragmatic) negotiations with Nazi Germany over the transfer of German Jewish capital made him an object of particular loathing for the Zionist right wing; and his murder in 1933, at the age of 34, made him a source of permanent controversy, as it was never clear whether he was killed by criminals or political opponents.

Neither Mendel’s zigzag career through various forms of revolutionary activity, nor Arlosoroff’s frequent challenges to his colleagues’ policies, can obscure the common origin of their Jewish socialist views. Bundism was formally established in 1897, the year of the first Zionist congress, though its propagandist and trade-union base had been in existence for decades, as had the European nationalist ideas underlying Zionism. If the Bund had initially more powerful claims on the Jewish working class, it was because its objectives (strike action, self-defence and so on) were local and immediate, rather than long-range and extra-territorial. ‘I never noticed any demonstrations other than those led by the Bund,’ writes Mendel of his militant adolescence. And Arlosoroff was to acknowledge, in his Jewish People’s Socialism, written in 1919, that it was the Bund which awakened the political consciousness of the Jewish masses on which Zionism was later to capitalise.

Where Zionist socialism parted company with the Bund was in its emphasis on Jewish history and continuity: for the Zionists, Hebrew was to be the revived language of political action, where the Bund had preferred to ‘go to the people’ in Yiddish. Medem, the Bundist who converted Mendel to the idea of national-cultural autonomy, argued that the Jews might not inevitably survive as a separate people. Zionism aimed at total reform of the Jewish class structure and the creation of a new Jewish proletariat which would live in a socialist agrarian community on the soil of Palestine. The Bund superimposed a Marxist class analysis onto Jewish society in the Pale.

Arlosoroff did not accept this view, and his criticism is vividly corroborated in Mendel’s memoir. Arlosoroff argued that there was, among the Jews, neither an independent, power-seeking bourgeoisie nor a real industrial proletariat; there was no relationship between employer and employee, in the Marxist sense, but only a rich merchant minority and a poverty-stricken mass of masters and workers. Mendel’s father was a typical Jewish ‘employer’, a tanner whose handful of workers were scarcely poorer than he was, dependent in his turn on the petty tradesmen who marketed his goods. Strike action, Mendel writes, was equally welcome to master and workers, for it affected not only workers’ wages but the rates the master could demand of the tradesmen. The Jewish ‘bourgeoisie’ hardly appears in the memoir, save perhaps in one scathing reference to a Rothschild philanthropic enterprise in Paris, where Mendel briefly learned carpentry.

Mendel’s memoir is nomadic, an account of physical suffering in the cause of some distant liberation, of emotional revulsion at the repeated betrayal of ideals and the persistence of individual hope. Like all revolutionaries of that time, Mendel feels called on to sacrifice his personal life almost entirely; there are few really personal memories, save for the death of his family, from hunger while he is in exile in Paris. He is part of the brotherhood of the class struggle: in one particularly moving passage, describing how he is chained to a Polish peasant and both are beaten, he records that his own physical pain became imperceptible, so involved was he in his comrade’s suffering. All he tells us of his wife is that they met in prison and that she never recovered from her experiences there.

On the other hand, his political experiences are spelt out in great detail. He abandons socialism for anarchism when he realises the failure of the Second International to prevent war; he is alienated by Stalin’s collectivisation policy, which he witnesses, and refuses to propagate Stalinist lies. Eventually, in 1931, he is expelled from the Polish Communist Party for arguing that German Communists should form a united front with Social Democrats against Hitler. He becomes a Zionist because he no longer believes that Jews can protect themselves without a state.

This peripatetic existence, in both physical and ideological terms, was not unusual in the Jewish history of the period, in which children of the same family might become Bolsheviks, anarchists or Zionists. It is doubly unfortunate, therefore, that neither of the prefaces to this translation from the German (based on a Yiddish text – not a Hebrew one – as the flyleaf suggests) provides a historical background. Isaac Deutscher’s affectionate foreword, reprinted from the 1958 Yiddish original, expands mainly on his dialectical disagreements with Mendel. The translator’s preface is little more than a diatribe against Zionism, with an explicit, surely misplaced rebuke to the author for his final ‘error’ of political judgment. It also sets a new standard in acknowledgments by thanking ‘a certain professor in Tel Aviv, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten’.

Professor Avineri’s monograph on Arlosoroff has apparently been included in a new series dedicated to ‘Jewish thinkers’ because the socialist and humanist ideas he stood for need reasserting in the Israeli political climate of today – or so the conclusion suggests. However, there is little in the selection of writings chosen for comment here which is directly relevant or – as the blurb has it – ‘prophetic’. On the contrary, their strength is that they are firmly and pragmatically anchored in the political realities of the period – presumably the point Avineri wants to make.

Arlosoroff’s critique of Bundist Marxism was written when the Bund was still a serious rival to Zionism – though already past its zenith. His championship of the agrarian socialism inspired both by Marx and the Tolstoyan Jewish thinker A.D. Gordon relates to a time when the idea of a farming proletariat was also the ideal instrument of Zionist colonisation, the fear being that the future Jewish state might be confined to an urban enclave on the coast.(Avineri pinpoints an interesting parallel made by Arlosoroff with the German loss of Bohemia and Posen for lack of an indigenous German farming population.) The position papers Arlosoroff wrote in his capacity as Head of the Political Department of the pre-state Jewish Agency show him to have been refreshingly non-doctrinaire, but like other Zionist socialists, he could scarcely have foreseen that the flight of European middle-class Jews from the Nazis, and the immigration of a petit-bourgeois population from North Africa and the Middle East which was to become the new, largely anti-socialist proletariat of Israel, would irrevocably alter the original socialist vision.

Arlosoroff, as Avineri points out, was one of the first Labour Zionists to recognise the force of Arab nationalism in Palestine and to formulate a Zionist response – in brief, the politics of compromise, or the partition of Palestine. Yet, in the Twenties, faced with the increased Arab unwillingness to sell land to the Jews, Arlosoroff suggested settling immigrants in the Transjordan, then underpopulated and controlled by feudal chieftains – a proposal which surely looks back to the 19th-century projects of a Cazalet or an Oliphant. Dismayed, moreover, by the prospect of the Jews remaining only a minority in Palestine, as seemed inevitable in the pre-Nazi period, he thought it might be necessary to establish ‘a revolutionary Jewish dictatorship aimed both against the British and the Arabs’ – or at least this was one of four possible options he put before Weizmann. Whether or not this was an intellectual exercise – ‘shock treatment’ for Weizmann, as Avineri suggests – it does indicate that a pragmatic concern for Jewish nationalism and its survival was not always compatible with egalitarian ideals. Furthermore, Avineri mentions only in passing Arlosoroff’s support for the principle of ‘Hebrew labour’, which was probably the central dilemma of Zionist socialists where the Arabs of Palestine were concerned. Their insistence that the Jews reform their lopsided class structure by establishing a Jewish working class and banning the exploitation of Arab labour was a way of condemning the Arabs to economic segregation.

Golda Meir: the Romantic Years is the improbable title of an improbable book. Those who regarded Meir as a tough-minded politician who used the socialist Working Women’s Council to reach power will be bemused to find her here as a Messalina dependent on her influential lovers’ encouragement for her political advancement. All that can be said of this blend of ‘research’ (computerised gossip) and comic-strip history is that it is a reminder that Meir has yet to attract a serious political biographer.