Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 20, 2015

Was Stalin anti-Semitic? A reply to Roland Boer

Filed under: Jewish question,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm

boer

One of the oddest tendencies of Marxist intellectuals today is their admiration for Australian religion professor Roland Boer who received the Isaac Deutscher Prize in 2014 for his book “In the Veil of Tears”. The jury is made up of people whose intelligence I truly respect (despite such lapses as awarding a prize to Francis Wheen for his cynical biography of Karl Marx in 1999.) Others have gotten on the bandwagon, including Paul Le Blanc. Scott McLemee is also something of a fan although it is hard to figure out whether he takes him as seriously as Le Blanc, giving the impression that he reads Boer more for amusement than edification.

Maybe the Deutscher jury and Le Blanc have never visited Boer’s blog “Stalin’s Moustache”, as McLemee has. If it is supposed to be a joke (as McLemee suggests), it is not a very good one, especially when you run into an article titled Stalin’s “Anti-Semitism. Who knows? Maybe I don’t have a sense of humor. Is writing a response to Boer like writing an angry letter to Onion.com along the lines of  “How dare you publish an article claiming that Karl Marx was a secret admirer of the Mormon Church?” (Come to think of it, that’s not so far from Boer’s particular shtick, comic or not.)

Boer starts off by dismissing those who charged Stalin with anti-Semitism as not worth being taken seriously because they are “not favourably disposed to Stalin”. Frankly, it would be quite an exercise in cognitive dissonance to find someone “favourably disposed to Stalin” who also found him anti-Semitic unless of course it was someone like the bizarre Sendero Luminoso publicist Luis Quispe who tried to score points on the original Marxism mailing list by referring to me as a Jew or a Zionist every chance he got. Except for such cretins and their counterparts on the extreme right, anti-Semitism has very little traction among people with a modicum of civilized values.

Citing an eccentric Dutch scholar named Erik Van Slee, Boer makes the case that Stalin objected to his flunkies using the original Jewish surnames of party members being targeted in the anti-cosmopolitan campaign of 1948-1949. Furthermore, since Stalin told a Romanian Stalinist leader in 1949 that “racism leads to fascism”, how could he possibly be anti-Semitic? That’s some argument, isn’t it?

Decrying racism is pretty easy. When George Bush ’41 spoke at a celebration for signing the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday into law, he told the audience “We can learn about how a great vision and a great nation began to confront and nonviolently challenge institutional racism.” That’s the same George Bush who ran Willie Horton campaign ads that suggested a vote for Dukakis would unleash violent Black criminals on an innocent and god-fearing white America.

On the question of Stalin being opposed to using his adversary’s original Jewish surname, it is notable that Boer doesn’t even take the trouble to respond to the well-documented record of his doing exactly that. At the risk of losing my credibility by quoting someone who was not “favourably disposed” to Stalin, let me direct your attention to Leon Trotsky’s “Thermidor and anti-Semitism”, written in 1937.

Trotsky notes that nobody ever referred to him as Bronstein before he became persona non grata in the USSR, nor—for that matter—did party members refer to Stalin as Dzhugashvili. By the same token, when Zinoviev and Kamenev were in a bloc with Stalin, that’s the names they were referred to in the party press. But after they were put on trial as members of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, they became Radomislyski and Rozenfeld.

Moving ahead to the anti-cosmopolitan campaign that Boer would have us believe is pure as the driven snow, it is of course difficult to establish that it was openly directed against Jews but only if you also believe that stop-and-frisk police tactics are not specifically directed against minorities.

Maybe it was just a coincidence that Literaturnaya Gazeta took aim at an “evil and decadent story written by the homeless cosmopolitan Melnikov (Mehlman)” and the “cynical and impudent activities of B. Yakovlev (Holtzmann).” (The Jewish surnames were in the original.) Or maybe it was also a coincidence that some of the USSR’s best-known sports journalists were purged because they were Jewish. Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote:

It is not surprising therefore that the anti-patriotic cosmopolitans have laid their dirty hands on sporting literature … They are vagrants without passports, suspicious characters without any ancestry who work hard to put over the customs and tastes of the foreigners on Soviet athletes … It is high time to clean out all these enemies of the Socialist fatherland…

Not long after the anti-cosmopolitan campaign was launched, a “doctor’s plot” convinced many that anti-Semitism was a problem in the USSR but not Roland Boer apparently who wrote:

Or the ‘doctors plot’ of 1952-53 – in which leading doctors were suspected of seeking to assassinate government officials – is seen as an excuse for a widespread anti-Semitic purge and deportation, halted only because of Stalin’s death (we may thank Khrushchev for this piece of speculation). However, the only way such an assumption can work is that many doctors in the Soviet Union were Jewish; therefore the attack on doctors was anti-Semitic. Equally, even more doctors were Russian, but for some strange reason, the plot is not described as anti-Russian.

Does Boer think that his readers will not scrutinize his claim that “even more doctors were Russian”? To some extent this is true, because the people who read his idiotic blog would believe that Stalin walked on water. This was a typical comment from one of his fans (I hope it was not Paul Le Blanc or Scott McLemee using a fake name).

Did any other world leader of comparable stature denounce anti-Semitism in such strong terms as Stalin’s reply to the US-based Jewish News Agency? Did any other world leader of comparable stature denounce anti-Semitism as not only ‘an extreme form of racial chauvinism’, but as ‘the most dangerous vestige of cannibalism’?

I had no idea that cannibalism gave birth to anti-Semitism but let’s leave that aside for purposes of remaining tethered to the planet Earth.

What’s more important is to understand that of the nine doctors arrested, six were Jewish. In other words, it is irrelevant that maybe two-thirds of Soviet doctors were not Jewish. The reason anti-Semitism was detected in the “doctor’s plot” was the ethnic composition of those arrested. That Boer can pussyfoot around this reality shows that he has really absorbed the essence of Stalin’s politics—the mastery of the big lie.

The rest of Boer’s article is an attempt to prove that anti-Semitism could not exist in the USSR because the constitution banned it. There’s no argument that this is what it said. That was some great fucking constitution even if it was not worth the paper it was written on.

Finally, something should be said about one of Stalin’s boldest initiatives on behalf of Soviet Jews—at least nominally, the creation of Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region that Stalin gave the green light to in 1932. This was not a choice made by Russian Jews but one made by Stalin for them. It was consistent with his disregard for the rights of self-determination that Lenin decided to fight from his deathbed, dubbing Stalin a “vulgar Great-Russian bully”.

This was not Stalin’s last foray into Jewish nation building. In 1944 Stalin decided that the Jews had a case for building a state over the objections of the Arabs, the Palestinians foremost among them. In doing so, he became a “friend of the Jews” at least in the eyes of their Zionist leaders. You can read about this forgotten moment of history in a September 2014 Le Monde Diplomatique article titled The Forgotten Alliance by historian Michael Réal:

The USSR supplied people willing to settle in Palestine. In 1946 the Soviets allowed more than 150,000 Polish Jews to go to the British and American occupied zones in Germany, where they entered camps for displaced people. There were few alternatives to Palestine for Jewish survivors of the Nazi camps, or those with neither home nor family at the end of the war. Moscow deliberately exacerbated this problem, putting Britain, under strong pressure from the Zionist movement and the US, in a difficult situation. The US was unwilling to take these refugees in, but feared the impact on US public opinion of newsreels showing boats of illegal immigrants en route to Palestine being turned back by British forces.

Before 1948, the USSR directly or indirectly supported secret immigration operations organised by the Jewish Agency for Israel, sending Jews from eastern Europe, especially Romania and Bulgaria (66% of the Jews who arrived in Palestine between 1946 and 1948 came from there).

After 15 May 1948 and Israel’s declaration of independence, encouraging immigration became yet more urgent. Israel’s fledgling army needed recruits — so supplying the flow of migrants meant participating in the Israeli war effort. Between 1948 and 1951 more than 300,000 Jews from eastern Europe went to Israel — half of the total influx of migration during that period.

Moscow also supported Israel in another aspect of its demographic battle: the homogenisation of its population, which led to the departure — mainly through expulsion — of over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs. The USSR absolved Israel of responsibility and blamed the British. In 1948 the Soviet Union voted against UN resolution 194 on the possible return of Palestinian refugees.

Later on, the USSR would orient to the Arab states but by then it was too late. The damage had already been done. 

March 21, 2015

The Rise and the Fall of the Borscht Belt

Filed under: Catskills,Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 9:59 pm

A while back FB friend Maxene Diamond Spindell, who posts a lot of interesting material to the Memories of the Catskills group, posted a ten minute excerpt from Peter Davis’s “The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt”, a documentary made in 1986 that I saw when it first came out. Since I have my own “The Unrepentant Marxist Returns to the Catskills” video in the works, I was very interested to see the whole film and perhaps include some footage under the fair use provision.

As it turns out the film was not available from all the usual sources either online or as a DVD. Taking advantage of my retiree benefits from Columbia University, I ordered a VHS through BorrowDirect, an interlibrary service that most universities belong to. After I had the film digitized, I put it up on my Vimeo website for everyone to see. Hopefully I won’t get any intellectual property static over this especially since I emailed Peter Davis a week ago and got no reply.

I appealed to Davis as a fellow leftist. For those in the know, he was one of America’s top leftist documentary filmmakers of the past half-century with films like “Hearts and Minds” to his credit, the definitive Vietnam antiwar film in my view. His last film, “In Darkest Hollywood: Cinema and Apartheid”, was made in 1993.

His leftist orientation can be seen in “The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt”, although not in an obvious way. The film is a mixture of social history and nostalgic entertainment as we see both former vacationers and hotel owners and employees reminiscing about the Borscht Belt in its heyday. For regular readers of my blog, you are probably aware that I grew up in the area and included a good 20 or so pages about my background there in the memoir I did with Harvey Pekar.

As the term borscht implies, the people who worked and stayed in the hotels and bungalow colonies were almost all Jews. The “fall” in the title of Davis’s film refers to the tourist industry collapsing after Jews became wealthier and more assimilated. After moving from the garment industry cutting rooms to accounting firms, they could now afford vacations in Puerto Rico and no longer felt the need to be in a hotel that served kosher food.

My memories include both happy and sad moments. For example, I will never forget the wonderment I felt as a 10-year-old boy watching the Mighty Atom (née Joseph Greenstein) bend an iron bar across his nose at his Paramount Health Farm. On the other hand, I was turned off by the materialism of the hotel owners and small businessmen in the area whose life seemed to revolve around Cadillac convertibles and mink coats for their wives. In a piece about Harvey Pekar’s wonderful memoir “The Quitter”, I described one of those painful (but partly uplifting) moments:

One summer, when I was about 12 or 13 years old, my mother wrangled tickets to see the legendary Jewish tenor Richard Tucker perform at the Concord Hotel. She brought me and her mother in the family car, a 1952 Studebaker that not only looked like crap but was burning oil. When we arrived at the entrance to the Concord, the fanciest hotel in the Catskills, you could see a plume of smoke trailing the car for about 50 feet. My mom turned the key over to a valet who I heard make some wisecrack about the jalopy to the other valets. Meanwhile, the guests at the hotel out for an evening stroll in their mink stoles stared at us as if we were from another planet. It did not help that my deaf grandma spoke so loud that you could hear her from the next county. All I wanted to do is put as much distance as I could from these yokels as I could. Now at the age of 64 I feel somehow proud of the fact that appearances meant nothing to my mother. Plus, Richard Tucker was in great form that night.

Within a week or so, I will begin making my own film about the Catskills that will include an interview I did with people at Lansman’s bungalow colony in Hurleyvile, including Maxene. I had found out about the colony in an article in the NY Times about people trying to keep the spirit of the Catskills alive:

Each colony has its own personality. At the woodsy and quiet Buffalo Colony, which has much larger, family-size units, there are gay and straight parents, and biological and adopted children of many races. Lansman’s, an 85-unit colony in Woodbourne, which was bought by former renters from back in its family-owned days, is still mostly Jewish. Stephanie Kreiner, president of the board there, said residents still play mah-jongg and attend Saturday evening entertainment in the casino. Spring Glen Woods, in Ellenville, N.Y., has residents from New Jersey, Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens. “We want to bring it back to its heyday,” Ms. Schneider said.

It was of extraordinary interest to me that Peter Davis filmed at Lansman’s himself and found the same enchantment there that I did. I hope that in its own modest way my video can be called “The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Catskills”.

I say that out of respect for Cissie Blumberg, who owned the Olympic Hotel in Woodridge and hated the term Borscht Belt. Cissie was a die-hard Communist and like many other hotel owners and small businesspeople a product of the Great Depression. Even if the 1950s brought prosperity, these folks remembered what it meant to suffer under capitalism. One of the people I interviewed upstate was a Communist like Cissie and remains political to this day.

In an article I wrote a good fifteen years or so ago titled “Borscht Belt Reds” (it probably should have been titled Catskill Reds!)  that was prompted by a conference held at the Sunny Oaks hotel, one of the first in a series convened by Phil Brown, a sociology professor at Brown University and the son of hotel owners. The article ended:

After the conference was over, I phoned Cissie Blumberg, the author of “Remember the Catskills: Tales of a Recovering Hotelkeeper” and a leftist. Cissie is a woman of strong opinions and was boycotting the Sunny Oaks conference because she thought the term “Borscht Belt” was offensive. She had also had a number of spats with my mother over religious questions. The two wrote for the same local paper and my mother hoped that I would be able to calm her down. This was as much of a chance of me doing this as getting my strongly opinionated mother to calm down.

There’s a chapter in Cissie’s book titled “Just Causes”. She writes:

Not everything [about my father] was controversial or political. He was a prime organizer of the Credit Union, a moving force in the Hotelmen’s Federation, and an acknowledged leader in the Fire Insurance Company as a director and president of the board. He convinced our reluctant neighbors in Lake Huntington to utilize the WPA programs for construction of the first sewer system, and though not religious himself, actively led the small Jewish community in the building of its first synagogue.

I was in grade school when the Civil War broke out in Spain. My father used his talent for oratory on behalf of the Loyalists, long before the world recognized that conflict as the beginning of World War II.

Bob [her brother and my old 9th grade social studies teacher] accompanied him one night to a rally at the Nemerson Hotel in South Fallsburg to raise funds for the Lincoln Brigade, the American volunteers in Spain. As part of his address, our dad quoted from Abraham Lincoln’s famous words on the people and the Constitution: ‘Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they shall exercise their constitutional rights of amending it, or their revolutionary rights to dismember or overthrow it.’ Suddenly the resort’s casino, in which the meeting was being held, was plunged into darkness by its owner, Mr. Nemerson. ‘Rosenberg is talking Communist propaganda,’ thundered the angry hotel man. ‘But sir, that statement is a quote from Abraham Lincoln,’ replied a helper of my father’s. ‘Oh, Abraham Lincoln?’ The lights came on!”

March 16, 2015

The Mighty Atom

Filed under: Catskills,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 3:02 pm

Back in 2007 I wrote a piece titled “Jews and American Popular Culture” that was based on a lecture Paul Buhle gave to the Institute of Jewish History in New York occasioned by the publication of the 3-volume “Jews and American Popular Culture” he edited. As is often the case with Paul’s lectures, it was accompanied by a slide show that prompted this observation:

During the reception prior to the meeting, a slide show featured famous Jewish personalities, from Jerry Seinfeld to Sandy Koufax. One of them might not have been well-known to the audience but he certainly was to me. Around the same time I was spending my evenings hanging out with Barney Ross, I used to go see strong man Joseph Greenstein bend iron bars across his nose at his bungalow colony in my home town. Better known as the Mighty Atom, he was now in his 70s but still going strong. During his prime, he used to be able to prevent an airplane from taking off by holding it back with a cable. After performing his feats, he used to extol Jewish piety and the need to eat healthy (he wore his hair long like Samson.)

This prompted a query from Stanley Krauson: “Does anyone remember the name of Joseph Greenstein’s (The Mighty Atom) bungalow colony?”

I now have an answer to that question that took me eight years to the day to put together. But before I get to that, I should explain that soon after writing the article I shared my memories of the Mighty Atom  with Harvey Pekar, who was a houseguest one evening in 2008. As it turns out, Harvey and Paul had begun collaborating with each other on comic books revolving around Jews and the left, among other topics.

Harvey was very interested in the Mighty Atom story since he had been reading about Jewish professional strong men at the time. (He was an amateur strong man himself with an appetite for brawling in high school seemingly at odds with his shy and retiring demeanor.) He also was fascinated by my recollections of life in the SWP that were pretty atypical. For example, I had a relationship at one point with a woman in the Houston branch who had been a topless dancer.

Harvey was so fascinated by my tales that he gave me a ring and proposed that we do a comic book memoir that would be published by Random House. To make a long and sad story short, he died before the book was published and his widow Joyce Brabner decided to dump the memoir because she did not think it should be part of the Harvey Pekar legacy. She has never admitted as such but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.

Here is a page devoted to my encounter with the Mighty Atom:

mighty atom

Now, getting to Stanley Krauson’s question, the identity of the Mighty Atom’s bungalow colony can be found in Ed Spielman’s “The Mighty Atom: The Life and Times of Joseph L. Greenstein; Biography of a Superhuman“, a book that I took out from the Columbia Library recently. It was the Panoramic Health Farm, a small colony about a mile from my father’s fruit store. Ironically, although the Mighty Atom sang the praises of vegetables, I wouldn’t go near them. Who knows? Maybe it was a defense mechanism against my father. I should advise you that Spielman’s narrative has a Paul Bunyanesque quality, no doubt a function of his own desire to put together a biography with “wow factor”, plus the Mighty Atom’s (nee Joseph Greenstein) sideshow/circus background leading him to embellish what was likely a remarkable life to begin with. In any case, I did see a man about as old as me at the time bending an iron bar across his nose. You don’t see that every day. Below are passages from Ed Spielman’s book. I am sure that there is more than a grain of truth in these tales.

The Mighty Atom’s bungalow colony:

In the late 1940s, the Atom took savings of $18,000 and founded a health resort where he could put his ideas into action. Where better to advocate health and vitality than in bucolic surroundings, far from the noise and dirt of the city? In upstate Woodridge, New York, he purchased a seventy-acre tract of land with a twenty-three room hotel, four apartments, and two bungalows and established his Panoramic Health Farm. The plan was that he would run the place all summer until Labor Day, when he and Leah would take their traveling lecturemobile south for the winter. Leah had her doubts about an entire hotel being a simple husband-and-wife operation. With his usual enthusiasm, Joe approached the idea as if it were nothing more difficult than a mom-and-pop candy store. He was not to be dissuaded. He put down the cash and took title.

Of panoramic view there was plenty, of water there was none. A week after he took over, the sole spring went dry. The seller (who had paid $7,000 for the place a few years before) had neglected to mention the periodic problem.

After several weeks of carting water from town in barrels and cans, Joe went to the library to research the problem. He found reference to individuals who did nothing more for a living than discover water for such unfortunates as himself. These “dowsers” were supposedly gifted with the ability to sniff out H2O with nothing more than a divining rod.

In Pennsylvania, he found just such a pair of “water smellers.” Dressed in black, and possessed of an appropriately mysterious manner, the pair immediately made him suspicious. Instead of your everyday divining rod, they did their dowsing with an upended pliers. At last, they stopped at a miserable patch of weeds and pronounced with finality that they had found water. As the pliers were jiggling with wild and spastic enthusiasm, he took them at their word. They returned to Pennsylvania, his cash in their pocket.

He called the local well driller, a Sicilian who arrived on the scene with well-founded cynicism, as in the very place where the dowsers had predicted water, he had already dug a dry well for the previous owner.

Now out a couple of hundred dollars for a pair of sham water smellers, and a good chunk of his life’s savings for the health farm itself, Joe nevertheless did not despair. He would find water . . . or throw himself off the nearest bridge. Somehow, a wet death seemed almost pleasant under the circumstances.

He took a large flat rock and a sixteen-pound sledgehammer, placed the rock on the ground in various locations of the property, and smacked it soundly with the hammer. He reasoned that if there were water below somewhere, there might be an underground echo or other indication. He found an area that responded. The more he hit the rock, the more he became convinced that this was the spot. Immediately, he summoned the well driller.

“Here?” The man was not encouraging. “Are you kiddin’? I already drilled right here, too. I didn’t find enough water to rinse out my mouth.”

Joe could not be dissuaded, and after signing a contract guaranteeing payment, he told the man to go to work. The bits were sunk into the ground, and there was nothing. The driller looked at Joe blankly. “Dig deeper,” Joe ordered, and gave him more money. Nothing. “Deeper!” He doled out the cash from the piggy bank.

At last came a gathering gushing sound, and a geyser of water sprayed high into the air coming up at the rate of seventy gallons a minute. The little Sicilian crossed himself.

“How did you know?”

Joe shrugged.

“Mister Atom”—the man pointed heavenward—”you got some-body upstairs.”

With a bit of borrowing and some juggling of finances, Joe fitted a pump on the site, made a small lake, stocked it with fish, and put two boats on it. He enlarged the approach road, constructed another two-story guest house, and built a pool. He was working seventeen hours a day and by now his investment had gotten out of hand, about $55,000 out of hand. He began alternating one week at the Panoramic, one week of pitching night and day to try to pay the previous week’s bills.

The Panoramic Health Farm was no mom-and-pop candy store; the clientele was an eccentric and demanding bunch. For the first time in her life, Leah started visiting doctors. The diagnoses were the same: overwork.

After a decade, rather than have the Panoramic Health Farm kill them, Joe sold out for such a disastrously low figure that he needn’t have drilled for water; he ended taking a bath in his own money. He gladly returned full-time to the life of a pitchman.

In August of 1938, a German Day rally had drawn a turnout of forty thousand wildly cheering spectators for a parade of two thousand uniformed Nazis. Not in Munich but in Yaphank, Long Island. Joe Greenstein’s anti-Nazi battles had begun as soon as Hitler’s supporters had attempted to sink American roots. He had an idea of what was coming. “Throughout time, for the Jews it never changes. Fight to live. There is no alternative.” The Nazi was a creature of the streets, and there Joe lowered himself to meet them.

The Mighty Atom takes on the Nazis:

He revised and augmented his lectures. In addition to his discourse on clean living, he talked of current events. Pinned to his metal-covered board of 2-inch pine was a caricature of a pig wearing a swastika arm band. The head of the pig was that of Adolf Hitler. After a few choice comments about the German in question, the Atom would take a twenty-penny spike in his hand and smack it through the Nazi pig’s heart. The crowd cheered its approval, but certain others didn’t think it quite so funny.

About forty years later, Norman Jacobs, Joe’s son-in-law, remembered an incident of that time. “I was sitting in their Park Place kitchen with my wife Mary and Leah, when we heard a wild commotion outside. We looked out the window to find Pop mixing it up with four men in the alley. I started out the door to help, but Leah ordered me to stay put. ‘Pop will take care of it. But you . . . she warned, ‘if you go out, you’ll get hurt.'”

When the sounds of battle had subsided, the family went into the alleyway where they found the first combatant sprawled unconscious, his arm and leg broken. The second assailant was discovered in a garbage can, head and legs down, having been folded up and deposited like a discarded sandwich, the can cover neatly on top of him. The third man fled. Joe sat atop the fourth bruiser, putting the finishing touches on him.

The Mighty Atom had spent the afternoon making one of his anti-Hitler speeches; the Nazi quartet had followed him home and waylaid him in the alley. “Who are they, Pop?” Leah asked him.

Joe got to his feet, brushed off his pants, and surveyed the men in the alley. “Nobody,” he said.

There were dispiriting moments on mornings when he considered the number of well-organized Nazi goons that he might have to go up against that afternoon. At these times there was a passage in the Bible that revitalized him. His was the same secret weapon with which Joshua and Israel had overcome the terrifying horde arrayed against them:

. . . I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries. For mine angel shall go before thee…

—Exodus XXIII:22: 23

Shortly after a huge Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden in February, 1939, the Mighty Atom found himself walking through Manhattan’s Yorkville German section on a business matter. He stopped in his tracks at a sign in bold letters posted on a building’s second floor: “NO DOGS OR JEWS ALLOWED!”

He stared at it for a while before inquiring of a passerby, “What the hell is that?” He was informed that a Nazi Bund meeting was being conducted upstairs. He went across the street to a paint store, where with a three-dollar deposit, he rented an 18-foot ladder. Back he came and opened it beneath the sign. Returning across the street, this time to a sporting-goods store, he purchased a Louisville slugger baseball bat—a “Hank Greenberg Model.” He parked it in the doorway beneath the sign.

He went up the ladder, tore the sign down, and tossed it into the gutter. The operation had not gone unnoticed. Several of the Nazis looked out aghast from the second-floor window. The action which followed was in the best tradition of a Popeye cartoon. Before the Atom could climb down from his high perch, the entire Bund assembly had come charging down the stairs into the street.

The Mighty Atom was shaken off his ladder, but he came up bat in hand. They came at him singly and in numbers, frontally and encircling; all to no avail. “It wasn’t a fight,” Joe said later, “it was a pleasure.” He sent eighteen of them to the hospital in various stages of extreme disrepair. He sustained a black eye.

Hauled into court on a charge of aggravated assault, mass mayhem, and so forth, a bedraggled but surprisingly cheerful Joe Greenstein stood meekly and alone before the bench, his only compatriot the “mouse” under his eye. A white-haired judge looked solemnly down as the charge was read. The jurist could hardly believe that the mild, little man before him could have perpetrated such an assault. Then, he surveyed the victims before him, a veritable parade of broken joints, purple contusions, and awkwardly plastered and wired limbs. The battered Aryans filled half the courtroom.

“You mean this little man . . . did that . . . to all of them?” the judge inquired in disbelief.

“Yes, Your Honor,” nodded an eyewitness police sergeant. “Them that ain’t still in the hospital.”

The judge turned his attention to the defendant. “Mr. Greenstein, these are serious charges. Do you have anything to say?”

“Yessir, Judge.” The Atom brightened. “Every time I swung the bat it was a home run!”

Quietly, the judge inquired of the sergeant what had provoked such a clash. “Them’re Nazis, Your Honor,” the officer whispered. “They went after him.”

“NOT GUILTY! CASE DISMISSED!” The judge banged his gavel.

“But, Your Honor . . .” the Bund’s lawyer protested. “I said, case dismissed.” The gavel boomed again with finality, and the judge retired to his chambers.

Photos from Spielman’s book:

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.06.42 AMThe young Mighty Atom

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.05.11 AMThe Mighty Atom stops an airplane tied to his hair from taking off

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.06.08 AMThe Mighty Atom pulls a fire engine

 

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 11.39.18 AM

March 13, 2015

Jews of the Magreb

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 2:30 pm

An Algerian Jew of the 19th century

A passage in a very important article titled “Israel and the Jews” in today’s CounterPunch reminded me that I had planned to post an article of mine that appeared originally in Critical Muslim:

Jews have lived for centuries in the Islamic world. They have even been welcomed by the Ottoman empire after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Today, Israel participates in the demonization of Arabs and of Muslims by behaving as a model pupil in the ‘clash of civilizations’ classroom. Some politicians having made it their stock in trade, anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia is openly displayed, and acting on them is not uncommon.

In Israel, propagandists compete to explain that Jews have lived in hell in the Muslim world, concealing the fact that anti-Semitism has been above all of European and Christian origins. In Israel, Oriental Jews experience social discrimination and racist contempt. They have often been humiliated and discriminated against on their arrival. They are cut from their roots and urged to renounce their identity. The expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 is presented as an ‘exchange of populations’ whereas Zionism is the principle cause, both of the Nakba and of the departure of Oriental Jews from their countries.

The Jews of the Maghreb

By Louis Proyect

Zionist historians have an ideological mission. They must look back into history and draw essentialist conclusions about the “enemies” of the Jews no matter the countervailing evidence. As long as there have been gentiles determined to persecute and even exterminate the chosen people, there will be a need for an Israel armed to the teeth with jet fighters, advanced missile systems, and nuclear weapons.

Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Israel’s prime minister, wrote a book on the Spanish Inquisition that traced what he called “Jew hatred” to ancient Egypt, long before Christianity. Naturally that would give his son the license to create an apartheid-like system in the West Bank.

Despite 19th century Germany’s vanguard role in forging an Enlightenment that would give Jews full equality, Daniel Goldhagen wrote a book that depicted the German race as essentially bent on the destruction of the Jews from time immemorial.

But pre-Zionist Islam constitutes the biggest challenge for the ideologically-driven historian. Against the preponderant evidence that Jews flourished for the most part under early Muslim rule, there is also some evidence that they were persecuted. This evidence is generally subsumed under the category of dhimmitude, a neologism based on the Arab word dhimmi that is applied to non-Islamic peoples like the Jews and the Christians who were supposedly second-class citizens.

Although Paul B. Fenton and David G. Littman’s 2010 L’ Exil au Maghreb: la condition juive sous l’Islam 1148-1912 was never translated into English, the book’s tendentious findings have been picked up by Muslim-bashing bloggers. Littman’s Islamophobia is of a long-standing character. In 2005 he contributed several articles to the collection edited by Robert Spencer titled The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: How Islamic Law Treats Non-Muslims.

Over on the aptly named jihadwatch.com, there’s a review of Fenton and Littman by one Ibn Warraq, who despite his Arab lineage is an Islamophobic stalwart. His best-known book is “Why I am not a Muslim”. Warraq states that the book offers “proof of the abject condition of the Jews in the Maghreb in the Nineteenth Century, destroying along the way a number of myths that were current up to that time.”1 Of course, it understandable why attention is paid to the nineteenth century rather than the period most scholars deem as a golden age for Jews under Islam. As should be obvious, any attempt to describe relations between Muslim and Jews across continents and across millennia is a fool’s errand and one that obviously recommends itself to the Zionist historian.

You can get a sense of what is in L’ Exil au Maghreb: la condition juive sous l’Islam 1148-1912 from the introduction to Jews under Muslim Rule in the late Nineteenth Century, an earlier Littman title that is available in English:

Till the last decades of the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth, the Jews in many parts of the Maghreb – as in most other Muslim lands – were still obliged to live in isolated groups amidst the general population. They resided in special quarters and were constrained to wear distinctive clothing, the carrying of arms was forbidden to them and their sworn testimony was not accepted in any Muslim Court of Law. Their discriminatory status remained that of ahl al dhimma: a ‘protected’ people, i.e. people enjoying the protection of Islam and the Koran, while at the same time subject to the disabilities and humiliations laid down in specific regulations known as the Pact of Omar (634—644 C. E.), which degraded both the individual and the community.2

For Littman, the wearing of “distinctive clothing” was identified with the Nazi policy of making Jews wear a Star of David. There is little interest in showing what Jewish life was like in the Maghreb apart from identifying policies that would not be permitted in today’s enlightened European landscape that allows skinheads to beat up or kill Arab or North African immigrants with impunity.

Littman, who died in May 2012, was a lightning rod for student protests against Islamophobe appearances on campus. Wikipedia reports that when he submitted a proposed speech to be given at Georgetown University in October 2002 on the “Ideology of Jihad, Dhimmitude and Human Rights” to student organizers, a Jewish student requested that he not deliver his lecture.3 He, like Muslim students, felt that charges of sexual abuse against Muhammad were better suited for Pam Geller’s website rather than a major academic institution. Littman attributed the objections of Jewish and Christian students to a dhimmi mentality.

All that being said, it is necessary to draw a balance sheet on the experience of Jews in the Maghreb. If Jews were forced to wear special clothing and were not permitted to carry arms (or ride horses for that matter), what does that really say about what life was like for them in its totality in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya—the four countries that make up the Maghreb (the Arab word for the West)?

To get a handle on Jewish life in what some scholars regard as a golden age, there’s no better place to start than with Shelomo Dov Goitein’s 5-volume Mediterranean Society, a work that attempts to recreate the daily lives of Jews through the examination of the Cairo Geniza documents, a collection of 300,000 manuscript fragments from the storeroom (geniza) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. There were both religious and secular documents ranging from 870 AD to as late as 1880. These were largely of a quotidian nature sought by historians trying to write “history from below”. They were preserved only because they were written in Hebrew, God’s language, and as such could not be destroyed. Essentially, in other words, the geniza was a glorified trash bin.

While reading the full Mediterranean Society is a task relegated to the specialist, I can recommend the 263 page Jews and Arabs: a Concise History of Their Social and Cultural Relations to the non-specialist. In fact I would consider it required reading for those trying to combat Islamophobia on their campus or in their various social movements.

While acknowledging the decline of Jewish economic conditions in the 19th century, a period that Littman and Fenton dwell on (and which requires further analysis), Goitein describes the golden age under Fatimid rule as one with the “absence of oppressive discriminatory economic legislation” that “can be judged from the great variety of professions and crafts followed by the Jews in Islamic countries as opposed to the few trades available to them in Medieval Europe.”

The Fatimid Caliphate was a Berber Shi’a ruled dynasty that originated in modern day Tunisia in the 10th century and that eventually made Egypt its center. It derived its name from the belief that they were descended from Fatima, Mohammad’s daughter. It extended across the entirety of the Maghreb and through the Middle East and was marked by tolerance toward non-Muslims.

Chapter six of Goitein’s book, which deals with the “economic transformation … of the Jewish people in Islamic times” concludes that Fatimid rule was salutary for the Jews at least on economic grounds:

Our survey of the economic conditions and social institutions of the Jews during the first, creative, five centuries of Islam, has shown that there were many agents which worked toward a revival and a gradual unification of the Jewish people inside the Muslim world: the economic rise and entrance of the Jews into the class of business and professional people; commercial and family relations connecting Jews from many Muslim countries; the new institution of the “Representative of the Merchants”; the allegiance to ecumenical and regional central authorities; travel for “the seeking of wisdom” and for pilgrimage to holy places; the application of the same law to all Jews wherever they lived; and, finally, Jewish charity which, like its Muslim counterpart, was not limited by political boundaries. The new economic and social conditions did not fail to exercise a marked influence also on the cultural life of the Jews inside Islam.4

Goitein’s analysis of the status of Jews in early Islamic history was echoed in Richard Hull’s Jews and Judaism in African History. He emphasizes the network of trade that allowed the Fatimids to function as a vast entrepôt linking the far western reaches of the Maghreb with India and China. Key to its success were the Jewish traders of North Africa who became so instrumental that Ali Kilis—a Jew despite his name—became the first vizier of the Fatimid Empire. Hull writes:

Jewish life flourished under the Fatimids, and as we’ve already discovered, by the eleven century the city of Kairwan in modern Tunisia had become a major center of Jewish learning and economic activity. Jewish scholars traveling between Europe and the Middle East rested, studied, and taught in Kairwan. Robert Seltzer tells us that “academies were established by important talmudists and prosperous Jewish merchant families supported Jewish scientists and philosophers” (Seltzer 1980: 345). Egyptian and Maghrebian Jewry flourished, and Jews from the old Abbasid territories began to migrate to Africa.5

However, as a reminder of the need to avoid romanticizing this period, Hull points out that in Fez, a Moroccan city that had a high concentration of Jews, there was a brutal pogrom in 1033 that left thousands of men killed and their wives, sisters, and daughters sold into slavery. But despite this tragedy, Jews remained in Fez and rebuilt it as a major economic and cultural center.

Neither does Goitein romanticize the period. He refers to “ridiculous laws” that required Jewish women to wear shoes of different colors, one white and one black, as well as the code that prevented Jews from riding horses—a law that he likened to Nazis preventing them from owning a car. While undoubtedly there were similarities between the codes of medieval Morocco and 20th century Germany, as Littman was so determined to point out, there was never an “existential threat” to Jews in early times on the scale of Nazi Germany. That only manifested itself in Europe and particularly in countries that regarded the very economic success alluded to above as a threat to Christian interests. When capitalism began to take root in 15th century France, Spain and Britain, the older Jewish trading and financial networks were seen as rivals and worthy of total elimination with the Spanish Inquisition setting the pace.

Probably nothing militates more against facile attempts to make an amalgam of Maghreb Jewish-Islamic relations with Nazi Germany than the phenomenon of “mellahs” of Morocco, the Jewish quarters that bore a superficial relationship to fascist-imposed ghettos.

In 1438 the Sultan created a mellah near the palace after a number of Jews were killed in the aftermath of a rumor that they had placed wine in the mosques of Fez, a city with a large Jewish population. On first blush, they “made the Jewish communities appear as outcasts, isolated from the wider society” in the words of Daniel J. Schroeter.6

But in fact the Jewish quarters were quite porous. Jews were able to move in and out of the mellah and even settle in other cities where there were none. Schroeter writes:

Finally, and most important, the walls of the mellahs of Morocco hardly constituted impregnable barriers to outside influence. The mellah indeed constituted “Jewish space” but not an isolated part of the city. It was a locale from which the Jewish community interacted with the city as a whole, and with the wider world. Finally, it should be pointed out that the term “mellah,” which became the generic term for the Jewish quarter in Morocco, eventually implied not only the physical space of residence but also the Jewry of a given locale, which was the case throughout the small communities in the Moroccan countryside, especially in the south of the country where often no distinctly physically separated residential Jewish quarter existed.7

In other words, they were not that different from the orthodox Jewish enclaves of Brooklyn, N.Y. today.

Moving closer to the present day, there are factors that come into play that partially explain growing tensions between Jew and Muslim in the Maghreb. In the nineteenth century anti-colonial movements took root that drew upon both nationalist and Islamist themes perceived as inimical to the interests of the urban Jew who tended to identify with France, the mother country of Tunisia and Morocco, or Italy as is the case for Libya.

Mark A. Tessler and Linda L. Hawkins point out that France exploited the existing differences between Jew and Muslim, using the time-dishonored technique of divide and conquer. In Algeria France offered citizenship en masse to its Jewish population. Elsewhere, Jews received preferential treatment, including easy access to French schools—a measure that almost guaranteed assimilation into the dominant culture. Tessler and Hawkins write:

Jewish assimilation of French culture was enhanced by the Alliance Israelite Universelle, an independent international educational foundation that operated in North Africa with support from the colonial establishment. Through its extensive network of primary and secondary schools, the AIU spread the French language and culture far more broadly than did elite and settler-oriented French schools. In a few instances, as in Djerba in southern Tunisia, traditionalist elements successfully resisted the incursions of the AIU. In general, however, Jews welcomed the AIU and viewed it as an agent of progress. Together, the AIU and the colonial mission narrowed the cleavage between indigeneous Jews and those of European origin and taught many Jews to accept France as their spiritual home. Thus, they greatly increased the cultural distance between Jews and Arabs. They also produced among many Arabs a view of the Jew as collaborator. Jews were seen as profiting by, and indeed becoming a part of, a political force that most Arabs considered oppressive and humiliating.8

In Algeria where colonial oppression was most extreme, most of the French-oriented Jewish population fled the country after the FLN took power. Not every Jew identified with the imperialists. Henri Alleg, a member of the Communist Party and still living at the age of 92, became a partisan of the FLN and endured torture for his activism. Despite Alleg, some Jews became members of the fascist OAS. This prompted the FLN to issue an appeal to Algerian Jews in 1962:

Some among you have perhaps forgotten that era in order to knowingly involve yourselves in the crimes of the colonialists under the pretext of counter-terrorism in Constantine and Algiers. Recently, in Oran, demonstrations provoked by young hotheads in the Israelite neighborhood took place, followed by fires set in stores belonging to Muslims. These acts are the clearest illustration of how some of you attempt to thoughtlessly align yourselves with the racial policies of the ultras. Will you today make yourselves the accomplices of the backwards colonialists by rising up against your Algerian brothers of Muslim origin? We refuse to believe this, because you know the anti-Semitism of the activists and seditionists of Algeria.

Libya endured the same unfortunate clash between native Muslim aspirations for independence and Jewish identification with the mother country. Maurice Roumani, a Libyan Jew, is the author of The Jews of Libya: Coexistence, Persecution, Resettlement. In a chapter titled Mussolini, Fascism and Libyan Jews, he describes the “warm welcome” the Jewish community in Libya provided to the occupying powers. It includes this startling description of the relationship of Italian Jews to Italian fascism, one that was shared by their brethren in Libya:

When Mussolini first established the nucleus of his Fascist Party Facci di combattimento on March 23, 1919, Jews already made up a significant portion of his support base. In fact, for over one hundred years, Jews stood staunchly behind the Italian Nationalist movement because they traditionally belonged to the bourgeoisie and anti-socialist movements.9

If the contradictions between the Jews of the Maghreb and the less privileged Arab colonial subjects sharpened over such matters, they finally came to a head with the creation of the state of Israel. Like the Mizrahim—the Arab Jews of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt—the Maghrebi Jews poured into Israel out of a sense that conditions would worsen for them through no fault of their own. Despite being thoroughly integrated into their communities in places like Fez that had known a Jewish presence for a thousand years, they left businesses, jobs and friends behind in order to enjoy the “safety” of the heavily armed and racist Israeli state.

The Ashkenazi (European Jews) powers that ruled Israel regarded the newcomers as barely distinguishable from the Palestinians they had just expelled. Israeli journalist Arye Gelbaum wrote:

This is the immigration of a race we have not yet known in the country. We are dealing with people whose primitivism is at a peak, whose level of knowledge is one of virtually absolute ignorance and, worse, who have little talent for understanding anything intellectual. Generally, they are only slightly better than the general level of the Arabs, Negroes, and Berbers in the same regions. In any case, they are at an even lower level than what we know with regard to the former Arabs of Israel. These Jews also lack roots in Judaism, as they are totally subordinated to savage and primitive instincts. As with Africans you will find among them gambling, drunkenness, and prostitution … chronic laziness and hatred for work; there is nothing safe about this asocial element. [Even] the kibbutzim will not hear of their absorption.10

Eventually the Maghrebi Jews were assimilated into Israel like their Mizrahim relatives and now constitute the backbone of the ultra-Zionist Shas Party.

In looking back at the tortured relationship between the Jews of North Africa and their Muslim brothers and sisters, you are left with the conclusion that “progress” is not necessarily tied to the quintessential product of the modern age—the national state. The development of state powers in North Africa and the Middle East have tended to create ethnic tensions that were far less pronounced in the Middle Age when a Fatimid Caliphate had no problem elevating a Jew to one of its most powerful posts.

The spiritual and moral exhaustion of the Zionist state as well as the Baathist dictatorships that exemplified Arab nationalism invite us to consider alternatives that leave the narrow considerations of ethnic and religious exclusivism behind. While the Fatimid Caliphate is obviously no model for our modern world, the 21st century will surely have to evolve in the direction of a polity that evaluates people without regard for their confessional roots. Sectarianism has been a dead-end for most of the 20th century and certainly deserves to be interred for good as we make our way fitfully into the 21st.

Notes:

  1. http://www.jihadwatch.org/2011/09/review-of-paul-b-fenton-print.html.
  2. Littman’s introduction can be found at http://www.dhimmitude.org/archive/littman_jews_under_muslims_19thcent_wlb_1.pdf. Dhimmitude.org is a repository of articles designed to support the idea that Jews suffered oppression under Islamic rule and maintained by Gisèle Littman, David Littman’s widow.
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Littman_%28historian%29
  4. S.D. Goitein, Jews and Arabs : a concise history of their social and cultural relation, Mineola, N.Y., Dover Publications, 2005, p. 124
  5. Richard Hull, Jews and Judaism in African History, Princeton, N.J., Markus Wiener Publishers, 2009, p. 48
  6. The Shifting Boundaries of Moroccan Jewish Identities, Jewish Social Studies, New Series, Vol. 15, No. 1, Sephardi Identities, Fall 2008, p. 155
  7. ibid
  8. The Political Culture of Jews in Tunisia and Morocco, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1, Feb., 1980, p. 60
  9. Maurice M. Roumani, The Jews of Libya : coexistence, persecution, resettlement, Portland, Or., Sussex Academic Press, 2008, p. 14
  1. Meyrav Wurmser, Post-Zionism and the Sephardi Question, Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2005. The author cites Ha’aretz (Tel Aviv), Apr. 22, 1949.

 

 

December 21, 2014

Hanukkah — bah, humbug

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 6:24 pm

An innocent toy connected to a not so innocent holiday

In the same way I used to organize sales for the Socialist Workers Party in Houston in the 1970s, directing people to various grocery stores or college campuses with bundles of the Militant, the Chabad sends its young missionaries to what they regard as fruitful opportunities for converting lost souls. But this Hasidic outreach group is not interested in saving Christians or Muslims. It is people like me, secular Jews, that they are trying to reach, based on their presence in front of my building during Jewish holidays throughout the year.

Yesterday as I was on the sidewalk in front of my high-rise, one of these young men, clad in a dark suit and wearing a wide-brimmed fedora made by Borsalino, approached me to ask if I’d like to have a donut in honor of Hanukkah. (My building is ecumenical with a Christmas tree and a Hanukkah menorah in the lobby in an obvious bid to make the Jewish residents more amenable to chipping in for the staff’s holiday bonus.)

No thanks, I said.

As I was making my way up to my apartment, I wondered what the deal was with the donut. I don’t remember anything like that from my relatively observant household in the 1950s. We lit candles on the menorah, even though I had only the vaguest idea of what that was about—it had something to do with a synagogue lantern miraculously staying lit for 8 days after the oil had been exhausted, while the Maccabees were fighting the infidels but that’s about all I knew.

Out of curiosity, I took a quick look at the ever-so-useful Wikipedia to see what connection there was between donuts and the holiday and discovered: “Fried foods (such as latkes potato pancakes, jelly doughnuts sufganiyot and Sephardic Bimuelos) are eaten to commemorate the importance of oil during the celebration of Hanukkah.”

As I was perusing the article, I began to wonder what role Hanukkah played in the Jewish religion. For young people in observant households, it was our Christmas but a rather unproductive one. The Christian kids had a gaily-decorated tree and gifts galore while we had nothing but a stupid candelabra and a cheap little trinket called a dreidel that you spun like a top, towards what end I had no idea. Once again, Wiki delivered the goods:

Tradition has it that the reason the dreidel game is played is to commemorate a game devised by the Jews to camouflage the fact that they were studying Torah, which was outlawed by the Seleucids. The Jews would gather in caves to study, posting a lookout to alert the group to the presence of Seleucid soldiers. If soldiers were spotted, the Jews would hide their scrolls and spin tops, so the Seleucids thought they were gambling, not learning.

I had no idea that gambling was involved. I feel like Captain Reynault in “Casablanca”.

But of the most interest was the battlefield victory it was meant to celebrate. I had a feeling that in the 16 years of Marxmail, there must have been something that dealt with the legacy of the holiday that was in its way just as bloodthirsty as Passover that celebrated the death of innocent Egyptian children. I was not disappointed. I crossposted this article nearly 3 years ago to the date:

Rethinking Hanukkah: The Dark History of the Festival of Lights

2010 December 1

by J.A. Myerson

OK, so: there’s a civil war. On one side is a group of reformers, who break from divine-right totalitarianism to design a society based on reason, philosophy, comity with national neighbors and religious moderation. On the other is a violent group of devout fanatics who engage in terrorist warfare in their quest to institute religious law that includes ritual sacrifice and compulsory infant genital mutilation. Which side are you on?

And if the second group defeats the first, returns the land to theocratic despotism, institutes a program of imperial conquest and declares the abolition of secular thought, isolating itself from the rest of the civilized world for a century, do you celebrate their victory?

Easy answers, surely, if this scenario were situated in the Muslim world of the 21st century. But, starting tonight, a great many Jews the world over, including—or perhaps especially—secular American Jews, will light candles and sing prayers in observance of Hanukkah, which commemorates the historical incident aforementioned. The sectarian factions were traditionalist Jews and their Hellenized brethren. The location was Jerusalem. The year was 165 BCE.

A decade earlier, Antiochus IV Epiphanes had assumed rule of the Seleucid Empire, which stretched farther east than Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire, from modern day Saudi Arabia all the way to what are now Turkmenistan and Pakistan. Antiochus appointed Jason—probably in reward for a bribe—to the governorship of Judea, then a client state of the Seleucids, and, in 167 BCE, Jason did away with Jewish law and rebuilt Jerusalem in a Greek model. This included banning genital mutilation and Jewish sacrifice, permitting Jews to marry gentiles and instituting an internationalist program exemplified by participation in the Olympic Games.

To be sure, Seleucid Judea, being an imperial protectorate, was hardly the democratic polis par excellence; widespread corruption and capricious political leadership combined with a measure of jealous authoritarianism hardly constitute the virtuous city. Nevertheless, a secular, multicultural state is subject to civic reform in a way that dictatorial theocracy is not, and the latter is precisely what the Maccabees sought to establish. (The Maccabees are routinely called a “rebel army,” but really this is a romantic and obfuscatory term; “terrorist militants” is a well chosen substitute, and the one we use for their contemporary analogues).

Judah Maccabee, whose father Matthias had had to flee Judea after killing a Hellenistic Jew for worshiping before an idol, served as the chief of that fundamentalist army, his brothers Jonathan and Simon occupying the upper lieutenancy. Their holy war featured the demolition of pagan altars in the villages, the ritual cleansing of the temple and compelling the circumcision of children. Their terror campaign worked and, in 165 BCE, after just two years of secular law, the Maccabees overtook Judea, establishing the political reign of the Hasmonean dynasty.

Not content with the victory, Judah continued the war—when was the last time holy war ended with the conquest of but one land?—and expanded the boundaries of Israel, setting a nationalist-expansionist precedence whose reverberations we (leave alone the Palestinians) continue to feel. Between Judah’s regime and the subsequent administrations of his brothers, the fanatical Maccabee Israeli army conquered the port of Joppa and the fortress of Gezer and razed the Acra in Jerusalem. Hasmonean rule lasted until 64 BCE, when the Romans moved in and Herod the Great became King of Israel—for more on that, see the gospels of the New Testament.

*   *   *

Judaism, as much as any other world religion, can boast an extraordinary history of secular thought. Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Isaiah Berlin, Christopher Hitchens, Tony Kushner—who can think of better Jews than these or imagine, without anguish, a world devoid of their contributions? My own family’s ancestry is Jewish and we are ourselves devoted to secularism and the pursuit of a Judaism in the image of those named above.

Nevertheless, growing up, we lit the candles and sang the Hebrew prayer my mother could remember from her childhood (but—how Jewish—cannot translate to English). My father, for his part, is fond of proving that he can sing “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” in Yiddish—his father escaped an Orthodox home at age 13, never to return—not that the rest of us are in any position to verify his rendition’s accuracy. Latkes (with sour cream and apple sauce, naturally), gelt (lousy chocolate, sure, but it’s shaped like money!) and dreidels came out once a year, in order, I’m sure I always knew, to make Jews feel better about not having Christmas, which is a big deal to the goyim (so big that the Myersons celebrate it too, and more enthusiastically than the Jewish consolation prize, to boot).

What a piercing irony, that secular Jews have taken to comforting ourselves in the yuletide season by celebrating the destruction of the Hellenistic Jewry, whose legacy we inherit, at the hands of fundamentalist fanatics who wouldn’t even consider us Jewish. With each lunatic attempt to expel Palestinians from their homes to make room for Orthodox settlers from Brooklyn, with each story of a Hasidic woman confined to a medieval lifestyle of bondage and repression born of superstition and uncritical faith, with each exposure of depravity and fraudulence in the communities who make the most exuberant claims to piety, it becomes clearer: the time has come for us to proclaim loudly that we have a better tradition. Let us celebrate the Hellenistic Jews and their struggle, rather than the violent extremists and their victory.

The prayer Jews are expected to say on the first night of Hanukkah (the only one my mother knew to teach us) translates thus: “Blessed are you, our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with his commandments and has commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.” Need anyone mention that the greatest Jewish tradition is not one of following any commandments whatever, but rather of investigating, examining, discovering? The secular Jewish tradition holds that it is through those processes that one learns truth, not through the revelation of commandment. Cast off that prayer.

The klezmer ditty, though, can stay. “One for each night, they shed us with light to remind us of days long ago.” Let us take this opportunity to remind ourselves of what really happened in days long ago, and commit ourselves to reversing it.

*   *   *

The author is obliged to mention Josephus’ The Wars of the Jews along with the biblical apocrypha contained in the first and second book of the Maccabees, which provide the history presented here. For additional reading, please see relevant works by Christopher Hitchens and James Ponet, both in Slate.

[Hitchens and Ponet are both worth reading as well.]

November 24, 2014

The crisis over the Temple Mount

Filed under: Jewish question,Palestine,zionism — louisproyect @ 8:10 pm

The Temple Mount

As someone with a morbid fascination with rightwing Zionism, I generally tune in to the Zev Brenner radio show on WMCA, a Christian AM talk radio station that turns the mike over to the Jews on Saturday night. Brenner is a hard-core Likudnik who provides a platform for Israeli officials, Dov Hikind, Alan Dershowitz and other such scum.

Last Saturday night his guests were Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a New Yorker who moved to Israel, and Israeli Ambassador Danny Ayalon. Riskin made the theological case for usurping Palestinian rights to their portion of the Temple of the Mount and Ayalon made the political case. As you might know, Israeli provocations have led to mounting violence including the attack on a synagogue that left 4 Hasidic rabbis dead.

Since this is a call-in show, I fully expected his regular listeners to voice their approval for the Zionist attempt to gain full control over a site holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Was I shocked to hear the first 5 or 6 callers depart from the script. It went something like this:

Brenner: Shmuley from Borough Park, you’re on the line.

Shmuley: So what did you expect when you went looking for trouble with the Arabs? The torah makes clear that the temple cannot be restored until moshiach returns. None of the rabbunim in Israel support this new policy. Riskin speaks for nobody except himself. It will only make things worse.

Shmuley had this right. The Chief Rabbinate in Israel, made up of ultra-orthodox Hasidim called haredi, are opposed to the expansion of Jewish control. An Israeli news service reported:

Chief Sephardic Rabbi (Rav) Rabbi Shlomo Amar has published a call to believers not to ascend to the Temple Mount. The call appears under the heading “avoid ascending to the Mount and touching its edge,” which was the ruling about Mount Sinai in the Book of Exodus before the Ten Commandments.

Rav Amar’s declaration was co-signed by former Chief Sephardic Rabbi Rav Eliyahu Bakshi Doron; Rav Shalom Cohen, Head of Porat Yosef Yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem, Old City Rabbi Rav Avigdor Neventzal, and Kotel Rabbi, Rav Shmuel Rabinovich.

It followed in the footsteps of declarations by Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook and Rav Avraham Elkana Shapira, both Chief Rabbis and heads of the Zionist flagship yeshiva, Merkaz HaRav in Jerusalem, who expressly forbade ascending the Mount. Rav Zalman Melamed, Dean of Beit El Yeshiva, is also against it. All hareidi rabbis forbid it.

“It is a holy obligation to make you aware that it is completely forbidden by halakhah to ascend to the Temple Mount, and this prohibition has always been a simple and clear one, and this thing has been forbidden by all of the Great Ones of Israel.

This is all about politics, not religion. Israel wants to ethnically cleanse Jerusalem of all Palestinians and seizing control of the Temple of the Mount is a key tactic toward that end.

It is important to understand that this issue has been around for decades now and was the main trigger of the Second Intifada. On September 28, 2000 Ariel Sharon led a Likud delegation accompanied by hundreds of riot cops to the Temple of the Mount. Palestinians reacted with outrage and the uprising lasted for several years until it burned out.

This most recent outbreak began last month when Rabbi Yehuda Glick began leading Israeli groups to the Palestinian section of the Temple of the Mount. Glick is one of the most outspoken proponents of Israeli control of the site, demagogically claiming that he wants to build a multidenominational prayer site. Glick grew up in the USA and as such is typical of the most fanatical Zionists who were born here.

Here is Glick making the case for Jewish hegemony using a forked tongue:

On October 29th a Palestinian named Mutaz Hijazi caught up with Glick after he made a speech at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center and pumped four bullets into his chest. Glick survived and the assassin was killed. Afterwards Palestinians nearby Hijazi’s home mounted a violent protest. It is also likely that the automobile assaults on Jews in Jerusalem by Palestinians have also been a response to the Temple on the Mount crisis.

As tensions continued to mount, the attack on the Hasidic rabbis might have been expected. You might be surprised to learn that I have a Facebook friend who was sympathetic to Glick. What might surprise you (and certainly surprised me) was what a Jewish friend (Lungen) said in response to her Timeline post: “KAHANE WAS RIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Screen shot 2014-11-24 at 2.31.20 PM

The woman who invoked Kahane, a fascist who was assassinated by an Egyptian after giving a speech in New York City, is a symbol of where Israel is heading. She grew up in Woodridge, New York, my hometown, and became intensely religious as a teen even though her family was secular. Although I didn’t know her growing up, my mother was fairly close to her. I suspect that she became an orthodox Jew after the fashion of Bob Dylan but unlike Dylan stuck with it. On her Facebook page, there are links to the late Shlomo Carlebach, a Hasidic rabbi who became famous for his folk singing renditions of Hasidic tales in the 1960s. His synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan became a haven for lost souls, those secular Jews who were alienated from American society and who just as easily might have joined the Hare Krishnas instead of becoming religious Jews.

The last thing I want to do is confront this Woodridgeite with my views, who has remained my FB friend despite my daily postings of pro-Palestinian links. If things weren’t so polarized, I’d remind her that Carlebach said things quite contrary to Kahane:

After the Six Days War, I was one of the first people to walk into the Old City of Jerusalem. I walked up to every Arab, our cousins, and kissed them. I went to the top politicians in Israel and said, “We want to live in peace with the Arabs. As much as we need an army to make war, we need an army to make peace. Give me five thousand free plane tickets to bring holy hipp’lach [hippies] from San Francisco to here. We’ll go to every Arab house in the country. We’ll bring them flowers and tell them that we want to be brothers with them.

This was at a time when illusions about Jewish-Arab amity still lingered on. If there’s anything that has become obvious since Netanyahu began running things, it is that Kahane is the guiding philosopher of Israel today, not any “peace now” hippies. The latest sign of that is the announcement that Israel has defined itself as a state in which religious identity trumps democracy, moving it closer to becoming a full-fledged Kahanist entity as the NY Times reported today:

JERUSALEM — The Israeli cabinet on Sunday approved contentious draft legislation that emphasizes Israel’s Jewish character above its democratic nature in a move that critics said could undermine the fragile relationship with the country’s Arab minority at a time of heightened tensions.

The promotion of a so-called nationality law has long stirred fierce debate inside Israel, where opponents fear that any legislation that gives pre-eminence to Israel’s Jewishness could lead to an internal rift as well as damage Israel’s relations with Jews in other countries and with the country’s international allies.

The vote on Sunday also highlighted political fissures within the governing coalition amid increasing talk of early elections. The bill, a proposal for a basic law titled “Israel, the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” passed 14 to 6, with two centrist coalition parties opposing it. Parliament still has to approve the bill for it to become law.

This vote clearly resonates with Sheldon Adelson’s rejection of democracy as a defining trait of the Zionist state (not that the nakba was ever consistent with true democracy). Adelson, an American gambling casino magnate who has given millions to rightwing causes in the USA and Israel, was even too extreme for Abraham Foxman as the Daily Forward reported:

Recipients of casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s largesse are dodging questions about his latest salvo against Israeli democracy.

Adelson, a leading Republican donor, has long stood out among American Jews for his conservative views. He may have stepped farther outside of the American Jewish mainstream than ever before, however, in statements at a conference in Washington on November 9 in which he seemed to write off Israel as a democratic state.

“I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy,” Adelson said. “[God] didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state… Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state — so what?”

While Anti-Defamation League national president Abraham Foxman has slammed Adelson’s remarks, leaders of groups that have taken money from Adelson have not responded to requests to address his statements.

“Mr. Adelson is certainly entitled to his views,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Foundation and former president of the Jewish Funders Network. “The question is whether he seeks to impose those views on the not-for-profits he supports, and whether he seeks to determine their educational message.”

A spokesperson for Birthright Israel, whose group gets $32 million a year from Adelson, did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, or the Israeli American Council, all of which have received major funding from Adelson.

Mort Klein, national director of the Zionist Organization of America, which Adelson also supports, suggested that Adelson’s comments may have been an attempt at humor. “I know Sheldon for maybe 15 years,” Klein said. “This is Sheldon Adleson humor, sarcasm, an attempt at humor… Of course he’s a fervent supporter of democracy.”

It will be interesting to see how Israel will fare over the next decade or so as its ethnic cleansing and fascist-like policies deepen and become more and more obvious to world opinion. When more and more secular-minded Jews in the USA become convinced that supporting Israel is no different than supporting apartheid South Africa, the momentum will shift toward BDS and other actions designed to isolate and punish the Zionists. Sooner or later, Israel will rely on the support of Christian fundamentalists, the arms manufacturers and other sectors with a material interest in seeing America’s aircraft carrier in the Middle East survive. I only hope I live long enough to see the ship torpedoed and sunk.

October 16, 2014

High Holy Days

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 6:54 pm

Over the past month I have had multiple occasions to partake in Jewish high holiday rituals even though I am what Isaac Deutscher called a non-Jewish Jew.

My first encounter was a Rosh Hashanah dinner at the home of my wife’s former student, a relatively observant Iranian émigré. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. Unlike January 1st for non-Jews, our New Year has much more religious significance. It marks the beginning of ten days of introspection culminated by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. I don’t remember much about Rosh Hashanah from my early years in a Jewish household but the service involves blowing a ram’s horn—the Shofar.

I wore a yarmulke throughout, a skull cap that is nowadays called a kippah—a word that I never heard many years ago when I was observant myself, mostly a result of parental pressure than anything else. The etymology of yarmulke is interesting. It means “rainwear” and comes from the Turkish word yağmurluk. Yağmur, pronounced yahmur, means rain, the “luk” is a suffix that in this instance means “intended for”. This is something I will have to mention to my wife’s nephew from Istanbul who came to the dinner with us. He had a bit of a grin on his face when he put the yarmulke on. Wait until he finds out that it was a Turkish cap, not necessarily a Jewish one.

In all my years growing up in a Jewish household, we never had a Rosh Hashanah dinner. Our host explained that this was customary in Iran although I suspect that it was something that also occurred in Jewish households more orthodox than ours. Our host led us in a ritual that consisted of taking bites from dishes that had some special significance like an apple dipped in honey, a pomegranate, and the head of a fish. After each food was sampled, a prayer was recited. It has been many years since I recited a Hebrew prayer but the opening words, common to nearly all of them, starts “baruch atoh adenoai elochaynu…” words affirming that God is the Greatest, tailored to the occasion upon which they are being invoked. I remember them all these years even though nothing else I learned in Hebrew school sticks with me.

A week after the dinner I went to Shaaray Tefila, the Reform Synagogue on Second Avenue and Seventy-Ninth Street, on Saturday afternoon for Yizkor services as I have done ever since my mom died in 2008. This is part of Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday that is the most solemn for Jews. I always go with an old friend from high school who first suggested that I join him back in 2009.

Yizkor services are for remembering a dead relative. At Shaaray Tefila, you get a mixture of Hebrew prayers that have been around for hundreds of years and modern verses composed by men and women with a flair for the moribund. The verses are essentially a statement about the fleetingness of life and the need to take consolation in the Lord, all in all evoking the Book of Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

When I was a religion major at Bard College, I was convinced by a professor’s claim that Greek Stoicism influenced the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes. From The Enchiridion by Epictetus:

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things. Thus death is nothing terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death, that it is terrible. When, therefore, we are hindered or disturbed, or grieved, let us never impute it to others, but to ourselves—that is, to our own views.

No matter how many times I hear such sentiments, it is hard for me to slough off the prospects of mortality, now much more immediate than ever as I approach my seventieth birthday dealing with one old man’s disorder or another, like hypertension. My old friend has a tougher row to hoe, a year into Parkinson’s disease. Death is “nothing terrible” when you are 30 or so but when you hit your seventies, you feel like you are walking in a minefield. They say that religion is mostly about getting a person to be reconciled to death through the promise of an afterlife. That’s little consolation to a hard-core materialist like me. The main thing I get out of prayers for the dead is a feeling that I am paying respect to my mom, who never found a way to make me more observant, even in the weak tea Reform Judaism she upheld.

Shaaray Tefila was in the news recently. The NY Times interviewed rabbis across the nation from Reform to Orthodox to see how they were handling the Gaza controversy. In almost all cases, a decision was made to not talk about it at all for fear of pissing off young antiwar Jews or old and well-to-do Zionists. The former rabbi at Shaaray Tefila weighed in:

“There is the sense that the ability to criticize Israel has been diminished because of the war, because of the atrocities that Hamas perpetrates among its own people, and because Israel needs our support since the international community is so overwhelmingly anti-Israel,” said Rabbi Jonathan A. Stein, a recently retired senior rabbi at Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan.

“The easy sermon for a rabbi to give this year will be on the rise of anti-Semitism across the world. That is a softball,” said Rabbi Stein, who is also the immediate past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents the Reform movement. “The more difficult sermon to give will be one that has any kind of critical posture.”

In keeping with the general thrust of the article, Stein made sure not to say anything demonstrating atonement for the deaths of women and children in Gaza.

That was a subject very much on my mind as I walked past the Chabad missionaries parked in front of my high-rise for the past few days celebrating Sukkot, a holiday that though proximate to Yom Kippur is tied to another Old Testament legend, the exodus of Jews from Egypt. Supposedly they lived in a kind of grass hut called a sukkah that serious Jews build for the occasion. They look like a tree house but sit on the ground. The holiday calls for eating your meals in a sukkah but hardly any of the Jews I grew up with built a sukkah let alone dined in them.

For some reason the Lubavitcher Hasidim, who are to the Chabad as Mormons are to their mandatory missionary service, are gung-ho on this holiday and implore apostates like me or simply secular Jews to take part in a ritual that involves waving a palm frond, the so-called lulav. The ritual is inspired by this verse in Leviticus:

On the first day, you must take for yourself a fruit of the citron tree, an unopened palm frond (lulav), myrtle branches, and willows [that grow near] the brook. You shall rejoice before God for seven days.

Of course, Leviticus has all sorts of strictures that might strike a sensible person as odd, especially when the punishment for violating them is death by stoning:

Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee.

Two days ago, the last time the missionaries showed up in front of my building, one asked me if I was Jewish—the start of a pitch to get someone to wave the lulav. I told him that I used to be Jewish, but no longer. He reassured me that I would always be Jewish as long as I had a Jewish mother. Here’s how the rest of the conversation went:

Me: So what defines a Jew, his bloodlines or his deeds?

Him: (Pretty much ignoring my question) You will always be a Jew. It is in your soul.

Me: If I kill someone, will that mean I am still a good Jew as long as I wave the branch and eat Kosher?

Him: Yes, your soul will suffer but in god’s eyes you will be Jewish.

That was enough theology to last me until next year. Back to the materialist grindstone.

October 9, 2014

Jews and the left

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 3:48 pm

A few days ago I received this query:

Mr. Proyect,

     I’m seeking some reading suggestions about the historical involvement of jewish folks in socialist organizations/parties etc, everywhere really but especially in the U.S. Do you have any suggestions? I’d appreciate any you had! Really just curiosity on my part, although I am a socialist.

As is my customary practice, I will reply to this publicly.

I would start with Paul Buhle’s scholarship. He co-edited a book titled “The Immigrant Left in the United States” with Dan Georgakas, a collection of articles that includes his own “Themes in American Jewish Radicalism” that is about 90 percent complete on Google books. Just do a search on the book’s title and you will find it.

Next I would look at Irving Howe’s “World of Our Fathers”. It has been many years since I read it but I am fairly sure that this study of the Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side will have a lot of material that you are looking for. Howe was a member of the Trotskyist movement in the USA who moved in a rightwing social democratic direction in the 1960s but I strongly recommend “World of Our Fathers”. I also recommend his memoir on life inside the Trotskyist movement titled “A Margin of Hope”. It is very much an examination of how Jews got involved with the left in the 1930s.

Speaking of the 1930s, I would also recommend the documentary “Arguing the World” that interviews Howe as well as a number of the CCNY students who became Trotskyists or Stalinists during the Depression. All of them were Jewish. The film can be seen on Amazon.com for a small rental fee.

Next there is Vivian Gornick’s “The Romance of American Communism”, an excellent study of the lives of ex-members, many of whom were Jewish. It has been many years since I read the book but consider it must-reading for trying to understand the CP experience.

It would also be worth looking at Walter and Mirian Schneir’s “Invitation to an Inquest”, a book on the Rosenbergs that mostly sought to refute the claim that they were Russian spies. Subsequently the Schneirs had to accept conclusive evidence that Julius was (but not Ethel) was a spy.  That does not invalidate much of their findings that the trial was a mockery of justice. The book has lots of interesting material on how Jews got involved with the CP. Like many Jewish members of the CP, the Rosenbergs remained culturally Jewish even as they adopted the atheism that goes along with Marxist politics. This is true of myself as well.

There’s also a magazine called Jewish Currents that has its origins in the Communist Party. (http://jewishcurrents.org/) The journal was edited for many years by Morris Schappes, who died in 2004 at the age of 97.

Moving a bit forward in time, there’s Mark Rudd’s article “Why were there so many Jews in SDS”. (http://www.markrudd.com/?about-mark-rudd/why-were-there-so-many-jews-in-sds-or-the-ordeal-of-civility.html). There’s also a chapter from the book “The Ballad of Ken and Emily: or, Tales from the Counterculture” titled “Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Growing Up as a New Left Jew” that should be of interest. (http://www.voicesfromtheunderground.com/articles/Abbie_Jerry.pdf).

That covers the American left. There’s also lots of interesting material about Jews and socialism in other countries. Fortunately Isaac Deutscher’s essay “The Non-Jewish Jew” can be read online at: http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/amersocialist/deutscher01.htm. It would probably be worth tracking down Deutscher’s book “The Non-Jewish Jew” that has that article plus others that deal with Jews on the left.

Rosa Luxemburg and other Jews are discussed in Jack Jacobs’s book “On Socialists and ‘the Jewish Question’ After Marx”. Corey Robin, a Brooklyn College professor with radical politics who is also observant, brought Jacobs’s scholarship to my attention on FB, writing “I read the manuscript version of one of Jack Jacobs’s chapters and I found it totally riveting. So much new archival information in this book (especially about Fromm and Marcuse and their relationship to Israel; a lot more too but I was really surprised by these revelations). Will be of major interest to those interested in either the Frankfurters or in Jewish Studies.” He was referring to this book: “The Frankfurt School, Jewish Lives, and Antisemitism”, which might not be of interest to you but deserves to be mentioned in light of Corey’s recommendation.

Finally, there are many articles on “Jews, Marxism and the Worker’s Movement” at the Marxism Internet Archives (http://www.marxists.org/subject/jewish/) that should be useful to you. Finally, the Wikipedia article on Jews and the left should open up other possible reading material: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_left

Let me conclude with a few words on my own experience.

I am named after my grandfather, who died before I was born. He was the chairman of the Workman’s Circle in Woodridge, NY, a Jewish fraternal association that provided assistance such as insurance, burial costs, etc. to its Yiddish speaking membership. While not revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination, it was nominally socialist. I can’t be sure of this but my grandfather was also supposedly the chairman of the local Socialist Party.

I had very little communication with my father growing up but as I was about to go up to Boston to work with the local branch of the SWP in1970, he became sufficiently alarmed to warn me about “the commies”—as it turned out he was very unhappy that I had broken with Zionism. He said that he was a communist himself a long time ago. All that amounted to was a brief membership in the American Labor Party after WWII.

I grew up in the Borscht Belt, where many Jews from my father and grandfather’s generation joined the SP or the CP. I wrote about this phenomenon in an article titled “Borscht Belt Reds” that you might want to take a look at: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/jewish/borschtbelt.htm

Last year I interviewed a woman in her nineties who was very much in the heart of Jewish radicalism in my hometown. You can watch the video here: Jewish leftist chicken farmers of the Catskills. (http://louisproyect.org/2013/01/01/jewish-leftist-chicken-farmers-of-the-catskills/).

I also put together a video on Fred Baker that might be of interest. He was a red diaper baby who had a career both as a pornographer and as a legitimate filmmaker. His “Lenny Bruce without Tears” is his most important work. Fred’s father opened up the Second Avenue Delicatessen after winding down his involvement with the CP. Fred never joined but was a lifelong radical. The video is here: http://louisproyect.org/2012/01/05/the-house-he-lived-in-conversations-with-fred-baker/.

Finally, my own experience is fairly typical of baby boomers that got involved with the left in the 1960s. By the time I was ready to join the SWP, I had pretty much stopped identifying as a Jew. I had residual Zionist leanings but they disappeared when I discovered that Israel supported the war in Vietnam. Over the years I have written a lot about Jewish culture because I think it is great, ranging from Larry David to Harvey Pekar. I would not be surprised that in 20 years or so being Jewish will mean being orthodox as more and more Jews become assimilated. Ironically, the two things that are accelerating that process is the savagery of Israel and the general acceptance of Jews into mainstream society wherever they live. Sooner or later secular-minded Israeli Jews will abandon ship and move to countries that are less oppressive, including—ironically—Germany, the nation that is regarded in some circles as the eternal foe of the Jew. In the final analysis, the Jews have more to worry about those who are supposedly their friends, like the Christian Fundamentalists whose Zionism rests on the notion that the Second Coming of Christ will rest on the universal acceptance of Jesus as redeemer.

 

October 7, 2014

Me and my great-uncle

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 2:16 pm

I know absolutely nothing about the dude except that he was my maternal grandmother’s brother and a soldier in the Russian army. With his EuroAsian features that I obviously inherited, I have to wonder if some woman on that side of the family got raped by a Cossack in the nineteenth century.

greatuncle

September 19, 2014

A Gift to Birobidzhan

Filed under: art,Jewish question,Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 7:05 pm

fiks receptionOpening night reception for A Gift to Birobidzhan

fiks photoYevgeniy Fiks

For people who have been following the Unrepentant Marxist for the past few years, you are probably aware that I am a big fan of Yevgeniy Fiks, a post-Soviet Conceptual Artist I interviewed in 2012 and whose last show on the USSR’s mixed encounter on Black people I wrote about earlier this year.

Although Fiks is decidedly left-of-center, his art is not in the socialist realist tradition to say the least. His strategy is much more subversive. By “flanking” his subject, he defies pat interpretations of sexuality, race, imperialism, the former Soviet Union, and other topics that could inspire boring and didactic treatments.

Although I love everything that he does, my favorite “work” by Fiks was his “Lenin for your library”, a sly assault on corporate stupidity and humorlessness that was described on the Winkelman Gallery, where he has exhibited in the past, as follows:

100 copies of “Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism” by V.I. Lenin were sent out to the addresses of World’s major corporations, including Gap, Coca-Cola, General Electric, and IBM among many others. In an enclosed letter, it was stated that the book was a donation to the corporate library. Out of 100 copies, 14 were accepted and “thank you” letters were received. 20 copies were returned together with letters stating various reasons for rejection, including a particular focus of the library or their policy not to accept any gifts or donations from private individuals. The fate of the remaining 66 copies remains unknown.

It was the same spirit of playfulness, which might be described as a David Letterman gag geared to those who have read Tristan Tzara, Fiks conceived of A Gift to Birobidzhan, described in the initial publicity as follows:

In 2009, artist Yevgeniy Fiks originated a project called A Gift to Birobidzhan. Established in the Soviet Union in 1934 as the Autonomous Jewish Region of the USSR, Birobidzhan was for a time considered a rival to Israel. Although located in a remote area near China, Birobidzhan caught the world’s imagination. In 1936, two hundred works of art was collected in the United States by activists as the foundation for the Birobidzhan Art Museum. The collection included works by Stuart Davis, Adolf Dehn, Hugo Gellert, Harry Gottlieb, and William Gropper among others. The collection was first exhibited in New York and Boston, and in late 1936, it was shipped to the Soviet Union. The collection never reached its final destination in Birobidzhan. By late 1937, Stalin had purged the leadership from Birobidzhan at which time the collection vanished into government or private hands.

Taking this microhistorical narrative as his starting point, Fiks invited 25 contemporary international artists to donate works of their choosing to the existing museum of Birobidzhan. After initially agreeing to exhibit and accept the works into its collection, the museum in Birobidzhan conditionally retracted the offer, in part to avoid confrontation with a conflicted past and the fact that Birobidzhan now consist of a small Jewish population. Granting Fiks the role of steward, the artists agreed to let Fiks store the collection until it could reach its intended destination.

A Gift to Birobidzhan of 2009 was an attempt to repeat and complete — seventy years later — the gesture of “a gift to Birobidzhan” in 1936. As of 2014, it remains still a rejected gift and a “state-less collection,” packed in boxes in Fiks’ apartment in the Lower East Side. A Gift to Birobidzhan evokes the utopian promise of Birobidzhan — a Socialist alternative to a Jewish state — as a point of departure for discussions on broad 20th century’s impossible territorial politics, identity, national self-determination, and a common “seeking of happiness.” At present, we find that many of the same questions from the early 20th century have resurfaced again.

For those outside of New York City, you will be able to take a “virtual tour” of the exhibit here. Here’s a work that I kept coming back to:

VyDaVy, “JEWISH LUCK” (еврейское счастье), two 25”x32” laminated prints. Ink on paper, gold leaf, 2009

Jewish luck is Jewish luck. It is black or white. It comes and goes. But there is always something inside that stays forever

(If you would like to take a “real tour” of the exhibit, contact me at lnp3@panix.com and I will put you in touch with Yevgeniy.)

Finally, I should state that the show had a particular resonance for me as a Jew and as someone who has become particularly inflamed over ancillary questions. As a firm believer that Ukraine was to Russia as Ireland was to England—as Lenin once put it—I found the Kremlin demagogy about the existential threat to Jews posed by EuroMaidan obscene. Almost as obscene as the increasingly rabid defense of Israel’s war on Gaza and the McCarthyite attacks on pro-Palestinian professors, all in the name of defending “the Jewish homeland”. As I told Yevgeniy at the show, the Jews would have been much better off in the sparsely populated Birobidzhan than in Palestine, where carried out a wholesale expulsion of the indigenous population.

Eleven years ago I reviewed a documentary titled “L’Chayim Comrade Stalin”, long before blogs had been invented. I reproduce my article below along with a trailer for the film that can unfortunately not be seen online in all the usual places like Netflix. My advice is to track down a DVD from a research library. They don’t even have one in the Columbia University library. Good luck!

L’Chayim Comrade Stalin

posted to http://www.marxmail.org on February 3, 2003

When he was a young boy, Yale Strom noticed two “sidukah” (charity) boxes in his father’s shop. One was the omnipresent blue Jewish National Fund box intended for Israel that my own father kept in his fruit store. The other was targeted for Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region that Stalin decreed in 1932. His curiosity about the lesser-known Jewish homeland became the seed for his documentary “L’Chayim Comrade Stalin,” now showing at the Quad Cinema in NYC.

Based on interviews with current and past residents and archival material, including a altogether charming Soviet feature film of the period promoting settlement, the film not only sheds light on an under-documented aspect of Stalinist rule, it also inspires a variety of reactions to the “Jewish Question.” (Strom utilizes a graphic of these two words writ large in red repeatedly through the film as a kind of leitmotif.)

Most of the older veterans of Birobidzhan make clear that the project tapped into youthful idealism. Combining a belief in communism with a desire to create a cultural homeland for the Jews, they came to the Siberian hinterland with great hopes. Despite the fact that anti-Semitism prompted Stalin to create the settlement in a geographically remote area, the settlers did not necessarily view this as a kind of internal exile. Stephen Cohen points out eloquently in his biography of Bukharin that Stalin’s despotic “revolution from above” did not preclude a kind of egalitarian zeal from bubbling to the surface. Despite repression, many people felt that they were on a great adventure to build a new society, including the Jews who came to Birobidzhan.

It was not only Russian Jews who came to this remote, mosquito-infested region that was closer to Korea than to Moscow. IKOR, an international organization of Jewish Communists, actively recruited people in more or less the same manner as people were recruited to construction brigades in Nicaragua in the 1980s. A widow of an US electrician recounts the arduous journey that brought them to the desolate outpost with nothing but their clothes and a generator that her husband intended to bring on-line for the settlement. Like a 1930s version of martyred engineer Ben Linder who died from contra bullets, he understood that in the cold, rainy Siberian wilderness, electricity could dramatically improve the quality of life.

At its peak, Birobidzhan only included about 45,000 Jewish settlers. Most were poorer Jews from rural Byelorussia or the Ukraine, who were trained to cobble shoes (like my mother’s father) or make hats. The Soviet film shows a bearded Jew struggling and finally succeeding to yoke two oxen to a plow. This image evokes a long standing theme that falls under the general rubric of the “Jewish Question”. There is a tendency among early Zionist theorists and Marxists alike to explain Jewish weakness and isolation as a failure to develop the full range of skills and occupations found in society as a whole.

The absence of Jewish farming in particular spurred not only the agrarian colonizing efforts in Birobidzhan, it also led to similar efforts in my own Sullivan County in the 1800s. Farming experiments were an expression of the “Enlightenment” tendency in Judaism that also produced colonies in Argentina, New Jersey and Palestine. The very earliest farmers who settled in Palestine were not Zionists as much as they were agrarian socialists.

After the USSR allowed Jews to emigrate, most of Birobidzhan’s citizens flooded into Israel. Now there are only 17,000 left. Strom’s interviews with those who stayed behind are among the film’s most poignant moments. One elderly woman named Rivkele explains that she only speaks Russian nowadays and has almost forgotten her Yiddish, the official language of the Jewish Autonomous Region. She is also married to a Russian, as are her children. One gets the impression that such Jews are rapidly become assimilated in the same fashion as Jews elsewhere in the world, including the USA. Rather than having to worry about the secret police arresting a man for toasting a baby at a circumcision ritual for coming into the world as a Jew (an event that the documentary details), they have to worry more about the inexorable process of unfavorable demographics and the natural tendency of a secular society to erode particularistic customs and religious beliefs.

Although the economic changes in the post-Communist USSR have been largely negative (one interviewee spits out that “you can’t eat freedom”), they do include a cultural latitude that allows the remaining Jews in Birobidzhan to study their customs, re-familiarize themselves with Judaism and–most intriguingly–to learn Yiddish. Just as I studied Hebrew at the age of 11 and 12, these young Jews now study Yiddish, a dying language. During a Q&A session after the film, Strom hinted at the class/cultural divide between Hebrew and Yiddish. His own father had become an activist of the Hashomer Hatzoir, a left-leaning Zionist group that favored Hebrew, a language that presumably would sever all ties to the ghetto where Yiddish first arose. Meanwhile the Jewish Bund, a socialist organization that disavowed Zionism and linked Jewish emancipation with the emancipation of the working class in general, adopted Yiddish as its official language. They saw this language, with all its underdog associations, as the appropriate medium for a people seeking to abolish the underdog status once and for all.

I would only add that I regret not having learned Yiddish instead of Hebrew growing up. Not only is that language infinitely more expressive, it is rooted in the lived experience of the Jewish people rather than an artificial construct to recreate a Biblical state that some scholars, including many in Israel, believe never existed.

Yiddish, a mongrel language, perhaps expresses best the true cultural legacy of the Jewish people. As a people without their own distinct territory, they mix with and absorb local influences as well as influencing the gentile population that surrounds them. This has always seemed much more attractive to me than the idea of separating oneself from the unbeliever and erecting fences to maintain that purity.

Russian Jews have always embodied this kind of rich dialectical interpenetration. Recently I discovered that despite many flaws in Arthur Koestler’s “The Thirteenth Tribe,” there is still ongoing research that partially confirms his original thesis, namely that the Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia descended from the ancient Khazar kingdom in Turkey. Today, the evidence seems to point in the direction of a link not between all Jews in this area but a subgroup called the “Mountain Jews”, about whom I had knew nothing beforehand.

From www.khazaria.com, we learn about the cultural aspects of the Mountain Jews:

Occupations. According to historian Ken Blady, the Mountain Jews used to be agriculturalists and grew such crops as grapes, rice, tobacco, grains, and marena (madder). In later years most of the Mountain Jews were forced to get involved in business, so they became traders, tanners, jewelers, rug-weavers, leather-workers, and weapon-makers. A small number of Mountain Jews remained farmers as late as the 20th century.

Cuisine. The foods of the Mountain Jews are outstanding. I have personally eaten the Mountain Jewish versions of chicken shashlik (shish-kebab) and dolma (stuffed grape leaves), and I liked the way the food was prepared and the vegetables and sauces that were used with the meats. There are many very good Mountain Jewish and Persian restaurants in New York City and one of the Persian restaurants is called “Khazar” after the Persian name of the Caspian Sea.

Hospitality. The Mountain Jews were generous to guests, just like their Caucasian neighbors. Ken Blady says that this hospitality probably originated with the Jews themselves: “As one of the oldest inhabitants in the region and the people who brought monotheism to Caucasian soil, it may well have been the Jews who wove the biblical patriarch Abraham’s practice of hachnosat orchim (welcoming guests) into the fabric of Daghestani culture. Every guest was treated as if he were personally sent by God. In every Jewish home a special room or hut covered with the finest carpets was set aside for guests. Every host would… lavish on them the finest foods and spirits….” (p. 165-166)

Music and dance. Instruments used by Mountain Jews included the tar (plucked string instrument) and saz (long-necked fretted flute) (Blady, p. 166). Saz is a Turkic word. Blady also says that there were “many talented musicians and wonderful storytellers among the Mountain Jews” (p. 167). Furthermore: “The Mountain Jews were graceful in their movements, and were excellent dancers…” (p. 168).

Courage and independence. Like the Khazars, the Mountain Jews were “skilled horsemen and expert marksmen” (Blady, p. 166). They loved horses and nature. Mountain Jews knew the value of self-defense and carried and owned many weapons (especially daggers).

Dress. Mountain Jews wore clothing like that of their neighbors in the Caucasus.

Charity. Blady explains that all Mountain Jewish towns had a “house of kindness and charity” which helped poor and sick people.

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This kind of cross-culturalism is truly inspiring. It is tragic that the holocaust not only destroyed the lives of millions of Jews, who lived in a similar kind of cultural gumbo, it also unleashed an experiment in ethnic purity that has brought nothing but misery to the people it displaced and an embrace of militarism and chauvinism that were alien to traditional Jewish society, either secular or fundamentalist.

These, at least, are my reactions to Yale Strom’s first-rate documentary. What others are stirred to think will largely be a function of the beliefs that they bring with them when they see the film. At the very least, his film will act as a catalyst on the mind and on the heart. Highly recommended.

Swarthmore website on the Jewish Autonomous Region: http://birobidzhan.swarthmore.edu/

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