Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 11, 2013

Why the Ruling Class Feared Camp Kinderland

Filed under: anti-Communism,Counterpunch,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 12:31 pm
Counterpunch Weekend Edition October 11-13, 2013
Learning the Spirit of Rebellion at Commie Camp

This is a follow-up to the July 1947 PM article about my hometown titled “Utopia in the Catskills” that appeared on the September 30 CounterPunch. Like the PM article, the documentary “Commie Camp“ that showed at the Tribeca Theater in New York last June celebrates the leftist subculture of resort areas within geographical and financial reach of working class Jews in the 30s and 40s—in this instance the children’s summer camps favored typically by those working in the garment district.

Among the powerful trade unions that existed in that period, none had a more openly Communist leadership than the furrier’s union. I have vivid memories of visiting relatives in Flatbush who worked in this trade in the mid-50s when I was 10 years old or so. I innocently tuned in “Amos and Andy” on their television (we did not yet have one of our own at home) and was instructed by the man of the house, a furrier, to turn it off since it was racist. It was the first time in my life that anybody had ever acknowledged that racism existed, let alone spoke against it.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/10/11/why-the-ruling-class-feared-camp-kinderland/

September 28, 2013

Utopia in the Catskills

Filed under: Catskills,farming,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

In assembling still photos to be included in a video I am doing on a trip up to my hometown in the Catskills in August, I could find nothing on the net that showed Woodridge in its prime. A visit to the Sullivan County Historical Museum in Hurleyville turned up the intriguing first page of a PM article dated July 20, 1947 with the title “Utopia in the Catskills”. I eventually tracked down the full print version at the New York Historical Society that I scanned in for the results below. PM was a leftist newspaper with heavy Communist Party participation that was published out of NYC from 1940 to 1948 and funded by Chicago millionaire Marshall Field III, a scion of the Montgomery-Field department stores. They don’t make millionaires the way they used to.

In a nutshell, the article was as much of a find for me as the Ark of the Covenant was for Indiana Jones. It told me who I was and where I came from.

The title of the article refers to the strong left sympathies in the village and the importance of co-op’s. My grandfather Louis, who died around the time that this article was written, was president of the Workman’s Circle that is referred to in the article as follows:

The dominating political view among the people of the Workman’s Circle was socialist. The Circle carried out its idealistic aims along three lines of endeavor: 1. Mutual aid in time of need and misfortune. 2. Education for membership. 3. Organization of workers’ co-operatives.

There are lots more that I can say about this article but do not want to interrupt the flow with my observations. As you read through it, you can find my elaborations on both personal and historical matters by clicking various links, starting with a longer introduction on Woodridge and the left here.

PM July 20, 1947

Utopia in the Catskills

Story and Photos by Croswell Bowen

railway_stationThe station platform at Woodridge, which opens on to the town’s main street, is extra large to accommodate summer population of 30,000

Refugees who wanted to be farmers made Woodridge, N.Y., into a prosperous farm-resort town with five co-ops

West of the Hudson River from Poughkeepsie and Highland, beyond the Shawangunk (pronounced shongum) Mountains toward the Alleghany Plateau is the rocky, hilly country of Tom Quick, the Indian killer, and the now virtually extinct Irish tanners, The New York, Ontario, and Western Railroad threads its way among the foothills and mountains of the Catskills and these days its Diesel locomotives sound foghornlike warnings when they come to road crossings and towns.

Twice a day passenger trains stop at the town of Woodridge (population 300 in winter, 30,000 in summer), which looks like most of the other combination farm and resort country towns which sprinkle the Catskill Mountains.

Actually, Woodridge is unique among the neighboring communities, because it possesses five highly successful consumer co-operatives, owned and operated by their members. Three of the five comprise one large intercounty co-operative association. All five are loosely connected with national co-operative groups which furnish over a billion dollars in services and goods to more than 2,500,000 member-owners throughout the United States each year. In practice, the Woodridge co-ops follow along the lines of the Rochdale pioneers. The prices are competitive, that is, in the same range as nonco-op establishments. But the co-op members realize savings through a system of rebates or dividends paid out of what in nonco-op businesses is chalked up as profit and loss to the consumer. In the co-ops the profit is returned to members after small sums are set aside for reserve. Most of the citizens of Woodridge have small chicken farms and take summer boarders. If you were such a citizen, would, in Woodridge, have your farm and buildings insured at the Associated Co-operative Insurance Companies.


You would stop to buy your groceries from the Mountain Resort Owners’ & Farmers’ Co-op_Inc. If you needed extra beds or mattresses or window shades or garden furniture, this co-op would also supply you.

After this, you would drive your pick-up truck to the feed division of the Inter-County Farmers’ Co-operative Association Inc. for a few sacks of chicken feed. You might stop and chat with young Joe Cohen, the manager of the feed co-op. about poultry and end up taking a gallon of a new kind of disinfectant.

The friendly village

In another building, you’d drop off a crate of eggs at Inter-County’s egg co-op where eggs are processed, packed, shipped, and sometimes put into cold storage. Upstairs in Inter-County’s farm machinery co-op, you’d look over the new poultry equipment and other accessories, and perhaps end up buying a new tire. Leaving town, you’d remember you needed some gas and stop again at the grocery co-op and fill her up.

joe cohen new

Lou YoungThis is Louis Young, the father of SDS leader Allen Young who later on became a pivotal figure in the gay liberation movement. More on Allen here.

egg candlingThe women candled eggs while the men packed them. Not everything was up to date in 1947. It took Betty Friedan to shake things up.

packing new

packing 2 new

When you drive west through Ellenville past Spring Glen on Route 209 a sign tells you that you are entering Woodridge, The Friendly Village. This is not a Chamber of Commerce exaggeration. The summer population of the town, although mostly Jewish, includes a diversified group of nationalities. There are Negro entertainers and household servants, Puerto-Rican, Moslem, Indian, Cuban and Lascar [Indian sailors, an archaic term] hotel workers. A few of the old-time Irish settlers from the Irish tanner days are still there. Everybody gets along. Anybody can check into any hotel regardless of his race or creed.

Max Schwartz, owner-proprietor of The Actors Inn, a restaurant and bar, boasts that “nobody who lands in this town goes hungry or bedless if he’s broke. And we help him get a job if he’s willing to work.” We’re supposed to be a kosher restaurant,” jolly Mrs. Schwartz, his wife, says, “but we got ham for the gentiles and, my heavens, I’ve even had to learn how to get up curry and rice with lamb for the Moslems. And very, very hot stuff for the Puerto Ricans. We’re a regular United Nations restaurant.”

sam katzowitz

Sam Katzowitz, Mayor of Woodridge, sums up the town’s inter-racial  equilibrium somewhat more wryly. Recently, he was asked if the town elections shaped up along the conventional Republican and Democratic lines or were other factors present?

ethel katzowitz

In the Majority

“If you have in mind,” he said, “is there any anti-Semitism here, the answer is no. And, for a very simple reason. Jews in Woodridge are in the majority. But we treat the gentiles pretty good. I guess you might say we’re mostly all liberals.”

“Like liberals everywhere else,” he adds, “we don’t necessarily agree. We have our arguments, too.”

Political discussion in Woodridge is at a very sophisticated level. In any store, on any corner, you can hear talk of the relative merits of the Socialist Party or Communist Party in the trade union movement. The “Russian question” touches off explosive viewpoints.

The character of the town, the co-ops, and the high incidence of liberals were not indigenous to up-state hill country. This Utopia in the Catskills has evolved from a chain of events that occurred in Europe as well as locally during the past 50 years.

During the last half of the past century, the land around Woodridge (or Centerville station, as it was called until 1915) was inhabited mostly by Irish immigrants. The iron-muscled men of Galway and Cork and Mayo and Killarney cut down the tall hemlock trees and hauled them to tanneries which constituted the main industry of the Catskills.

The pay was bad and the work was hard. To eke out a living, they tried to do a little farming, a cow, a pig and some chickens. But the soil is rocky and sometimes solid rock is only a few inches below the top soil. Toward the turn of the century the tanning industry had changed and the hemlocks mostly cut down. The early Irish settlers died off and the young folks went to the cities.

During the 90s, Jews fleeing the terrible pogroms taking place in Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and the Balkans, were arriving in the United States. Many had been farmers in the old country and wanted to be farmers in the new country.

The land in the Catskills was cheap. Much of it was abandoned. Some say the Polish and Lithuanian Jews bought the land because it reminded them of their native countryside. The deciding factor, however, was more probably that the prices of the farms suited what little money these early refugees had salvaged from their old-world homes.

Many of the early Jewish settlers were helped with money and advice by the Baron De Hirsch Fund. De Hirsch, a wealthy Hungarian railroad builder, believed that Jewish colonization was the answer to the terrible pogroms sweeping Europe. He also helped settle Jews in Palestine.

Unite the workers

Another influence among the Jews who settled in the region of what is now Woodridge was the Workman’s Circle. (http://circle.org/) This Jewish organization, called in Yiddish Der Arbeiter Ring, had been formed on New York’s Essex Street in the flat of Sam Greenberg, a cloakmaker. His aim was to “unite by a ring of friendship every worker in the land and with many links unite the workers of every land.”

The dominating political view among the people of the Workman’s Circle was socialist. The Circle carried out its idealistic aims along three lines of endeavor: 1. Mutual aid in time of need and misfortune. 2. Education for membership. 3. Organization of workers’ co-operatives. There were “Sunday schools” for children; dramatic and choral groups for elders.

But the settlers around Woodridge as well as in other parts of the Catskills did not prosper. The few natives left in the region did not welcome the strange-speaking newcomers.

The settlers found it as hard to farm the land as the Irish who’d perished before them. To help make ends meet they began taking in boarders. Mostly, the Jewish farmers took fellow Jews in from New York City. This was logical. They had friends in the city and these friends had other friends.

Jews who came into the farm homes in the Catskills found respite from the toil of the New York sweatshops. They knew they would find no discrimination. And further, the meals at the farmhouse were in compliance with the dietary laws of their religion. In this way the region became one of the great resort centers of the East.

Almost prohibitive

About the time of the first World War, the new farmer-hotelkeepers discovered they couldn’t get any fire insurance on their places. If a farmer took in one hoarder even for one week, be was charged a “hotel rate” for every room in his house, regardless of whether he rented it out. The hotel rate made the farmers’ insurance almost prohibitive.

The result was that the farmer-hotelkeepers organized their own insurance co– operative and on April 1913, the first policy was written. Each member put up a certain sum of money and at the end of the year, they were assessed a sum of money to pay as premiums. The insurance Department of the State of New York was puzzled by the new kind of insurance company and for a time the organizers, Philip Thomas and Victor S. Kogan had a hard time operating within laws which had been put on the books to cover oldline insurance companies that worked entirely for profits.

But the company grew and grew so that today it has 35 million dollars worth of insurance in force and 2300 policy-holders. On October 31, 1940, George N. Jamison, Superintendent of the Department of Insurance of the State of New York, addressed 1000 policyholders of the Associated Co-operative Insurance Co., the first sizeable policyholders meeting he’d ever heard about. “This,” he said, is a real policyholders’ meeting. We in the Department know your directors have rendered service to the community, one which in holders could go nowhere else to obtain. The co-operative deserves the praise for performing this function.

The insurance co-operative at Woodridge owns its own fireproof building today. Its 24 directors are elected for terms of three years. It saves its policyholders from 20 to 80 per cent of the cost of insurance in the nonco-op companies. The next big co-operative in Woodridge was organized in 1938. Twenty members put up $25 to form the Inter-County feed and grain co-operative. Today there are 400 members and the co-operative does business in Sullivan, Ulster and Orange Counties. New members are accepted after a probationary period of six months “to see if the hi suer is co-operatively minded and to make sure he is nut a disrupter.”

As the feed and grain co-operative grew its scope has been enlarged to include a farm machinery co-operative and an egg co-operative.. The gross business is a million and a quarter dollars. Feed and grain accounts for $1,100,000; farm machinery for $50,000; and egg storage and marketing for $50,000. Most of the members are poultry men. Lately, many GIs with Gl loans are becoming members.

The most recent co-operative to come into being in Woodridge is the Mountain Resort Owners and Farmers’ Co-operative. It was organized in 1944 when scarce hardware and grocery items were turned on the black market and the hotelkeepers had to pay premium prices or do without merchandise. Two hundred and fifty shareholders, each owning one share, put up $25. A building, railroad siding and warehouse were purchased for $4000. They are worth $10,000 today. Last year the gross business was $55, 000. This year it will gross $75,000. Gum sells for three cents a pack, motor oil for 15 cents a quart and $1.25 window shades sell for 81 cents. Its officers are a president, secretary-treasurer, and a board of directors of nine. A paid full-time manager handles the actual operation of the business. We asked all the people in key jobs in the co-operatives how they accounted for their success. All said virtually the same thing: “We try to sell the best merchandise at the lowest prices. We stick strictly to business and avoid political quarrels that might divide and disrupt us.”

July 31, 2013

Lost interview with Frank Krasnovsky

Filed under: anarchism,Jewish question,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 5:26 pm

(Received from Paul Buhle who is indicated as PB in the interview below.)

This is an interview made in Seattle, c.2000, with a leader of the local SWP going way back (his wife left him in the 60s and formed the Freedom Socialist Party, which still exists), it was incomplete because I loaned the tape to a friend who was going to do a full transcription and… lost it.

Among subjects of interest: the anarchist and Yiddish connections in LA, the paucity of Jews among steelworkers (he claimed to be one of about 3 in the US), local Trotskyist activities, and so on


Tape 1 (Sides 1-2): Family history and Yiddish background in Los Angeles, general remarks about Jewishness and SWP

Tape 2: (Sides 3-4) Attempts by Trotskyists to put revolution on the agenda, versus the Habonim-Zionists, Communists, Social Democrats; Yipsels versus Norman Thomas and struggle within the Socialist Party. Shift to Seattle and struggles in the 1940s of the 1940s for racial equality and other issues.

Tape 3 (Sides 5-6) Backstairs struggle of union in later years and the nature of the steelmaking trade; struggle to maintain the Seattle SWP, especially leadership role of Clara, Dick Frazier and himself. Surviving McCarthyite period, door-to-door organizing activities. Attempting to recruit CP members, especially after 1956 revelations.

Tape 4 (Sides 7-8)  Trotskyists and the Cuban Revolution; the degeneration of theory in the SWP, in regards the Russian situation, and the role of James Cannon in later years. Other groups including the Cochranites. Failure to recruit from and relate to the New Left.

Tape 5 (Sides 9-10) Attempts to reorganize in tune for the 1960s. Problem of Clara becoming a leader precipitating fight within branch on semi-valid grounds of Dick Frazier. Recalling the campus anti-war movement in Seattle with Frank’s son one of the leaders, and George Arthur the other leader.

Interview with Frank Krasnowsky (Yiddish folksinger and theater impresario, Seattle), with Paul Buhle May, 1996

PB: Let’s talk about your parents

FK : My mother was a Jewish and Yiddish anarchist, my father was an old Wobbly named Harry Paxton Howard. My mother was born in 1896 in Byeloruss, came to the US around 1904; my father comes from an old old American family, probably connected..Harry told her, probably connected to General Howard. He was probably from a wealthy family, but his father rebelled against his family and became a hermit–we used to look around and see if some hermit was his father–and my father was a Wobbly agitator in Chicago. I was named for Frank Little, the Wobbly lynched during World War One.

PB: Were your mother’s family political at all?

FK: Some were religious, some radical. My grandfather  had a falling out with my mother when she married Harry Paxton Howard. She was already an atheist anyway. He actually disowned her for a while.  But they were very fond of each other anyway.

She went to work in the garment trade at 8, she could pass for 12. The family was in a rough situation and she was the oldest daughter. He also brought his own mother with him,  she lived to be 110. She died about 1945, just before he died. He still couldn’t speak English, she told people she would learn it pretty soon. Who figures at 60 and living in a Jewish community that she would have to learn a new language? But she could read and write in Yiddish, which gives the lie, as far as I’m concerned, to stories about Jewish girls not being able to read. They learned to read and write because their parents snuck it in.

One of the things I’m reading about in Yiddish is that girls used to get these novels. There’s almost no record in the middle of the nineteenth century of novels in Yiddish, they were published in just one edition. A lot of these stories were romance written by women, and just disappeared.

My mother’s parent’s came to escape the pogroms. I don’t know what her father did in Russia. Here he ran a fish store. He was lower middle class, like most of the Jewish business in Chicago. I don’t know what part of Chicago.

PB: Your father and mother met in Chicago?

FK: Probably thru the IWW or the garment workers. My mother knew Emma Goldman and went to meetings of the anarchists there. They had a nice torrid little romance as most people had at a young age. They also went to the theater together. When they left the US in 1917, to help the Russian revolution, she was already 21. That’s how I wound up with my name, Krasnowsky. They wanted to travel thru Sibera at the time of Kolchok’s Army. But after they arrived in Japan, where my mother was pregnant [they couldn't travel further]. They met hundreds of other Jews trying to get back. My father learned Russian on the trip over. They used my mother’s name because they couldn’t get in with the name Howard.

When they got to Yokohama–they stayed in Japan for 4 years, I was born there–and my father edited RUSSIA TODAY or NEW RUSSIA. He translated it from Russian to English, a straight Soviet publication.

PB: As Wobblies, they had communist leanings?

FK: This was THE revolution. It took a little while [before they become disillusioned]. Emma Goldman told  Helen Richter, my mother’s friend: do what you want to do. No one was persecuting the anarchists as a whole.

PB: Your father?

FK: He soon had a deep hatred of the Communists in China. And he wrote for the PEKING REVIEW, he was politically at the left wing of the Kuomintang if anything. He would have been in China until 1939 or 1940. We were in Japan until 1922, I was born in 1921, and then he was deported, after the Japanese longshoremen’s strike. He was always convinced that the Japanese were spying on him.

Then he went to Shanghai, where he and my mother didn’t get along–he was pretty much of a snot–and my mother came back to the States. My grandfather had to put up $1000, that was 1923. About the same time as the Japanese earthquake, which is why we got in.

This a story about bureaucracies, she came in to Vancouver Island about a month early. They looked at it and said, you’re not supposed to come in, you’re on next month’s quota. So they finally made a decision to send her back to China and have her come back. She had never become a US citizen and as an anarchist was opposed. But then the earthquake hit and they had to use all the ships for that, so they put her up in a hotel for the month.

Then we came back to Chicago and stayed back with my grandfather. I remember he was very fond of me. My mother worked in the garment industry. Then she was blacklisted in about 1927, the big garment strikes. At the same time some doctor said there was something wrong with my sister’s heart. So we came to Pomona, actually Ontario, California, where there was an attempted to build an anarchist colony. There we stayed for a couple months before my mother decided it was easier working in a factory. These people had a farm and they tried to make it over, but they had no equipment, it was muddy….I remember living there and taking the bus to school. Then we came to Los Angeles and stayed with cousins. That would be 1927. We lived in Boyle Heights.

Some of our relatives were CPers, some were very religious, but my mother was a sort of a center person, people grouped around her. Her anarchism wasn’t political, my sister said, she just loved everyone. But she read every anarchist writer. She was very brilliant. Both of my mothers’ sisters, Dora and Sadie, grouped around her and took her politics, those who stayed in Chicago did not.

Los Angeles had one of the top leaders of the anarchist movement, Tom Bell, and a Yiddish anarchist group, the Kropotkin circle. These people were all in the Arbeter Ring. We always had a socialist environment, it was a family sort of thing. The split with the Communists came earlier in LA.

It was strongly social democratic but one of the strongest branches was the anarchist branch, #413. They had a camp, and I went to the camp every year. I didn’t have any money but everyone supported one another. Everyone was a parent, all the children were close.

PB: Was there Yiddish content?

FK: Always. During  the year we went to Yiddish school after public school, and in the summer we had Yiddish classes.

PB: Did you ever resent having  to go?

FK: I accepted it. I didn’t like the Yiddish school after school, you wanted to play, but it wasn’t really that bad. My Yiddish didn’t get too good but I could read and write Yiddish years later. And we had some very fine teachers. I guess in a sense it was a kind of babysitting for parents who worked in the garment industry.

During the thirties, they were bringing in some very fine people [new from Europe]. To get into the US you had to have a job. Most of them were socialists, and some of them were real professors.

We also put on plays, a lot of things that were really well run. I remember the “Gericht,” the court, the kids would judge whether the person was guilty. It was a case of you decide and what should the punisment be? A kid writes on the toilets, so what to do? We decided to make him wash the walls.

PB: What was political there?

FK: We had the Young Circle League, the YCL. It became the Young People’s Socialistic League in the ‘thirties. There we had had a steady education on socialism. We had read the MANIFESTO, SOCIALISM UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC, these were basic for us kids in highschool. And we had an old social democrat that used to talk to us all the time.

The children were not treated like something in the way. I can remember sitting at a Mayday camp. If you had something to say, people would listen patiently, as if you were one of the adults. My mother would be very favorable if she liked it, she could also disagree. We were all involved in some kind of politics.

There were wars going on in the world, there were problems in schools like the ROTC. Our branch had an SWP [Trotskyist] entry, and Dave Weiss [later a trotskyist theoretician] was our counselor at camp. We loved him because he would always tell wonderful stories. We would lie there in bed at night hoping he would read and he wold tell us a story about his life or read from DUNT ESK, or NIZE BABY or by Abe Gross. I used one of his stories a lot later as an audition piece. He also spoke a beautiful Yiddish.

PB: How much was Yiddish used?

FK: The kids didn’t speak to each other in Yiddish but they spoke to the adults in Yiddish. We also put on plays in Yiddish. There was also a difference of about 5 years. The older group all spoke fluent Yiddish, ours was more on the zubrokene: we were the young ones, they were the old ones. They stayed in the Young Circle League til they were 23 or 24. Our whole group went into Yipsel, around 1937. And we all left with the Trotskyists.

PB: Had you been aware of another world of semi-Yiddishsts on the Left? Were they different in class or any social way.

FK: We knew the Communist world. They weren’t different at all socially. But we were not compromisers, even the social democrats in Los Angeles had a rule that you couldn’t vote for capitalist parties whereas the Communists were supporting Roosevelt and Democrats. But my mother used to speak about the “Roosevelt Anarchists.”

One of the big political influences on me was my mother, that’s probably the reason I was more tolerant than others. The CP had control of the ILGWU here, for a while, and others decided to put up a fight. We didn’t like Dave Dubinsky either, but Rose Pesotta came out to organize the anarchists against the Communists. We were sitting in the house, and there was this big discussion, against the compromise of Dubinsky and of the Communists. And after the whole discussion my mother leaned forward and said, about Dubinsky, “David means well.” She never attributed the policy to something personal. She thought the same thing about the Communists, but they were worse to us than Dubinsky.

What happened in the Soviet Union more and more bothered us. The story of the Stalin Hitler Act made us cry, even though Trotsky had predicted it. The Anarchists could say I told you so, but we were hoping that it wouldn’t happen.

PB: What was the size of the Communists compared to social democrats or anarchists?

FK: The Communists were probably 3 or 4 to one of ours. The Arbeter Ring just have had 500-800 people and the IWO might have had 2000 or more.

Every one one of the kids in the Young Circle League

were socialists of all kinds; but we did have cousins and aunts that were in the CP. They were very defensive [toward us].

PB: Let’s talk about the questions of Jewishness in later years, in the Socialist Workers Party

FK:  We had to make an American party, that was one of the things that hung too heavy, that didn’t help it too much. That was involved in the actual Marxist analysis of the ethnic question, [fear of] being a middle class group. They ignored, somehow, the idea that this working class was really a proletarian group [of ethnics].

One of the things in the SWP is that they looked–there’s a statement in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO that the middle class would come over the provide leadership to the working class–they looked at the Jews in that sense. Middle class Jews in the SWP were always treated like they were great intellectuals, but the working class Jews never got anywhere. Quite a few of them were in the factories. So the SWP was oriented to workers in general and not to Jewish workers, and toward blacks in a different way; but the funny thing was that so many of their members were Jewish, but that they were not oriented to the Jewish community

In Seattle we had a branch of about 30, and unlike other branches, it was not predominantly Jewish, but on the executive board 4 our of 5 people were Jews.

PB: What does that tell you?

FK: The Jews did have a big socialist background. The big Israeli attack against communists and Marx is really against the diaspora Jews, not Marxism; all these years you didn’t know you were supporting an anti-semitic? Also the vanguard, the messianic idea, was important: you grew up believing that you had to make it, to have an important career. All of that was part.

When Comedy Went to School

Filed under: Catskills,comedy,Film,humor,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 4:15 pm

Although I am sure that just about everybody will be as enchanted by “When Comedy went to School”—a documentary on stand-up comedians of the Borscht Belt that opens today at the IFC in NY—as me, I have a particular connection to the film as someone who lived in the midst of the resort area in its heyday. The film will give you much more of an insight into this yeasty slice of Jewish life than any fictional film like “Dirty Dancing” can.

A WSJ interview with Robert Klein (it is behind a paywall but can be read through Google News on a search for the article’s title “Borscht Belt, Behind the Scenes”), the film’s narrator and veteran stand-up comic who launched his career in the Catskills, mentions him working at the Alamac Hotel as a lifeguard. My mother was very close to the family who owned the hotel in my hometown and connected me to Kenny Gottlieb, a busboy who worked there. Kenny, who was an opera-loving Amherst student, turned me on to Weiser’s bookstore in N.Y. that was owned by his uncle Sam. Weiser’s was devoted to occult religions and as such was a shrine for Beat poets who went there to gather material on Plotinus, Gnosticism, St. John of the Cross et al. It was after my own visits to Weiser’s in my teens that I decided to become a religion major at Bard College as a latecomer to the beat generation. (Through Google’s long tentacles, I learned that Kenny died in 2009 after flying his Cessna into a hillside in Napa, California.)

Despite the Borscht Belt’s rural location, the “townies” were always absorbing New York’s cultural influences from the young men and women who worked in the hotels. It was at the New Roxy, my friend Eli’s hotel where Rodney Dangerfield used to perform as Jack Roy, where I made contact with Don the lifeguard. I have vivid memories of chatting with Don, who looked like James Dean and screwed half the women who stayed there over the summer, about what he was reading at the time. He turned me on to Genet. I was also turned on to Panamanian Red that I bought from Freddy the waiter. It cost $15 an ounce back in 1961 and one shared joint could put four people on their ass.

Screen shot 2013-07-31 at 12.05.58 PM

You get a flavor of the affinity between the comedians who worked there and the burgeoning bohemian scene from Sandy Hackett, who reminisces about his dad Buddy in the film. It turns out that Buddy and Lenny Bruce, who both got started performing in the Catskills, were roommates in New York. If you knew anything about their respective public personae, it is a little bit like hearing that Charlie Parker and James Brown were roommates. The two comedians lived in a cheap studio apartment in the Village, where they covered the floor with sand in which they planted a beach umbrella. Women were invited up to smoke a joint and enjoy a faux day at the ocean.

For me one of the great pleasures of the film was watching the 87-year-old Jerry Lewis and the 91-year-old Sid Caesar holding forth on their early days in the Catskills in the 30s and 40s. By 1958, the two were king of the motion picture and television respectively. If you went to a premiere of a Martin and Lewis comedy, you’d expect to stand on a line to buy tickets that went around the block. Around the same time Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows” had a bigger audience share on NBC than Seinfeld. For my money, Caesar’s show was ten times hipper than Seinfeld’s (Seinfeld’s career was also launched in the Catskill’s but at a time when it was on the decline.) It was on the “Show of Shows” where I saw him leading the cast in a parody of what was obviously a Kurosawa movie long before I knew that Kurosawa existed.

Screen shot 2013-07-31 at 11.45.12 AM

At this point, it is worth including the panels above are from my abortive memoir done with Harvey Pekar even though his widow has warned me that I do not have her permission to do so. The shrill and vindictive woman obviously understands nothing about “fair use” laws.

Mel Brooks was among the writers for “The Show of Shows”. Some years later Woody Allen wrote for Sid Caesar TV specials. Both men got started in the Catskills. In a Wikipedia article on Borscht Belt humor, Brooks is included as an example of puns, one of the four dominant characteristics:

  • Bad luck: “When I was a kid, I was breast-fed by my father.” (Dangerfield)
  • Puns: “Sire, the peasants are revolting!” “You said it. They stink on ice.” (Harvey Korman as Count de Money (Monet) and Mel Brooks as King Louis XVI, in History of the World Part I)
  • Physical complaints and ailments (often relating to bowels and cramping): “My doctor said I was in terrible shape. I told him, ‘I want a second opinion.’ He said, ‘All right, you’re ugly too!’” “I told my doctor, ‘This morning when I got up and saw myself in the mirror, I looked awful! What’s wrong with me?’ He replied, ‘I don’t know, but your eyesight is perfect!’” (Dangerfield)
  • Aggravating relatives and nagging wives: “My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.” (Dangerfield). “Take my wife—please!” (Henny Youngman); “My wife drowned in the pool because she was wearing so much jewelry.” (Rickles); “My wife ain’t too bright. One day our car got stolen. I said to her, ‘Did you get a look at the guy?’ She said, ‘No, but I got the license number.’” (Dangerfield) “This morning the doorbell rang. I said ‘Who is it?’ He said ‘It’s the Boston strangler.’ I said ‘It’s for you dear!’” (Youngman)

I don’t care much for the sexist junk about wives but all the rest of it rings a bell and was certainly an influence on my own sense of humor. The Wikipedia summary, however, does not mention what for me is the crowing element of Borscht Belt humor: self-deprecation. Although he was only part of the Catskills in the eleventh hour, Woody Allen was a master of self-deprecation. A typical Allen joke from this period: “I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”

Some say that brevity is the soul of wit. For me it is self-deprecation. While I am the target of deprecators near and far, I always beat them to the punch. In order to make my posts on the most abstruse topics palatable to the average radical, I try to thrown in a few jokes like the chopped meat surrounding a pill given to a pet dog.

When I was in the early stages of writing the text for the memoir I did with Pekar, I told him that it would be filled with jokes. I said that it would be in the spirit of the stand-up comedians I used to hear when I was a teen in the Catskills. Too bad it will never see the light of day except for these “fair use” samples. That’s her loss financially and mine creatively. But most of all, it is a loss to her late husband’s legacy that matters less to her than her petty feud with me.

May 3, 2013

Voices of the Mizrahim

Filed under: Film,Jewish question,zionism — louisproyect @ 8:35 pm

In doing background research for an article on the Jews of the Maghreb (North Africa), I learned of the existence of a 2002 documentary on Iraqi Jews titled “Forget Baghdad: Jews and Arabs – The Iraqi Connection”. Among Jews, the term Mizrahim (Hebrew for Oriental) is applied to those from North Africa and the Middle East, in contrast to the European Ashkenazis who constitute the ruling elite of Israel.

In some ways the term that makes the most sense is Arab Jews, one that is embraced by Ella Shohat, an Iraqi Jew who is featured in “Forget Baghdad”. Her story, and the story of four elderly Jewish ex-members of the Iraqi Communist Party, is a reminder of the destructive character of Israel’s creation. Not only did it represent a nakba (disaster) for the Palestinian people, it also forced a people deeply rooted in their respective Arab countries to become assimilated into a culture that regarded them as inferiors.

While by no means an attack on the Zionist entity, the 1964 Israeli film “Sallah Shabati” does a fairly decent job of dramatizing the plight of new Mizrahim immigrants. You can rent the DVD “Forget Baghdad” from Netflix while “Sallah Shabati” is a bit harder to get your hands on (I took a copy out from Columbia University’s film library, but Amazon.com has new copies for sale at $15.64). After seeing them side-by-side, you can only conclude that the Mizrahim would have been better off where they came from, a claim that obviously applies to the Ashkenazim as well.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/05/03/voices-of-the-mizrahim/

October 7, 2012

Jewish high holidays

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 8:12 pm

For most of last week an odd looking truck was parked in front of my building with loudspeakers blaring music nearly nonstop. It was pretty much identical to the one that showed up in Bahia, Brazil some time ago:

These Lubavitcher Hasidim really have no intention of converting gentiles to Judaism. Their Chabad outreach activities mostly target prodigal sons. I say sons since the teenage boys who go out as missionaries are not really interested in talking to Jewish women who have lost their religion, as R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe put it, but men like me.

At least three times last week I was accosted by one of the boys, who were young enough to be my grandsons, and asked, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” The first two times I walked past without an acknowledgment but on the third pass I replied mostly out of curiosity to see how he would react: “Ethnically but not religiously.” He followed up: “Was your mother Jewish?” In Judaism, this qualifies you to be a Jew. This means that someone like the late actor and exemplary liberal Paul Newman did not qualify because his dad was Jewish rather than his mother. Does all this sound kind of stupid and backward? Guess what, you’re right.

Establishing that I had the right bloodlines, the youth—fresh-faced, wearing braces on his teeth, and a broad-brimmed Borsalino on his head—invited me to wave a date palm (lulav) in one hand and a citron (etrog), a sort of overgrown lemon, in the other while he recited a prayer. I begged off and went on my way for a jog in Central Park.

This is one of the key rituals of the high holiday of Sukkot and here’s an expert explaining it:

This sort of instruction was what I heard from my rabbi for the three or so years leading up to my bar mitzvah in 1958. Half our time was spent learning Hebrew but only phonetically. You could read a bunch of Hebrew words (going from right to left on the page) but had no idea of what you were saying. For us boys, this was necessary in order to recite our Bar Mitzvah speech, a torture for most especially me since it involved not only memorizing the words but using the proper “tune”. I can’t carry a tune to save my life (although I have a great ear.) Here’s pretty much what I went through back then in front of the Synagogue:

The Coen brothers, having went through all this nonsense themselves, made a typically snide movie called “A Serious Man” that was almost enough to drive me back into the arms of Judaism but not quite enough.

The other half of our instruction consisted of learning about Jewish holidays much in the manner of the Youtube clip above but with even less clarity. It must be understood that the very nature of Sukkot (or Sukkos) defies comprehension, most of all by a 12 year old not entirely sold on the god business to begin with. The Wiki on the holiday states:

The sukkah is intended as a reminiscence of the type of fragile dwellings in which the Israelites dwelt during their 40 years of travel in the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Throughout the holiday, meals are eaten inside the sukkah and some people sleep there as well. On each day of the holiday, members of the household recite a blessing over the lulav and etrog.

The Osdoby’s lived down the street from us in our little shtetl in the Catskills. Ben, the patriarch, was a pilot during WWII and president of our synagogue. He was one of the few Jews in town that took the trouble to build a sukkah although I doubt he slept in it. There were a lot of things that mystified me about my religion but I doubt that anything came close to the shanties, the overgrown lemon, and the date palm all of which I would regard as fairly primitive by the time I got to college. Years later, as things turned out, the very fact that it was primitive stood in its favor even though there was little to connect modern-day Judaism with, for example, fertility rites among the Yanomami.

When I was working on my mother’s house to put it up for sale after she had relocated to a nearby nursing home, I stopped by to chat with Ben Osdoby, a man who I had always found intimidating when I was a schoolboy. Like my father, he was a WWII veteran whose amiability was left on the battlefields of Europe. I was on a much more even keel with him now that I had become a 60 year old man (and only wished that my father had lived to Ben’s age so I could have had the same kind of conversation.) Ben complained bitterly about how our little village had been taken over by the Satmar sect and especially how the local synagogue that he had been so devoted to was now Satmar as well. The Satmars had become more and more intrusive in these little villages in the Borscht Belt, especially with their push to incorporate eruv boundaries. The eruv was a cable that ran from telephone pole to telephone pole outlining areas where Satmars could bend the Sabbath rules. Just as is the case in Israel, the ultra-orthodox sometimes collide with the orthodox over prerogatives even if they are united in sticking it to the Palestinians.

Sukkot had more to do with fertility rites than the flight from Egypt that it celebrated, something that most archaeologists, including Israelis, think never happened. Kolel, a reform Judaism website, offers this take on the high holiday:

Meanwhile, on the week we celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, and I don’t know about you, but I feel rather self-conscious about taking the central symbols of this holiday: a citron (lemon-like fruit) and a palm branch together with branches of myrtle and willow and shaking them. In discussing the ‘reasons for the mitzvot’ Barry Holtz has written in his wonderful book, Finding Our Way

The breast (or womb)-like etrog and the phallic lulav are probably vestiges of an ancient (pagan?) fertility rite, which makes sense since the Sukkot holiday and final harvest marks the beginning of the critical rainy season in the land of Israel. The Talmud makes this explicit: the waving ceremony in the Temple was to restrain harmful winds (Sukkah 37b-38a). Shaking the lulav is obviously an ancient and ‘primitive’ ritual– and therein may lie some of its transformative power, but as a highly rational, twenty-first century modern Jew, I have trouble performing acts that are so obviously rooted in sympathetic magic (shaking the lulav even sounds like rain!).

For the past four years since my mother’s death, I have been going to Yizkor services during Yom Kippur, the most solemn of Jewish high holidays. Needless to say, I never would have considered going unless a very old friend suggested it. His Judaism, like mine, consists solely of going to this service each year. Yizkor is the occasion when you pay tribute to a dead relative (the word is Hebrew for remembrance), including the recitation of Kaddish, the prayer that Allen Ginsberg commemorated in one of his more memorable poems for his dead schizophrenic and Communist mother:

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on
the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking,
talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues
shout blind on the phonograph
the rhythm the rhythm–and your memory in my head three years after–
And read Adonais’ last triumphant stanzas aloud–wept, realizing
how we suffer–
And how Death is that remedy all singers dream of, sing, remember,
prophesy as in the Hebrew Anthem, or the Buddhist Book of An-
swers–and my own imagination of a withered leaf–at dawn–
Dreaming back thru life, Your time–and mine accelerating toward Apoca-
the final moment–the flower burning in the Day–and what comes after,
looking back on the mind itself that saw an American city
a flash away, and the great dream of Me or China, or you and a phantom
Russia, or a crumpled bed that never existed–
like a poem in the dark–escaped back to Oblivion–
No more to say, and nothing to weep for but the Beings in the Dream,
trapped in its disappearance,
sighing, screaming with it, buying and selling pieces of phantom, worship-
ping each other,
worshipping the God included in it all–longing or inevitability?–while it
lasts, a Vision–anything more?

Ginsberg’s poem is actually very closely related to the main theme of a Yizkor service, namely the inevitability of death and the need to accept it. The service was conducted mostly in English, a function of it being held in a Reform Synagogue. This year I paid closer attention to the words than I had in the past, no doubt a function of having reached the ripe old age (if not overripe–bordering on fecundity) of 67. Death is no longer an abstraction as it was for me 30 or 40 years ago.

There were a number of readings that the female Rabbi led in the service, half of which I would guess did not originate in the Bible. Most were in the spirit of Ecclesiastes I, the verse that included the words Hemingway borrowed for one of his masterpieces:

“Vanity[a] of vanities,” says the Preacher;
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

What profit has a man from all his labor
In which he toils under the sun?
One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.
The sun also rises, and the sun goes down,
And hastens to the place where it arose.
The wind goes toward the south,
And turns around to the north;
The wind whirls about continually,
And comes again on its circuit.
All the rivers run into the sea,
Yet the sea is not full;
To the place from which the rivers come,
There they return again.
All things are full of labor;
Man cannot express it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor the ear filled with hearing.

An acquaintance of mine at Bard College named Fred Feldman became a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts. Unlike most philosophy professors, Fred seems to view philosophy as a tool for understanding the real problems of life as opposed to the shenanigans that goes on in most faculties in the name of linguistic analysis. It might surprise some of my regular readers, but Marxism does not have the answers to everything—particularly the eternal mysteries of life and death.

In 1992 Fred came out with a book titled “Confrontations with the Reaper”, a title that conjures up one of the most famous in cinema:

If you go to his website, you will find a list of articles that include some that reflect a very Yizkor-like preoccupation with death. Apparently the subject has been on his mind for a while. His tone is reassuring in a way that will be familiar to those who have read the Epicurean philosophers. Michael V. Fox has argued that Ecclesiastes was influenced by the Epicureans, hence the “earth abides forever” acceptance of death’s inevitability. Feldman writes in “The Termination Thesis”:

The Termination Thesis (or “TT”) is the view that people go out of existence when they die. Lots of philosophers seem to believe it. Epicurus, for example, apparently makes use of TT in his efforts to show that it is irrational to fear death. He says, “as long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.” Lucretius says pretty much the same thing, but in many more words and more poetically: “Death therefore to us is nothing, concerns us not a jot, since the nature of the mind is proved to be mortal; . . . when we shall be no more, when there shall have been a separation of body and soul, out of both of which we are each formed into a single being, to us, you may be sure, who then shall be no more, nothing whatever can happen to excite sensation.”

A considerably clearer and more economical statement of TT can be found in L. W. Sumner’s “A Matter of Life and Death.” Sumner says, “The death of a person is the end of that person; before death he is and after death he is not. To die is therefore to cease to exist.”

Of course, these words are much more of a consolation to a philosophy professor or his readers than they would be to a citizen of the Congo trying to figure out where his next meal is coming from or how he or she can dodge a bullet or machete from a militia plaguing the nation.

Oddly enough, despite my advanced age, I have been brooding a lot less about death than I have in years. I guess I went through the same kind of phase that Feldman went through but kept it to myself. For the longest time, when I woke up in the middle of the night, I would immediately begin to think dark thoughts about dying. How would it come? Cancer? Heart disease?

For some reason these dark thoughts have disappeared like a brush fire that has burned itself out. In its place there is a deep calm and sense of satisfaction attached to being in the prime of life, at least intellectually and politically. With reasonably good health and a fairly secure financial situation, I look forward to the next 10 or 15 years of life as I put my shoulder to the wheel of the world historical movement that can abolish the conditions that led humanity to look in the first place for consolation from a god that did not exist.

June 5, 2012

Thoughts on the passing of Earl Shorris

Filed under: conservatism,Jewish question,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:23 am

Earl Shorris

The NY Times obituary on Earl Shorris is an admiring tribute to an exceptional human being:

Earl Shorris, a social critic and author whose interviews with prison inmates for a book inspired him to start a now nationally recognized educational program that introduces the poor and the unschooled to Plato, Kant and Tolstoy, died on May 27 in New York. He was 75.

The cause was complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his son Anthony said.

Mr. Shorris, who wrote a dozen books during the first 35 years of his career, many sharply critical of Western culture as sliding toward plutocracy and materialism, became best known in his final years for founding the Clemente Course in the Humanities. Established in 1995 with 25 students at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in the East Village of Manhattan, the program offers the disadvantaged a 10-month curriculum of philosophy, history, art, literature and logic. It earned Mr. Shorris the National Humanities Medal, presented to him in 2000 by President Bill Clinton.

Read full obit

I held Shorris in the highest esteem as both a principled left-liberal and a master essayist. As a literary genre, the personal essay’s first and greatest exponent was Michel Montaigne who always proceeded from the personal to the universal. Another master of the form is Philip Lopate whose essay on taking his incontinent aging father to a Chinese restaurant evolves into a transcendent meditation on fatherhood and death.

Earl Shorris’s last essay before his death appeared in Harper’s, a magazine that he has had a long association with. It is the quintessential personal essay titled “American vespers: The ebbing of the body politic” that begins with his latest hospitalization for the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that would shortly kill him and ending with commentary on another cancer, the military-industrial complex that is killing America.

In the middle of the night, when the hospital is in its deepest dusk, a confusing loneliness sets in. If there is no motion in the room, no sound, no sense of life in the pallid darkness, the little tremblings stop: in the perfect stillness, hope subsides; death presents itself in the guise of an analgesic. As if she knew this about the night, Sasha Stanton appeared carrying a small cup of lemon ice. It was the first food I had eaten in some days, and I took it not for hunger but for company.

Death was growing inside me. It defies the mind, like magic, for it was only death because of what had been described as the immortality metastasizing within. I was overcome by a kind of attraction to it. Nothing else had ever beckoned so! Not even the love of my wife or the faces of my sons.

Like a sonata in one movement, the piece shifts gradually toward a look at the “body politic”, with cancer a perfect metaphor for the state of things in 2012. I first heard such a metaphor from Joel Kovel, who in a talk on ecology at the Brecht Forum about 20 years ago described unregulated capitalist growth as a metastasizing tumor. Shorris writes:

Without ethics, politics has no limits. America broke the rules of living systems, and lost its balance. All the oxygen flowed to a smaller and smaller section of the body politic. The history is brief and unquestionable: close to toppling, the society momentarily pulled itself upright, and then became even less ethical, less balanced, more endangered than ever as a lawless financial system came back from death, and like a foolish patient after a heart bypass operation, continued in its old ways. With no ethical component to national politics, President Obama could deliver his 2011 State of the Union speech without ever mentioning the word “poverty,” although one in every five American children lived in poverty. Without a commitment to Hutcheson’s idea of the greatest good, which is at the core of the original American philosophy in Jefferson’s drafting of the Declaration of Independence, this may no longer be the brilliant experiment. If happiness is for the few and it produces unemployment approaching that of the Great Depression, then the shadow of evening is here.

Death is the moment when evening passes into night. I know. There is no surprise, and it often comes after a long sickness that is worse than death. When I died, I died of many things: the failing systems; the weakening of age; the exhaustion of the long war against dying. Finally, I succumbed to the lack of ethics in a California hospital, killed by filth and neglect.

I have wished for many years to be a physician to my beloved country. The means to care for it is clear. I was revived by love and ethics. And I am not unique: no man, no woman is a metaphor; that is the place of gods. I do not know who will take America in their arms to revive her.

No nation is forever.

The NY Times obit neglected to mention perhaps Shorris’s best-known and most controversial books, “Jews Without Mercy”. Written in 1971, it was the first open challenge to Jewish neoconservatives written by somebody not connected to the hard left.

Today I took the book out of the Columbia University library and scanned in the first chapter titled “Apology to Mr. Singer, Slayer of Chickens, May He Rest in Peace.” Like all of his other essays, it starts with the personal:

You were decorated with blood and feathers, praying and killing in the back room of a store on an empty block in a failed section of the town. The butcher pointed to you as if you were an advertisement. He asked if the boy wanted to watch Mr. Singer do his work. I declined to step behind the counter and through the unpainted wooden gate that led to your slaughterhouse. My grandmother laughed. She knew chickens, she knew children.

She prepared chickens in the tiny kitchen of her apartment, reaching into the hollow cavity to remove the liver, heart, and kidneys; tearing the fat from the flesh; and depositing the yellow clumps in a saucepan. She burned the feet in the fire of the stove, blackening the ends of the truncated toes. While the chicken soaked in salt water she spoke of you: You dassn’t be afraid of Mr. Singer. He’s a very learned man. When the Rabbi has a question, you know where he goes? To Mr. Singer!

This has a special meaning for me since I used to watch a Mr. Singer at work when I was a young boy. There was a ritual kosher chicken slaughterhouse in the back yard below my apartment in upstate NY and I used to watch the shochit in awe and wonder—this was before my parents bought their first TV. From my memoir scheduled to be released in August 2065:

Before long Shorris transforms himself into a kind of shochet, slicing the throats of the neocons:

Many of the converts have told of the journey across the political spectrum, although not with the detail or the honesty of Norman Podhoretz. Most of the others have begun with rationalization rather than confession, attempting to hide their newfound preference for vulgarity. Almost all of them have said that it is because they are Jewish that they have become neoconservatives. They speak for each other; they help each other with grants, consulting fees, and introductions to money and power. It is a close camaraderie for all but Daniel Bell, who resigned as coeditor of The Public Interest after he and Irving Kristol founded the magazine, and who was given into the hands of Michael Novak in the July 1981 issue of Commentary to be drummed out of the corps as one whose “imagination still operates within a Marxian horizon.” Novak, a Polish Catholic and the publicist of “ethnic interests,” the new euphemism for racism, delivered the coup de grace earlier in the same paragraph: “Bell is said to have quipped that he is a liberal in politics, a socialist in economics, and a conservative in culture. The single most systematic strength in his thinking—and simultaneously, the single most glaring weakness—is that the socialist in him frequently overwhelms both the liberal and the conservative.” The club is warm and supportive, but it is restricted. Daniel Bell, the best mind among the neoconservatives, cannot be considered a neoconservative: He simply could not bring himself to trade ethics for vulgarity.

Returning to the NY Times obit, I was appreciative of Earl Shorris’s efforts on behalf of the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities while feeling queasy about its funding from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, like so many of Bard’s philanthropic efforts. The Clemente center benefits poor Latinos, a program with the same good intentions as Bard’s Prison Initiative that allows prisoners to earn a BA while incarcerated.

If I ever had gotten to know Shorris, I would have like to ask him about Soros’s impact on the poor people of Hungary whose homes were foreclosed in the tens of thousands after the Central Bank suffered huge losses because of Soros’s insider trading. After watching the documentary “Pink Ribbons Inc.”, I am more skeptical of deep-pocketed foundations than ever, I’m afraid.

There’s something about these programs that reminds me of George Bush ‘41’s “thousand points of light”. With American higher education going down the tubes, what real value is there in setting up Potemkin Villages that show off George Soros’s good will?

Ultimately, the worldview of the left-liberal, including the best of them like Gore Vidal or Earl Shorris, is moralistic and does not consider the possibility that “mercy” is not the solution to the nation’s problems but a radical restructuring of the economy so that everybody comes into the world on an equal footing.

December 26, 2011

A festival of lights–or blood?

Filed under: Jewish question,religion — louisproyect @ 6:21 pm


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.


November 6, 2011


Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 10:56 pm

For the general reader as well as for someone like me who grew up in what amounted to an American shtetl, the late Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle’s “Yiddishkeit” is a pure delight. Written in the “graphic novel” style that Pekar virtually invented (in his plebian style he preferred to call such works comic books), it draws together the repertory company of artists that the two writers drew upon so successfully in books on SDS and the beat generation and is a loving tribute to what Irving Howe once called “the world of our fathers”. Pekar’s work on this project was a kind of swan song since he died before it was published.

Although the book is a joy from cover to cover, the best part for me was the shrewd assessment of Yiddish authors by Harvey Pekar who finds Isaac Bashevis Singer, the most preeminent of them all, somewhat lacking.

Throughout his career, Pekar has always sought to shed light on artists who deserved wider recognition, whether they were local Cleveland jazz musicians or writers from the 1920s and 30s never taught in Freshmen literature courses. He rescues the aptly named Moshe Nadir from obscurity, describing him as the “major Jewish avant-garde literary figure”. Nadir wrote for a Communist paper and visited the Soviet Union in 1926, claiming that Communism would wipe out human misery. The Stalin-Hitler pact disillusioned him, however, just as it did so many writers from this period.

Beyond the writers covered by Pekar, the book serves as an introduction to Yiddish culture in general with sections on Yiddish theater and film, as well as profiles of famous Yiddish-speaking personalities from the past, including Abe Polonsky, the subject of a Buhle biography.

In the book’s prologue, Pekar explains his own engagement with a language that has virtually died off except for the Hasidic sects based mostly in Brooklyn. His parents both spoke Yiddish, as did he when he was young. He says, “The colorfulness of Yiddish and the rhythm of Yiddish made it fun to listen to, even though I was losing touch with it.”

This was almost my experience as well. Although I never really learned to speak Yiddish, I learned hundreds of words working in my father’s fruit and vegetable store when young. In the 1950s, most of my father’s customers in their 60s and 70s who came up to the Catskills during the summer were immigrants who preferred to speak Yiddish. I would ask them, “Vus vilsta” (that’s the way I remember it) which meant: “what would you like”. My biggest regret is not studying the language when young instead of wasting my time going to Hebrew school. Hebrew was the language necessary to recite one’s haftarah, or bar mitzvah recitation. You never knew the meaning of the words you were reciting, only how to pronounce them. Such empty rituals goes far to explain why Judaism is a dying religion in the U.S.

For his part, Paul Buhle had it over both Pekar and me, having mastered Yiddish as part of his oral history project interviewing veterans of the left who were in their 80s and older. Since most of them could only express themselves in Yiddish, he studied the language as both a scholarly and political obligation. This experience gave him an affinity for Yiddish culture that has stuck with him over the years as expressed through earlier works like “Jews and American Comics” and the three-volume “Jews and American Popular Culture”. The irony of course is that Buhle is not Jewish himself, although at this point our tribe should admit him as an honorary member. In a section of “Yiddishkeit” titled Guide to Celebrities, we discover that he is in good company. Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson, and James Cagney all learned to speak Yiddish as well.

Speaking of Robeson, there’s a powerful tale told in “Yiddishkeit” about the great singer and activist’s divided loyalties between the Jews he felt such affection toward and the Soviet Union. In 1949 when Robeson went to Moscow to perform in concert, he asked to see his old friend Itzik Feffer, a Yiddish poet. He was told that Feffer had been killed in an automobile accident, an obvious lie. He later met Feffer quite by accident who informed Robeson that Yiddish artists were being purged, including poet Shloyme Mikhoels who had been executed. That evening, Robeson dedicated a Yiddish song to Mikhoels in defiance of the authorities. The audience wept at this and gave him a standing ovation. Unfortunately Robeson went no further in criticizing repression in the USSR out of a fear that this would increase anti-Communist passions in the U.S., a fatal flaw for both the C.P. and other groups on the left over the years.

I feel a special affinity for this marvelous book since Paul Buhle is a very good friend. But this is not a case of doing him a favor by lavishing praise since the respect he has earned in the course of writing over 40 books geared to the left and to lovers of Yiddish culture speaks for itself.

It was through Paul that I met Harvey Pekar who I had the good fortune to work with on a comic book about my life that will likely remain unpublished for reasons too convoluted to go into here. Back in 2008 I got a call from Paul asking me if I could put Harvey up for the night. Since I had been a huge fan of his work over the years, I was more than happy to extend some hospitality.

As someone who had become to think of himself as a kind of Studs Terkel figure, eliciting other people’s stories rather than recycling his own that he had likely grown tired of telling, he was curious to find out where I was coming from.

I spun out a tale of growing up in the Borscht Belt in the 1950s where people like Molly Picon, Moishe Oysher and Menashe Skolnik had performed in local hotels and at the Kentucky Club, a cabaret that our family lived directly above in our tiny village (shtetl). I told him about spending time with Barney Ross, the former boxer, WWII veteran, and drug addict whose life was dramatized in the 1957 film “Monkey on my Back”. Barney was the greeter at the Kentucky Club and would stand outside the club in his white tuxedo smoking a cigarette, lost in his thoughts. I was around 10 at the time and enjoyed chatting with him and taking occasional lessons about how to deliver a left jab.

I also told him about the “Mighty Atom”, née Joseph Greenstein, a self-styled Jewish strong man who was a vegetarian, wore his hair long like Samson, and performed stunts like bending an iron bar across his forehead even into his 80s at his bungalow colony in my village. Like Ross and the Mighty Atom, there was another strong man who came up to my village in the summertime. The powerfully built and mercurial Sid Caesar used to stay at the Avon Lodge, a hotel just a mile or so outside of town. He spent hours on end at the firing range near the hotel, working out his “spielkus” energy (another Yiddish word; it means “nervous”—at least that’s the way I remember it.) In partnership with the husband of my high school librarian, who turned me on to James Joyce’s “Dubliners” in 1959, the owner of the Avon Lodge built a bungalow colony called “Grine Felder”, in honor of the great Yiddish film of the 1930s that is translated into a comic book version in “Yiddishkeit”.

The Grine Felder was built in order to cater to Jewish Communist and Socialist vacationers who had become dissatisfied with a bungalow colony and gathering place that they considered second-rate. The bungalows were named after important Jewish figures, from Isaac Bashevis Singer (notwithstanding Harvey Pekar) to Emma Goldman.

None of this wonderful culture exists today. The Yiddish-speaking generation of my grandparent’s generation has died off. The only people who speak Yiddish today are the Hasidim, the insular and backward sect that all of the Yiddish writers reviewed by Pekar had an ambivalent relationship to. They hated the superstitions and the subservience to the Grand Rabbis but felt compelled to write about the experience of being a Jew in Eastern Europe or Czarist Russia, which included being part of this world.

With Jews being so thoroughly assimilated in the U.S. today, there is obviously a question as to the cultural relevance of Yiddishkeit today. As Paul Buhle pointed out in a memorable lecture I attended some years ago, being Jewish today does not mean speaking Yiddish or going to synagogue on Saturday. It means being committed to social justice and tolerance, values that are shared by young progressive Jews standing up for Palestinian rights. It also means having a sense of humor, especially about one’s one foibles. Anybody who has seen an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” will immediately understand that Yiddishkeit is alive and well on those terms.

But more strikingly, there is evidence of a Yiddish renaissance today. The book has a chapter on Aaron Lansky, who spoke on a panel discussion with Paul Buhle a couple of months ago in conjunction with the publication of “Yiddishkeit”. Lansky is the founder and executive director of the Yiddish Book Center, a library with thousands of books rescued from the garbage bins. At the center’s website, he describes his passion for Yiddish as follows:

I was 19 when I began studying Yiddish. Suddenly an entire universe opened up to me. It was like discovering Atlantis, a lost continent, a treasure-trove of Jewish tradition and culture, sensibility, wisdom and passion, all locked up in this amazing modern literature.

This passion is obviously shared by many young people who have been downloading electronic books in Yiddish by the hundreds of thousands. Where this is all going is hard to say. One might conjecture that enthusiasm for Yiddish has something to do with rediscovering a Jewish identity that resists assimilation as well as the litmus test imposed by the state of Israel that has done everything in its power to make Yiddish a dead language. As the language of a people who have used their sense of humor and their rejection of the kind of crass ambition associated with the Bernie Madoff’s and Lloyd Blankfein’s of the world, the Yiddish language is a step in the right direction as is Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle’s magnificent “Yiddishkeit”.

September 29, 2011

The Gilad Atzmon controversy

Filed under: anti-Semitism,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 7:12 pm

Gilad Atzmon

Gilad Atzmon is a jazz musician who has generated controversy over his articles on Zionism similar to those generated by Israel Shamir who I wrote about in July. While both men are of Jewish origin, they have been accused of anti-Semitism and holocaust denial. Many of the same charges have been made against Norman Finkelstein but in the case of Shamir and Atzmon there is much more substance.

Atzmon has prompted some heated reactions once again coinciding with the release of his new book “The Wandering Who?: A study of Jewish identity politics”, both in mainstream and radical circles.

I first got wind of the controversy from a blog post by Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic Monthly titled “John Mearsheimer Endorses a Hitler Apologist and Holocaust Revisionist“. Along with Martin Peretz and Alan Dershowitz, Goldberg is one of America’s top apologists for the state of Israel. He was also a supporter of the war in Iraq, using his outpost at the New Yorker magazine to circulate pro-war propaganda very similar to Judith Miller’s. Goldberg writes:

Atzmon is quite obviously a twisted and toxic hater. His antisemitism is so blatant that activists of the so-called BDS movement (boycott, divestment and sanctions), which seeks the elimination of Israel, refuse to have anything to do with him. But Atzmon still has at least one friend among anti-Israel activists: The R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, and co-author of “The Israel Lobby,” John J. Mearsheimer.

Mearsheimer had blurbed Atzmon’s book, much to Goldberg’s anger:

Gilad Atzmon has written a fascinating and provocative book on Jewish identity in the modern world. He shows how assimilation and liberalism are making it incredibly difficult for Jews in the Diaspora to maintain a powerful sense of their ‘Jewishness.’ Panicked Jewish leaders, he argues, have turned to Zionism (blind loyalty to Israel) and scaremongering (the threat of another Holocaust) to keep the tribe united and distinct from the surrounding goyim. As Atzmon’s own case demonstrates, this strategy is not working and is causing many Jews great anguish. The Wandering Who? Should be widely read by Jews and non-Jews alike.’

Mearsheimer responded to Goldberg on Stephen Walt’s blog. As anybody who has been following the culture wars over the state of Israel will know, Mearsheimer and Walt, two highly accomplished academics, were accused of anti-Semitism for putting forward the proposition that there was an Israeli lobby and—what’s more—stating that it undermined American interests. Although I disagreed with their analysis, I did defend them against the anti-Semitism canard.  Mearsheimer wrote in self-defense against Goldberg, who has been hounding ever since the initial Mearsheimer-Walt salvo against Israel appeared:

The book, as my blurb makes clear, is an extended meditation on Jewish identity in the Diaspora and how it relates to the Holocaust, Israel, and Zionism. There is no question that the book is provocative, both in terms of its central argument and the overly hot language that Atzmon sometimes uses. But it is also filled with interesting insights that make the reader think long and hard about an important subject. Of course, I do not agree with everything that he says in the book — what blurber does? — but I found it thought provoking and likely to be of considerable interest to Jews and non-Jews, which is what I said in my brief comment.

Turning from the mainstream to the radical movement, an open letter appeared on Lenin’s Tomb from authors who had been published by Zero Books, the imprint associated with Atzmon’s new book. They complained:

Atzmon’s assertions are underpinned by a further claim, which is that antisemitism doesn’t exist, and hasn’t existed since 1948. There is only “political reaction” to “Jewish power”, sometimes legitimate, sometimes not. For example, the smashing up of Jewish graves may be “in no way legitimate”, but nor are they “’irrational’ hate crimes”. They are solely “political responses”.[5] Given this, it would be impossible for anything that Atzmon writes, or for anyone he associates with, to be anti-Semitic. This shows, not only in his writing, but in his political alliances. He sees nothing problematic, for example, in his championing of the white supremacist ‘Israel Shamir’ (“the sharpest critical voice of ‘Jewish power’ and Zionist ideology”[6]), whose writings reproduce the most vicious anti-Semitic myths including the ‘blood libel’, and for whom even the BNP are insufficiently racist.[7]

The thrust of Atzmon’s work is to normalise and legitimise anti-Semitism. We do not believe that Zero’s decision to publish this book is malicious. Atzmon’s ability to solicit endorsements from respectable figures such as Richard Falk and John Mearsheimer shows that he is adept at muddying the waters both on his own views and on the question of anti-Semitism. But at a time when dangerous forces are attempting to racialise political antagonisms, we think the decision is grossly mistaken. We call on Zero to distance itself from Atzmon’s views which, we know, are not representative of the publisher or its critical engagement with contemporary culture.

Along the same lines, Andy Newman, who runs the Socialist Unity blog used the Guardian’s Comments are Free to attack Atzmon:

Gilad Atzmon is a world renowned jazz musician, and a former soldier in the Israeli army, so his advocacy of the Palestinian cause is guaranteed to draw attention. Indeed, a small leftwing publisher, Zero Books, has commissioned Atzmon to write a book on the Jews as part of an otherwise entirely credible series by respected left figures such as Richard Seymour, Nina Power and Laurie Penny.

The trouble is that Atzmon has often argued that the Zionist oppression of the Palestinians is attributable not to the bellicose politics of the Israeli state, but to Jewish lobbies and Jewish power. Atzmon’s antisemitic writings include, for example, a 2009 article – Tribal Marxism for Dummies – in which he explains that while “Marxism is a universal paradigm, its Jewish version is very different. It is there to mould Marxist dialectic into a Jewish subservient precept”. Atzmon argues that it is merely a “Judeo-centric pseudo intellectual setting which aims at political power” and that “Jewish Marxism is there to … stop scrutiny of Jewish power and Jewish lobbying”.

Newman’s piece provoked a rebuttal from Jonathan Cook on Counterpunch titled “The Dangerous Cult of the Guardian”  that defended Atzmon as well as Edward Herman and David Peterson. Like Atzmon, these two have come under attack there as “holocaust deniers” on Bosnia and Rwanda from George Monbiot. Cook also took up David Leigh’s attack on Julian Assange, a recycling of the usual canards. Cook had this to say about Newman’s piece on Atzmon:

A typical example of the Guardian’s new strategy was on show this week in an article in the print edition’s comment pages – also available online and a far more prestigious platform than CiF – in which the paper commissioned a socialist writer, Andy Newman, to argue that the Israeli Jewish musician Gilad Atzmon was part of an anti-semitic trend discernible on the left.

Jonathan Freedland, the paper’s star columnist and resident obsessive on anti-semitism, tweeted to his followers that the article was “important” because it was “urging the left to confront antisemitism in its ranks”.

I have no idea whether Atzmon has expressed anti-semitic views – and I am none the wiser after reading Newman’s piece.

Cook says that he has no idea whether Atzmon has expressed anti-Semitic views. This might be a function of a failure to click the link in Newman’s article that would have brought him to the singularly stupid article titled “Tribal Marxism for Dummies. In it you can find howlingly uninformed opinions such as:

Jewish Marxism is very different from Marxism or socialism in general. While Marxism is a universal paradigm, its Jewish version is very different. It is there to mould Marxist dialectic into a Jewish subservient precept. Jewish Marxism is basically a crude utilisation of ‘Marxist-like’ terminology for the sole purpose of the Jewish tribal cause. It is a Judeo-centric pseudo intellectual setting which aims at political power.

Palestinian thinkers were probably the first to realise that the situation in Gaza, Nablus and the refugee camps had little in common with 19th century Europe. This was enough to defy Marxism as a sole analytical political tool. However, the Jewish Marxists had a far more adventurous plan for Palestinians, Arab people and the region in general. They wanted Arabs to become cosmopolitan atheists. They suggested that Arabs should drop ‘reactionary Islam’ and liberate themselves as ‘the Jews did’ a century ago.

When I read junk like this, I really have to wonder how Atzmon ever got an invitation to speak at an SWP conference in Britain. Fortunately the comrades figured out that they were dealing with a first-class imbecile. Apparently Counterpunch’s standards are a bit lower as they continue to publish both Shamir and Atzmon as the spirit moves them.

I would repeat what I wrote about Shamir last July since it is equally applicable to Atzmon. While I would not give him a platform in either print or electronic format, I don’t think he represents a looming danger for Jews. The only damage that his articles pose are to logic, good sense, and political clarity.

…let me differentiate myself a bit from Žižek on the question of “threats” to the Jews. While I agree that the Arabs are not the Nazis of today, I am less inclined than he is to fret about anti-Semitism as a serious looming “existential” menace to the Jews. Perhaps his lack of interest in social and economic history (i.e., historical materialism) explains his dwelling over “superstructure” but there is a world of difference between traditional anti-Semitism and the speech or writings of a Hamas leader or Ahmadinejad. The persecution of the Jews in Czarist Russia and Nazi Germany was intimately linked to the terminal decay of capitalism that could only resolved through war and the use of scapegoats.

We are decidedly moving into a deadly constellation of events that might precipitate new outbreaks of pogroms and even extermination but the targets will not be the Jews who are not easily identifiable through their isolation in ghettos or their economic role as pawnbrokers, shopkeepers, etc. Instead, it will be the Roma, the undocumented worker from Northern Africa, the Mexican, or the Arab.

The left has to be vigilant against any form of racialist stupidity, whether it comes from a disturbed individual lacking a social base like Israel Shamir or someone like Ahmadinejad who lacked the common sense to not invite David Duke to a symposium on the holocaust in Tehran. We do so primarily because their words weaken our movement by leaving it open to the charge of racism. This is especially a problem given the ability of the mass media to control the discourse and make the criminal into the victim and the victim into the criminal, as Malcolm X once put it.

I will conclude with one of a series of articles I wrote on the Goldhagen thesis  before I began blogging. It deals with real anti-Semitism as opposed to the knuckle-dragging stupidity of an Israel Shamir or a Gilad Atzmon that is a threat to nobody. It puts the persecution of the Jews into a historical context that is unfortunately lacking in the well-meaning and often very intelligent articles on Atzmon from his critics on the left.

Abram Leon wrote “The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation” in 1941 when he was all of 24 years old and at a time when his hands were filled leading the Belgian Trotskyist movement under conditions of fascist repression. Eventually, the Gestapo captured him and sent him to Auschwitz. He did not make it out alive.

Leon’s first involvement with radical politics was with the Hashomir Hatzoir, a Zionist-socialist youth group. He grew disenchanted with Zionism and became a Trotskyist at the time of the Moscow trials. This showed a certain independent streak since the Hashomir-ites were pro-Stalin, as well as being Zionist.

While Leon devoted himself to the Trotskyist movement from this point on, he never lost interest in the “Jewish Question.” He was anxious to answer the claims of the Zionists, as well as explain the virulent anti-Semitism that had swept Germany. What was the explanation for the failure of the Jews to assimilate? Why had this peculiar combination of race, nationality and religious denomination persisted through the ages? What was the nature of the hatred against the outsider Jew?

Leon took his cue from Karl Marx who wrote in ” On the Jewish Question”, “We will not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but we will look for the secret of the religion in the real Jew.” This led Leon to examine the socio-economic relations that might explain both the identity of the Jews and, by the same token, their persecution.

He believed that the key to understanding the Jewish question was their status as a “people-class.” The Jews, according to Leon, “constitute historically a social group with a specific economic function. They are a class, or more precisely a people-class.” That economic function is tradesman. The Jew, from the days of the Babylonian exile, have functioned as tradesmen. Their location in the Mid-East facilitated commercial exchanges between Europe and Asia. As long as the Jew served in this economic capacity, the religious and national identity served to support his economic function.

Leon was strongly influenced in his views by Karl Kautsky, a leader of the Second International, who theorized the identity of a class with a people in pre-capitalist societies: “Different classes may assume the character of different races. On the other hand, the meeting of many races, each developing an occupation of its own, may lead to their taking up various callings or social positions within the same community: race becomes class.” The chief difference between Kautsky and Leon is that Leon made the equation between class and people specific. Where Kautsky saw tendencies, Leon saw a dialectical unity.

The period that lasted from classical antiquity to the Carolingian epoch was a time of prosperity and relative well-being for the Jews. In the Hellenistic era, Jews were part of the commercial elite in cities such as Alexandria, Antioch and Seleucia. The rise of the Roman Empire saw their continued success, as cities such as Alexandria continued to function as trading centers between the West and East. The role of Jews at Alexandria was so important that a Jew, Tiberius Julius Alexander, was appointed Roman governor of the city.

It is important to note that what united the Jews in this period was not wealth and power per se, but their economic role as tradesmen. Within the group were poorer peddlers and artisans. In the decline of the Roman Empire, many of these individuals were hardest hit. Their desperation, argues both Kautsky and Leon, explains the emergence of the Christianity cult which expressed class hatred of the rich in theological terms.

With the advent of the middle ages, the economic role of the Jew shifts somewhat. This is the period when the native merchant class begins to sell commodities produced in artisan workshops, the embryonic form of the factory. The trade that the Jew engaged in prior to this period was separate from production, but the Christian tradesman is part of the network of commodity exchange. Leon notes that “The evolution in exchange of medieval economy proved fatal to the position of the Jews in trade. The Jewish merchant importing spices into Europe and exporting slaves, is displaced by respectable Christian traders to whom urban industry supplies the principal products for their trading. This native commercial class collides violently with the Jews, occupants of an outmoded economic position, inherited from a previous period in historical evolution.”

These circumstances force the Jew to make his living as a usurer. He lends money to the feudal lords and the kings to finance their war expenditures and their luxuries. One of the main ways this is done is through “tax farming.” The King “farms out” the collection of tax revenues to a “Court Jew”, who gets a percentage of the take. My family name “Proyect” means the “counting house of a tax farmer.”

This primitive form of banking eventually clashes with banking based on the production of exchange values, which has been emerging during the same period as that of the artisan workshops and early factories. The usurer is hated not only by the lord to whom he charges high interest, but by the peasants who confront the Jew in his capacity as tax collector. The hatred builds to a fever pitch in places like London, Lincoln and Stafford, England in 1189 when massacres of Jews take place. Shakespeare’s “Shylock” reflects the lingering animosity toward the Jew long after these historical events took place and the Jew had been driven out of England. The most infamous campaign against the Jew took place in Spain during the Inquisition, when they were burned at the stake. The true motive was economic rivalry, according to Leon.

The Jews take flight to Eastern Europe and Poland in particular, where feudalism continues long after the emergence of capitalism in the West. An 1810 travel diary notes the following: “Poland should in all justice be called a Jewish kingdom… The cities and towns are primarily inhabited by them. Rarely will you find a village without Jews. Jewish taverns mark out all the main roads… Apart from some are manors which are administered by the lords themselves, all the others are farmed out or pledged to the Jews. They possess enormous capitals and no one can get along without their help. Only some very few very rich lords are not plunged up to their neck in debt with the Jews.”

In the late nineteenth century, capitalist property relations begin to develop in the Polish and Russian countryside. Lenin writes about this development in order to refute the Narodniks who held out the possibility of a village-based socialism. The transformation of Christian peasants into landless and debt-ridden laborers has dire consequences for the Jew who is not integrated into the new forms of capitalist property relations. They continue to act as intermediary between the peasant and plebeian masses in the countryside on one hand and the wastrel nobility in the big city on the other. As tensions arise, the first pogroms take place.

Also, at this time, the Jews begin to undergo class differentiation under the general impact of capitalism. A Jewish proletariat develops, which works in small artisan shops producing clothing and household utensils. This deeply oppressed social grouping is the target of pogroms, which indiscriminately attack rich and poor Jew alike. The deep insecurities of this period give rise to the Chassidic sects which function in much the same way that Christianity functions in the Roman Empire. It gives solace to a deeply insecure and economically miserable people.

Eventually the economic suffering takes its toll and mass migrations back to the West take place, both to Austria and Germany, and across the Atlantic to the United States. The ancestors of most Jews living in the United States arrived in this period.

Nobody could have predicted at the turn of the century the awful consequences of the exodus into Germany. Notwithstanding the vile utterances of Richard Wagner, Germany had a well-deserved reputation for tolerance. The German Jews, as opposed to their recently arrived Yiddish speaking brethren from the East, spoke German and were assimilationist to the core. Some of the Jewish elites tended to argue for acceptance of the new Hitlerite regime on its own terms, which they viewed as simply another species of ultra-nationalism.

For Leon, the rabid anti-Semitism of the post-WWI period fell into the same category as the age-old forms. It was virulent economic rivalry that grew out of the collapse of the German economy:

“The economic catastrophe of 1929 threw the petty-bourgeois masses into a hopeless situation. The overcrowding in small business, artisanry and the intellectual professions took on unheard of proportions. The petty-bourgeois regard his Jewish competitor with growing hostility, for the latter’s professional cleverness, the results of centuries of practice, often enabled him to survive ‘hard times’ more easily. Anti-Semitism even gained the ear of wide layers of worker-artisans, who traditionally had been under petty-bourgeois influences.”

When a Trotskyist veteran first presented this theory to me in 1967, it had powerful explanatory aspects. The true cause of anti-Semitism was the capitalist system, not some latent and free-floating animus toward the Jew. The key to the survival of the Jewish people was not the Zionist state of Israel, but the abolition of the capitalist system.

Recent controversy over the Goldhagen thesis, which tries to explain anti-Semitism in metaphysical terms, has forced me to rethink Leon’s nominally Marxist interpretation. We must revisit the question of the explanatory power of Leon’s thesis in light of the exterminationist policy of the Hitler regime. It is very likely that Leon himself had not been aware of the pending genocide, which did not take shape until 1943 at the Wansee Conference. Leon was trying to explain an anti-Semitism that was in many ways no more vicious than the anti-Black racism of the American south. The Nuremburg racial laws of 1935 stripped Jews of their German citizenry and made intermarriage illegal. This was deplorable, but after all Blacks could not vote or marry whites in the Deep South in 1935 either.

Another weakness of Leon’s work is that he de-emphasizes the people side of the people-class equation. Most of his work is devoted to an examination of the Jew’s relationship to the means of production, but very little to their religion, language, culture and values. This is one of the criticisms found in the chapter on Leon in Enzo Traverso’s “The Marxists and the Jewish Question: The History of a Debate 1843-1943″. The importance of this was driven home to me last night while I watched a 90 minute documentary on Jewish liturgical music on PBS. There is an immense variety of influences on Cantorial chanting. The Falashas of Ethiopia echo African harmonies, while the Turkish Jews employ the oud and tamboura, typical instruments of the region. In all cases, the prayers are nearly identical. The narrator of the documentary asks one Cantor for his explanation of the unity of the Jews over a 3500 year period, when other nationalities have disappeared from the face of the earth. His answer: the geographical dispersion of the Jews is the answer. If the Jews had remained tied to the same territory, they would have gone the way of the Babylonians, Romans, Greeks, etc. This certainly makes wonder if an ironic twist lies in store for the state of Israel.

It could be argued that this deficiency in Leon has a lot to do with the exigencies of trying to write about the social and economic factors when so many others had covered the cultural aspects. It is more likely, as Traverso points out most tellingly, that the reason for this lack has to do with Leon’s intellectual dependence on Kautsky.

Kautsky’s Marxism was deeply problematic. It comes close to economic determinism. The Second International tended to follow a simplistic base-superstructure model of Marxism. At its worst, it allowed social democrats to side with the bourgeoisie against the Russian Revolution. Since the base of the Russian economy was not fully mature in a capitalist sense, the Bolshevik seizure of power was premature, adventuristic and would lead to dictatorship.

The same methodological error appears in Leon. He tries to explain German anti-Semitism almost exclusively in economic terms. The problem, however, is that this explanation tends to break down when the Nazi regime institutes the death camps. After all, there is no plausible economic explanation for such behavior. It can only be called madness.

In 1933, ten years before the death camps, Leon Trotsky wrote “What is National Socialism.” This article does an excellent job of diagnosing the madness of the Nazi movement which had just taken power:

“Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth of the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet, fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the psychology of National Socialism.”

Nazism as undigested barbarism seems much closer to the mark than the base-superstructure model. Trotsky goes even further than this. In 1938, a midway point between date of the preceding article, and the death camps, Trotsky predicts the impending genocide. In December of that year, in an appeal to American Jews, he writes: “It is possible to imagine without difficulty what awaits the Jews at the mere outbreak of the future world war. But even without war the next development of world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews.”

These remarks are cited in the first paragraph of Norman Geras’s “Marxists before the Holocaust”, an article which appears in the special July/August 1997 issue of New Left Review on the holocaust. This issue features a lengthy critique by Norman Finkelstein on Goldhagen. While Finkelstein’s rather devastating attack on the scholarship and implicitly pro-Zionist ideas of Goldhagen have achieved a high profile, Geras’s article is worthy of discussion as well, since it occupies a space much closer to Goldhagen’s than to Marxism.

Geras argues that Marxism can not explain the holocaust. His attack is not directed at Leon’s economic determinism. Rather it is directed at Trotsky and Ernest Mandel who try to explain the holocaust as an expression of capitalism in its most degenerate and irrational phase. Geras says that the murder of the Jews is radically different than the bombing of Hiroshima, the war in Indochina and other acts of imperialist barbarism cited by Mandel in an effort to put the genocide in some kind of context. The difference between the death camps and the slaughter of the Vietnamese people is one of quantity, not quality. This outrages Geras, who says that Mandel and the German “revisionist” historian Ernst Nolte should be paired.

“What follows should only be said bluntly. Within this apologia there is a standpoint bearing a formal resemblance to something I have criticized in Mandel. I mean the energetic contextualization of Nazi crimes by Nolte, even while briefly conceding their singular and unprecedented character: his insistence that they belong to the same history of modern times as the American war in Vietnam, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the exodus from Vietnam of the boat people–a ‘holocaust on the water’–the Cambodian genocide, the repression following on the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and, above all, the liquidation of the kulaks, and the Gulag. Against that backdrop, Nolte urged that the Third Reich ‘should be removed from the isolation in which it still finds itself.’ This is what came, in the debate in question, to be called ‘relativization’ of the Holocaust; and it is what Mandel himself calls it in taking issue with Nolte’s views. Mandel continues even now to assert that the Holocaust was an extreme product of tendencies which are historically more general. But he perceives a need, evidently, to balance the assertion with a greater emphasis on the singularity of the Jews.”

Geras says that he will try at some point to offer his own analysis of why the Jews were exterminated. Since I am not familiar with his work, I hesitate to predict what shape it will take. I suspect that there will be liberal appropriation of the type of idealist obfuscation contained in Goldhagen. That would be unfortunate. What is needed to understand Nazism is not essentialist readings of German history, but a more acute historical materialist understanding of these tragic events.

When I was in grade school in the 1950s in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, there were large numbers of Jews who spent their summers there and shopped in my father’s fruit store. I remember seeing the tattoos of numbers on many of their forearms and asked my father what they represented. It was very unusual for a Jew to be tattooed because orthodox rituals stipulated that you must be buried with the same outward appearance you were born with. He explained to me that these Jews had been in concentration camps and murdered by the millions. The shoppers with tattoos were “survivors.” I did not understand this. What was their crime to be punished so?

In the 1950s, a time of deep material abundance and spiritual poverty, there was something else that I could not understand. We had to practice nuclear air-raid drills in our school. We had to “duck and cover” in the basement of the building. This would protect us from a H-bomb. This seemed crazy to me. If the United States and the USSR had an all-out nuclear war, wouldn’t everybody die? A blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter wrote “The Boy With Green Hair” in these years to dramatize what I and every other 7 year old was thinking.

Why would anybody consider the possibility and prepare for nuclear war, which would be a new Holocaust of even greater dimensions than the Nazi murder of the Jews. This Holocaust would kill everybody on the planet and all living things. Measured by the ordinary laws and values of capitalist society, this made no sense at all.

No, it did not make any sense whatsoever, but the Pentagon was planning on just such scenarios. Not only was it escalating the arms race, it engaged in nuclear brinksmanship over and over again. Nixon argued for an A-bomb attack on the Viet Mihn forces at Dien Bhien-Phu in 1954. Kennedy brought the world to the brink of war in his confrontation over Cuban missiles. While nuclear war did not occur, the chances were not so remote as to be beyond comprehension.

The American government was not run by madmen, who were representative of “undigested barbarism.” Oliver Stone, the film-maker who is supposedly highly sensitive to madmen, has made films which attempt to burnish the reputation of Nixon and JFK alike. “Our” capitalist politicians would never blow up the world, would they? Well, yes they probably wouldn’t.

But try to imagine a United States in steep economic decline, mired in imperialist war on three continents. Instead of Bill Clinton in the White House, imagine Pat Buchanan or David Duke instead. He is advised by Christian fundamentalists in the Cabinet who believe that we are in the “final days” before Armageddon. If the reward of Christian soldiers is life eternal at the right hand of Jesus Christ, perhaps all-out nuclear war against Communist or Muslim infidels “makes sense.”

The point is that capitalism has a deeply irrational streak. The system is prone to wars and economic crisis. It should have been abolished immediately after World War One. The only reason that is wasn’t is that the revolutionary movement came under the control of Stalin, who time and time again showed that he did not understand how to defeat capitalist reaction. The success of Hitler is directly attributable to the failure of the German Communist Party to fight him effectively.

Unless the socialist movement finds a way to put an end to capitalism and disarm the war-makers, the survival of the planet remains in question. While we can not “explain” the genocide adequately no matter how sharp our theoretical weapons, one thing is for sure. We have a sufficient explanation for the need to abolish capitalism: it is an inherently irrational system which threatens the human race.

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