Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 24, 2014

The crisis over the Temple Mount

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

The Temple Mount

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen shot 2014-11-24 at 2.31.20 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 16, 2014

High Holy Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 9, 2014

Jews and the left

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

A few days ago I received this query:

Mr. Proyect,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

October 7, 2014

Me and my great-uncle

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

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

greatuncle

September 19, 2014

A Gift to Birobidzhan

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

fiks receptionOpening night reception for A Gift to Birobidzhan

fiks photoYevgeniy Fiks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L’Chayim Comrade Stalin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

September 13, 2014

Altina

Filed under: art,Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 5:42 pm

Altina Schinasi, the subject of the documentary “Altina” that opened yesterday at the IFC in New York, was like Peggy Guggenheim—a member of the Jewish haut bourgeoisie who opted for a bohemian life in the arts.

The daughter of a Turkish Sephardic Jew who made a fortune in the nascent machine-rolled cigarette industry after migrating to the USA in the 1890s (his factory was on 120 and Broadway, now the location of Columbia University Teacher’s College and my old office), she lived a life of great privilege. The 35-room Schinasi mansion, now a New York City landmark, is and was the only privately owned and fully detached home in the city.

Inside the Schinasi mansion

Her entry into the art world was through the back door. She made a name for herself as a window dresser in New York’s chichi department stores and from there into fashion design. Her biggest achievement was the harlequin eyeglasses that became a fashion accessory for women defying Dorothy Parker’s doggerel: “Men don’t make passes at women who wear glasses.”

Like many wealthy Jews, her sympathies were with the left. This, of course, was still at a time when a sense of noblesse oblige existed and before the state of Israel converted this layer into the equivalent of Good Germans.

She became close to Georg Grosz, the German expressionist painter and Communist after he went into exile in the USA and won a nomination for best documentary of 1960 about Grosz’s struggle against Nazism. During the worst days of the Red Scare, she hid blacklisted director John Berry in her Beverly Hills mansion until he could make a getaway to Europe.

After completing this film, she turned her attention to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Freedom March, for which to she acquired film rights. Vittorio De Sica, the Italian director of “The Bicycle Thief” and a Communist sympathizer, was to direct the film. But since the civil rights movement remained controversial in the early 60s, she failed to line up funding.

Her most celebrated artwork, once again eschewing the rarefied atmosphere of the galleries, was her “chairacters”, furniture that had a vaguely erotic feel as the image below would indicate:

Peggy Guggenheim had the reputation for having a ravenous sexual appetite and supposedly slept with 1,000 men in Europe. Altina Schinasi was probably a runner-up if we take the word of her last husband at face value. Her last husband Celestino Miranda, a decades-younger Cuban refugee she had taken on as a studio assistant, tells us that she was a tiger in bed even in her seventies. Altina Schinasi died in 1999 at the age of 92. This remarkable documentary will give you a flavor of the Jewish wealthy when they were at their best.

June 16, 2014

Blood, spirit, the family, and soil: a response to Israel Shamir

Filed under: Jewish question,right-left convergence,Russia — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

US Jews are divided on the Ukraine, as they were divided on Palestine. Friends of Palestine, people with a strong anti-imperialist record and sound knowledge of East European history – Noam Chomsky and Stephen F. Cohen — recognised and renounced the US attempt to sustain their hegemony by keeping brazen Russia down. A subset of people, Gilad Atzmon aptly called AZZ (anti-zionist zionists), Trots and other faux-Leftist shills for NATO like Louis Proyect – called for American intervention and brayed for Russian blood.

That was a paragraph in an articled titled “The Fateful Triangle: Russia, Ukraine and the Jews”  from the inimitable Israel Shamir, a frequent contributor to what I would describe as the conspiracist sphere of the Internet. These are websites that see wicked plots everywhere and in Shamir’s case, those spun by Jews.

Israel Shamir

One of the most objectionable parts of Shamir’s paragraph was the reference to me as a “US Jew”. How in the world did I earn that designation? After getting bar mitzvahed in 1958, I stopped attending synagogue. I would have stopped sooner but I was under my observant father’s thumb. I guess that Shamir is referring to my “blood” but if that were the basis for his attribution, then I would claim to be Turkish rather than Jewish since I descend from the Khazars, a Turkic tribe that adopted Judaism in the 8th century AD mostly for economic reasons. But then there’s the question of where the Khazars came from. They were probably Mongols at some point and before that who knows? Not to put too fine a point on it, my “blood” probably can be traced back to the African sub-Saharan regions, where the rest of the human race comes from. For someone who is used to thinking in class terms and hopes for a worldwide socialist system in which national identity becomes as outdated as religion and other mystifications, it is jarring to encounter someone so deep into racial distinctions as Shamir. What an odd duck.

Beside the business about “blood”, Shamir also has a thing about “spirit”: “Communism won in the East – not because the East was backward, but because the East was the most spiritual part of the planet, less ruined by modernity and alienation.”

Gosh, it’s been a long time since I heard anybody blather on about the “spiritual”. Back in 1966, just before I joined the Trotskyist movement, I used to buy LSD from a neighbor in my Hoboken tenement who went on to become a top guy in the Hare Krishna movement. Eventually his old habits returned, as he became a coke addict and a gun nut. In “Monkey on a Stick”, a fine history of the Hare Krishnas, authors John Hubner and Lindsay Gruson describe my old supplier driving around downtown Berkeley blasting out the windows of car dealers with an M-16. And all along, even now, old Hans Dutta describes himself as very “spiritual”. As for me, I am having none of it.

If you can believe the Wikipedia entry on Shamir (much of it sounds like it was describing a character in a Thomas Pynchon novel), you’ll learn that he converted to Orthodox Christianity somewhere along the line. I wonder if this means that he goes to Church on Sunday morning. What a waste of time. Homer Simpson had that right. It is a much better use of your time to be watching football games on Sunday. I suspect his Orthodoxy shapes his views on the burning social questions of the day. Like Maoist cult leader Bob Avakian in the early 70s, Shamir doesn’t want the gays dividing the working class. He concluded that a French bill to legalize gay marriage and adoption bill amounted to a “neoliberal attack on the French family”. Frankly, I would vote for any bill that undermined the nuclear family but then again I am more influenced by Engels than the Holy Bible.

Some on the left are agitated by what they regard as Israel Shamir’s anti-Semitism. I tend not to worry so much about this since the Jews haven’t faced what they call an “existential threat” since the 1930s. For me, Shamir’s crude and stupid musings on world Jewry are much more of a social gaffe, akin to peeing on a toilet seat. I am disappointed to see so many people accepting him into polite society on the leftwing of the Internet, but maybe sitting down in someone’s pee doesn’t bother them so much.

Mostly, the people today who have the most to fear are immigrants not Jews, especially those of color who are being attacked by neo-Nazis throughout Europe. As a socialist, I support open borders. As long as capital is free to cross borders, so are workers. Plus, speaking as a New Yorker, this city would be a lot less interesting without the steady influx of immigrants. Shamir feels otherwise, killing two birds with one stone: “The middle-class Gay International (a term of Joseph Massad) is on the forefront of support for immigration: one can explain it by their compassion, but one can also explain it by their own interests of having a pool of cheap and available sexual partners.” Yes, that makes perfect sense. The Gay International needs more kids from El Salvador–desperately trying to survive–because its hunger for sex partners is insatiable. What amazing social commentary from the 21st century’s De Tocqueville.

So, we see a pattern developing. If anything, Shamir is consistent. First there is blood, and then there is spirit, followed by the sacrosanct family unit, and topped off by soil. Blood, spirit, the holy family, and soil: a potent combination and far preferable to the epicene and deracinated socialist doctrines that are eroding mankind.

One can understand the appeal of blood, spirit, the family and the soil to large sectors of the left. We are living in a period when the idea of joining forces between the left and the right is quite seductive. Ralph Nader has organized a conference in Washington that brings together his own brand of anti-globalization activism and those of the Rand Paul flavor. Somehow, this siren song is lost on me. I didn’t even resort to Odysseus’s trick of stuffing my ears with bee’s wax. I must have had some kind of genetic disposition against the siren song of a Rand Paul, a character whose bad hairdo and insistence that shopkeepers have the right to exclude Blacks is reason enough to hate him.

I suppose I should say a few words on the Shamir article itself and his accusation of me as a shill for NATO. In an email exchange with Shamir, he clarified his thinking. It was not as if I ever backed American military intervention but it was more a question of backing the EuroMaidan protests. His logic is that if you are critical of Russia, you automatically become a shill for NATO. This methodology has been around for quite some time. Despite his rather problematic stance on the blood and soil stuff, he also is capable of speaking as a kind of paleo-Stalinist:

By 1933, with the capitalist world deeply mired in a devastating economic crisis, unemployment was declared abolished, and remained so for the next five and a half decades, until socialism, itself, was abolished. The Communists produced social security more robust than provided even by Scandinavian-style social democracy, but achieved with fewer resources and a lower level of development and in spite of the unflagging efforts of the capitalist world to see to it that socialism failed. Soviet socialism was, and remains, a model for humanity – of what can be achieved outside the confines and contradictions of capitalism.

I should add that the mixture of paleo-Stalinism and the blood/soil/family stuff might not be that surprising given that the Communist Party in Russia has straddled Red and Brown positions for a number of years. I doubt that they will ever return to power with such a program but they seem content to campaign around such themes no matter how few Russians buy it. For the Brown crap, the pin-headed Russian can go straight to the rightwing nationalist parties. There will always be nostalgia for “the good old days” of the USSR but I suspect that for those who take their Marxism seriously, it will not be on the basis of describing Stalin’s USSR as a “model for humanity”. The Communist movement collapsed largely because of its investment in such a fiction and like Humpty-Dumpty there is nothing that will put it back together again. I suspect that Shamir writes a lot of outrageous stuff in order to get attention. Howard Stern has the same approach, but unlike Shamir, he is intentionally funny while Shamir is just funny.

To wrap things up, let me say a word or two about the main points in Shamir’s article. He makes the case that Putin is a good friend of the Jews and of Israel, even to the point of being friendly with Masha Gessen, a “Jewish Lesbian Putin-hater”. (Apparently Shamir is as obsessed with peoples’ sexual orientation as he is with their blood quotient.) Somehow, I doubt that Putin is friendly with a woman who wrote a blistering attack on him in “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin” but let’s leave it at that.

After much more smoke-blowing about the Jews, Shamir gets to his main point, namely that global Jewry has a hard core (including me) that is part of a vast conspiracy to undermine Mother Russia and its good-hearted allies:  “Enemies of Putin in Russia, Ukraine, Europe and US do support Israel and are hostile to Palestine, to Syria of Bashar, to Venezuela of Chavez.” Well, I only speak for myself but I am quite capable of being opposed to the Baathists and supportive of the Chavistas at the same time, having written 28 articles over the years on behalf of Hugo Chavez’s movement as opposed to Shamir who has written none. He is more interested in writing about Jewzuela than Venezuela.

In terms of Syria and Palestine being litmus tests, this is a useful reminder of where things really stand. Based on Shamir’s criterion, 83 percent of the Palestinians would be considered “NATO shills” as well. So I am in good company.

Palestinians in Palestine still overwhelmingly against Assad

June 4, 2014 by Talal Alyan

As Assad opts for a modest 88.7% win for his third term, the latest Pew Global Attitudes Survey reaffirms that the self-designated liberator of Palestine continues to be flatly rejected by Palestinian in Palestine. The survey found that 83% of Palestinians under occupation consider Bashar Al Assad “unfavorable”, 65% of which regard him as “very unfavorable”

Read full article http://beyondcompromise.com/2014/06/04/palestinians-in-palestine-still-overwhelmingly-against-assad/

 

April 21, 2014

The return of Stefan Zweig

Filed under: Fascism,Film,Jewish question,literature,war — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

Counterpunch April 21, 2014

Madness and War

The Return of Stefan Zweig

by LOUIS PROYECT

When a publicist from IFC invited me to a press screening of Patrice Leconte’s “A Promise” (the film opens Friday in NY), I could not resist. Leconte was one of my favorite directors and I considered his “Ridicule” a masterpiece. Since IFC described “A Promise” as a tale about a young man of humble origins taking up a clerical post in a German steel factory at the beginning of WWI, it sounded as if Leconte had returned to the concerns of “Ridicule”, a film that pitted a minor aristocrat in pre-revolutionary France against the snobbery and authoritarianism of Louis XIV’s court. It seemed all the more promising (no pun intended) given the screenplay’s origins as a Stefan Zweig novella titled “Journey into the Past”. I was aware that there was something of a Stefan Zweig revival afoot, reflected by Wes Anderson’s homage to him in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and new editions of his fiction and nonfiction work from both New York Review of Books and Pushkin Press, a boutique publisher specializing in fine literature.

This much I knew about Stefan Zweig. He was the quintessential fin de siècle author from the quintessential fin de siècle city—Vienna. He was a pacifist who opposed WWI and a Jew who fled Nazi Germany. He was also connected to a wide range of intellectuals and public figures, ranging from the Zionist Theodor Herzl to Richard Strauss, the German composer who had an ambivalent relationship to the Third Reich but who stood by Zweig when it came to including his librettist’s name in a programme. He was particularly close to Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler and Romain Rolland, three other key figures from fin de siècle Vienna. After relocating to Brazil, Stefan Zweig and his wife committed suicide together. Like fellow Jew Walter Benjamin, he succumbed to despair.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/21/the-return-of-stefan-zweig/

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
by LOUIS PROYECT

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.

fogelson

co-op2
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.”

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