Remembering Revolutionary Yiddishland

Middle East
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By now, generations separate us from the world of working-class Jewish Europe, a world of shtetls and Communists, pogroms and partisans. It was a world that was immolated, gunned down, almost irretrievably lost. And it is one separated from the present not merely by cataclysmic antisemitic violence, and an insistence on turning Jews into colonizers, but also by the power over history wielded by history’s winners.

Revolutionary Yiddishland, by Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg, is a history of that world, of European Jewish radicalism. Their oral history – a history from below – seeks to capture the lives of struggle of Jewish dissidents, communists, Bundists, working-class militants, martyrs of the Spanish Civil War.

The book refers to a world that is no more except in memory, or secondhand memory, one that may seem almost a curio, where it is visible at all amidst the black shadow cast across official Jewish memory through the sacralization of the German Judeocide as the crucial hinge of modern Jewish history.

(Image: Verso Books)

(Image: Verso Books)

The history of those who fought for a shared utopia will not be very acceptable to the self-appointed representatives and spokespeople of Jews, the Zionist state and its US-based emissaries and co-thinkers. Not merely because the moral universe of Israel is not constructed around the division between exploiters and exploited, but that of “Jews and goyim.” But also because of the other binary of Zionist ideology. That is, a rejection of the Jews of the Diaspora, “often not far removed from the typical caricature of anti-Semitic propaganda,” in favor of the “mythical warrior who made a last suicidal stand at Masada,” and for whom the Israeli state and its citizenry is their self-anointed heir. This second pairing has no place for the Jews of Yiddishland, either.

Against these two binaries, there has been little place for the history Brossat and Klingberg chronicle, grasp tight, refuse to release. In the Zionist state’s propaganda system, there was only “room for the Yiddishland revolutionaries at the price of their own history.” But for the people whose lives the authors brilliantly bring to light, their struggle was an attempt to make room for themselves. In a world where they were victims of brutal discrimination and exploitation, they searched out their own path to the universal from the particular place in which they found themselves.

The Bund, started in Vilnius in 1897, was one example. Raised in the crèche of radical ferment, working-class factory agitation, and learning circles, the Bundists spoke in Yiddish. They correctly identified the national dimension of their oppression, organizing self-defense groups to fight back against the pogroms. Its cadre went to prison in the thousands. They called for political and civic equality at first, and later for national and cultural autonomy for the Jews in the tsarist empire. All along, they viewed their fate as tied to the rest of the Russian working class.

The Jewish radicals in Poland were immersed in Yiddish literary culture. Largely auto-didactic, from the manual trades, they were regularly imprisoned, often for years at a time. In the prisons, “each cell was a university for the political prisoners,” a place for the study of “Marxist theory, dialectics, historical materialism.”

The Spanish Civil War was another event with an uncommon meaning for radicals, and the authors note the disproportionate presence of Jewish names amongst its martyrs. The “little people,” the “tailors, shoemakers, furriers, carpenters, tinsmiths,” were born to the “internationalism of the exploited in the wretched workshops” of Eastern Europe. Many of the European poor of all faiths were drawn to internationalism. But the Jews of this generation were particularly drawn to anti-fascism. They understood that fascism imagined a Europe in which as Jews and as Communists they could not be, that “it was the fate of Europe, the fate of the workers’ movements and the European revolution, that was being played out in Spain.”

Accompanying their awareness that anti-fascism was a struggle being fought with arms and not merely with words was a desire to settle accounts with that stereotype of antisemitic propaganda – European Jewish weakness.

Later, eastern European Jews who had immigrated to France were in the vanguard of resistance to onrushing fascism. Jews composed perhaps 15-30 percent of the French Resistance. Young Jewish women were the main agitators amongst German occupation troops in France in the “travail Allemand.” Those discovered paid quickly, and with their lives. And when the military forces of fascism were defeated – primarily by the USSR, but also by communist partisans across Europe – the internationalist spirit which had animated Jewish participation in the anti-fascist resistance soon, too, left the European scene. Parochial nationalism took its place, as the post-war European states consolidated national sentiment behind patriotism and sought to coopt, destroy, and demobilize the immensely popular communist resistance.

Brossat and Klingberg’s book is a memorial to missing world. As an aesthetic composition, it is beautiful. But it also feels out-of-place, quite literally an intrusion from at least two other times. The first is of course the alien and destroyed Yiddishland, when there was a Jewish culture oppressed enough that it created a life experience suitable for communist militants to emerge from it in droves. The second is when the book was written and then reissued – in 1982 and 2009. Their interviewees are primarily Jews living in Israel. But amongst both them and the Jews living in Europe, that old revolting world contains the “image…of the loser, the retiree from the revolution,” and “what it sympathizes with here is not so much their utopia…as their disillusions and present ‘realism.’”

But what was real then – even in 2009! – is different from what is real now. The aspiration for a shared emancipation, what the militants of the book would have described unhesitatingly as communism, which seemed so dead, is now very much alive. It is not merely the nostalgia and yearning which feel alien when reading this book, but also the sense of political impossibility which is often such sentiments’ partner.

What makes this book doubly-odd is its failure to pass the test of anti-colonialism. The authors’ reference to the “conquering Zionism of Begin and Dayan,” against the “original dream of the first communist generations in Palestine,” their references to the “macabre farce in the Israel of Begin and Sharon,” and in a different way their approving reference to the brief 1982 demonstrations against the Israeli aggression against Lebanon, conjure up comforting but false formulas of a redeemable settlement project – of a better Israel of Ben Gurion, for example.

Such dreams were true enough for some of the displaced dreamers but were nothing but nightmares for the victims of Zionism. The historian has the right to register the reveries of some of the founders. But the radical has the duty to note that one ought not, one cannot, build any kind of Utopia on a killing field, and that ignorance is no exculpation for a crime. Their socialist Zionism has aged badly. That is a very good thing, since it speaks to a successful struggle against its racism.

The book is, finally, of its time. That does not mean it is useless for ours. The task of historians is often, as Walter Benjamin noted, to grab hold of a memory “as it flashes at a moment of danger,” and repurpose that history as a tool of struggle, but also to defend it, and to defend the world of the dead and what they fought for. For that reason, this book, blights and all, is useful as a reminder to its readers of a moment when another world was felt to be within reach, when Jews in large measure lived a common fate with Europe’s other working peoples, fought, struggled, organized, and died among them. As we lurch into another moment when more and more may feel the jackboot of the state, one can hope also the message of this book can inspire many to again look to that horizon to which the people of lost Yiddishland looked, too, and find something there worth struggling for.

About Max Ajl

Max Ajl is a writer and activist. Follow him on Twitter: @maxajl.

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8 Responses

  1. echinococcus
    January 10, 2017, 2:50 pm

    Thank you for the excellent review, Ajl. Isn’t it an anachronism, though, to call irreligious, revolutionary Bundists, openly connected by their Yiddish language and peculiar culture, “Jewish” instead of what they called themselves –Yiddish? They never saw themselves as anything but culturally Ashkenaze people, with a marked ethnic characteristics that had not much to do with a given religion and nothing to do with any cloud-cuckoo “Jewishness”.

  2. damasco
    January 11, 2017, 1:34 pm

    The word Yiddish means, in Yiddish, both the language and Jewish–same word. It is difficult to disentangle the two. If they thought of themselves as Yiddish, as you say, then they neccessarily thought of themselves as Jewish–only to a non-Yiddish speaker would it seem otherwise. Nor was Ashkenazi the great signifier of identity–the great divides were largely descended from the haskalah. (Sephardic Jews were little more than received projections.) The Yiddish language and literary culture was steeped in religious imagery and references, even if they were irreligious. As a Yiddish poet once wrote “Sein a Yid heisst ewig laufen zu gott / afi’lu as miz an entlaufer” (roughly: to be a Jew means always running to God/ Even when you are fleeing)

    • Mooser
      January 11, 2017, 3:34 pm

      “(roughly: to be a Jew means always running to God/ Even when you are fleeing)”

      Yes, I sometimes get the unfortunate impression we think we can run circles around God.

    • echinococcus
      January 12, 2017, 8:44 am

      Damasco,

      Sophistry. Are you suggesting that these sharp people were too stupid, even as internationalist socialists (key element!), even in times preceding the Zionist mass folly, to see that they had nothing in common with any non-Yiddish-speaking populations? Just because the word used happens to be the same?

      The piece you quote (Glatstein?) can only be (and explicitly is) from a religious person trying to blackmail tribal nationalists. In fact, it is specifically from a poem on the… Spanish (=Sefardí) Marranos, totally unconnected culturally to anything Jiddisch/Eskenazi. An explicit exercise in spurious Jewish nationalism, the diametrical contrary of the socialist internationalism of the Bundists we were discussing.

      Can you commit a worse anachronism?

  3. Jane Porter
    January 13, 2017, 11:01 am

    thank you so much for this article recording a beautiful page of jewish history. Most of my french- jewish friends, mostly from polish origin have helped the Algerian during their fight for independence.
    Your article reminds me also f the beautiful poem by Loius Aragon sung by Leo Ferré,” l’affiche rouge,” about the Manouchian underground group in WW2: Ils étaient 23 quand les fusils fleurirent
    23 étrangers et nos frères pourtant……I maybe should translate it for you
    And you see the list with their names
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FTP-MOI#Paris_region.2C_Groupe_Manouchian

  4. CitizenC
    January 16, 2017, 2:04 pm

    As Echinococcus notes above, it is inappropriate

    to call irreligious, revolutionary Bundists, openly connected by their Yiddish language and peculiar culture, “Jewish” instead of what they called themselves –Yiddish? They never considered themselves as anything but culturally Ashkenaze people… and nothing to do with any cloud-cuckoo “Jewishness”.

    Moreover, they did not romanticize their Yiddishkeit, but viewed it as backward and sterile. The Bund was founded in 1897, not by Yiddish speakers, but by Russophones. The workers’ movement in the Russian empire, including in the Pale, was begun by Russophones, who were the most acquainted with the wider world and politically conscious.

    Julius Martov, a key figure in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (later a Menshevik) was one proponent of a Yiddish-speaking mass movement, but some Russophone Yiddish-speaking workers opposed Yiddish as backward and the Yiddish masses as unpromising. The Bund did not hold a congress in Yiddish for many years.

    I haven’t read the book but it seems to be an exercise in “Jewish identity” and unsurprisingly Max Ajl’s review does not escape that. Of the Jewish Spanish Civil War veterans he states:

    Accompanying their awareness that anti-fascism was a struggle being fought with arms and not merely with words was a desire to settle accounts with that stereotype of antisemitic propaganda – European Jewish weakness.

    Does the book actually say that? Or is that Ajl’s projection? It is hard to believe that being a “tough Jew” was very important to the internationalists who fought fascism in Spain knowing what was at stake. One recalls Ajl’s old “Jewbonics” web site (now retired), with the statement by the Russian soldier, speaking of Jewish partisans: “These Jews know how to fight!” Is that,
    what the left was about, being a “tough Jew”?

    Ajl does recognise that “socialist Zionism” was a racist/racialist chimera, to his credit. The same must be said for secular “Jewish identity”, beyond the obvious fact of Yiddish language and culture. They were destroyed by Nazism, but also did not survive integration and assimilation in liberal societies, which was a positive development.

    Consider also Shlomo Sand’s critique of the “secular Jew”, and the legacy of those who abandoned their Jewish backgrounds and thereby contributed to the modern world, from Spinoza on. The Yiddish radicals were part of that, with the Yiddish non-radicals who came to the US by the million, leaving Yiddishkeit behind.

    • echinococcus
      January 18, 2017, 7:24 am

      CitizenC,

      Ajl does recognise that “socialist Zionism” was a racist/racialist chimera, to his credit. The same must be said for secular “Jewish identity”, beyond the obvious fact of Yiddish language and culture. They were destroyed by Nazism, but also did not survive integration and assimilation in liberal societies, which was a positive development.

      Key remark, thanks.

      But then, there was no such thing as “secular Jewish” identity outside the formal framework of the medieval theocratic state, as later represented by the Ottoman “millet” system, which was in turn taken over by the British mandate, then revived and fully enforced by the illegal Zionist entity. The Zionist entity is probably the last, and most, fully theocratic state re nominal religious identities, along with stone age relicts like Saudi, Pakistan, etc.

      Elsewhere it seems that secularization/integration/assimilation of individuals did not have to wait for “liberal societies”.

      • CitizenC
        January 18, 2017, 1:21 pm

        But Zionism isn’t religious, though there are religious Zionists. Israel’s Jewish/non-Jewish distinction isn’t religious, it’s simply racialist. The national designation that Zionism attributes to “Jewish” is historically and morally untenable. In the Pale of Settlement the Yiddish Jews attained quasi-national status, but that had nothing to do with the acculturated west Euro and North American Jews. The secularism of many Israeli Jews points to secular Israeli Hebrew nationality that would be open to all. That is the normalization of Zionism, on modern terms.

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