Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism
New York: Verso, 2016.
In the relatively recent publication in English (for the first time) of the 1983 French book Revolutionary Yiddishland, Jewish authors Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg document Jewish radical Leftist politics in Europe in the early to mid-20th century. It is a combination of oral history and a more theoretical analysis of collective historical memory. The authors seek to preserve what they see as the evaporating memory of an era of forward-thinking, hopeful, radical politics which centered around various communities of Jews dwelling in white countries (specifically in Central and Eastern Europe, i.e. “Yiddishland”). But they also want to shed light on how these historical memories function in the present. As such, this book must be read on two levels: first, as a fairly straight-forward history that illuminates many of the reasons why Jews have been, are, and will continue to be a threat to whites; second, as a deeper look into how Jews perceive their own political traditions and culture both in the context of white history and of Zionism. From a strictly practical perspective, the value of this book is that it is a gold mine of pertinent quotes by Jews about Jewish political and cultural attitudes which further vindicate White Nationalist positions and can be used in a wide variety of evidentiary contexts.
Revolutionary Yiddishland is, at its core, a lament for what the authors believe is a disappearing Leftist Jewish radicalism which has been subsumed into the more successful ideology of Zionism. The authors observe in the preface that when this book was written it was “still possible, with memory not yet governed by disciplinary regulations and a speech police established at the heart of the media and close to the executive and judicial powers, to write a book of this kind from a point of view decidedly different from any form of Zionist teleology” (p. x). They then go on to write that “what is at issue here is not so much the inevitably growing distance of a ‘world of yesterday’, but rather a loosening of connection from what appears today as a ‘lost world’“ (p. xi). The revolutionary politics about which they write have been buried beneath layers of Jewish cultural shifts and, from the authors’ perspective, counterrevolutionary narrative controls. Jewish history as the inevitable and triumphant march towards a Zionist Israel is now the central focus of contemporary Jewish historical understanding, which necessarily relegates other narratives–in this case “revolution”–to a position of foreignness and unreality.
In their introduction, the authors provide a brief history of the what they call the “three major currents of red Yiddishland: the communists, the Bund, and Poale Zion” (p. 6). Jewish involvement with communism is well-known but the latter groups might be unfamiliar to some readers. The Bund was an organization of Jews that was explicit in its advocacy for a specifically Jewish socialism within Europe (it opposed Zionism); its concern was for the success of Jews themselves. The authors write that it “valorized and championed Yiddish while the communists merely accepted it” (p. 73). Despite its initial communist leanings, the Bund ended up being social democratic and less radical than the Poale Zion, which advocated a communist Jewish state in Palestine. Because of its support for nationalism, it was rejected by the Comintern, which instructed Poale Zion members to join the communist parties of their respective countries. To be sure, the above is a very broad simplification, but the ideological differences between these organizations need not concern us. What matters is that, in different ways and to slightly different degrees, each of these movements was concerned with the creation of safe political and cultural spaces for Jews, at times explicitly and at other times implicitly, even, as in the case of communism, while purporting to be a “great movement of universal emancipation” (p. 51).
The book relies heavily on interviews with members of these organizations and intersperses their recollections of events and their interpretations of the cultural climate of Yiddishland with the authors’ commentary. The first chapter, “The Immense Pool of Human Tears” begins by describing Yiddishland as “a social and cultural space, a linguistic and religious world rather than a territory in the strict sense. . . [a] space interwoven with other cultural and national worlds intersecting them, supervening on them . . .” (pp. 29-30). We already see an admission of Jewish “otherness,” the sense of detachment, the lack of assimilation, a disconnection from the indigenous communities in which they had been charitably granted the right to dwell. After presenting Yiddishland as a sort of nation within nations, the authors then place it in the context of the rise of capitalism: Jews became increasingly urbanized, were increasingly allowed access to higher education, and were increasingly in competition for factory jobs with non-Jews. Not only did this change the internal dynamics of the Jewish world but it changed their relationship to their host populations. This new, more urban, and more educated Jewish population was instrumental in developing the numerous radical Jewish workers’ movements that swept Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. Though the authors claim that the original purpose of these movements was to radicalize Jews only for the purpose of bringing them into a grand unified, multiethnic, multiracial proletariat, based on what we know of Jewish history this seems highly unlikely–even if individual members actually believed this. However, true or not, this did not happen. These organizations became forces of both radical Leftist agitation and pro-Jewish racial solidarity.
In interviews with Jews who were involved in these movements in their youths, one theme recurs: the tension between Jewish tradition and the new radicalism which accompanied the rise of capitalism. One young Jew, for example, who had been offered a ham sandwich by another young atheist Communist Jew was terrified to eat it but did so to prove his radical credentials (p. 40). Another Jew was beaten by his father for having his side-locks cut because he did not want to be mocked at a meeting of radicals (p. 40). These were new pressures on their communities but, as the authors point out “despite the cleavages that ran through Yiddishland, despite the instability of this world, community and family ties remained strong: a continuation of traditional values that is explained by the persistent mechanisms of rejection by the surrounding society” (p. 44). Or, to put it another way, no matter what problems Jews faced, ultimately nothing mattered as much to them as their perception of being oppressed because they were Jews.
It is obvious that despite the universalism in which their political goals were often couched, these Jews arrived in this political realm through their Jewishness in the first place. Their feelings of alienation and hostility towards whites is apparent. One communist Jew quoted in the book remarked that “as anti-Semitism and political repression grew, in the 1930s, the more convinced I was that socialism was the only possible solution for us” (p. 62). His feelings were tribal first and political second. There are similar examples that demonstrate the primacy of racial identity in decisions to adopt this outwardly non-racial ideology. One member of the Bund mentions that “as Jewish youth, we suffered so many inequalities in Polish society that we demanded immediate and radical solutions” which in turn kept him from feeling “any affinity” towards “European social democrats, especially German socialists . . .” (p. 66). Another Jew describes how, for his father, “the prophets were precursors of Marx” (p. 47). A Jew from Spain is also quoted: “There was such a high proportion of Jewish youth in the communist movement here that you could almost say it was a Jewish national movement” (p. 61). This was not a coincidental overlap of radical Leftist politics and Jewish interests in Europe. There was a direct link from one to the other: a hostility to Europe and to Europeans (even white Leftists) were the driving forces behind the Jewish embrace of communism and other far-left movements.