Jews and Their Isms: A Convergence of Two Historical Moments

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December 1, 2012
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Eddy Portnoy

The number of isms to which Jews attached themselves during the first decades of the 20th century was quite remarkable: bundism, communism, yiddishism, zionism, diaspora nationalism, socialism, trade unionism, and territorialism. Some Jews were drawn to a movement’s political orientation, while others made choices based on a group’s sports club or library, or on the attraction of a group’s comrades. The reason one joins a movement, after all, may not always be based on its founding ideology.

The success of a political or social movement often depended upon how much noise was made or how powerful it was on the street. An example: Esteem for the Bund rose enormously in 1905 after members took to Warsaw’s streets, pummeling the pimps and criminals who had for years been terrorizing poor Jewish neighborhoods. Around the same time, Zionists were accused of failing to achieve much at all, anywhere, fiddling with ideas like the Uganda Plan while Bialystok burned. Zionism had been birthed as a movement whose goal was “over there,” and that required the demure intercession of the movement’s leaders with politicians and heads of state. So, while it received support from a fair chunk of Eastern Europe’s Jewish masses, it wasn’t particularly clear to these same masses what, exactly, their Zionist leaders were doing. With the violent convulsions of World War I veiling their activities, the behind-the-scenes engagements of political Zionism were not well known to most Jews.

This is why publication of the Balfour Declaration (the first governmental recognition of Jewish national rights in Palestine, issued by Great Britain) at the end of the first week of November of 1917 was such a startling surprise. Though it received some attention in London’s newspapers, it was scantly addressed in the news cycle of the Yiddish press, even by papers like Warsaw’s Haynt, which was staunchly Zionist. And while some cities — notably Odessa — held large demonstrations in support of Zionism, the reality of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine didn’t seem tangible at the time. News of the Balfour Declaration was also obscured by that week’s other big event, the Bolshevik Revolution. Because the former Russian Empire held the world’s largest Jewish population, the revolution became the major news story for Yiddish readers.

While Balfour was major, Bolsheviks were truly the big news — and also the Jewish story — of the day. While the declaration was a Zionist success, Russia’s second massive
revolution in the span of nine months took precedence. The Jewish press was particularly
intrigued by the appointment of a Jew as foreign minister in the new Bolshevik government’s regime. Discovering that a number of major players in Lenin’s first cabinet were also Jewish, in spite of the “non-Jewish Jew” nature of their identities, was simply astonishing.

After the Bolshevik consolidation of power in Russia in 1918, all political parties other than the Bolsheviks were banned, the free press was dismantled, and the teaching of religion was prohibited. The People’s Commissariat of Nationalities was created to spread communism among the various Russian nationalities — including the Jews. Thus the Yevsektsia, the Jewish section of the Communist Party, was created to administer Jewish life in the new Soviet Union.

As Bolshevism morphed into communism, the Yevsektsia created state-sanctioned and financially supported Yiddish press, literature, and theater to serve Soviet Jews. A state-funded Yiddish school curriculum was developed and instituted in areas with large Jewish populations. This was nothing short of astounding. On the other hand, Yiddish had to be stripped of religious references and positive portrayals of anyone who couldn’t be identified as a proletarian. Hebrew culture and, especially, Zionism, were also forced to disappear.

By 1930, the Soviet state eliminated Yevsektsia and, during the second half of that decade, major purges removed many of the early Jewish Bolsheviks from public life — and, actually, from life itself. By the end of the decade, the Yiddish press, literature, theater, and school systems had all been shut down. The Jewish honeymoon with Bolshevism had come to an end (with a brief reconciliation during and after World War II). Twenty years later, large numbers of Soviet Jews began to make their way to the West, and 20 years after that, Soviet Jews became “Zionist” and immigrated to Israel en masse. Bolshevism was done.

Zionism, however, was not. From that chaotic week in November of 1917, when Balfour and the Bolsheviks met on the front pages of London’s broadsheets, the ideology to create a Jewish state in Palestine surpassed Theodor Herzl’s wildest dreams. One might have thought, with the creation of the State of Israel, that Zionism — the ideology that fed the movement — would have withered. After all, if the state exists, hasn’t the ideology completed its mission? Was Zionism supposed to be a form of permanent revolution, constantly renewing itself, or was the creation of the state the endgame? What does it mean to be a Zionist in 2012 as opposed to 1947? The State of Israel has been shlepping “Zionism” around for the past 60 years like the Jews once shlepped goles, exile. Does it need it?

Perhaps “Zionism” should be retired from the popular lexicon. It seems, at this point, to be superfluous. It earned its gold watch; send it to Miami to retire. Removing it from use might also have an interesting effect on politics: Anti-Zionists would have to openly admit their desire to dismantle a functional state instead of hiding behind the linguistic fig leaf of opposition to a vague ideology. They would have to become “anti-Israelis,” surely a more honest phrase.

The Soviet Union wasn’t able to exist with-out Bolshevism. It simply broke apart without its founding ideology. But Israel, even if it
retires the ideology that birthed it, will remain. It will simply be a state with a Jewish majority in which official holidays happen to be Jewish holidays and in which the government’s bureaucracy func-tions in Hebrew. One hardly needs an ideology for such mundane things.

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Eddy Portnoy teaches Jewish literature and Yiddish language at Rutgers University. He is a contributing editor at both the Forward and Tablet magazine.

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