Book Review: A rich tradition for anti-Zionist Jews to emulate

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The mission statement of The Radical Jewish Tradition (RJT) is to recover the history of Jewish revolutionaries, resistance fighters and firebrands. These stories contain not just an antidote to the distortions and suppressions of Zionism, but also point the way forward for a lasting peace in the Middle East. This book is a timely intervention by authors and anti-Zionist Jewish socialists, Donny Gluckstein and Janey Stone, who provide a powerful weapon to rescue history.

The first section discusses antisemitism and its origins, making the case that it is far from natural. The authors quote historian Richard Levy, who argues that “Antisemitism is a modern phenomenon, the origins of which can be dated precisely. The word antisemite, and the abstraction ‘antisemitism’ first appeared in Germany in 1879… a new word was needed to describe the new sort of… long-term activity against Jews.” This shows that antisemitism is a social construction which evolved with capitalism. It also means that it is not eternal. Gluckstein and Stone argue that the scapegoating, pogroms and oppression “will only end if the class system behind it is abolished.”

RJT documents the resistance by working-class Jewish radicals who understood that “the working class has the numbers and economic strength” to end the oppression. The most in-depth section of the book, titled “Revolutionaries,” provides the inspiring story of Jewish radicals in Russia, London’s East End, New York and Poland in meticulous detail.

The origins of the Russian revolution can be traced back to the pogroms and scapegoating of Jews within the decaying feudalism of the Tzarist empire. The majority of Jews were a significant part of the working class. This is why Jews developed a radical class consciousness, not only experiencing economic exploitation but religious oppression as well. This led to Russian Jews forming the first trade unions, the earliest of which was the Women’s Tailors Association in 1864. And in 1897 the first Jewish socialist political party, the Jewish Labour Bund, was formed.

The Bund was welded together by class consciousness. As a fiercely anti-Zionist organisation, instead of “fantasies of reunification” in Palestine, “the Bund grappled with the immediate reality of Jewish workers lives in situ.” It also passed a resolution declaring membership of a Zionist organisation incompatible with membership of the Bund.

Zionist leader Herzl argued that the masses were irretrievably antisemitic. But the reality of the Russian revolution — an event that radical Jews played a major role in — proved that to be false. On International Women’s Day, textile workers led an uprising that toppled the Tsar. “The very next day age-old quotas on Jews in education were lifted and on 20 March all anti Jewish laws were abolished.”

In Britain, a large Jewish community settled in the East End of London during the later part of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The majority fleeing pogroms began life in sweatshops of the most disgusting kind imaginable, giving radicals plenty to organise around.

There were many links between “immigrant Jewish radicals and home grown socialists” with Jews having a visible presence in the annual May Day march. Eleanor Marx, a famous Jew and the daughter of Karl Marx, taught herself Yiddish so that she could help organise the newly arrived Jewish immigrants involved with East End Jewish Women Workers.

Sarah Wesker was another Jewish woman who was a formidable union organiser, leading strikes of machinists at the all-female Goodman’s trouser factory. At this time racism was being fomented via immigration controls. The Alien Act 1905 was steered through Parliament by Arthur Balfour of Balfour Declaration fame. He argued for restrictions on Jews, because “they are not to the advantage of the civilisation of the country.” Herzl, who was one of the most important architects of Zionism, was also complicit in this legislation. Fascists were organising at the same time, with the most dangerous being the British Union of Fascists. This was the environment that Wesker, a communist, was organising in. The grass roots in the East End were well networked. A large majority of the 500-strong Stephney branch of the Communist Party were Jewish. Many had close ties to the London dock workers, and some took in starving dock worker children during the bitter dock workers’ strike. And when, in 1936, the British Union of Fascists intensified its racist and antisemitic campaigning and organised a march, radical Jews were prominent among the 300,000 people participating in the Battle of Cable Street. The fascists were smashed and the people, among them radical Jews, were united and jubilant.

Zionism was always a minority project — that is until the rise of Hitler and the holocaust, when many countries excluded Jewish refugees and imposed immigration controls. The migration figures prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt. Before the holocaust, just a few thousand initially went to Palestine, whereas many millions went to New York.

Staunch strikers in New York in 1909 sparked International Women’s Day.

Immigrants arriving in New York experienced slave-like conditions, struggling against vampire landlords, tyrannical bosses — many of them Jewish — a brutal police force, hired thugs, and a corrupt legal system. The militancy started when housewives successfully fought against the increased cost of kosher meat. Butcher shops had their windows smashed. This was followed by a huge rent strike. It was organised mainly by Jewish women with 16-year-old Pauline Newman leading. Although not completely successful, the lessons learned were used to win the waistmakers’ strike of 1909. Of the 30,000-strong workforce, many were young Jewish women. Newman was among the most militant, spreading support for the strike. They won better pay, shorter hours, voting rights and an end to child labour. This victory not only ignited nationwide struggles, it was institutionalised by Clara Zetkin as International Working Women’s Day.

The third section of the book tells the horrific story of the rise of fascism in Germany, the need for scapegoats and the unleashing of the Holocaust. There was mass resistance to the Nazi occupation across Eastern Europe. Jews put up fierce opposition, using anything they had to fight — boiling water, scissors, axes and more were deployed against machine guns. One of the major themes of RJT is opposing what it calls the “lachrymose conception” of Jewish history. Literally the tearful conception where Jews are passive victims, even to the extent of being self-victimised. The book exposes this version of history as a Zionist myth used to peddle the view that antisemitism is eternal and that the only solution is to colonise Palestine.

There is every reason to believe that had the workers movement embraced the tactic of the united front between Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party — as proposed by Jewish revolutionary Leon Trotsky — then Hitler could have quickly and easily have been defeated. But the necessary unity failed to materialise, because Stalin argued that social democracy was really no different from Nazism, branding it “social fascism.” This lesson is still relevant today.

The book concludes with a powerful balance sheet, rich with contemporary lessons. “For six decades after 1881 Jews around the world engaged in struggles against antisemitism and their exploitation and did so as conscious fighters and agitators, as socialists and radicals. Alas the counterattack was crushing. Many in the diaspora accepted the violent foundation of Israel as the answer and Zionism replaced radicalism as the predominant current in the Jewish community.” Today, many more Jews are rejecting Zionism. Be inspired by the Jewish rebels and class conscious organisers — please read this wonderfully apt book.

The Radical Jewish Tradition: Revolutionaries, resistance fighters & firebrands by Donny Gluckstein and Janey Stone is available from Solidarity Salon bookshop.

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