Identity

That's Funny, You Don't Look Antisemitic

You know what’s awesome? Synergy.
A few weeks ago, I went on a mini-buying binge, glomming up every Jewish radical classic I could get my mitts on (four books, $4! w00t Amazon resellers!). This included a first edition hardcover copy of Porter & Dreier’s Jewish Radicalism, Jim “Sell Out” Sleeper’s The New Jews, Arthur Waskow’s The Bush is Burning, and finally Chutzpah: A Jewish Liberation Anthology (a worn copy which bears an inscription to a woman named Lillian from her friend Dorothy King of Workmen’s Circle branch #497). Reb Yudel also handed me a couple of interesting volumes from my grandparent’s generation, “Jewish Life” Anthology 1946-56 and “Jewish Currents” Reader 1956-66, which I would regard as the early 20th century Jewish Communist’s Bundist’s answer to Zeek.
The overwhelming feeling I’ve gotten from my perusal of these books is that, frankly, not a damned thing has changed in the 30 to 50 some-odd years since they were published.
To illustrate, I’m going to share an essay from Chutzpah — without the authors’ permission, but I beg their forgiveness in advance of a copyright suit — as it is all too relevant to the discussion I began last week on Left-wing antisemitism.
As I didn’t want to type the entire thing up, because my time is oh so precious, I Googled around first looking to see if the essay, “That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic: Perspective on the American Left,” by Steven Lubet and Jeffrey (Shay) Mallow, was available elsewhere online. Rather than turning up their essay, instead I found a booklet by Steve Cohen (not to be confused with identity/affiliation researcher Steven M. Cohen) bearing the same title: “That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic.” The booklet, published first in 1984, also focuses on the issue of antisemitism on the Left, and is reprinted in its entirety online courtesy of Engage, the British Jewish Lefty journal, which I’m loving more and more with every click of the mouse. Engage’s website offers a vast resource of critiques on Left-wing antisemitism, and it is something I believe every Jewish activist should share with their non-Jewish Lefty cohorts, lest they be doomed to continue this repetition of history for the next 30 years.
That said, it’s on to the Chutzpah essay — laboriously entered by yours truly. I hope you get some mileage out of it. I’ll be posting it to the forum thread that set my gears a spinnin’ on this subject.

***

That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic:
Perspective on the American Left

by Steven Lubet and Jeffrey (Shaye) Mallow
From Chutzpah: A Jewish Liberation Anthology (New Glide Publications, 1977)
During our years as activists in the civil rights and anti-war movements we were not especially interested in specific Jewish issues. The problems of the Jewish people often seemed narrow or parochial, and they certainly couldn’t match the immediacy of the great issues confronting the American public. This was also, of course, the predominant view of most American leftists.
In the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war the American Left was nearly unanimous in its support for the Arabs. At first we accepted–sometimes willingly, sometimes reluctantly–the Left’s distinction between anti-semitism and what they called “anti-Zionism.” Eventually, however, the frequency and fervor of attacks on Israel’s existence, as well as on any notion of the importance of Jewish identity, led us to the realization that leftists anti-Zionism, in this country and elsewhere, has not been able to transcend the world’s history of anti-semitism.
This is not to say that anti-Zionism and anti-semitism are identical, but rather that powerful strains of traditional anti-semitism run through the predominantly pro-Palestinian Left ideology. We cannot say whether this phenomenon is intentional or unwitting, but we do know that the Left1 has made no systematic attempt to rids its politics of anti-semitic roots.
Any analysis of Left anti-semitism begins with the Left’s own argument that it is not anti-semitic but merely anti-Zionist. And since Zionism is both racist and imperialist, it is the duty of the Left to oppose it at every turn. In fact, Zionism is the Jews’ worst enemy since it impedes the world socialist revolution which will someday provide the solution for all oppressed people.
Now, we are not opposed to legitimate criticism of Israel: Chutzpah as a collective, and we as individuals, have always criticized those aspects of Israeli policy which we considered inimical to peace. Indeed, we believe it is the obligation of Jewish and Gentile socialists to make constructive criticisms of Israel in the same we they criticize other nations. We also feel, however, that in the case of criticism of Israel, Gentiles must look inward, to be certain that their criticism does not stem in part from unconscious anti-semitism. Just as it was (and is) an obligation for whites to investigate their possibly unconscious racism before criticizing aspects of black liberation, Gentiles must similarly take a hard look at their own history before indulging in what may appear to them to be “even handed” criticism of Israel. (We might also suggest that many leftist Jewish critics of Israel take the same sort of hard look; anti-semitism, like anti-black racism, sometimes flourishes within the oppressed group itself.)
We believe that the form and content of most Left criticism of Israel is inescapably anti-semitic. Having long passed the point where we find it necessary to be defensive about our Zionism, it is still important to explain how the basis of anti-Zionism is also anti-semitic.
The central feature of Left anti-Zionism is that it denies to Jews the right of self-determination. The argument that Jews are not entitled to their own state is generally based, either implicitly or explicitly, on Stalin’s analysis of the national question.2 In this dry and rather unimaginative polemic, Stalin sought to prove that Jews are not a nation. This “proof,” which has been accepted by most leftists, boils down to the fact that in 1913 the Jews of eastern Europe occupied no common territory. This dialectical defect in our peoplehood is of course quite circular. We were not entitled to a national home because we had no national home. The circle has been subsequently squared: now that we have a national home it’s illegitimate. Why? Because we didn’t have one in 1913. That is the Left’s tradition solution to the Jews’ wandering. Rather than allow us to settle in one locality, the have chosen instead to freeze us in time. We are consigned forever to our role and social position at the beginning of the century.
This analysis ignores all that is unique in Jewish history. The fact is that we maintained ourselves as a people for close to two thousand years without a homeland. We did this by developing common languages, religion, history and culture. Most of all, we maintained our peoplehood through the understanding of our shared destiny. As a people we have asserted our legitimate aspirations. At different times and places these aspirations have ranged from simply staying alive to self-determination. Today the two may have become identical; continued self-determination is all but tantamount to continued existence.
Any ideology or world view which seeks to thwart our people’s legitimate aspirations is anti-semitic. Thus, the Left, in its anti-Zionism, is anti-semitic precisely because it would deny to Jews those rights which it promises to all others peoples. A cornerstone of twentieth-century socialism is the right of nations to self-determination, yet many twentieth-century socialists have ingeniously devised a serious of rationalizations aimed at denying this right to one nation only: the Jews. A close look at these arguments reveals them to be manifestly anti-semitic. The simplest indicator of this is the regular application of a double standard which distinguishes between the Jews on one hand and the rest of the world on the other. The mere notion that some people are entitled to self-determination while others are not must be immediately suspect, no matter what justifications are offered for the distinction. Let us, nevertheless, have a look at these justifications. They are of two sorts; one is essentially racial and the other purports itself to be political.
The racial argument dates back to our old friend Stalin. In its modern form it is an attempt to redefine Jews as something less than a people. “Jews are only a religion.” — “Jewishness is only cultural.” Once we are stripped of our peoplehood, the obvious next step is to deny us self-determination–since that is a right which is reserved for peoples and nations. Why is this a racial argument? Because it assumes that Jews, of all the people on the earth, are intrinsically incapable of having both a religion and a nation, or of having both a culture and a nation. In the final analysis, this argument exists only for the purpose of denying our aspirations. If three million Israeli Jews are to be denied independence, some method must be found to distinguish them from eight million Cubans or three million Palestinians. The simplest method is redefinition.
Just as the Left has redefined the Jews as less than a nation, the Right has traditionally redefined us as something more than a nation. Hitler’s lasting contribution to anti-semitism was the popularization of the theory of Jewish racialism–the idea that Jews comprised a distinct, indelible, unassimilable and decidedly inferior race. So far, the redefinition of the Left has not proven as virulent as that of the Right, but there are several invidious features in common. Both seek to diminish Jewish rights by redefinition; the one minimizes our importance while the other exaggerates it. More ominously, each tries to resolve the “Jewish Question” by making us disappear, either physically or be ideological pronouncement.
The political argument is, at least on the surface, more honest than the racial one. Leftists claim that their opposition to Zionism is purely political and is in now way related to the fact that the Israelis are Jews. The issues, they say, is simply one of imperialism versus the Third World. Israeli is supported by the United States and Britain while the Palestinians are fighting a struggle of national liberation so that they may join the socialist community of nations. Such a view, if sincerely held, might be wrong, but it would hardly be anti-semitic. After all, the Left opposes Gentile as well as Jewish imperialism.
We are certainly not going to argue that political criticism of Israel is illegitimate, yet it hardly seems fair that the Jews should be placed on the cutting edge of a struggle against imperialism and/or capitalism. It isn’t fair, nor is it a coincidence that Left opposition to Israel has taken a form unique in the history of “national liberation.” This occurs because the opponents of Israel have been unable to free themselves from the influence of centuries of anti-semitism. Consequently, modern political anti-Zionism inevitably contains the following elements of anti-semitism: First, anti-Zionists apply a double standard to the behavior of Jews and Arabs. Israeli is deemed illegitimate because it is a “creation of British Imperialism.” The support that the British gave to national movements in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia is conveniently forgotten. So are the facts that British support for a Jewish national home disappeared by the 1930’s, and that the Israeli War of Independence was fought, in part, against the British. Also conveniently ignored is the PLO’s search for support from everyone, including the United States.3
One would think that in rejecting religion the Left might also abandon the concept of original sin. Yet with respect to a single people there persists the theory of immutable guilt by original association. It was permissible for Mao to ally himself with Chiang Kai-shek, it was laudable for Ho Chi Minh to receive arms from the Americans, it was a stroke of socialist genius for Stalin to make his pact with Hitler, but when the early Zionists procured a rather lukewarm declaration of support from His Majesty’s Government they seem to have damned their people for all time.
“Not at all,” replies the Left, “Israel continues to be supported by the United States as an outpost of American capitalism and imperialism. That is why it must be destroyed.” This rejoinder highlights a second element of anti-semitism. There are numerous nations which are far more “capitalist” than Israel. Many of them, such as Chile, Argentina, South Korea and Uganda, are ruled by bloody neo-Fascists. The Left opposes all of these regimes and offers the cure of social revolution led by the indigenous working class. Nobody seriously suggests that Argentina should cease to exist as a nation or that the Ugandans have forfeited their right to independence because they allowed Amin to come to power; only in Israel is the appropriate remedy for “capitalism” nothing short of eradication. Now, perhaps, Marx’s notion of a world socialist revolution will ultimately come to pass. Maybe in the future, people will agree to abolish all nation-states–but there is no good reason that this final solution should find its first application now against the Jews.
Jewish history of the last century teaches us that Gentile socialists are so eager to bring about Utopia, that they will fight for it down to the last Jew. Non-Zionist Jewish socialists such as the Jewish Labor Bund in Eastern Europe and in the USSR were exterminated, politically and physically, by Stalin and other Gentile progressives. Today the Left’s conclusion that of all nations Israel alone must vanish because of its “relationship” to monopoly capital is pure anti-semitism.
We have compared the Left’s approach to Israel with its approach to Chile, Argentina, South Korea, and Uganda only for the purpose of demonstrating the anti-semitic double standard in operation. We must emphasize that the comparison stops there. Israeli is economically similar to the Scandinavian countries. It is a developing nation and a welfare state with a mix of private enterprise and state ownership of the means of production. We would like to see Israel move more towards socialism. But even if Israel were entirely capitalist, this would still not justify its eradication.
Some leftists argue that in fact what they are calling for is a worker’s revolution of Jews and Arabs. This sounds innocent enough. When pressed about the goals of this revolution, however, they tell us that the primary goals is “the destruction of the Zionist state.” Stripped of the rhetoric, this means that Jewish self-determination is intrinsically anti-worker. No such attack is ever made on Arab (or any other people’s) self-determination. The double standard reveals itself once again.
“But,” replies the Left, “Israel is a settler state, like South Africa and Rhodesia, and, like them, must disappear.” Such a superficial analysis demonstrates another aspect of Left anti-semitism: exploitation of Jewish oppression when it suits, and ignorance when it doesn’t. Leftists are a veritable fount of tears for Jewish suffering at the hands of the Fascists during the Holocaust, but the endless economic and physical persecution of Jews in European and Arab countries (including those calling themselves “socialist”), the immediate causes of the return to Zion are ignored, while Jewish settlers4 are characterized not as victims but as spearheads of racism, capitalism and imperialism.
There are numerous arguments put forth by Jewish to justify their claim to a state in Israel. The arguments are quite distinct from those of whites in South Africa and Rhodesia. (We discuss these arguments in detail in the Middle East section of this book.) There are also numerous Arab arguments. An honest person, an honest socialist, would try to investigate and weigh these various claims. The anti-semitic Left rejects all Jewish arguments out of hand and accepts all Arab arguments unquestioningly.
Other examples of Left anti-semitism are not hard to find. The world Left, which is proudly sensitive to issues of racism, has been strangely silent about the oppression of Jews in the Soviet Union. From blind supporters of the USSR we would expect nothing else. But even anti-Soviet Left groups, Maoists, Trotskyists, and others, who attack every aspect of Soviet society, turn their backs on the suffering of Soviet Jews.5
The Left has been particularly insensitive to blatant manifestations of anti-semitism emanating from the Arab world. Do leftists discount as “wartime propaganda” the hook-nosed, money-grubbing caricatures of Jews that regularly appear in the Arab press?6 One would at least hope to see a disclaimer somewhere, even from supporters of the PLO, if such support were not in fact rooted in anti-semitism. A search for such a state of disassociation would be in vain.
Unfortunately, Arab anti-semitism is hardly limited to newspaper stereotypes.7 The history of Jews in Arab lands is one of degradation and oppression. Today, Jews are at best second-class citizens in every Arab country except Jordan, and it’s certain that Jews would also be second-class citizens there if they hadn’t all been killed or expelled in 1948. The Left, however, is silent on the current oppression of Jews and goes so far as to insist that the historical oppression of Jews in Arab lands in non-existent. “Before the advent of Zionism, the Jews and Arabs lived in peace.” Such a statement ignores fourteen centuries of pogroms. It is the moral equivalent of claiming that black slaves were always happy and carefree in the American South, or that the Nazi Holocaust was the “hoax of the twentieth century.”
The Left gives its near unanimous support to the Palestine Liberation Organization despite the fact that their statement of unity, the Palestinian National Covenant, is explicitly anti-semitic. The Covenant states in no uncertain terms that while Palestinians are a people entitled to self-determination, Jews merely constitute a “religious minority” with no national rights or independent existence. Jews who arrived after 1917 are not to be accorded citizenship within the future “Palestinian” State. What would happen to them is ominously left to the imagination. The Covenant goes on to state that the Palestinian Arab people will exercise self-determination “solely according to its own will and choice.” Thus, Left support for this so-called “Unitary State,” like its support for resolutions equating Zionism with racism, is just another way of trying to define us out of existence. While Jewish self-determination is automatically defined as racism, explicitly racist aspects of Palestinian National Liberation are left to fester.8
The essence of Jewish history has been resistance to assimilation. The essential feature of the Left’s approach to the Jewish people has been forced assimilation into either countries or movements, denying all the while that the Jewish People have any collective rights other than the right to vanish.
Gentile leftists implicitly believe that they have freed themselves from the western tradition of anti-semitism. “Yes,” they argue, “Christianity has been anti-semitic, but we are only anti-Zionist.” One way to test this claim is to see how often leftists attitudes towards Jews are the same as anti-semitic attitudes. Leftists always describe Jews as a moneyed class–(“middle-class Jews”, “rich Jews,” “Jewish capitalists”). Leftists consign Jews to statelessness; i.e., to our traditional wandering status. Leftists accept any and all claims of Jewish atrocities against others. Leftists excuse atrocities against Jews. Leftists describe world Jewry as a monolithic conspiracy, and leftists demand of Jews total assimilation, and complete rejection of Jewish consciousness. now, perhaps all of this can be explained as anti-Zionism–and perhaps something that looks like a fish, smells like a fish, and swims like a fish is something other than a fish–but the difference, whatever it is, seems insignificant.
“But aren’t some Jewish groups anti-Zionist? Does that make them also anti-semitic?” The two anti-Zionist groups which come to mind are are the American Council for Judaism and the Jewish Labor Bund. The Council, which opposes the existence of Israel and supports the Arabs’ call for its destruction, is in fact anti-semitic: it redefines Jews as a religion only, and denies us what it would grant all Arabs: statehood and self-determination.
The Bund is another matter entirely. This group, since its inception in 1897, has supported Jewish peoplehood and called for national, albeit landless, status for the Jews. Denial of this status by Lenin, Stalin, and the Bolsheviks led to the Bund’s disappearance in the USSR. Many Bundists were later jailed, driven into exile, or killed. Today, the Bund still exists, and still describes itself as anti-Zionist. But its “anti-Zionism” does not include a call for Israel’s destruction (there is a Bund chapter in Israel), does not redefine Jews as a religion, does not support the PLO program for a “Unitary (Arab) State.” The Bund simply claims that Israel has not solved the problem of Jewish oppression, and that the solution must be sought only in international socialism.
We have no disagreement with their first claim. We find their second claim naive, especially since many Bundists are alive today only because they were able to escape to Israel, while others are dead because of betrayal to the Nazis by their socialist “comrades.” So, we disagree with the Bund’s analysis but we do not find them anti-semitic.
Leftist anti-Zionism, as we have shown, is a whole different phenomenon. By every available measure, it is anti-semitic to the core.
Perhaps our former comrades will read and understand this, more likely they will not. Too often we have attempted to raise our fears and concerns about the future of our people, only to be ignored or even censured.9 The most common response is that nobody could be seriously anti-semitic after the Nazi Holocaust. We suppose they sincerely believe that the world has risen above its recent history and will never threaten us again, but we see things differently. During the Holocaust six million Jews were killed while the world stood by: closed eyes, closed hearts, and, worst of all, closed doors. When the Left seeks to destroy the only country that is committed to our survival, we simply can’t credit them with having learned any lessons at all from our bitter past. Their studied ignorance, their doctrinaire refusal to face up to our oppression and our need for our state, must be called by its correct name: anti-Jewish racism, anti-semitism.
Endnotes:

  1. In this article we refer to a Left with an apparent majority which is hostile to the Jews. We must point out, however, that we ourselves are leftists; furthermore there are several non-Jewish Left organizations which support Jewish peoplehood and the continued existence of Israel. Some individual leftists have also expressed to us their disgust at the anti-semitic attitudes of many “progressive” organizations. Thus, we are not referring to our allies and potential allies when we excoriate “the Left” in this article: rather, we hope that our analysis will help others speak out more clearly against the anti-semites.
  2. Joseph Stalin, Marxism and the National and Colonial Question, Martin Lawrence Ltd., London. Pp. 35-45.
  3. Mobius sez: The arguments have changed somewhat in the last thirty years, and the West’s attempts to circumvent pan-Arabism by pressing for the division of the Middle East into independent states complicates this particular critique. The heart of it remains valid, nonetheless. From the anarchist’s perspective I would ask, if Jewish statehood is illegitimate, why is Arab statehood legitimate? The double standard persists, despite whatever context it appears in.
  4. Mobius sez: “Settlers” in this context does not refer to those who have settled in the Occupied Territories following the 1967 war. It refers to those who settled in Israel even prior to its declaration of independence.
  5. Mobius sez: Today we could apply the same critique to France, as one example, where the struggle of North African immigrants are trumpeted, but their physical and verbal attacks on the Parisian Jewish community are ignored.
  6. Mobius sez: See “Sympathy for those who draw Anne Frank in bed with Hitler?”
  7. Mobius sez: See Ahmadinejad in Der Spiegel.
  8. Mobius sez: And if you think that’s bad, you should see Hamas’ charter, which accuses the Freemasons and Rotary Club of being Zionist conspiracies.
  9. Mobius sez: See San Diego rally gets ugly.

10 thoughts on “That's Funny, You Don't Look Antisemitic

  1. I must admit I didn’t read the entire article. Three quarters through the way I understood that it was another (the millionth or so) academic discussion of anti-semitism by Jews who rationally try to engage it.
    What’s forgotten and completely unmentioned in the entire article is that the Torah specifically mentions that Israel is not “reckoned among the nations”. I dont have the text in front of me so I apologize for any misquotes in advance.
    Meir kahane (him again!) mentioned this before anyone else even saw it coming. Isolation will come either throught the Jews returning to G-d or the nations turning on Israel. Whatever you think of the man he sure is prescient.
    And unlike leftist I’m sure he would have gotten tired of being wrong, every time.

  2. Jewish Life/Jewish Currents was created by Jewish communists, so the comparison with Bundists (an ideology which the communsts hated), doesn’t work.

  3. I had a similar response to reading some of those books from the 60s/70s – it’s just like now, only with dated 70’s language! I wanna also highly recommend Michael Staub’s Torn at the Roots. (New York: Columbia Univ Press, 2002) very highly. My favorite previous-decade take on anti-semitism on the Left and Jewish activism is Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz’s in The Issue is Power (or maybe it was in The Tribe of Dina, which she co-edited with Irena Klepfisz?) — thanks for the opportunity to geek out about these book!

  4. Mobius, I’m psyched you’re reading old Jewish Currents!
    Two comments. First, in its first incarnation as Jewish Life, it was indeed affiliated with the Communist Party. However, after 1956, as Jewish Currents, it was no longer affiliated, and in fact represented a much broader (well, relatively) spectrum of Jewish leftist perspectives. I’ll be lecturing at klezkanada about the history of Jewish Currents in honor of its 60th anniversary, should anyone be interested in the delicious minutiae of jewish radical in-fighting.
    Second, I love the comparison with Zeek, but it made me chuckle. I love Zeek, but the two magazines are actually quite different in that Zeek, as far as I can tell, is very much a product of our literary theory mad generation (myself included). Jewish Currents has always been a proud “folk” magazine. Which is not to say that it was or is anti-intellectual, but it was not the kind of forum that was connected to the academy, in the way that Zeek is.

  5. So I apologize for the overtly academic nature of this piece. It is also a slightly dated (I wrote it four years ago). However, it explores anti-Semitism in Cold War-era Communist East Germany and may be of interest to this timely discussion of Anti-Semitism on the Left.
    Holocaust Memory in East Germany
    Following the collapse of the Nazi regime at the end of World War II, German society, divided between West and East: capitalist and communist, embarked on two distinct journeys toward political reconstruction and cultural redefinition which evidently shaped divergent memories of the Nazi genocide. While the Federal Republic of Germany, with its revival of capitalism and democracy, brought issues of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust to a forefront in German public life, these issues were conversely suppressed in the German Democratic Republic, which consistently applauded itself as an “antifascist state.” In both West and East Germany, the complexities inherent to confronting the Nazi past were imbedded in the larger framework and political dynamics of the Cold War. As Thomas Fox suggests, “the Cold War produced partisan historiography about the Second World War on both sides of the ideological divide.” East Germany’s suppression and distortion of Holocaust memory emerges from the propagated notion that Communism under the GDR and Soviet guidance was the ethical resolution to fascism: the German redemption from Nazism. By defining itself as an antifascist state, the GDR ironically exonerated itself of accountability for the Nazi crimes against humanity and complacently continued the morally abhorrent legacy of political anti-Semitism.
    East Germany manipulated the memory of the Nazi past for the purpose of political justification. According to James Young, “the national identity of the GDR was rooted in the political memory of the Nazis as an occupying power.” The Nazi persecution of communists was translated into a collective memory that maintains the communist as an exalted martyr in the resistance against fascism and therefore the most significant victim of Nazi oppression. When considering the Nazi past, this isolated viewpoint shifts Jewish suffering to the periphery, playing a significant role in East German suppression and distortion of Holocaust memory. Thomas Fox supports this deduction by illustrating that “East German historians argued that German capitalists brought Hitler to power in order to prevent a Communist victory…such constructs left no room for the centrality of racism and especially anti-Semitism in Nazi ideology.” The Marxist approach to history composed in the GDR projected the dominant paradigms of the Cold War onto the past, fueling propaganda instead of historical integrity. As East Germans perceived anti-Communism to be the primary force in Nazi ideology by reducing history to the economic lenses, East German history accounted for anti-Semitism and racism only as minor properties facilitating the Nazi’s greater economic agenda, not as ideological phenomena deserving independent attention. By diverting the memory of the Holocaust away from the indiscriminate victimization of the Jews towards the martyrdom of the political and ideological entities of antifascist resistance, the GDR solidified its identity as an antifascist state and, as Jeffery Herf articulates, “kept memory alive and put it in the service of current policy.” For instance, East Germany’s annual September International Day of Remembrance of Victims of Fascist Terror became commemorated as a “day of struggle against war and fascism” and regarded all the victims as antifascist resisters, denying the reality that the majority of victims were murdered, not because of political affiliation, but due to Nazi racism. East Germany’s concentration camp memorials at Buchenwald and Sachenhausen demonstrated the extensive role of this distortion of memory in the formation of East German identity and political life.
    East Germany’s memorials at the former Nazi concentration camps, established in Buchenwald in 1958 and Sachsenhausen in 1961, functioned as centers for ritualizing false national memory in order to enforce the political ideology of the present. Herf illustrates that the memorials were “intended to encourage optimism about the future based on memory of past heroism, rather than reflections of an unredeemable tragedy.” The sites of Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen became regarded as sacred places of German Communist identity and political discourse. The fact that GDR officer cadets received their bars at Buchenwald exemplified the symbolic nature of these places for East Germans. Under strict government direction, the concentration camp memorials served to transmit GDR ideology through the creation of a collective memory. As Thomas Fox declares:
    These sites provided the East German government an irresistible opportunity to propagate its view of history, one replete with gaps and half-truths. The government tailored the camps to educate its citizenry to a point of view, and the sites furthermore served as international propaganda for the East German antifascist program.
    The memorials contributed to a memory that glorified the Soviets and the KPD, projected erroneous parallels between past and present, and suppressed the question of Jewish suffering.
    The Buchenwald concentration camp contained seventeen thousand prisoners by 1943; the majority were German Communists, Social Democrats, criminals, clergymen, and partisan fighters. As the International Camp Committee, the Communists and Social Democrats organized as a unified political entity engaged in resistance against the Nazis. At this time there were few Jews interned at Buchenwald, because the majority were being sent directly to extermination camps. Later that year, some French prisoners arrived followed by eight thousand Soviet POWs who consequently were murdered upon their arrival. As extermination camps in the East were becoming deserted the following year, tens of thousands of Jews were sent to Buchenwald. The Jewish prisoners of Buchenwald were separated from the others, receiving no advocacy from the International Camp Committee. Young pronounces “as the Communists ran the prisoners’ administration during the war, they also ran the administration of memory afterward: Buchenwald would remain a site of exclusively political martyrdom in their eyes.” During the first week of April 1945, as the War was obviously coming close to an end, the SS attempted to vacate the camps, shooting thousands and sending thousands to their deaths aboard railway cars that were intended to go to Dachau. On April 11, 1945, as the American troops were approaching only a few hours away and only twenty thousand prisoners were left, the International Committee revolted against the few remaining SS officers, realizing their own heroic self-liberation. This moment would become crystallized in the East German conception of the Nazi past. However, Buchenwald’s function as an internment camp under the Soviets between 1945 and 1950 would be conveniently overlooked. The Soviet Union imprisoned thousands of Germans at Buchenwald, as well as at Sachsenhausen, and forced many into labor in Russia. While the majority of those detained had been responsible for Nazi crimes, there still were those who were not guilty. The Soviets and the German Communists also used the sites to intern political opponents, even Social Democrats who had organized fraternally with the Communists in opposition to the Nazis. Some of those imprisoned in Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen in these Soviet years had been prisoners at these sites during the Nazi era. Just outside of Sachsenhausen’s Soviet detention center, a mass grave of an estimated 15,000-30,000 dead was discovered in 1989. It was only after unification that this history, counterproductive to Communist image, would be reconciled at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen.
    A few years after liberation, former prisoners, working as the Vereinegung der Verfolgten des Naziregimes (VVN), or Organization of Victims of the Nazi Regime, demanded that Buchenwald be memorialized and that a museum be constructed. As remembrance became integrated into official government policy, the Central Committee dissolved the VVN in 1953, replacing it with the Committee of Antifascist Resistance Fighters. This shift in policy and perspective denoted that resistance fighters represented the entirety of the victims of Nazism and was a significant leap from historical reality, but conveyed the GDR’s ideological orientation. Propagandistic pro-Soviet sentiments found their way into Buchenwald’s memorial in a variety of ways. The memorial commemorated Soviet prisoners with decisive emphasis, despite their comparatively small numbers, claiming that the SS treated them significantly worse than other prisoners. One of many plaques concerning Soviet victims read:
    Against all international law, hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war were brought into the concentration camps and were murdered. On this spot 8,483 soldiers and officers suffered a violent death. They fought and died as heroes of their socialist fatherland for the liberation of humanity from fascism.
    Such monuments run concomitant with the political emphasis on a glorified antifascist resistance, instead of simply commemorating the apolitical nature of tragic victimization. The focus on heroic self-liberation was enforced by Cold War attitudes of pro-Sovietism and anti-Americanism. The museum regarded the American Ally forces as another occupying force and attributed liberation only to the Soviets who came later. In line with this pro-Soviet contortion of history, Buchenwald’s memorial also celebrated the KPD excessively, honoring Ernst Th?lmann, the party’s chair who was imprisoned there for eleven years, as the most significant martyr of the antifascist resistance. Th?lmann became a national legend in the GDR and his memory facilitated the political emphasis on antifascist resistance as primarily communist resistance. The emphasis on self-liberation and Communist heroism at Buchenwald found permanence in Fritz Cremer’s central monument Revolt of the Prisoners. It is a statue of triumphant and undefeated prisoners captured in heroic poses of resistance. This image characterizes the East German focus on antifascist resistance in the construction of Buchenwald’s memory. The political energy behind the construction of memory at Buchenwald overshadowed the memory of Jewish victims. The Buchenwald brochure demonstrated that “the German fascists imprisoned 18 million people from every European country in concentration camps. 11 million died in them.” The six million Jews murdered by the Nazis were not given independent mention from other victims! The Jewish catastrophe was documented at the memorials, but only as small exhibits peripheral to the issue of Communist martyrdom. As Harry Stein writes, the failure to provide a just account of the Jewish experience under the Nazis was not “simply an oversight, but rather done with a purpose.” The absence and miscalculation of numbers regarding Buchenwald’s presentation of the Nazi persecution of the Jews at Buchenwald and regarding the Final Solution demonstrates the intentional avoidance of addressing the Jewish question. The Buchenwald memorial stone cites only six hundred Jewish deaths at the concentration camp, while the museum only provides for the twenty-one Jewish deaths. Stein shows the severity of these understatements: between 1937 and 1942 about 2,795 Jews were murdered at Buchenwald and between 1944 and 1945 during the Final Solution over eight thousand Jews were killed at Buchenwald. As Fox clarifies:
    The Buchenwald explanation of Nazi genocide practices derived from the standard Communist explanation that capitalists used Jews as a scapegoat to divert the workers from their true oppressors. This theory relegates anti-Semitism to the status of a secondary contradiction, one subordinate to class struggle.
    A synonymous approach could be found in the Sachsenhausen memorial as this perspective was pervasive in East German thought.
    From their inception, the concentration camp memorials were utilized by politicians to foster support for Communist political rhetoric through a public commemoration of the antifascist resisters. Otto Grotewohl’s speech at the Buchenwald memorial’s dedication on September 14, 1958 serves as a key example of how a mythologized memory of Nazism functioned to facilitate the GDR’s Cold War propaganda. Grotewohl, invoking communist notions of fascism’s capitalist origins, called for the familiar “resistance against war and fascism” through a “manifestation of the struggle against preparation for an imperialist atomic war,” specifically targeting West Germany, America, and England. Nowhere in his speech was Nazism’s persecution of the Jews addressed. This absence of Jewish memory aided in his call for solidarity between Communists and Arab peoples in opposition to Western support for Israel. At the dedication of the Sachsenhausen memorial on April 24, 1961, Walter Ulbricht delivered a speech to a gathering of some 200,000 people in which he commemorated the memory of antifascist resisters. He called attention to the memory of all the political prisoners and POWs murdered in Sachsenhausen, but also characteristically did not recognize the Jews killed there. The commonplace absence of the Jewish catastrophe in the collective memory of East Germany fulfilled the purpose of mythologizing the past for the sake of the present. This mythological pursuit of history, in particular regard to the Jewish catastrophe, brought about severe consequences in the form of domestic and foreign policies of anti-Semitism. Herf ties this distortion of Holocaust memory to the GDR’s policies:
    East German leaders kept the Jewish question on the margin of narratives of the Nazi era, refused to pay restitution to Jewish survivors or to Israel, purged those Communist leaders who sought to give it greater prominence, and even gave tangible support to Israel’s armed adversaries.
    Why did a Communist construction of memory, especially in post-Nazi Germany, have to prohibit solidarity with Jewish causes such as Holocaust reparations and Zionism? How did this facilitate further destruction of Jewish life in East Germany?
    The answer to this resides in an analysis of the Paul Merker case. Paul Merker was the leading German Communist who sought to bring the Jewish question out from the margins and into the heart of Communist antifascism. He denounced German capitalism from an orthodox Communist perspective, supported a multi-ethnic German future, and believed in the centrality of deconstructing anti-Semitism. During the Nazi occupation, he organized in exile with other Communists and antifascist activists, many of them Jewish, in the West, predominantly working in Mexico City. In Mexican exile, Merker developed his perspective through writing. His first essay on the Jewish question “Hitler’s Anti-Semitism and Us” offered a compelling account of the severity of the Holocaust and the responsibility of all Europeans in the fight against anti-Semitism. He called for an honest and ethically charged approach to German memory maintaining that the Jews, who were persecuted as a “defenseless, national, religious or caste-like minority,” were just as worthy of restitution as Nazism’s political victims. In other words, those who fought against the Nazis, such as the Communists, were not to be regarded as more important than the Nazi’s Jewish victims. Herf demonstrates that Merker stood apart from other German Communists by recognizing that “Nazi racial ideology and policy had an autonomous significance beyond the demands of capitalist class interest.” The essay begins by stating the immensity of the Nazi genocide, keep in mind that it is written three years before the war ended:
    If all of the German rivers flowed with ink, and all the German forests were made of quill pens, they would not suffice to describe the immeasurable crimes, which Hitler fascism has committed against the Jewish people. Where is there today a Jewish family from Germany, which has not been robbed and deeply humiliated, whose members have not been imprisoned in concentration camps, murdered, or driven to suicide?
    Merker demanded that German Communists support the formation of a Jewish national state, recognizing, in contrast to Stalin, the nationality of the Jewish people. He proposed that a future German Communist government should, as a moral imperative, make anti-Semitism and race hatred illegal, should give restitution to Jewish victims of the Nazi regime, and should sponsor the return of Jewish refugees. In a letter featured in Freies Deutshland in 1946, Merker argued that all Germans had a “shared a responsibility” for the Nazi past, including the anti-Nazi political leadership, because “the guild is also borne by those who made a timely and unified action against Nazism before 1933.” Upon returning to Germany after the war, Merker, the only KPD member to openly confront the Jewish catastrophe, would find extreme opposition to his views among his German comrades and fall into professional jeopardy.
    From 1949 to 1956, the GDR cultivated a fierce campaign against cosmopolitanism in an effort to consolidate the SED government in a Stalinist direction. It can be described as a Communist parallel to the paranoia-driven policies of McCarthyism. This campaign sought to eradicate any diversity of Communist ideology within Germany. The Nazi era had unified a wide range of left-wing ideologies in opposition to the fascist regime; the campaign against cosmopolitanism served to legitimize only one ideological approach in the formation of the SED into a party dictatorship using the Soviet Union’s Communist Party as its model. In 1948, a third of the SED’s two million members were Social Democrats: this toleration of ideological diversity would change rapidly. The establishment of the Zentralparteikontrollkommission (Central Party Control Commission), or ZPKK, under the leadership of Herman Matern, implemented the centralization of Communist ideology in East Germany and exposed those members who deviated from it. The Stasi, or Ministerium f?r Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State Security), established in 1950, would help enforce, through totalitarian control, the campaign against cosmopolitanism. The campaign against cosmopolitanism was at the root of East German Communist political anti-Semitism.
    While its rhetoric was not always explicitly anti-Semitic, the campaign against cosmopolitanism specifically targeted Jews and their advocates. In August 1950, Paul Merker’s political career collapsed under accusations of espionage due to his wartime associations with Jewish activists in the West, namely Noel H. Field. The accusations in the Field affair contained no overt anti-Semitic tone, but other than Merker, all of those accused of espionage in the affair were Jewish. In November 1952 in Prague, the scandalous show trial against Rudolf Slansky, the second highest-ranking figure of the Czech Communist Party, and other, mostly Jewish, Czech Communist leaders would generate more severe consequences for Merker. The Slansky trial, based on erroneous allegations of an international anti-Communist Zionist conspiracy, ended with the execution of eleven defendants, the majority of whom were Jewish. The information deduced from the trial declared that Merker was associated with three of the supposed “conspirators.” Merker found himself under arrest by Stasi agents and his name desecrated by Herman Matern and his ZPKK in the publication “Lessons of the Trial against the Slanksy Conspiracy Center.” Matern condemned the “criminal activities of the Zionist organizations,” claimed that the Slansky trial made evident that Zionism was a vehicle of “U.S. imperialism and exclusively served its interests and the interests of Jewish capitalists,” and declared that Paul Merker was the leading German conspirator. The language Matern uses reflects the anti-Semitic nature of the campaign against cosmopolitanism through the stereotype of the vampire-like Jewish capitalist. Merker was imprisoned from December 1952 to January 1956 and interrogated profusely. Upon his release, he sought political rehabilitation to no avail. The Merker case conveyed the message to East Germans that solidarity with Jewish causes was not only politically incorrect along Cold War lines, but hazardous to one’s career and quite possibly his life. East German Communists who happened to be Jewish distanced themselves from association with Jewish issues. The intense pressures to assimilate compelled many to flee East Germany. Anti-Semitism flourished in East Germany under the guise of Communist ideology and shaped many of the GDR’s policies: this ultimately can be attributed to a failure to honestly confront the Nazi past.
    The suppression of Holocaust memory in East Germany and the manipulation of the Nazi past for present political purposes found some resolution amidst controversy after German unification in 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall opened a pathway in the pursuit of historical truth among Germans seeking redefinition. In 1993, a monument was constructed at Buchenwald to memorialize its Jewish victims. It was made of cement walls and rocks to represent the quarry nearby where Buchenwald’s Jewish prisoners worked as slave laborers. In 1992, an international dispute erupted over plans to build a memorial to those who suffered under the Soviet presence at Buchenwald. Because the majority of the German prisoners interned by the Soviets were Nazi perpetrators, the issue was very controversial. Nonetheless in 1997 a museum dedicated to exploring the Soviet use of Buchenwald was built with the intention not to overshadow the victimization of those under the Nazi regime. In October 1999, another museum was constructed at Buchenwald for the purpose of showing how the GDR used the concentration camp in affirming state propaganda. In Germany today, memory is in a constant state of evolution and the imperative is to construct it with historical integrity and ethical guidance.
    Thomas C. Fox, Stated Memory: East Germany and the Holocaust, (Camden House, 1999), 5.
    James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, (Yale UP, 1993), 73.
    Thomas C. Fox, Stated Memory, 9.
    Ibid. 23.
    Jeffrey Herf, Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Harvard UP, 1997), 164.
    Ibid.
    Ibid. 176.
    James E. Young, The Texture of Memory, 73.
    Thomas C. Fox, Stated Memory, 40.
    James E. Young, The Texture of Memory, 74.
    Ibid.
    Thomas C. Fox, Stated Memory, 45.
    James E. Young, Texture of Memory, 45.
    Buchenwald memorial plaque to Soviet victims as quoted in Thomas C. Fox, Stated Memory, 44.
    James E. Young, Texture of Memory, 73.
    Thomas C. Fox, Stated Memory, 48.
    James E. Young, The Texture of Memory, 78.
    Thomas C. Fox, Stated Memory, 53.
    Harry Stein, Juden in Buchenwald: 1937-1942 (Weimar: Weimardruck, 1992), 5. qtd. in Thomas C. Fox, Stated Memory, 53.
    Thomas C. Fox, Stated Memory, 54.
    Harry Stein, Juden in Buchenwald, 5.
    Thomas C. Fox, Stated Memory, 54.
    Otto Grotewohl, “Buchenwald Mahnt! Rede zur Weihe der nationalen Mahnund Gedensk?tte Buchenwald, 14 September 1958,” in Im Kampf um die Einige Deutsche Demokratische Republik: Reden und Aufs?tze, vol. 6, Auswahl aus den Jahren 1958-1960 (East Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1964), 7-8, quoted in Jeffrey Herf, Divided Memory, 177.
    “Walter Ulbricht bei der Einweihung der Gedenkst?tte Sachsenhausen: Von der DDR wird stets der Grieden austrahlen,” Neues Deutschland, April 24, 1961, 1-3, quoted in Jeffery Herf, Divided Memory, 179.
    Jeffrey Herf, Divided Memory, 3.
    Jeffrey Herf, East German Communists and the Jewish Question: The Case of Paul Merker (Washington, D.C.: German Historical Insititute, 1994), 10.
    Paul Merker, “Hitlers Anti-Semitismus und Wir,” Freies Deutschland. October 1942. quoted in Herf, Divided Memory, 48.
    Jeffrey Herf, Divided Memory, 49.
    Paul Merker, “Hitlers Anti-Semitismus und Wir.”
    Ibid.
    Paul Merker, “Demokratische Kraefte in Deeutschland?” Freies Deutschland, May and September 1945, 6-8. quoted in Herf, Divided Memory, 53.
    Jeffrey Herf, East German Communists and the Jewish Question, 15-6.
    Ibid.
    “Lehren aus dem Prozeb gegen das Verschw?rerzentrum Slansky.” Documente der Sozialistische Einheitspartei band IV (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1954), 199-219. quoted in Herf, East German Communists and the Jewish Question, 17.
    Larry Thorson, “Buchenwald memorial to Jewish victims dedicated. Communal leader warns of danger of history repeating itself.” The Jerusalem Post, Nov. 11, 1993, 4.
    Kevin Costelloe, “Planned Buchenwald Museum to Document Nazis, Other Prisoners of Soviets.” The Associated Press. March 19, 1992. “Buchenwald to become Nazi War Memorial” Evening Standard, (London: March 20, 1992), 12.
    “Germany opens fourth museum at Buchenwald concentration camp.” Agence France Presse. October 24, 1999.
    Ibid.

  6. “My favorite previous-decade take on anti-semitism on the Left and Jewish activism is Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz’s in The Issue is Power”
    I read that book cover to cover several times. I was already “hanging out with but not part of” the Left at that point, but it was good to read her analysis and personal testimony which confirmed some incidents I had experienced myself.
    You might appreciate this interview with someone with gold-plated Leftist credentials taking issue with some sacred cows of the Left. (It’s not specifically about Israel, but he gets at the tendency of the Left to disregard Third World people who don’t agree with their agenda.)

  7. As a former member of the Chutzpah collective, I assure you there is no objection, copyright or other, to your posting the article. We are pleased and flattered. My own opinions follow, based on reading and thinking done after the writing of the anthology you have in part reproduced. The predominant leftwing wisdom back then was that anti-semitism was a consequence of capitalism. Materialists failed to understand the power of religion (note that this statement is neutral about religion – my observation is only that religion has power among humans and that Marxists and other materialists did not fully appreciate that). While capitalism (and anyone else in power) is happy to use available forms of racism to divide and divert, it is not the prime mover behind anti-semitism. First off, anti-semitism predates capitalism. It has very strong religious roots in the other Abrahamic religions. Christianity and Islam, from inception saw themselves as both successor to and superior to Judaism, and in essence came to regard Jews as heretics and/or infidels. Their tolerance of Jews varied from time to time (and note that except for the past 60 years, Jews overall did much better under Islam than under Christianity). There is much less anti-semitism (often none) in countries lacking significant numbers of Christians or Muslims. China had Jews settling there roughly 900 or more years ago and there is no record of anti-semitism; on the contrary there seems to have been slow assimilation over a 500-700 year period. India also had substantial numbers of Jews, and while the story there is more complex, it still reveals little if any indigenous anti-semitism from sources other than adherents of Abrahamic religions.
    These days, especially this week after the (to me, baffling, embarassing, and depressing) incursion into Gaza, the always fine line between anti-Israel and anti-semitic gets finer and harder to discern. However, points we made in the original article about double standards remain true. It is hard to imagine any other country being expected to tolerate rocket attacks or to negotiate with an entity that is committed to their destruction. Certainly if some renegade group in Mexico lobbed rockets over the border, the US government would not politely request for months and months on end that the Mexican government get those guys to stop. I heartily agree with your note #8 that anyone who has not done so already read the Hamas charter http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/mideast/hamas.htm
    I was quite taken aback by parts of it and I don’t believe one can respectfully and intelligently discuss the situation without reading Hamas’ statements.
    A historical note: The article was written by the right wing of the collective (we were diverse within a narrow range) but accepted by everyone. I personally thought then, and still think that there is more room than the authors allow for anti-zionism that is not also largely anti-semitic, but in real life it is rare encountered. But there is plenty of room to be in opposition to Israeli policies without being anti-semitic (and as a vibrant democracy, there is plenty of disagreement within Israel).
    A comment on another contemporary change. Much American support of Israel comes from “Christian Zionists” who, if one follows their full logic, are committed to the destruction of the Jews. Most of these folks like Israel because they see it as step toward their messianic era, one in which Jews face a traditional choice – convert or die. (This is an oversimplification, but essentially true.) They are among the scariest “friends” I can imagine – with friends like that, who needs enemies?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.