I have two Jewish great-grandfathers, Leon Simon and Gustav Mayer. Their different political trajectories cast a light on the history of Jewish people in the first half of the 20th century.
Leon Simon’s family fled Russian antisemitism and came to Britain in the late 19th century. Leon became an active Zionist and took the minutes at the 1917 meeting of British Zionists where the Balfour declaration was drafted.
Gustav Mayer was a German social democratic historian who wrote a biography of Frederick Engels and attended the Zimmerwald conference of anti-war socialists in 1915.
Most Jews living in Europe at the time suffered from poverty and oppression. But there was a vibrant debate among Jews over how to fight this oppression. And Gustav’s response was more typical than Leon’s.
Of the four million Jews who left Russia between 1880 and 1929, just 120,000 emigrated to Palestine – and half of them didn’t stay. Meanwhile Jews were heavily involved in the socialist movements, and in the leadership of those movements.
In Eastern Europe hundreds of thousands of Jews were organised by the Bund, a Jewish socialist group that was bitterly opposed to Zionism.
Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg are among the many Jews who helped lead the wave of revolution that swept Europe after the First World War.
The rise of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s was resisted not by Zionists but by the Communist Party, which recruited heavily among Jewish immigrants already steeped in socialist tradition.
The majority of Jews saw the links between racial oppression and economic exploitation – and fought against both.
The minority of Jews who were attracted to Zionism were also reacting to antisemitism – but in a very different way. They accepted racism as an inevitable fact of life. Their response was to retreat into Jewish culture and emigrate to Palestine, rather than challenging antisemitism.
Chaim Weizmann, head of the World Zionist Organisation, told a Berlin audience in 1912, “Each country can only absorb a limited number of Jews, if she doesn’t want disorders in her stomach. Germany has already too many Jews.” In the early period of Adolf Hitler’s rule the Zionists helped him deport Jews to Palestine.
The problem for the Zionists was that people already lived in Palestine – and the world was already carved up between imperialist powers. If they wanted a Jewish state they would have to collaborate with these powers.
Leon’s movement, which began as a well meaning if misguided response to racist oppression, had to sell its soul to survive – first to the British Empire and then to the US.
Gustav’s Jewish socialist tradition, meanwhile, found itself squeezed between a rock and a hard place. Josef Stalin had brutally destroyed the gains of the 1917 Russian Revolution – and pandered to antisemitism to do so.
The rise of fascism led to the Holocaust and the extermination of six million Jews, including most of Gustav’s family. The Nazi-Soviet pact discredited Communist parties in the West, while Britain and the US closed their doors to Jewish refugees.
It was in these dark times that Zionism was finally able to defeat socialism in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Jewish community.
After the Second World War many Jews continued to join socialist movements and take a principled stand against Zionism, not least Ygael Gluckstein – also known as Tony Cliff, a Palestinian Jew who founded the Socialist Workers Party.
Many Jews who did not question Zionism nevertheless opposed what they saw as Israel’s “excesses”. But these currents were marginal to mainstream Jewish opinion.
Now things are beginning to change. The global anti-war movement, the breakdown of the “peace process” and Israel’s invasions of Lebanon and Gaza have created the first major cracks in Zionism’s domination of the Jewish community since the creation of Israel.
Gerald Kaufman, a Labour MP who was once a staunch Zionist, denounced Israel’s leaders as “mass murderers and war criminals” in parliament last week. “They bring shame on the Jewish people whose Star of David they use as a flag in Gaza, but whose morals go completely against what this Israeli government are doing,” he added.
Israel’s latest massacre in Gaza has created turmoil within the Jewish community. Many Jews, especially the younger generation, simply refuse to associate themselves with a country synonymous with racism, militarism and barbarity.
For some, participation in the mass anti-war demonstrations will lead them to the rediscovery of a rich Jewish tradition of socialist anti-Zionism, one that has lain nearly buried for decades.They will see that Leon Simon’s dream was destined to become a nightmare – and that Gustav was right all along.