By Sabby Sagall
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Zionism and Anti-Semitism: The Jewish Question

This article is over 19 years, 6 months old
To be anti-Zionist does not mean you are anti-Semitic.
Issue 265

Alarm bells have been ringing in recent months about a resurgence of anti-Semitism, particularly in Western Europe and the Middle East. Zionists have always dismissed criticisms of Zionism or of Israel with the claim that such criticisms represent anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism. So we need to disentangle the phony label of anti-Semitism–justifiable criticisms of Israel and Zionism–from the genuine article.

Zionism has always attempted to bolster itself by two powerful myths. The first is that the history of the Jews has been one of unmitigated oppression, what has been called the ‘lachrymose’ view of Jewish history–that the Diaspora (dispersion) was an unrelentingly dark age of passivity and persecution, and moreover that the world is, and always has been, divided into Jews and anti-Semites. The second myth is that the Jews in the Diaspora were able to withstand the merciless onslaught of the Gentile (non-Jewish) world because of their devotion to their community and their culture that is, to Judaism, their national ideals and tradition of learning. The question of why Jewry survived is of special interest, given that most ancient peoples were assimilated into the surrounding societies and disappeared as distinct ethnic groups.

However, these notions have been challenged by the Marxist tradition. Marx, himself a Jew from the German Rhineland, said, ‘We will not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but we will look for the secret of the religion in the real Jew.’ Put simply, Jewish historical survival can be explained in large measure as a result of the social and economic role carried out by the Jews during most of their 2,000-year Diaspora. The starting point for a contemporary Marxist approach to Jewish history is Abram Leon’s classic work, ‘The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation’, written between 1940 and 1942 in Nazi-occupied Belgium.

Leon argues that the Jews represent historically a social group with specific economic functions, firstly in commerce and later in usury. They are both a class and a people–the term he uses to describe them is ‘people-class’. It is because the Jews preserved themselves through their activities as a class that they also defined themselves as having a common ethnic identity, based on shared religious and linguistic features. Judaism, in other words, expressed the interests of the pre-capitalist Jewish merchants.

During the first millennium, following their expulsion from Palestine by the Romans, Jews were the principal traders in western Europe and wandered from one country or region to another, selling their goods and thus creating and fulfilling new economic needs. There were great opportunities for the expansion of commerce within feudal society–in the main through selling goods to feudal lords who grew rich through the exploitation of the peasantry.

Despite certain restrictions Jews played a full part in the life of the cities, enjoying freedom of movement (similar to that of medieval knights) necessary for those engaged in commerce, the right to own and sell property, and sometimes the right to hold municipal office. The privileges and the protection they enjoyed gave them real power. The Spanish Jewish communities enjoyed wide-ranging economic and legal powers. In the Rhineland in the 10th and 11th centuries, and in Poland in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Jews were invited in by the rulers in order to develop trade and new cities. For similar reasons, though in different historical circumstances (following the Civil War) Oliver Cromwell encouraged the resettlement of Jews in England in the mid-1650s. However, in western Europe from the 12th century on, with the rise of cities and competing Christian merchant classes, the situation of the Jews began to worsen. They were gradually eliminated from commerce and became usurers, lending money to kings and to the nobility. But even this role was undermined as the development of agriculture put more money in the hands of the nobility, enabling them to throw off the burden of the usurer. At the same time the Jews assumed additional intermediary roles–those of rent collectors to the nobility and tax gatherers for the kings.

Arousing hostility

Gradually the Jews lost the privileges and protection previously granted by the western European feudal ruling classes. They came to be regarded as economically useless, and hostility to them was aroused. They were driven from one country to another, while some were assimilated into the indigenous merchant class–for example, during the Spanish Inquisition of the late 15th century. The 14th and 15th centuries saw the mass migration of Jews from western to eastern Europe, to societies which remained far behind western Europe and only began to catch up in the 19th century. And because eastern Europe remained stuck for centuries at the stage of early feudalism, this enabled the Jews to prosper until much later. Hence from the 16th to the beginning of the 19th century the majority of Jews lived in eastern Europe.

It was only in the 19th century that the rise of modern capitalism undermined the prosperous position of Russian and Polish Jewry. Precisely because the Jews represented early forms of capitalism (merchants and money lenders), the emergence of modern industrial capitalism gradually destroyed their social position. Individual Jews participated in the development of industrial capitalism but wherever they were integrated into it, they tended to become assimilated and lose their identity as Jews.

The Zionist view of the inevitability and universality of anti-Semitism makes it impossible to explain the changes in the position of Jews historically. In particular, it blurs the difference between very different kinds of anti-Semitism. Following the above analysis, we can broadly distinguish between three types–social, economic and political.

Social: In feudal society the Jews’ legal status in countries such as Spain, France, Germany and Poland was far higher than that of the serfs, in many cases approaching that of the nobility. On the other hand, Jewish fortunes in medieval Europe were subject to sudden, dramatic transformation. They could become the victims of massacres carried out by lower class forces rebelling against usury or high taxes. The oppressed feudal peasants or urban poor would vent their anger on the Jewish usurer, rent collector or tax gatherer, as, for example, in the massacre of Jews in York in 1190. In medieval Poland, Jewish estate stewards were often seen by the peasants as their direct exploiters rather than as the representatives of the feudal lords they really were.

Economic: Antagonism towards the Jews on the part of indigenous rising competitive merchant classes can be seen throughout late medieval Europe. The Jews were expelled from England (1290), France (1306 and 1394) and Spain during the Inquisition (1492). Whereas there had been no residential restrictions in the Middle Ages, 16th century Italy saw the creation of the ghetto (Jewish residential area) and its rapid spread to Germany. Similarly, when Poles began to engage in industry and commerce in the late 19th century they encountered sharp competition from Jewish entrepreneurs. This gave rise to new waves of envy and resentment.

Political: Jews were used as scapegoats for the social dislocation caused by the upheavals and crises of capitalism. The most obvious example is Nazi Germany. German capitalism had to expand rapidly in order to compete successfully with the existing capitalist powers–Britain and the US. In the struggle between a powerful ruling class and a large, well organised working class, the petty-bougeoisie–small independent farmers and businessmen–was gradually squeezed out. In the 1920s and 30s, the Nazis made the Jews the scapegoats for the crisis which destroyed the livelihood of huge numbers of the petty-bourgeoisie.

In reality, of course, these types of anti-Semitism may coexist. The feudal lord was presumably not averse to deflecting the anger of the peasants onto Jewish usurers and rent collectors.The speedy development of capitalism in Russia and Poland from the late 19th century onwards caused huge upheavals in what had been until recently a backward, largely agrarian, semi-feudal society. The old trade centres of the feudal era declined, replaced by the new industrial and commercial cities. Jews began to leave their villages and small towns, migrating to the growing cities in order to set up as traders and artisans. But an indigenous non-Jewish commercial bourgeoisie was developing. And it was in these more advanced regions that an intense rivalry grew up between non-Jewish and Jewish traders and professionals. Anti-Semitism grew by leaps and bounds.

The emancipation of the serfs in Russia in 1861 had given a huge boost to the development of capitalism. Agriculture began producing increasingly for the market, and a process of social differentiation was progressing rapidly. A section of the peasantry became wealthy farmers, while another became landless and proletarianised. The emancipation had given the latter the freedom to starve. Many migrated to the cities and became industrial workers, living under dreadful conditions and surviving on subsistence wages. The landowners and state bureaucrats who had exploited and oppressed the peasantry for centuries systematically encouraged the belief that the Jews were responsible for all their suffering. As late as the early 20th century, the Tsarist government organised and financed massacres of Jews.

Before the Second World War Zionism was a movement supported by a small minority of Jews. In Jewish municipal elections in Warsaw in 1936 Zionists polled 22 percent of the vote compared to 30 percent for the Zionist Bund. Only the Holocaust enabled Zionism to win the allegiance of a majority of world Jewry. Indeed, Zionism has always depended on anti-Semitism, which it sees as inevitable. Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, was living in Paris during the Dreyfus affair in the 1890s, when a wave of anti-Semitism swept across French society. He wrote: ‘I achieved a freer attitude towards anti-Semitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon.’ In 1938 the man who later became the first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, refused to support a campaign to save Jews from Nazi persecution unless it was linked to Zionism–that is, unless Britain allowed those Jews into Palestine. So Zionism accepts anti-Semitism as the normal attitude of the Gentile world. It responds to it by self exclusion and the creation of a state where Jews are a majority.

So close is this relationship that where anti-Semitism doesn’t exist, Zionism promotes it. In the 1950s Israeli leaders wanted to entice the Jews of the Arab countries to come to Israel. Jews had lived side by side with Arabs for at least two thousand years. Relations between them had been relatively harmonious, and most Jews were content to stay where they were. So Zionist agents planted a bomb in a Baghdad synagogue in order to create panic among Iraqi Jews. The tactic succeeded.

Today anti-Semitism in the Arab countries must be distinguished from its western European counterpart. Insofar as the Israeli leadership claims to speak for all Jews, and the majority unfortunately accept the claim, anti-Zionism tends to appear as anti-Semitism. Only when a majority of Jews speak out against Israel will that ‘anti-Semitism’ be defeated. In western Europe, however, there is a resurgence of the genuine article, associated with the rise of fascist parties across Europe. The Russian Jewish writer Ilya Ehrenburg, a Communist and atheist, said, ‘As long as there is a single anti-Semite in the world, I remain a Jew.’

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