“Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, Stalin led them out of the Politburo,” whispered veterans of the Bolshevik Revolution, as winter 1927 approached the Moscow River’s banks.
The revolution that erupted 100 years ago this week was turning on its heroes, as Joseph Stalin was purging the late Vladimir Lenin’s protégés, confidants, and aides. The expulsion those days of Leon Trotsky from the Communist Party was but the beginning of an anti-Jewish assault that would continue intermittently until Stalin’s death.
The revolution’s Jewish leaders would vanish much sooner than the communism for which they fought, but many Russians – to this day – still see the revolution as a Jewish plot.
Lenin’s deputies Lev Kamenev (originally Moshe Rozenfeld) and Grigory Zinoviev (born Hirsh Apfelbaum) and his treasurer Grigory Sokolnikov (Hirsh Yankelevich Brilliant) were all Jews, as were Karl Radek (Sobelsohn), co-writer of the Soviet constitution, Maxim Litvinov (Meir Hanoch Wallach Finkelstein), foreign minister of the USSR until his removal so Stalin could pact with Hitler.
This is of course besides Trotsky himself, builder of the Red Army and the only Soviet who served as both foreign and defense minister. Most proverbially, a Jew – Yakov Sverdlov – oversaw the nighttime execution of Czar Nikolai, Empress Alexandra, and their five children.
Jewish revolutionaries were prominent beyond Russia as well.
In Germany, philosopher-economist Rosa Luxemburg led an abortive revolution in 1919 before being caught, clubbed, shot dead and dumped in a canal. In Hungary, Bela Kun – originally Kohn – led a short-lived communist coup several months after Luxemburg's murder.
In Romania, Anna Pauker – originally Hebrew teacher Hannah Rabinsohn, and later the world’s first woman foreign minister – effectively ran the country for Stalin, before falling from grace and spending her last years under house arrest. In Czechoslovakia, Rudolf Slansky was the second most powerful figure before his public trial and execution alongside 11 other senior Jewish communists. In Poland, two of the three Stalinists who led its transition to communism – Hilary Minc, who collectivized its economy, and Jakub Berman, who headed its secret police – were Jews.
The revolution, in short, was so crowded with Jews that one had to wonder whether “the Jews” were inherently revolutionary.
A century on, it is clear they were not.
TODAY’S JEWS are a conservative lot.
Jews are now overwhelmingly academics, bankers, business people, lawyers, doctors, journalists, literati, and politicians who do not encourage their children to join the proletariat. Yes, many Jews give the poor much charity and also back assorted social-democratic political formations, but on the whole the Jews are now in the business of preserving the social-political order, rather than turning it on its head.
In Israel, an unabashedly bourgeois society that once was devoutly socialist is worshipping private enterprise, individualism, and hedonism, as the prime minister they keep reelecting smokes cigars and prides in having slashed social spending, sold public companies, and set the market forces loose.
Jews have not been seen challenging the moneyed elite since revolution’s return in 1968 as a caricature, when Mark Rudd (Rudnitski) and David Shapiro starred in the student takeover of Columbia University’s Low Library while Daniel “the Red” Cohn-Bendit led student unrest in France.
Why, then, were the Jews of 1917 so unsettled, and why are today’s so sedate? Very simple.
Until 1917 Russian Jewry was abused. All the lands to their west had abolished all anti-Jewish laws, policies, and directives, but the czars continued to cage the Jews in the Pale of Settlement, limit their access to higher education, block their freedom of travel, association, and speech, and occasionally also encourage pogroms. The Jews were provoked, and the revolution was their counterattack.
Russian Jews, like their cousins in Germany, Britain and France, wanted to belong, and some of them wanted to make everyone belong – everywhere and immediately. It was a utopian urge that makes one suspect Trotsky et al remained infected by the messianic bug of the Judaism they had vowed to shed.
Whatever its cause, that urge is gone.
THERE WAS, of course, an alternative idea, one that promised to make the Jews belong in a different way; an idea that in 1920 was juxtaposed with Bolshevism by none other than a typically insightful and visionary Winston Churchill: the Zionist idea.
“The struggle which is now beginning between the Zionist and Bolshevik Jews is little less than a struggle for the soul of the Jewish people,” he wrote in The Illustrated Sunday Herald, after noting “the part played in the creation of Bolshevism and in the actual bringing about of the Russian Revolution by these international and for the most part atheistical Jews,” a role that “probably outweighs all others.”
“If, as may well happen, there should be created in our own lifetime by the banks of the Jordan a Jewish State … which might comprise three or four millions of Jews,” he now assessed, “an event would have occurred in the history of the world which would, from every point of view, be beneficial.”
It was certainly beneficial for Russia’s Jews, whose descendants eventually flocked in droves to the Jewish state, so much so that Jerusalem alone is today home to more Jews than all of Russia.
Russian Jewry went to the Jewish state because they would that here they would be free to study what they wish, live where they please, rise as high as they could climb, and even become minister of defense, speaker of the Knesset, and chairman of the Jewish Agency. They knew they would belong.
The Jews who set out to redeem not their nation, but all mankind, ended up clubbed like Rosa Luxemburg, hanged like Rudolf Slanski, stabbed with an icepick like Trotsky, or shot by a firing squad like Bela Kun. Much as they refused to admit this to the bitter end – they did not belong. (Jerusalem Post 10 November)