Betrayed Illusions: The Left and the Jews

Almost sixty-one years ago, in November 1952, in Prague, the former secretary general of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, a diehard, fanatic Stalinist, Rudolf Slansky, and 13 other prominent communists, mostly Jewish, were sentenced to death for alleged treason and Zionist conspiracy.  At the same time, Stalin’s terminal paranoia led to the execution of the leaders of the Jewish Antifascist Committee, including celebrated Yiddish-language poet Peretz Markish, and the imprisonment of famous physicians accused of trying to poison Soviet leaders. Soviet Bloc media were filled with venomous anti-Semitic harangues. Had Stalin not died in March 1953, the doctors would have been executed, hundreds of thousands arrested, millions forcibly resettled. The likelihood of a gigantic pogrom, a Soviet-style Kristallnacht,  was looming large. The official terms for Jews was “rootless cosmopolitans.” Like in the National Socialist demonology, they were stigmatized as the driving force of the execrated capitalism, carriers of decadent values, agents of treason and dissolution. Even after Stalin’s demise, his successor Nikita Khrushchev continued to encourage anti-Semitic portrayals of Jews as mercenary individuals, speculators and “genetically” un-patriotic.

How was it possible for Bolshevik internationalism to degenerate into vicious anti-Semitism, similar to the worst propaganda excesses of the Black Hundreds in czarist Russia? Where did the promises of Marxist humanism, the dream of proletarian solidarity, irrespective of language and origin, vanish? Perhaps there was something in the secret grammar of leftist obsessions, in the underlying political fantasies of the Left, that explained these despicable outbursts of intolerance?

There is a genealogy of this depressing story, a line of ideas that sends us back to the origins of modern socialism and its hostility to money, banks, profit, and capitalism in general. Not only Marxism found its roots in that search for a pure, unpolluted natural community, but also the neo-romantic movements that were to lead to Fascism. A scrupulous and immensely erudite historian of modern political passions, including socialism, Zionism, and their counterparts at the extreme right end of the ideological continuum, Robert Wistrich (who teaches at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem), wrote a real treatise on the enduring anti-Semitic propensities among left-wing revolutionary movements. Published in 2012 by University of Nebraska Press,  ”From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel” is must reading for those who want to understand the apparent paradox of the Left’s espousal of far-right conspiratorial, xenophobic delusions.
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